Image: William Burns

As concerns continue to mount about the potential global impacts of climate change this century and beyond, the topic of geoengineering – an overarching term for processes of large-scale human climate intervention aimed at counteracting the effects of global warming – has become increasingly prevalent. Possible geoengineering processes include, dispersing sulfur dioxide particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back to space, and using bioenergy sources for energy production in order to capture and store resultant carbon dioxide emissions. But who should be making high-ramification decisions, on behalf of all of humanity, about how we should or should not interfere with earth’s natural climate? And what role does, and should, the public play in influencing the implementation of geoengineering research and deployment?

I spoke with Dr. Wil Burns, Co-Executive Director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment, to discuss his recent paper “Climate Geoengineering and the Role of Public Deliberation: A Comment on the US National Academy of Sciences’ Recommendations on Public Participation,” published in Climate Law. In the interview below, Burns explains the complicated nature of geoengineering and his thoughts on the importance of public involvement in deciding if, and how, to take steps to manipulate earth’s climate to curb global warming.

Q&A with William Burns

Is geoengineering a futuristic topic, or has it been attempted before?

WB: We’re at a very early stage for virtually all climate manipulation technologies. We have one geoengineering approach that has actually been tested - ocean iron fertilization. Proponents of the ocean iron fertilization approach propose that we seed certain ocean areas (primarily the Southern Ocean) with iron filings to stimulate phytoplankton production. Phytoplankton take up carbon dioxide to use in photosynthetic processes, and when they die, a portion of that sequestered phytoplankton will remain stored deep in the oceans, potentially reducing atmospheric concentrations.

There have been 14 small-scale field experiments to date. However, in the case of other climate geoengineering options, all research has been restricted to laboratories and theoretical conceptualizing. The drums are getting much louder, however, for giving climate geoengineering options a hard look. In the past five years there have been more scientific papers written on geoengineering than in the last hundred and fifty years. The US National Academy of Sciences has recently called for a national research program. Research programs have been established in the European Union, and China. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its most recent assessment report extensively discussed climate geoengineering approaches.

The Paris Agreement, signed at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, provides that countries should seek to limit temperature increases to no more than 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and perhaps 1.5° Celsius. Proponents of climate geoengineering contend the only way to meet that objective may be to commit to a sizeable geoengineering component, necessitating a research program to assess options. I think this argument is starting to resonate.

Can you explain what you think is lacking in current efforts to bring geoengineering to the public’s attention?

WB: If you look at the National Academy of Science’s studies that were published in February of last year, which I focus on in my article, there are two things that strike me as lacking. The Academy contends that “stakeholders” should be involved in discussions of climate geoengineering options, but this term is not defined in the study. However, it appears that the NAS views non-governmental organizations as a kind of proxy for the public to represent their interest in this process.

However, public perceptions of geoengineering and their concerns don’t necessarily coincide with the agenda of non-governmental organizations, especially larger ones that are most likely to be involved in this process. Thus, the NAS is not really calling for public deliberation; they’re calling for stakeholder deliberation, which might never include the public or mirror their concerns about climate geoengineering.

The NAS reports also appear to to be calling for public input only after climate geoengineering research programs have begun. The real danger here is that the public will be asked its opinions on climate geoengineering only after such programs, supported by vested interests that may develop in the interim, have become a virtual fait accompli. If “pubic involvement” means merely to survey the public and say “hey, what do you think about these issues,” I argue that that’s not sufficient. A very early stage deliberative process is what we need, which means giving the public the ability to receive and synthesize information, and then engage with other members of the public and experts in an ongoing reflexive learning process that ultimately improves everybody’s understanding of their respective, and our common interests.

What is the legality of geoengineering - who has the authority to address this issue?

WB: Many of us who work on geoengineering issues are wrestling with the issue of governance; it is one of the focus of our research programs at FCEA. What institution(s) should be involved in overseeing research and development? Is it a private institution, such as the NAS? Is it a combination of private and government entities? Is it an international institution? Is it a coalition of States agreeing to some kind of regional accord?

It’s unclear at this point, but I guess the good news is that there’s a lot of discussion of such issues, and a recognition that such discussion must proceed in parallel with the consideration of potential research agendas.

One of the fears that we have is that one or more countries might ultimately proceed unilaterally, which is a possibility. Geoengineering, in some ways, is a mirror image of what happens in the context of climate policy-making. With climate policy-making, unless you have the top ten or twelve emitters all agree to substantially reduce their emissions, you’re not likely to effectively address climate change. By contrast, the vast majority of countries in the world would have the financial and technological resources to develop their own geoengineering program that could alter climatic trends. In some ways, that’s the good news.

On the other hand, that’s also the bad news, i.e. that one country could unilaterally dictate climate policy for the entire world. It could be argued from an international law perspective that if they created transboundary harm, or negatively impacted the global commons, they would be liable for such damages. There are international legal principles that say you can’t cause damage across boundaries, such as the “no-harm principle,” but that language is vague, and it assumes there is judicial forum with jurisdiction to hold a country liable. You need an international tribunal, like the International Court of Justice, and the problem with that is it’s a voluntary system. You have to consent to the ICJ’s jurisdiction, or else it can’t hear the case.

Could you briefly overview some of the options for public deliberative processes?

WB: One possible approach is citizen juries, which usually involve a number of sessions, frequent interaction with experts, and detailed findings at the end. One of the problems with the citizen jury approach is that it’s hard to be representative if you’re trying to “ascertain public sentiment” when you’re only talking about a couple hundred people at the most. Is it truly representative of what the public thinks in these issues? Of course, one might argue that what we’re seeking is to highlight some of the issues that the public might find germane, and to stimulate further, more widespread, public discussion.

Another approach is deliberative mapping, which involves efforts to distill and hone positions by looking at different scenarios. A broader approach are “World Wide Views” forums, which can bring together thousands of participants to discuss such issues, and then facilitate comparison of perspectives across cultures. These are all efforts to some degree to engage in deliberation, to acknowledge the fact that opinions may change as more knowledge is attained, but to also try to tease out the full range of public concerns about all the possible risks and benefits that might exist in the context of climate geoengineering. This will provide policymakers with a clearer view of how the public feels about an issue, so that the policy-making process is more democratic than it might otherwise be.

Do you think there are any parallels between getting public involvement in geoengineering research and other research that affects large groups?

WB: I think there absolutely is. Given our technological prowess these days, humans have the ability to control the Earth’s future to some degree, leading many scientists to argue that we’ve entered a new era called “The Anthropocene.” Public deliberations in this context may help guide us in how to ensure robust public deliberation about other momentous issues of this nature.