Within the representative democracies of the industrialized world, there is a remarkable amount of deliberation over proposed intentional changes to the economy, society, and law. For example, in the city where I recently lived, an express lane for buses has been debated through numerous public meetings and reports now for eight years. Despite this extreme example, such deliberation is generally a good thing: these changes impact the lives of many people and their environment, and their voices should be heard in the decision-making process. However, to the extent such things can be measured, technology is perhaps the largest cause of change in the contemporary industrialized world, yet there is often minimal public discourse over how society should consciously shape its development and regulation in a way that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the costs. Because of this, I am interested in the social, economic, and political impacts of powerful new technology, and how society can and should respond. Climate engineering offers a fascinating case.
When I first heard of climate engineering about six years ago, I quickly dismissed it as the zenith of humans' hubris and dangerous technophilia. After all, I thought, don't we look back in retrospect quite disapprovingly on so many of our large-scale technological endeavors of the past seventy years? Surely the advocates of climate engineering fail to recognize these past follies, wish to continue our reliance upon fossil fuels, and believe that they can subjugate and reshape all of nature to humans' wishes.
A few years later, when looking for a research topic for my Ph.D., I read about climate engineering in more depth and was quite surprised. The overwhelming majority of those who were discussing it reluctantly called for research as a potential supplemental tool or back-up plan in the face of dangerous climate change. For example, among prominent climate engineering scientists, one wrote that "Only fools find joy in the prospect of climate engineering," and another trio that "It is a healthy sign that a common first response to geoengineering is revulsion." These do not sound like the statements of unabashed advocates. In fact, it was among those who argue against the discussion of, or research into climate engineering that I heard weak, misleading, and even dangerous assertions.
Perhaps more importantly, I found perhaps the most interesting and challenging topic that I could imagine. For example, some critics assert that simply discussing climate engineering reduces political willpower toward reducing emissions and adapting society. But is this really the case? Furthermore, both climate change and climate engineering present unknown risks which may be very large, and may tradeoff with one another. These risks will cross borders, so some form of international regulation is needed. However, both implementation and especially research appear to fall between the cracks of existing international law. Moreover, if climate engineering were to be implemented, who would be in control? How would disagreements be resolved? Could climate engineering effectively be controlled?
These are exactly the sort of problems which law and regulation are supposed to address. Yet not only are there few applicable rules, this novel situation is a very difficult one to resolve. Through my work, I hope to contribute one valuable perspective, and I hope that other informed researchers and advocates will add theirs. Time is short, and climate change is arguably the greatest challenge humanity collectively faces. Climate engineering may—or may not—offer another tool to minimize its effects. It is imperative that we understand all of our options so that we do not jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.