Important, Despite the Controversy — Geoengineering Research

We have just released the newest episode of our podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  In this latest episode, I engage in a conversation with David Keith, professor at Harvard and one of the world’s leading authorities on geoengineering.

Recently, the Earth System Research Laboratory of NOAA – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – announced that it had received authorization to study what they characterized as “Plan B for climate change,” namely to examine the science behind what is usually referred to as “geoengineering,” including the possibility of injecting particular aerosols into the stratosphere to help shade the Earth from sunlight.  NOAA emphasized that this and other techniques of geoengineering are recommended in a forthcoming study from the National Academies titled, “Climate Intervention Strategies that Reflect Sunlight to Cool Earth.”

Until now, neither the U.S. Congress nor the Administration has moved forward with such work, but NOAA pointed out to the press that “the closest thing to testing is a Harvard University project called the “Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment.”  That project is co-directed by my guest in the latest episode of our podcast, David Keith, who directs the closely-related Solar Geoengineering Research Program.

David is the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

In this new episode of our monthly podcast, Professor Keith recounts how he came to focus his research on climate change, and how his interest in geoengineering evolved.  All of this is found in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.” Listen to this latest discussion here.

David is renowned for his work at the intersection of climate science, energy technology, and public policy over the past 25 years.  A Canadian native, he is faculty director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, a Harvard-wide interfaculty research initiative which aims to further critical research on both the science and governance of solar geoengineering. While best known for his work on geoengineering, Keith has also conducted extensive research on carbon capture and storage, and is the founder of Carbon Engineering, a company which develops technologies for direct air capture (an approach that he keeps completely separate from his Harvard research, which focuses on solar radiation management).

In our conversation, I asked David what work he is most proud of – a difficult question for any researcher to answer, because the question is akin to asking a parent to identify his or her favorite child.  After taking some time to reflect, David cited his landmark 2000 article in the Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, in which he first presented the case for the potential of solar geoengineering to help mitigate the impacts of global climate change.  It was a controversial study which prompted intense pushback from some environmental activists and some academics who argued that such technologies would lessen political pressure to address the root causes of climate change, that is greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is a thing where people have extremely strong opinions, and I don’t think that solar geoengineering necessarily makes sense as policy. I think it might well make sense to ban it. What I do think is that it deserves serious study and that we won’t make better decisions about it by kind of maintaining a taboo where nobody talks or thinks about it,” he said.

“Sensible climate policy is not one thing and a kind of monomania around emissions cuts doesn’t make sense. Of course, we have to do emissions cuts. It’s the single most important thing. If we don’t do it, nothing else does it, but the idea that it’s only emissions cuts, I think, is just now clearly wrong.”

“It may be that thinking about solar geoengineering for some people should mean a permanent moratoria, and for other people, it should mean pathways towards deployment.  I’m open minded about what the right answer is, but I think it is one of the big climate policy instruments, and we won’t do sensible policy if you pretend it’s not there.”

My conversation with David Keith is the sixth episode in the Environmental Insights series.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


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.