Controversial, But Important: The Governance of Solar Geoengineering Deployment

In September, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements hosted a research workshop on an important topic regarding a controversial approach to addressing the threat of global climate change – “Governance of the Deployment of Solar Geoengineering”.  We benefitted from collaboration and support for the workshop from Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program (HSGRP).  Participants included 26 leading academic researchers addressing the workshop’s topic – as well as leading scholars who had considered the governance of other international regimes that might provide lessons and insights for solar geoengineering governance.  You can find the agenda and participant list (combined in a single document) here, as well as most of the presentations from the workshop.

Motivation for Examining this Topic

We based the workshop on the premise that some types of solar geoengineering (SG) will be associated with incentive structures that are actually the inverse of those associated with efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Obviously, the latter is a global commons problem, which requires cooperation at the highest jurisdictional level (international cooperation) in order to advance significant mitigation.

But, in contrast, certain types of SG can – in principle – be implemented effectively at relatively low financial cost – low enough to be borne by small states or even non-state entities acting on their own. The impacts of such action, however, might be substantial, at regional or even global scales. These could include the intended beneficial impacts – decreased global average surface temperature – plus other, potentially adverse side effects. Given the incentive structure associated with SG, its potentially substantial impacts, and the uncertainty (of various kinds) surrounding it, the governance of SG deployment will be challenging, to say the least.

Questions Addressed by the Workshop

The workshop began with overviews of research on SG governance from three disciplinary perspectives – social sciences broadly (including economics, political science, and international relations); legal scholarship; and, finally, further insights from economic theory.

Subsequent sessions addressed the following key questions, which arise, in part, from the incentive structure of SG governance:

(1)  Who ought to and/or will specify criteria for SG deployment, and who ought to and/or is likely to decide when criteria are satisfied?

(2)  What will or should these criteria be? They may include: regulatory criteria developed by policy makers; criteria specified by “agents”/actors who might engage in SG deployment; and physical, engineering, social, economic, ethical, and other dimensions.

(3)  How should/will decisions about deployment be made; what decision-making process should/will be utilized?

(4)  What institutions, either existing or new, are appropriate as decision-making venues? What will or should be the legal framework of such institutions?

(5) How might SG complement and/or undermine national, regional, and multilateral institutions and policy to mitigate or adapt to climate change – and, more broadly, to manage climate risks?

(6)  SG is both a hedge against uncertain but potentially catastrophic risks of (or, alternatively, damages from) climate change – and has its own associated risks, known and unknown. How can we better understand these uncertainties and incorporate them into useful decision-making processes?

(7)  How might we best define a research agenda for the governance of SG deployment?

Finally, a panel of international-relations scholars discussed a set of international regimes – including nuclear arms control and cyber security – that may provide lessons for and insights into SG governance.

The Path Ahead

We did not attempt to provide definitive answers to these questions, but to advance understanding of this set of issues and move the research community some steps further toward better understanding of options for the governance of SG deployment.

Each participant in the workshop is preparing a brief on an aspect of the topic of their interest.  These briefs are designed to be readily accessible by practitioners – policy makers, climate negotiators, and leaders in the business and NGO communities.  The entire volume will be released by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements in February 2019.  Watch this blog for an announcement of the release early in the new year.