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Forum for Foresight and Future Analysis in the Areas of International Politics and Global Issues

How to Avoid Future Geoengineering Conflicts: The Limits of Control and a Pragmatic Governance Approach

Geoengineering can be defined as purposeful human interventions into geophysical systems, directed at, for example, counteracting the negative consequences of climate change. Respective interventions are problematic for two reasons: First, they work towards some ‘optimal climate’ but there is no global consensus on what ‘optimal’ could mean beyond the insufficient and quite contested reference to limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Second, geoengineering might provoke serious and potentially catastrophic side effects by triggering non-linear behavior of complex geophysical systems. Severe shocks, for example in the change of regional or global precipitation patterns, might occur. Given these potential global risks, geoengineering is necessarily a global issue. If one actor acts unilaterally, its actions might have severe consequences for everyone else. Conflicts might thus emerge both as a consequence of geoengineering as well as in order to prevent it. What complicates the situation even more is that geoengineering emerges as a governance-issue in the context of substantial global shifts. In this essay, I present six of such shifts and show how they converge in the case of geoengineering. I discuss what this implies for potential approaches to geoengineering governance and then suggest four concrete key characteristics for global geoengineering governance: Transparency and monitoring, participation, the search of shared principles, and the establishment of consultation mechanisms.

Geoengineering schematic

Six Shifts in Global Politics…

Six shifts determine political practice today and will do so even more in the future: First, the world has moved into a new multipolar era much faster than many expected. The global financial and economic crisis that started in 2007 has heightened the profile of the BRIC states (Brazil, Russia, India, China), among others, as economic powerhouses. Also political power constellations have changed as, for example, the shift of attention from the G7 to the G20 demonstrates. The new diversity of views and interests sheds doubt on the effectiveness of the UN system in many regards, such as that of climate policy.

To understand the conditions under which future governance has to take place, however, this geopolitical perspective needs to be supplemented by five further shifts (These shifts are also discussed in this study, German post):

Second, states are becoming increasingly vulnerable to challenges that easily transcend national borders such as climate change and economic crises. Many European industrialized states, for example, have experienced economic downturn and youth unemployment. Emerging economies and other states too are increasingly vulnerable, as recent public uprisings in Brazil and Turkey, events in the context of the Arab Spring, and constant contentions about local environmental problems in China show.

Third, the spaces in which international politics takes place are expanding. Cyberspace is the most prominent example for this shift. But also the high sea, space, and the atmosphere become increasingly politicized.

Fourth, with new political spaces and technological innovation comes a dramatic transformation in the forms of power. On September 11, 2001, terrorists used civil airplanes as weapons. Today, hackers cause harm without great military capabilities and drones allow for significantly altered military strategies.

Fifth, as a consequence of these shifts, non-state actors have become increasingly important in global politics. Terrorists, pirates, criminal networks, as well as firms and NGOs have become increasingly active beyond borders, so have individuals such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.

Finally, global politics becomes increasingly intransparent. 190 or so states in an analog world could be gathered in the UN and managed to uphold a certain degree of order. Today, with new political spaces, new forms of power, and new non-state actors coming in, the situation becomes much more complex and much less controllable or even assessable by states.

… Will Converge in the Case of Geoengineering!

Geoengineering presents a crucial case in which these shifts come together, interact, and thus shape the situation in which governance has to take place. Increasing multipolarity means a multiplication of interests while growing vulnerability to the consequences of climate change increases the pressure on great powers – new and old – to take action to counter climate change. Chinese and Indian water supplies, for example, are at risk of becoming less plentiful as well as more volatile as a consequence of glacial melting in the Himalaya region. The more drastic these challenges become, the more lucrative becomes the unilateral turn to geoengineering as a quick and potentially relatively cheap fix.

Third, geoengineering will often be conducted in the global commons, such as space, the atmosphere, and the high seas. States have, by definition, only limited control over these spaces and legal arrangements are often insufficient. Fourth, many geoengineering measures – such as the bringing out of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere – are comparatively easy to employ and, finally, hard to monitor. They allow for an important role of non-state actors.

Future geoengineering governance will, in short, be characterized by multiple actors – state and non-state – and increasing pressure to act, it will be carried out in new and insufficiently governed spaces, and all this will happen in ways that are very hard to keep track of.

On top, there remains the ever-present risk of unintended, large-scale, and negative consequences. This situation might provoke various forms of confrontations in the future. As discussed by the abovementioned study, these do not stop at inter-state conflicts but include ‘state – non-state’ and even ‘non-state – non-state’ constellations; in the latter case, for example, between pro- and contra-geoengineering transnational civil society groups. To prevent such confrontations, global geoengineering governance is essential.

So What to Do?

Governing geoengineering presents formidable challenges. Just as in today’s debates on, for example, climate policy or cyber governance, even those willing to act will often be struck by the complexity they encounter. As Ole Waever, Professor of International Relations at Copenhagen University, has put it in a paper on climate security and securitization, such actors might end up ‘all dressed up’ with ‘nowhere to go’. The complexity of the issues and the diversity of interests in a multipolar world necessarily affect and also limit potential counter-strategies – this has to be kept in mind when considering potential governance approaches.

So how to make global geoengineering governance effective and accountable? I would argue that an ambitious legal international agreement is both unrealistic and undesirable. It is unrealistic because, as climate policy negotiations have demonstrated over the last years, great powers will have a very hard time to find any substantive consensus. It is undesirable, furthermore, since it would tend to overlook non-state actors.

Instead, four characteristics are key to a successful approach to geoengineering: Transparency and monitoring, broad participation, the search of shared principles, the establishment of consultation mechanisms.

First, it is necessary to raise the transparency of geoengineering activities. A global register accounting for all actors and activities concerned with research, testing, and application of geoengineering measures should be established, for example under the auspice of the UN. This register should then be extended by a monitoring-system for geoengineering applications. Design is key here. Such a system can be neither exclusively geophysical nor state-centric in character. Instead, it should involve a variety of actors and methods.

Broad participation is, second, of utmost importance also beyond this concrete initiative. The governance of geoengineering needs to involve both state and non-state actors, the latter ranging from firms to civil society. In principle, any actor that could apply geoengineering measures and also those potentially affected by such measures should be heard and taken seriously.

Third, these diverse actors should constitute a regular forum that works towards formulating a declaration of principles that govern the overall approach to geoengineering. This is not an easy task. However, it facilitates the dialogue that is needed to eventually reach consensus.

Fourth, dialogue should also be upheld in situations of acute crisis. To ensure this, a global political high-level geoengineering council should be established for discussing results of the monitoring activities and the forum, and most importantly for providing an infrastructure for ad hoc consultation in times of crisis.

This governance scheme can help to foster global consensus. A word of caution, however, needs to be added. The scheme can and will not prevent critical political situations. But given the shifts mentioned above, so I would argue, also more ambitious governance approach would not be able to do so. What the scheme does provide, however, is the infrastructure to handle critical situations productively and pragmatically. In this way, it can make a real difference in the governance of geoengineering.

Author: Jörn Richert

Picture: John J. Reilly Center.

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This entry was posted on July 22, 2014 by in Issues, Language: English, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .

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