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Canary in the Gemeinschaft

Oxford Geoengineering Programme
Jack Stilgoe is a researcher and practitioner in science policy. He is currently senior research fellow at the University of Exeter where he is working on a framework for responsible innovation.

Current discussions about Solar Radiation Management (SRM) are based on a consensus that intertwines science and politics. Most scientists agree, as represented by the Royal Society’s reports, that geoengineering is increasingly plausible and that it is also undesirable, for all sorts of reasons. The political consensus is that, while carrying on our research, we mustn’t even entertain the possibility of deploying such things (assuming they are deployable). To target the symptoms of environmental degradation in this way would distract us from dealing with the cause.

The geoengineering community have succeeded in stabilising the global discussions about this technology. But for how long? Until now, most public statements by scientists and governments have sung these same lines in unison. But the foundations for the discussion are less solid than they appear. Those interested in questions of governance must therefore ask what it will take for them to change.

One recent discussion provides a ‘canary in the gemeinschaft’ – an early warning of social and cultural vulnerability. The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee recently discussed the possibility of dangerous tipping point in the climate as a result of the retreat of arctic sea ice. As well as discussing the science behind this risk, and its uncertainties, they heard from John Nissen, an activist who has been arguing not only for greater policy attention to the issue, but also for SRM as a policy option to combat what he calls an ‘emergency’.

The committee were (we hope) reassured that the massive uncertainties around geoengineering made this proposed solution worse than the problem it was destined to tackle. And there are good scientific arguments that the emergency isn’t as pressing as Nissen suggests. But, now that geoengineering is being talked about in polite company, I think that we can expect more of this sort of thing. We will see crises – environmental and political – be constructed in the service of SRM research as well as deployment. And we will see fringe voices becoming increasingly vocal.  “There is…a need to make the current, science-led discussions more ‘socially-robust’.”

Having observed and occasionally joined the geoengineering governance discussions that have taken place up to now, I am reassured by their breadth and open-mindedness. Yes, we have occasional echoes of hubris and some scientists are operating under the illusion that they can control not just the science, but also the politics and the wider debate about desirability and ethics. But my bigger concern is the discussions we haven’t yet heard, either because they are behind closed doors, or because they will be led by new entrants, unencumbered by the norms, disciplines and assumptions of incumbents.

So it seems there is an urgent need to stress-test our current assumptions. This should be done deliberately, with scenario analysis and the encouragement of wider, messier public debates about science and technology. Because otherwise it will happen accidentally.

Posted on 22nd March 2012, 12:00 PM by Nigel Moore | Report this post

Comments (5)

First! I think you need to fix your date stamps...

Posted on 22nd March 2012, 10:02 AM by Oliver Morton | Report this comment

Oops, thanks for spotting that!

Posted on 22nd March 2012, 10:08 AM by Nigel Moore | Report this comment

And the hyperlinks have gone missing. Hope we can retrieve them.

Posted on 22nd March 2012, 11:23 AM by Jack Stilgoe | Report this comment

I've reposted a version of this with links, here http://jackstilgoe.wordpress.com/

Posted on 22nd March 2012, 11:41 AM by Jack Stilgoe | Report this comment

The development of a standardized, general and broad scope assesment tool/method for evaluating all GE concepts is fundimentaly important if this field is to achieve the status of a distinct proffesional dicipline, which it needs to be. I extend my thanks to the Oxford GE Group for taking up this important challenge. Why do I study GE? Beyond the intellectual challange of such a deeply complex issue, I study this issue with the hope that even a citizen scientist, such as myself, can make a meaningful contribution. Best Wishes, Michael

Posted on 24th March 2012, 22:37 PM by Michael Hayes | Report this comment

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