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Is Engineering the Climate the Way Forward?

By J. Paul Johnson

Interest in climate engineering is growing, as scientists look for new ways to tackle climate change.

Interest in climate engineering is growing, as scientists look for new ways to tackle climate change.

Scientists, politicians, NGOs, non-profits, and Pope Francis, have all called for action on climate change. UN member states recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals and in December, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris will be another grand attempt to hammer out a legally binding and universal agreement on climate. But what if an agreement in Paris fails to materialize, or what if the best agreement that can be produced is insufficient? What else is on the table?

Climate engineering or "geoengineering" -- large-scale, highly technological human manipulation of the atmosphere or oceans to reduce the planet's temperature or to draw down carbon -- is an option that is beginning to receive more serious and sustained consideration.

The leading climate engineering proposals have to do with "Solar Radiation Management" (SRM). If SRM were to be developed and deployed, it would operate by reflecting some amount of energy from the sun back into space before that energy could warm the atmosphere. Ideas include depositing reflective sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere or artificially brightening marine clouds. Models suggest that such techniques could deliver measurable regional or planetary cooling for a relatively small amount of money.

Yet who would decide whether these are good ideas? Who would decide whether and how to use the technologies if they were to be developed? How could these powerful new technologies be managed?

American University School of International Service's assistant professor Simon Nicholson, who also serves as the director of the Global Environmental Politics Program, recently received a $750,000 grant to study the international governance of SRM. Nicholson's Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment is using the grant to launch a three-year project. It will be the first major sustained endeavor in the United States to look at realistic, robust, and concrete governance options.

In the first year, the team will pull together a working group of academics with expertise in global governance, international law, philosophy and applied ethics, and the law and practice of human rights. The individuals will be drawn from outside the climate engineering world. "The purpose of the gatherings of the academic project team will be to assess the current state of knowledge," says Nicholson. "Additionally, the project team will develop a process for moving the climate engineering governance conversation forward, from high-level theory to nuts and bolts implementation."

During the project's second year, the working group will engage stakeholders worldwide and will prepare final outcomes documents.

Finally during the project's third year, Nicholson says, "The working group will take the findings of the project to United Nations officials and national government policymakers in an effort to advance formal international governance options for geoengineering and also shore up informal mechanisms."

The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment is one of the world's leading hubs for high-quality research and public and policy engagement. Nicholson and his team routinely conduct high-level briefings for U.S. government officials, civil society leaders, and other interested parties The Forum acts as an honest broker in the politically charged conversation about climate engineering. This means that Nicholson and his colleagues do not take any position on whether or not climate engineering is a good or a bad idea. Instead, their role is to make sure that all proper questions are being considered and that a wider array of voices is heard in climate engineering deliberations.