Most of the previous posts in this series reach the conclusion, in one way or another, that it is important to conduct research on geoengineering. I certainly agree with this general statement. But why would a political scientist be interested in geoengineering? Why do I study geoengineering?
My answer to this question is that geoengineering technologies have a political dimension which needs to be understood in order to avoid undesired outcomes. Whether, how, when, and which technologies are used depends to a large degree on social and political processes. To engage with the political dimension of any given technology in general, and geoengineering technologies in particular, is important because it helps us understand these processes and makes them explicit and transparent for the general public and the decision makers involved. This, in turn, will hopefully open up the possibility to consciously pursue a desired course of action, while avoiding undesired outcomes.
The political dimension of geoengineering does not originate in, and is by far not limited to, the oft-cited fact that different regions of the world will be affected differently by different geoengineering technologies, thus creating winners and losers and associated conflicts of interest. It emerges much earlier than that, in the fact that research programs are social undertakings which impact, and are themselves impacted by, political and social processes. The most immediate political concern thus regards geoengineering research. The question here is: how should research proceed in order to avoid undesired outcomes?
For example, one aspect of what has been referred to as the ‘moral hazard’ problem of geoengineering research is inherently political and requires a governance solution. This is the consideration that, under a scenario in which research on geoengineering is conducted as an insurance against climate change, political actors will be less willing to impose upon their constituencies the costs of significantly reducing emissions.
Such a course of action would create a strong dependence on geoengineering technologies - an undesired outcome, given the risks associated with them. They might not work, they might not be as efficient as we originally expected, or research might conclude that they will inflict unacceptable damage on natural systems. Additionally, geoengineering technologies that attempt to reflect sunlight away from earth do not address the problem of ocean acidification, making overdependence on them inherently problematic. How can we adequately analyze this problem? What governance solutions are capable of addressing the challenges presented by this aspect of the moral hazard problem?
A related governance challenge is the danger that individuals or institutions may develop vested interests in the advancement of geoengineering technologies. This ‘slippery slope’ dynamic would lead to a situation in which actors are biased toward the continuation of past efforts. How can governance address this challenge?
These basic questions of how to proceed with geoengineering research are in fact related to the broader question of what conflicts of interest are likely to arise over geoengineering among states. As noted at the outset, research programs impact social and political processes. If governance solutions succeed in providing legitimacy for geoengineering research by adequately addressing the challenges referred to above, as well as other challenges that might arise in this context, this will significantly decrease the threat of conflicts of interest between states over geoengineering. A geoengineering research program that is internationally accepted as a legitimate scientific endeavor is the important first step towards defusing the conflict potential inherent in many geoengineering technologies.
Providing governance solutions thus is necessary to ensure that geoengineering research proceeds legitimately, in a socially and politically acceptable manner. This includes thinking about the longer term impacts specific governance solutions might have on potential conflicts of interest between states. This is one research area where a political scientist can contribute to finding acceptable answers to one of the greatest threats we face today.