Hot Topics

Hacking the Planet—Part 4

Hacking the Planet—Part 4

Climate Engineering: Risk and Governance Conundrums

Climate change is not ‘a problem’ waiting for ‘a solution.’ It is an environmental, cultural and political phenomenon that is reshaping the way we think about ourselves, about our societies and about humanity’s plan on Earth..”

—Mike Hulme, Professor of Human Geography in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge

By Srivathsan Karanai Margan

CLIMATE SCIENTISTS AND POLICYMAKERS are pinning their hopes on climate engineering techniques such as carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM) to slow down global warming and climate change. The pre-deployment activities, comprising indoor research and small-scale outdoor experiments, are conducted for some of these techniques inside controlled proving grounds to evaluate their potential effects before large-scale deployment. Though humans have attempted to alter weather patterns in the past, they have been local initiatives met with limited success. Trying to manipulate it on a planetary scale is probably the most ambitious project that humans have ever conceptualized.

Proponents of climate engineering portray it as a magical cure to provide immediate resolution to the climate crisis. However, besides impacting lives, a planetary-level deployment could raise serious ethical, legal, and justice issues and trigger geopolitical conflicts. This article discusses the risk and governance conundrums of global-scale climate engineering deployment.

A cure worse than the disease?

When it came to climate change response discussions, climate engineering was always considered taboo. The current desperation caused by the supposed failures of other climate response strategies—mitigation and adaptation—to meet the set goals is pushing people to pin all their hopes on climate engineering. Betting on it completely is probably a case of techno-optimism (or technology hubris) that is challenged by serious questions about its technological, economic, and political feasibility. People who are aware of the potential risks of climate manipulation argue that just being desperate is not a justification for its deployment, as the risk of using it could be greater than not doing anything.

Illusion of control

Opponents of climate change and climate engineering vehemently deny the anthropogenic attribution of the problem. The primary argument posited is that climate change has been happening due to natural climate variability since the formation of the Earth. Though human activities could be exacerbating the pace of change, it is insignificant and unlikely to have played a causal role, the argument goes. The same assertion of being an insignificant entity is reiterated against the rhetoric of anthropogenic climate intervention. Those harping on human insignificance claim that humanity has never removed an atmospheric pollutant on a global, continental, or even regional scale. The often-cited example is that of ozone depletion due to the increase in atmospheric hydrochlorofluorocarbons. They emphasize that the only thing humanity did was simply shut down the source of pollution and let nature heal on its own accord.

The other argument is regarding the gaps in our knowledge regarding Earth systems. The Earth is made up of five systems: the atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (water sources), biosphere (living organisms), cryosphere (ice), and geosphere (solid rock). The dynamics of these systems—how they evolve, interact, and respond in the short and long term—are quite complex and less understood. The core philosophy of climate engineering is constrained by our reductionist perception that Earth systems evolve according to fixed rules and that we can avert a climate catastrophe simply by removing carbon dioxide and reflecting sunlight. The growing concern is that, with our poor understanding, while attempting to find a shortcut solution to fix the damage, we may end up harming the atmosphere even more.

Risk of moral hazard

Climate models forecast that climate engineering could potentially reduce some of the most severe impacts of climate change. But even optimistic proponents of climate engineering expect it to offer only a partial and temporary response to climate change and emphasize that it cannot be a permanent substitute for mitigation. However, a speculative promise that it could prevent climate change may give people a false sense of security—and an excuse for not ramping up efforts to meet mitigation and adaptation goals. In addition, excessive dependence on what is supposed to be a short-term, quick-fix solution could also trigger a dangerous substitution effect. The incentives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the use of renewable energy could be overshadowed by the economics and convenience of burning more fossil fuels predicated on the assumption that their effects could be negated through climate engineering techniques. This false belief could unintentionally aggravate the planet’s warming, which climate engineering intends to reduce.

Questionable actors and motives

The widespread accusation against climate engineering is that the fossil fuel industry, which has an undeniable economic interest in the continued use of fossil fuels, is funding most of the research, development, and deployment. These companies promote CDR to offset their carbon emission accumulations and SRM to delay active involvement in climate mitigation. They could propagan[1]dize that climate engineering techniques could stave off the climate crisis at much lower costs and foster inaction. Consumers could continue burning fossil fuels without worrying about the consequences, as the negative effects are supposedly neutralized by industry. This false hope and inertia could, in turn, feed moral hazard and aggravate the pace of the climate crisis.

The international governance regime for global cooperation in research, development, and deployment of climate engineering on a planetary scale is yet to be defined.

Currently, there is a governance gap for climate engineering, especially with respect to SRM. Considering the relatively low cost of deployment, techniques like stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) could be pursued by a lone state, a small coalition of states, or even wealthy individuals. The deployments could be initiated in their own territory without consulting others. Climate models predict that the effects of planetary-scale climate engineering could be heterogeneous, with some countries benefiting more and some less—or, even worse—where some are adversely affected. In such a scenario, deploying climate engineering may be seen as an act of violating national sovereignty or a predatory activity where climate control is weaponized by one country against another. It is possible that in due course, the cost of deploying climate engineering could become so cheap that even rogue states and non-state actors will be able to use it to unleash a new type of climate terror. This would warrant the need for neutralizing counter-climate engineering and anti-climate terror technologies. Due to these climate wars, the atmosphere could become much more toxic than it has ever been.

Controlling the climate switch

So far, climate engineering action is mostly centered in the Global North, which includes developed and high-income states. It is possible that climate manipulation on a planetary scale is unilaterally or mini-laterally initiated by the Global North without the consensus or buy-in of the Global South, which consists of developing and poor states eager to develop. There is also a potential risk that companies currently researching climate engineering could protect their interests with patent thickets and make them unavailable to the rest of the world. It is to be noted that an actor or group of actors that can deploy climate engineering techniques on a planetary scale will effectively control the switch on the global thermostat. In a multipolar world where interstate relationships are strained and no country or group of countries can claim the role of global leadership, this could worsen geopolitical conflicts. When the outcome of the deployment is heterogeneous, there could be conflicts over whose preferences are prioritized and whose are compromised in such deployments.


The international governance regime for global cooperation in research, development, and deployment of climate engineering on a planetary scale is yet to be defined. This governance gap is not surprising, considering that climate engineering was heretofore on the fringes of climate response and never received serious attention. Any deliberate modification to the climate was viewed as hostile and negative, with laws primarily focused on the outright prevention of such activities. For example, the environmental modification convention by the United Nations classifies environmental modification as pollution and prohibits deliberate manipulation of natural processes. However, now that climate engineering is gaining traction in mainstream discussions and action plans, it becomes crucial to bridge this gap by defining appropriate international governance and oversight regimes. Laws and governance frameworks must adapt to the changing times and consider deliberate, nonhostile manipulation of climate undertaken with benevolent intentions, along with its many potential “what if ” consequences.

So far, none of the climate engineering techniques have seen large-scale deployments. It is still unclear which way the risk-reward ratio will tilt, as both the promised benefits and the feared risks are hypothetical and speculative in nature. However, the possibility of potentially severe and irreversible consequences qualifies climate engineering as an ideal candidate for applying the precautionary principle while setting up the governance framework. The precautionary principle requires decision-makers to be cautious and take measures to prevent harm, even if the exact extent of the harm is not fully known or understood.

State laws and governance regimes are sufficient for climate engineering approaches that have a localized or regional impact. However, for the deployment of space-based, atmosphere-based, and some surface-based SRM and ocean-based CDR approaches, both state and international governance and control regimes are required. These approaches may cause transboundary impact or spillover to the global commons—such as the high oceans, deep-sea bed, atmosphere, outer space, and Antarctic—that do not fall within the jurisdiction of any one country. States are obligated to have knowledge of all the climate engineering activities in their jurisdiction and exercise first-level control over all deployments. They must apply the prevention principle to prevent all activities within their jurisdiction that could cause damage to the environment or transboundary environmental damage. States must bear the responsibility to pay compensation for the injury or damage caused by any deployment that is wrongful or whose result turns out to be other than intended.

Considering the complexity of the Earth’s systems, their interactions, and the response, it may be extremely difficult to establish the cause-and-effect relationship between any climate engineering deployment and its impact. The cascading impact of any deployment, regional or transboundary, may not always be linear and unfold within a specific period, at a specific location, and at a predicted intensity. The burden of proof could become labyrinthine for attributing the effect caused to one specific deployment when several actors and countries simultaneously deploy climate engineering techniques at varying scales that have different downstream consequences and time lags. It is also possible that a natural climate phenomenon or some other human activity influenced the effect. The governance regime should include frameworks for solving such complex eventualities and establish a climate baseline against which any damage caused by climate engineering is evaluated.

The “Oxford Principles,” which were published by a group of experts from the University of Oxford in 2010, were the earliest to enunciate a set of five high-level guiding principles for the governance of climate engineering research and deployment (see Figure 1). As climate engineering techniques evolve, these principles have been refined further, and other sets of principles, guidelines, and frameworks, such as the Asilomar risk reduction guidelines—a set of precepts that emerged from a 2010 conference on geoengineering—have been published.

Developing an international governance framework in a multipolar and fragmented world order will be a major challenge, as it will require the participation of governments, scientists, and industry to take all their concerns into consideration. This undertaking has the potential to become extremely complicated as climate discussions across the world—both for and against—are dominated more by political postures than scientific wisdom. Despite this challenge, laws and governance regimes must be formulated to unambiguously define the techniques that are allowed and not allowed as well as sacrosanct planetary boundaries that cannot be violated by any stakeholder. These definitions should be based on the no-harm principle, which necessitates ethical behavior, responsibility, and the duty to consider the potential consequences of one’s actions and take steps to avoid causing harm to others. It must be ensured that any research or deployment should not cause damage to the environment, including the atmosphere and high seas, breach the sovereignty of other countries, or intentionally or unintentionally exacerbate interstate inequality. Every decision on climate engineering technique research or deployment must be subject to an environmental impact assessment defined by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Governing CDR

In many ways, the CDR technique is seen as an extension of the traditional mitigation strategy. CDR approaches are benign and slow processes that mostly do not have any transboundary spillover effects. These approaches are regional in their impact and do not pose difficult challenges with respect to global governance. Though CDR is viewed more favorably than SRM, regulations are still required for the safe and effective development and implementation of large-scale carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) approaches. Specific regulations are required for ocean fertilization and ocean alkalinization that could potentially pose transboundary risks and involve global commons. The legal framework established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, also called the Law of the Sea Treaty, could be broadly leveraged for ocean-based CDR methods, but the specifics catering to the nuances of CDR methods must be defined. The frameworks for safe transportation and storage of CO2 are required, as a leak—even if the probability of such an event is negligible—could pose risks to human and animal lives. The deployment of CDR approaches is driven more by cost than risk, and any abrupt termination would have limited consequences. While CCUS deployments are mostly done by fossil fuel companies to offset their carbon emissions, CDR approaches should be adopted on a massive scale that goes beyond the fossil fuel companies to meet their net-negative goals. Currently, countries are either providing tax credits for CCUS or allowing the trading of carbon emission allowances. This incentivization economy will have to be reworked for CDR approaches to encourage participation. The industry requirement is more for establishing uniform standards to assess the performance of different CDR approaches.

Governing SRM

Unlike CDR, SRM raises serious issues of global governance. SRM could carry a high risk of unintended, irreversible consequences, which could exacerbate the problem of climate change. Considering the transboundary risks it could pose, it is important that anticipatory governance is in place for small-scale outdoor experiments and large-scale outdoor deployment. The arrangement today is that any state or group of states could unilaterally or mini-laterally experiment with or deploy SRM without involving others. Multiple governments and institutions are required to collaborate to create the governance regime for large-scale SRM deployments that have a planetary-level impact. SRM governance should mandate continuous monitoring and analyzing the short-term and long-term impacts of deployments on a regional and global level.

The most important piece of the climate engineering governance puzzle is to identify the global body that can bring all the stakeholders together, frame the laws, monitor the deployments, intervene and arbitrate when there are conflicts, and impose penal actions against errant actors.

Proponents of SRM governance insist on looking at examples of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Antarctic Treaty to draw the governance protocols and mutual agreement treaties. They propose that, like the NPT, the use of SRM must be restricted only for peaceful purposes, and like the Antarctic Treaty, the sanctity of the global commons must be preserved and should never become the object of international discord. Three of the existing international treaties—The Outer Space Treaty, The Liability Convention, and the Registration Convention—that govern the behavior of any state in space could provide insights for drafting the governance regime for SRM. Paradoxically, much of the existing literature on SRM cites the same regimes to prohibit the deployment of SRM. Now that climate urgency is accelerating the exploration of SRM, the governance regime must co-evolve with the progress of SRM, and hence another look at these treaties to create guardrails for research, development, and deployment is needed.

  • The Outer Space Treaty limits the use of celestial bodies, including the moon, for peaceful purposes. It prohibits states from causing harmful contamination of space or any negative modification of outer space. This framework could be used to specify the SRM techniques allowed and define guidelines for their governance.
  • The Space Liability Convention requires the states to bear international responsibility for all space objects that are launched from their territory, regardless of who launches the space object. The convention defines damage as loss of life, personal injury, or loss or damage to property. While this treaty’s premises could be directly applicable to the risks from space mirrors, for the risks from other SRM techniques, the rules could be further expanded.
  • The Registration Convention requires states to maintain a record of all space objects launched and furnish the United Nations (UN) with details about the orbit of each space object. The mandates could be applied to every planet-scale climate engineering implementation, including those that have transboundary impacts and involve global commons.

Protagonists of the SRM technique opine that all the paranoia about SRM is unfounded. They posit that many of the fears about SRM deployments going wrong may not even arise in the real world. Their arguments could be depicted in the form of a risk-reward matrix (see Figure 2).

The primary argument of the protagonists is that the SRM deployments may not follow a “Big Bang” approach but be progressively staggered. There will be adequate time to study the results and make a course correction if any deviations are observed. Only in the ideal-case scenario, when the benefits of SRM deployment outweigh the risks, will SRM be aggressively pursued, whereas in all other scenarios there will be a calculated pullback. If the success is not as rewarding as expected, the projects will be terminated. The tricky scenario is where the deployments are highly successful and the risks in the form of transboundary impact are also high. The proponents insist that as the adoption will be staggered, the damage will be contained before it escalates into an interstate conflict.

As regards the concerns of a slippery slope and termination shock, proponents’ views are that if the SRM has no impact or achieves only insignificant cooling, then it could be switched off without the fears of a slippery slope or termination shock. On the other hand, if it achieves higher cooling, then it could be slowly ramped down over several decades as massive CDR deployments start showing positive outcomes. The protagonists also brush aside the concerns raised regarding weaponizing SAI. They argue that the defining attribute of any weapon is precision, but SAI is capable of only changing the average temperature. This will have only a minimal impact on precipitation levels on a regional scale. SAI will never be a useful weapon as it cannot control the weather to manufacture individual storms or heat waves against any country.

If SRM turns out to be a successful and viable option, there will be a need for an incentivization framework to promote participation in benign deployments. Cooling credits, like carbon credits, may need to be formulated for transacting and monetizing in a new “cooling economy.” The

Governance Conundrum

The most important piece of the climate engineering governance puzzle is to identify the global body that can bring all the stakeholders together, frame the laws, monitor the deployments, intervene and arbitrate when there are conflicts, and impose penal actions against errant actors. Currently, most of the research, development, and experiments on climate engineering techniques are concentrated in select high-income countries. This makes it logical for these countries to sway the decision-making process on governance. However, the point of contention is that these countries are accused of causing the current climate emergency because of their high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the past. Though in the last few decades, developing countries have started emitting larger amounts of GHGs than they did in the past, these countries deny that they have anything to do with the current crisis. The concern of developing and low-income countries is that if high-income countries dominate the high table of the governing body, their interests may not be fairly addressed.

It is speculated that climate engineering approaches like SAI, when deployed by the Global North, have the potential to disrupt rainfall patterns, amplify or change seasonal monsoon cycles in the Global South, and impact billions of lives. To manage these types of transboundary challenges, the governing body must have representation from every country and embrace a consensus-based democratic decision-making process. The idea of the UN handling the governing role is criticized by some opponents. They argue that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which have veto power over any decisions, contribute to almost half of the global GHG emissions, whereas 100 countries at the other end of the spectrum account for less than 3% of the emissions. The opponents question how the UN Security Council, in its current form, will be able to govern climate engineering in a fair and globally inclusive manner when its permanent members are acting in contravention of climate change mitigation. They argue that the governance of mitigation strategies has so far been mere rhetoric centered on targets and compliance, which mostly resulted in lapses and target-date extensions, rather than effective action.

Carving Out a Viable Approach

Despite all the debates, I believe the UN is still the only authority capable of governing climate engineering on a global scale. All the existing global treaties, conventions, protocols, and agreements for addressing climate change or protecting global commons were signed under the aegis of various bodies—such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)—that were set up by the UN. However, there is a vast difference between governing climate change mitigation and adaptation and climate engineering. Noncompliance with mitigation treaties either delays the resolution of the chronic impacts of climate change or aggravates its worsening, yet it typically does not immediately trigger any acute harm. Noncompliance with climate engineering laws has the potential to immediately trigger acute impacts on the rest of the world, necessitating the governing body to enforce stringent controls.

Considering the seriousness of governing climate engineering, the UN must become more inclusive and embrace collaborative and collective decision-making. The governing body must involve representation from all countries of the world, even those that are not currently engaged in climate engineering discussions. As the risks posed by climate engineering are unknown and unforeseeable, the governing body should follow the process of procedural justice that provides fairness, impartiality, a voice to all stakeholders, and transparency in all the decisions and actions taken.

Next Up

The next article in this series will discuss the effectiveness and associated risk pathways of climate engineering from an insurance perspective.

Next article Beyond the Credential
Previous article A Trip Down Memory Lane

Related posts