5 Ways the World Doesn’t Need Climate Engineering Now

Elpidio V. Peria
23 August 2014

Having just attended the recently-concluded Climate Engineering Conference (from 18 to 21 August 2014) here in Berlin, Germany and still stuck at an airport hotel near Tegel Airport while waiting for a flight that’s cancelled because of bad weather and a flat tire yesterday, here’s an attempt to get a sense of what was seen and heard during those previous days, focusing on some reflections why the world should have less, NOT more, experimentation of our climate :

1) There has been no serious mitigation effort by developed countries, including now.

During the exchanges that have been aired in the various sessions in this conference, part of the reason why scientists who attended that meeting are enamored with geo-engineering or climate engineering is that there has been no serious greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation effort at all worldwide and while there is this acceptance of the UN treaty on climate that mandates countries to limit their greenhouse gas emissions, even Prof. Dan Bodansky of Arizona State University said that it’s also because the United Nations climate negotiations is complicated. This prompted this writer to react, saying to the contrary that the problem is simple – it’s the lack of follow-through by developed countries such as the US, the countries comprising the EU and some Annex 1 countries which are former republics of the defunct-USSR, to make good in their commitments during the Rio Summit in 1992 and the adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In spite of this, it should be acknowledged that the US, most especially, has seen its GHG emissions decline, but this is not due to its efforts under the UN climate treaty and it is not done at levels necessary to stabilize the levels of GHG in the atmosphere.

This impasse in the UN climate negotiations should not be used as an excuse to do climate engineering. Perhaps these scientists should exert serious and honest-to-goodness efforts first, within their countries, now, to convince their governments to make real emissions cuts commitments and once these things are tried out in earnest and the GHG gases don’t stabilize, only then should climate engineering be contemplated.

2) The science is full of uncertainties, and while it may be necessary to do research to understand how the technology works with the natural environment, advocating simply that more research, including field research, is needed to further learn how the technology works is self-serving

It is seductive and somewhat convincing for the novice listener to agree that, sure, because we don’t know much about this technology and how it interacts with the geophysical movements of the earth’s climate, then we should go about and do the experiments just the same. But this is precisely what the scientists doing these types of research now want – the freedom to research what they need to find out. Looking back at these exchanges, shouldn’t there be some limits to the way this freedom to research argument is being bandied about? Like, suppose it will impinge on the rights of other people who are not so worried about these types of problems? Of course, these scientists may say, ignorant, unconcerned and uncaring people shouldn’t have a power over their research decisions, but there is a reason why even these types of people are important just the same and that is democracy – these types of people are also the ones who make decisions in an open and participatory governmental system, it is they who y make up the polity, the collective will that votes governments in or out of office. Thus, their views on these things, no matter how un-formed, or ill-formed, matters for giving these researches a go-ahead.

3) It’s a pity the miseries of developing countries are being used to justify these experiments, but what these countries need most now is more climate adaptation support, especially funding and technology

The research infrastructure and technical prowess to examine geoenginnering should be better focused on the more urgent need of developing countries for climate change adaptation, which for now is not adequately funded by the Adaptation Fund of the UN Framework Conventon on Climate Change. Even the UNFCCC’s Climate Technology Centre does not have significant amounts of money to accelerate and upscale its climate technology transfer efforts. These things should be taken into account first.

4) The ethical constructs for carbon dioxide removal as well as the international legal framework sketched for de minimis damage from climate engineering, are at its essence, self-delusional

There was a session on the application of clinical theory to justify the experiment on carbon dioxide removal; the way the presentor set out his point is littered with too many “ifs” that for a lay listener it ceased to be convincing. Way much earlier during day 2 of the conference there was a session on international law to regulate de minimis (Latin for minimal, or such kind of damage that is so small to be inconsequential) damage from climate engineering. The basic flaw in that presentation on international law it seems is the premise that there will only be inconsequential damage to the earth and its climate. At best, we don’t really know. In fact, the scientists don’t really know, they say, so they need to do more research. Thus, if this is the case, what should apply is the precautionary principle which, according to Prof. Karen Scott of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, is already customary international law, then, at best, these activities should be stopped at the moment, in deference to that principle.

5) There is an on-going moratorium on some types of research, especially under the Convention on Biological Diversity
There is actually an international treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, that applies precautionary principle now to these activities and the part of the Decision relevant to our discussion invites Parties to the Convention and Governments, including relevant organizations and processes to:

(w) Ensure, in line and consistent with decision IX/16 C, on ocean fertilization and biodiversity and climate change, in the absence of science based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms for geo-engineering, and in accordance with the precautionary approach and Article 14 of the Convention, that no climate-related geo-engineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place, until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts, with the exception of small scale scientific research studies that would be conducted in a controlled setting in accordance with Article 3 of the Convention, and only if they are justified by the need to gather specific scientific data and are subject to a thorough prior assessment of the potential impacts on the environment;


Prof Tracy Hester of the University of Houston Law Center said that, in a Q&A session, to make these types of international law decisions binding, there should be a national law to put them into action, so to speak. Perhaps he was referring to those who wish to assert global liability to these types of experiments which are done in spite of these supposed prohibitions. In that session on local laws and global liability, the litigation possibilities of those who wish to exact global liability from these types of activities are explored, but, to summarize his presentation, litigation is essentially difficult, but this does not have to await any global governance schemes or international law specifically designed for these activities, as the usual general environmental laws of a country, including its tort laws, can already be used.

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5 Responses to 5 Ways the World Doesn’t Need Climate Engineering Now

  1. saan kaya pumunta yung comment ko that i posted here yesterday?

  2. basically, the comment i made (that went away, hehe) had to do with the first point in your blog. I was just curious if, scientifically speaking, there is a level of GHG emissions that can be considered “stable” already? And, in which case, is there a provision (or perhaps later agreements) in the CC framework agreement whereby climate engineering can be considered or can be undertaken should GHG emissions level remains “unstable” even after countries have complied with reduction in their emissions. In other words, is there a “prerequisite” condition with regard to the “stability” in GHG emission levels that will provide a basis by which “only then should climate engineering be contemplated.” My concern is that if such a pre-condition exists then this might only open up the world to all sorts of climate engineering activities, which essentially is a treatment that is worse than the disease itself. yun lang po . . . and thanks Ping for maintaining this blog that helps to clarify and update us on policy developments and discussion at different levels and in different platforms. padayon!

    • ok lang, this blog requires comments to be moderated, so all your comments are in the admin section; anyway, to respond to your question – on the matter of what levels of GHG emissions are considered stable, this is tested in relation to what temperature target has consensus in the UNFCCC such that beyond it, then the global climate is seen as “unstable”. For now, that target is 2 degrees celsius and from that, GHG emissions are calculated; there are numbers already, I think there is a group, Stockholm Environment Institute, that set out to find that number, and it comes to around 640 gigatonnes of carbon and that is seen to be our “carbon budget” which should be apportioned to all countries of the world. If we exceed that, then there is a strong possibility we will exceed that 2degrees limit. By the way, that 2degrees is global average; you have to take into account regional variability and there are studies showing that even if we hit that 2 degrees average, in Philipines, our ave. temp may be beyond that. PAGASA has already detected a .648 degree centigrade increase in Philippine ave. temp over a 50yr period (1951-2010).

      On your second point, there is no scheme yet identified and agreed in the UNFCCC where to put climate engineering rubric. That is the struggle in the conference now, and that was the tit-for-tat in one of the sessions there that prompted me to respond that the debate is actually a simple case of non-compliance by developed countries of their commitments to cut their emissions last 1992 yet. Given that there is no agreement, nay, even an honest-to-goodness discussion where to put climate engineering in the UNFCCC, then we cannot yet speculate that the UNFCCC may be a gateway to allow these sorts of activities, but such is possible. Thanks for the questions, bay, and keep them coming!

  3. Kimock says:

    On your point 1, there has been little serious mitigation efforts among developed AND developing countries. The latter group make up the majority of present emissions and the vast majority of future emissions. Of course, in these countries, CO2 emissions are presently essential to economic development.
    On your point 2, it is unclear what limits to research you seek, whether it be limits on, for example, work in the lab or modeling (which pose no physical environmental risk), or limits on field research (which at large scales could pose risks). There are presently national and international limits on the latter. It is just not typically labeled “climate engineering research regulation.”
    On your point 4, there are possible field experiments which do indeed pose negligible physical environmental risks. For example, scientists in the UK planned on trying to spray sea water 1 km in the air to test equipment. There would be have been no physical risks. There would have been “risks” that such dialogues would reduce the momentum toward mitigation, or created a slippery slope. Also, Dr. Scott was simply incorrect in asserting that precaution is customary international law. It is a principle, which is more like a guiding rule than binding law. Furthermore, this principle generally requires only that, in the case of risk of serious or irreversible harm, that scientific uncertainty NOT be used as a reason to stop action to reduce the risk. How it applies in the case of climate engineering is unclear. It could equally be asserted that precaution calls for climate engineering research.
    On your point 5, that statement by the CBD Conference of Parties is nonbinding. Such conferences of parties do not have the power to develop binding international law. Furthermore, in the source document, the parties merely ask states to “consider” taking such action until certain conditions are met.

    • Thank you for your comments, Kimock, they are very much welcome and looking forward to an enlightened exchange with you

      My response to your comment on point 1, indeed, there’s little mitigation efforts between developed AND developing countries but the ones who made a COMMITMENT to cut back their emissions back in 1992 when UNFCCC was adopted were the developed country Parties, and there’s a little collatilla there in the same UNFCCC provision which says that the action of developing countries on mitigation will depend on what developed countries will do about it; it’s no wonder why there’s not much mitigation that’s been done so far; and now we are going to PARIS to come up with a new deal; what you have acknowledged that emissions are crucial to the economic development is but the expression of the common-but-differentiated-responsibility principle that’s been established with the adoption of the UNFCCC.

      On your comment on my point 2, that part does not suggest any regulation that was why if you were looking at it, that was not part of the discussion, it mainly dissects the freedom-to-research argument of most proponents of geoengineering researches, as having a self-serving argument and later various ways of other views that needs to be considered in the discussion, the public in general, were considered.

      on your comment on my point 4, while I accept it that as you say there are experiments that pose negligible physical environmental risks, how did you know that indeed these are negligible, because of the way the study was designed? but I thought you need more studies to find out, but in these instances, you don’t need more studies?

      on your point about Dr. Scott that the precautionary principle is not customary international law, perhaps you were not there in her lecture, but she indeed said that; even the way you have stated the principle appears to be contrary to what she talked about; anyway, one takes away their own understanding from those lectures, so if you persist in that view, no amount of argument from her would convince you.

      Finally, on the last point on whether COP decisions are binding, I would like to respectfully disagree. Even legal scholars are debating this though the majority holds the view that COP decisions are non-binding. If it is non-binding, why is it that countries fight hard to weaken it some more, surely, these proponent countries are wary that these decisions will be taken seriously by countries and other international organizations. Having attending these COP meetings for several years now, it’s a waste of effort if all these wrangling over legal texts of decisions would only result in non-binding-ness of these decisions, then perhaps all those developed countries with all their advisers should just go home, though I can see my view is in the minority.

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