Solar Geoengineering: No publicly funded research without a plan for global governance

On 17 January 2022, a group of 63 scientists published an Open Letter calling upon governments to work towards an International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering (see here). The Open Letter is now supported by over 200 scholars in the Global South and Global North, by prominent natural and social scientists, by research leaders and IPCC authors, and by many younger scholars and civil society organizations. After a Twitter barrage of unhelpful comments by a few geoengineering scholars (“undemocratic”, “illiberal”, “foolish”), Holly J. Buck has now added a first more reasoned response to the Open Letter (here). This is very welcome.

Buck starts off by rehearsing the longstanding narrative heard so often from supporters of solar geoengineering research: the story of melting glaciers, exhausted scientists, insufficient policies, in Buck’s story even “mothers with dark circles under their eyes” at climate conferences. It predictably leads to the familiar trumpet call by solar geoengineering advocates: “thoughtful, experienced people” must now take over and develop a Plan B – planetary solar geoengineering. The “Earthmasters” (as Clive Hamilton has called them) to the rescue. It is especially the United States, one of the worst carbon polluters of the world, that is now called upon to accept the final “responsibility” and save the planet by dimming the sun. The United States should set up a research programme, under US control, to fix the problem and save humanity by investigating solar geoengineering. We have heard this all before, and in essence, Buck’s intervention is merely a popular translation of what the US National Academy of Sciences has argued last year.

Apart from that, Buck fails to engage with any of the arguments brought forward by advocates for a Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering.

First, Buck does not offer any plausible scenario of how solar geoengineering at planetary scale could ever be deployed, and how governance of such deployment be undertaken, in a sustained, long-term consensual manner. The key problem is not governance of research but governance of deployment. If one has no acceptable vision for the latter, even the most reflexive and well-considered research governance will not save the day. More than eighty percent of humanity live in the Global South; it follows that countries in the Global South would need to have effective control over any deployment of solar geoengineering. Would the US Senate agree to this? If not, what then? Should the United States have the decisive say in this matter, with a mere 4.2 percent of the global population? Can you imagine somebody like Donald Trump in charge of the dashboard of planetary solar geoengineering – with Ivanka, Jared and Donald Jr. in the operation room? Seriously? Or else, would the United States be willing to hand over the technology for planetary geoengineering to a United Nations agency?

Buck does not offer an answer. There is no plausible scenario in which the global governance of planetary geoengineering would function in a fair and inclusive manner, under current conditions. Worse still, most advocates of solar geoengineering research do not show any serious engagement with this question. They just want to have a little research, with just a few hundred million dollars. With no clue about what would happen thereafter.

Second, Holly Buck does not engage with the international political economy of technology development. Hers is a rosy fantasy of well-meaning scientists with good intentions, environmental credentials and full control over their technology creations. But the real world of capitalism and global power structures is different. There are valid fears that talking up solar geoengineering will benefit one group of powerful actors: those heavily invested in fossil fuels. The pipedream of solar geoengineering will offer coal, oil and gas interests the much-needed argument to exploit their investments in fossil energy just a little bit longer because the geo-engineers have somewhere a techno-fix under development.

Third, there is a lot of misrepresentation and confusion about what the Open Letter for a non-use agreement actually says.

One argument is clear: the Open Letter calls upon governments to reserve all public research funding for decarbonization. Not for pipedreams of planetary geoengineering. Public research funding is taxpayers’ money, and such budgetary decisions have nothing to do with “academic freedom”. Societies must decide which type of research they want to pay for. We argue: public funds for mitigation research.

Some critics have brought up military funding for solar geoengineering. The Open Letter does not engage in that issue explicitly, but clearly, military funding is part of the call for restrictions of public funding.

Apart from that, the Open Letter does not call for prohibitions of research (apart from outdoor experiments of solar geoengineering technologies). While many of our signatories have earlier suggested broader bans on research, the Open Letter is very moderate in this respect. We realize the complexities of banning research, and we have not addressed this in the Open Letter. The Non-Use Agreement, if widely accepted, will by itself provide the much-needed signal for larger private funders that the fantasy of planetary geoengineering has no political support, and that mitigation and adaption is the only way forward.

Yes, there are concerns about tech billionaires or “rogue nations” that might unilaterally take a shot at solar geoengineering at planetary scale. But the answer here is not a global scramble for who gets the technology for planetary techno-fixes first, as Buck suggests. We do not need a geoengineering arms race and pre-emptive action. The answer is an International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering with powerful controls by like-minded governments and the United Nations, and effective monitoring processes.

Of course, there is a boundary between the development of technologies for solar geoengineering at planetary scale (which we oppose) and other types of scientific investigations. There is a lot of literature discussing this boundary, often written by insightful scholars of science and technology studies and co-signatories of the Open Letter (here). Our short Open Letter leaves the definition of this boundary to those who must have the final decision: governments, parliaments, and national and international research regulators. Such detailed legal distinctions are the realm of legal crafting and public policy, not of open letters.

In sum, as long as there is no clear scenario for sustained long-run global governance of solar geoengineering deployment in a fair and inclusive manner, research to develop solar geoengineering technologies is playing with fire. Solar geoengineering researchers are well-intentioned, and they deserve respect. They also declare themselves to be opposed to deployment at this stage. Yet their personal views on eventual deployment will become irrelevant once the technology exists. They engage in a highly risky project that they will not be able to control and master. Eventually, other powerful actors will take over. At present, the genie is still in the bottle. Don’t let it out.

Join our initiative calling for an International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering here.