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The Ethics and Governance of Geoengineering

December 12, 2016

STEPHANIE SY: Hello. Welcome to Ethics Matter. I am Stephanie Sy.

Fourteen of the last 16 years on this planet have broken global temperature records and scientists are growing increasingly dire in their predictions of the consequences of climate change, so much so that the discussion of engineering the climate has come into the mainstream and we are talking about that—geoengineering, it's called—with Janos Pasztor, who is the director of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Project, as well as the senior advisor to the UN secretary-general on climate change.

Janos, welcome. I am looking forward to delving into this topic because it is complicated. So I want to start with sort of the beginner's explanation of geoengineering, which, from my understanding, encompasses carbon capture, taking carbon out of the environment, as well as something sort of more terrifying, managing solar radiation.

JANOS PASZTOR: Indeed, climate geoengineering is quite complicated. But it is better to start defining it as large-scale human intervention with the Earth in order to change the climate. So the issues are: large scale, human intentional, and the intervention in the Earth in different ways in order to change the climate.

As you said, there are two different kinds. There is one kind where you remove carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere—and there is already plenty—and even if we stopped all the emissions, that would still stay there, so we need to take that out at some point. That is an important part.

But the other one—and I am not sure if it is necessarily frightening, but it is definitely more complicated—is to actually change the reflectivity of the earth to reflect more sunlight into space and thereby cooling it.

STEPHANIE SY: I want to get into more of what those technologies involve from a technical standpoint. But why are we talking about this? I mean, a comprehensive climate change agreement was struck in Paris. It seems like it is getting close to the numbers needed for ratification, to be put in force. It is supposed to limit warming by 2 degrees Celsius; that is the limit at which there is sort of a consensus that things could get really bad consequentially. Why do we need to talk about engineering the climate?

JANOS PASZTOR: You are absolutely right that there has been a very good political momentum in terms of countries coming around, signing the agreement and ratifying it, and it will soon enter into force, and that is all fantastic. But what really matters is not how countries sign and ratify; it is what they actually do.

Now, Paris agreed—actually it is more stringent than what you said. It is well below 2 degrees, and possibly even 1.5. That is the wording of the Paris Agreement. It is very ambitious. It is a very ambitious agreement. Many experts feel that it will be very challenging to be able to stick to that goal and keep the temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Centigrade; and many feel that it is almost inevitable that we will overshoot that a little bit, or maybe more, unless really serious action is taken.

Now of course, the most important serious action is to redouble our efforts to reduce emissions. Absolutely that is what we all need to do, and there is a lot of potential. And theoretically, from a geophysical point of view, we can reach those targets—no problem. The question is: Can we also do that from a political standpoint and social acceptance point of view?

So the reason why some experts are increasingly talking about geoengineering is because many feel that the political and social acceptance may not be that easy across the world and we may need to have all the possible options at our disposal, including possibly geoengineering.

STEPHANIE SY: So how much of an option is this in today's world? My understanding is the techniques are very much at the modeling stage; they haven't really been tested in the real world.

JANOS PASZTOR: That is true. Many, especially the solar engineering types—and there are many different techniques also within that—many of those are simply modeling laboratory work and they have not been tested in real life. On the carbon dioxide removal part, there are some techniques that have been developed on the ground, so we are a little closer. But even there, there are many questions still.

Now the question is: To what extent are they viable, these technologies, and to what extent can they be complementary to existing methods of managing climate change?

Most of the experts believe that at some point we have to start taking carbon out. Most likely, first we have reduce our emissions to zero, or to net zero—in other words balance the emissions with the natural sinks in the environment. Once we reach that, probably around the middle of this century, we have to start taking the remaining carbon out. So we will need these carbon dioxide removal methods in very large quantities.

STEPHANIE SY: I want to talk about some of the other geoengineering techniques as well, because geoengineering encompasses such innocuous things as planting trees, which is called afforestation; but other techniques, which we refer to in solar radiation, which are sort of mind-blowing—putting mirrors in space, somehow increasing the reflectivity of clouds; and then the carbon capture and sequestration methods of pumping liquid carbon out of the atmosphere and injecting it into the deep ocean floor or rocks.

Let's just focus on one of these mind-blowing techniques, which you have described in previous conversations we've had as sort of man-made volcanic eruptions. Talk a little bit just about that, just so people understand what we are talking about.

JANOS PASZTOR: The solar radiation management—one of the techniques would like to mimic essentially a volcanic eruption. We have seen large volcanoes erupting and we have measured that. What happens is that the volcano erupts and it spits out lots and lots of particles, including sulfur particles that go into the atmosphere, and they actually change the reflectivity of the atmosphere and you can measure this after the eruption. For example, the Pinatubo volcano, within six to 12 months the global temperature went down, you could measure; and then, after a while, when the particles disappear, then the temperature comes up again to normal.

STEPHANIE SY: So the idea is for man to recreate that in the stratosphere?

JANOS PASZTOR: Yes, because in the stratosphere it will be more efficient, and only spray those kinds of aerosol particles that are best to do this job, and do it in an even way across the globe so that there is good dispersion. If you do it right—that's what the models say—then it will be able to bring the temperature down those few degrees that it would have gone up because of climate change.

The problem with solar radiation management is that while it cools the planet down, it does not take the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Therefore, most experts believe that if one was ever to use solar radiation management, you would do it as a complement to other methods, first to reduce the emissions, then to take out the carbon, and then with the solar radiation management you get a little extra time to do all these things. But you cannot simply look at solar radiation management as the solution, because it doesn't solve the problem.

STEPHANIE SY: Let's take those two things separately in their environmental impacts and what we know about that. First, with solar radiation, setting off volcanoes in the stratosphere, does the modeling show what the risks to the environment are in doing that?

JANOS PASZTOR: There are risks and there are benefits. For example, if you apply solar radiation management across the globe, there will be a change in precipitation, a reduction overall in precipitation.

STEPHANIE SY: A reduction in precipitation?

JANOS PASZTOR: A small reduction, yes. But it is not that significant necessarily, and you have to compare the environmental impacts of solar radiation management to a world that would have changed quite a bit because of climate change anyway. So the comparison has—

STEPHANIE SY: So drought via climate change versus drought via solar radiation management—it's hard. It's a balancing act.

JANOS PASZTOR: It is a balancing act.

This brings me to the most important part of climate geoengineering, the governance requirements of how you balance these issues: How you decide how far to go? When do you start? when do you stop?

Even if you do solar radiation management on a global level, it is very likely that not all impacts will be equal across the globe. So how do you decide between a positive impact in this part of the world versus a negative impact in another part of the world? And who decides?

STEPHANIE SY: Let's talk about that, because the CIA chief, John Brennan, talked about geoengineering recently, specifically about stratosphere aerosol injection, which is SAI, which is what we have been talking about, and its potential implications.

This is what he said, Janos: "On the geopolitical side, the technology's potential to alter weather patterns and benefit certain regions at the expense of others could trigger sharp opposition by some nations. Others might seize on SAI's benefits and back away from their commitment to carbon dioxide reductions. And, as with other breakthrough technologies, global norms and standards are lacking to go guide the deployment and implementation of SAI, of these solar management techniques."

First of all, why do you think the chief of the CIA in the United States is talking about geoengineering?

JANOS PASZTOR: Because climate change and any means that you try to resolve climate change will have security implications, security implications in different parts of the world. If I were the head of the CIA, I would also be very seriously concerned about that.

Imagine a situation where climate engineering, for example stratospheric injection of aerosols, is applied and there is a change in weather patterns in one part of the world. A neighboring country where that change happens will claim, true or not, that this was because of this other country involved in solar radiation management. Perception will be just as important as the actual facts on the ground, and it will be very challenging to demonstrate that that change in weather was because of the actual climate geoengineering activity.

So it is very, very complicated. It will require considerable scientific and technical work to figure this out properly, and then we have to build up governance structures, governance frameworks, that are able to oversee this.

STEPHANIE SY: Are there any frameworks, are there any international laws, that currently govern the research or the testing of this type of geoengineering?

JANOS PASZTOR: There are some. They are very limited, and they happen in isolation. So we have, for example, the Convention on Biological Diversity. They have taken a decision some years ago to effectively call for a moratorium on deployment because of the potential impacts on biodiversity. But this was done in the isolation of the biodiversity community, if you will.

The London Dumping Convention has considered that we should be against putting materials, chemicals, in the ocean.

There is one other geoengineering topic we haven't talked about, ocean fertilization, where you put iron filings into the ocean and it increases algae and they absorb CO2. So it is a way to take CO2.

STEPHANIE SY: Carbon capture, yes.

JANOS PASZTOR: But this has many negative consequences on the environment, so there is a decision against that by the London Dumping Convention.

But we do not have a global framework that looks at the totality. If you have a system that actually has an impact on climate, good or bad, there is a change in patterns of precipitation, there will be impacts on food production and food security.

STEPHANIE SY: When I was in China in the lead-up to the Olympics, China used weather modification techniques, cloud seeding, in order to create rain, wash away pollution.

Was there anything that would have governed that? Is there something that you could extract out of what governments are already doing with weather modification into this?

JANOS PASZTOR: Weather modification is quite different than climate engineering because of its scale, both in terms of the totality, the geographical scale, and there are very localized impacts.

So what countries do on weather modification—quite a lot of countries do that for agricultural purposes or for making sure that the Olympics or something else has nice clean air. But it is quite different than the scale, and the impacts will be way beyond national borders. So it really changes everything.

STEPHANIE SY: So where do you start and what are the challenges? When you are looking at the time horizon we're talking about, what are the challenges of building an international framework to guide this research?

JANOS PASZTOR: There are many challenges because we really have very little in place. What most observers feel is that we need a parallel development of governance frameworks, more research, and more policy discussion and dialogue about these issues so that step-by-step we get to some set of solutions in the foreseeable future.

What many are worried about, including I am personally worried about this, is that some countries may decide to go in this direction too quickly, because maybe the climate impacts will be worse than we thought, maybe the emissions will continue to rise faster, and we will not be ready with the governance frameworks, which will take years, if not decades, to develop.

STEPHANIE SY: One of the challenges in reaching an international agreement on addressing emissions has been that you can't even get individual countries, mainly the United States, which I believe is now the second-largest emitter of emissions—you can't even get all of the politicians in this country to agree (a) that climate change is going to have disastrous effects on the planet and on mankind, and (b) that anything should be done about it. I imagine that some of those politicians are going to hear "geoengineering" and they are going to stop focusing on what you and other climate experts have said is the most important thing, which is that we get off fossil fuels.

Does it disincentivize—and that was the second part of what Brennan said—does it disincentivize countries from doing what really needs to be done?

JANOS PASZTOR: It can disincentivize. But I think we have to be absolutely sure, in the way we work on these issues, to make it very clear that the highest priority has to be the reduction of emissions. And, even if you were to decide one day to use some geoengineering technique, like solar radiation management, it can really only work as a complement to those emission-reduction techniques, because if you don't reduce the emissions, you could be in a situation where you have to do solar engineering for hundreds of years.

STEPHANIE SY: That takes me back to the original concern, which is whether we can meet the targets that have been set forth by the latest agreement.

Is geoengineering also sort of a Hail Mary pass, a sort of emergency plan B, if you will? If suddenly we see real catastrophic effects from climate change, would the technology be able to be deployed quickly enough to change the realities on the ground?

JANOS PASZTOR: If we already see the catastrophic effects, then we are pretty much already too late, although some of the solar radiation management techniques, once we develop these really to viability, they could be applied reasonably quickly to at least reduce the global temperatures. But by that time there will have been impacts.

So I would prefer not to wait until we actually see the catastrophic impacts. That is why we must—countries, non-state actors—everybody has to focus on reducing the emissions to meet the Paris Agreement objectives. And I know we can do it. There is still that political will that is not always there in every country, in every region, but we have to work on that.

STEPHANIE SY: How do you work on it? There is a change in administration that is going to happen in all of these countries over the time horizon. If you are saying, "In the middle of this century we sort of cap emissions and try to reach those targets," you said it would be around—what date are we looking at? So you're looking at multiple administrations, multiple political regime changes.

JANOS PASZTOR: The reality is that the facts of climate change are becoming so clear. There may be some politicians in certain countries who are blind and do not see this, but the reality is there.

I had the opportunity with the secretary-general last year to go to the Arctic, and we saw it with our own eyes, of what is not there anymore that used to be a glacier. There they already measure more than two degrees above the historical average. So these things are happening. You know, Sandy happened, and there will be more of those kinds of extreme weather events.

STEPHANIE SY: So you feel like eventually there will be an inflection point at which even the doubters in this country—and I don't think most countries have this debate about whether it is happening.

JANOS PASZTOR: At the beginning of the Paris Conference, on the first day, you had 150 heads of state under one roof, in one place. Never, ever in history have there been so many heads of state in one place. And they all said the same thing: "Climate change is really important, it is urgent, we need to do something about it urgently," and they instructed their negotiators to make a good agreement, which is exactly what happened. That is amazing. And there was nobody there saying, "I don't believe climate change is a problem."

Now, how you do it—it's challenging, yes; it's not easy. But there is political consensus. You can look at it from the positive aspect of what a large number of political leaders there are behind this. So let's work with them, let's build on that, and let's make it happen.

STEPHANIE SY: So you see momentum politically.

How much weight or how much attention should we give to geoengineering as a possible response to climate change?

JANOS PASZTOR: If we want to manage the world's climate in a responsible manner, then we cannot simply plan for the ideal, the perfect, that every country will implement all their agreements under the Paris Agreement, for example. We have to look at a range of options, a range of risk-management options, and one of these is that one day we may have to deploy climate engineering techniques.

We are not there today yet. We can't decide this. But I strongly believe that we should at least advance research sufficiently that we would be able to answer the question whether or not these are viable options; and, once we decide that, how do they compare to the others; how much of this do we do and how much of that?

STEPHANIE SY: Who are the key players in the research at this point? Is it private institutions and companies or governments?

JANOS PASZTOR: At the moment there has been a great deal of academic research going on in a number of countries—the United States, a number of European countries, China, Russia. So there is academic work going on.

There is—you quoted yourself the CIA director—clearly interest from the security/military apparatus in many countries because it is a reality. It has implications on security, so they need to worry about it.

There are also indications that the private sector is working on this, and from different perspectives. There is a private sector that is interested in carbon removal or in the aerospace aspects of this.

But there are also the fossil fuel companies who may have an internal interest to extend the transition period as long as possible because they can make more money during that period.

STEPHANIE SY: Let's talk about that, because often when I have read about geoengineering it has been couched in terms of buying time for an eventual transition away from fossil fuels. So talk a little bit more about that as a concept.

JANOS PASZTOR: Indeed. So while doing serious emission reduction efforts and also adaptation efforts to the climate changes that are already taking place, the concept that many people have put forward that is, indeed, with solar radiation management you could either get a little bit more time for the transition or you could shave off the peak of the temperature rise during the transition; instead of overshooting the 1.5 to 2.0 or 2.5 degrees, you overshoot it just to 2. That is already helpful. So possibly this is the way that solar engineering could be a complement to your traditional climate change management tools.

STEPHANIE SY: You talked a little bit about the ethical implications because of regional weather effects and that could affect communities differently. What are the other ethical considerations you're having as you discuss this issue?

JANOS PASZTOR: Well, one of the most fundamental concerns from some about geoengineering is how can we, humanity, people, think that we are like gods who can simply interact with the entire Earth system and control its climate and literally have a global thermostat and push it up or down and assume that it is going to work well? So there are many serious ethical considerations that this cannot be done; or, if we are going to do something like that, we have to really think about this carefully, of how are we going to do that; and not only the basic concepts of whether we should be able to do that, but then, if we do decide to go in that direction, as you said, there could be impacts that are not equal across the globe.

So how do you balance the need for reducing temperature versus having maybe negative impacts in certain parts of the world; or how do you develop compensatory mechanisms if there are such negative impacts?

STEPHANIE SY: Or move people, right? You already hear about this idea of the environmental refugee, and you wonder whether—because there will be potential for a regional flooding, for example. We don't really know because it hasn't tested in the real world, but presumably that is what we are talking about in possible consequences.

JANOS PASZTOR: Well, these things have actually been tested in the real world because there are already environmental refugees, and many of them are because of climatic conditions. So we are already seeing that.

STEPHANIE SY: But we could create more of them through geoengineering.

JANOS PASZTOR: We could create more—or less. Let's not come to the end of the analysis which we haven't yet done fully. There are worrying concepts about the complexity of climate engineering, but we don't yet know fully what those impacts will be and how they will compare to a world in which climate change, global warming, would have increased substantially, which itself would have—

STEPHANIE SY: There is so much to it when you are talking about again the international framework for all of this, because you must consider all of those possibilities, the possible consequences, the possibility that you would have to move people across borders if they were adversely affected, potentially. Any benefit, I assume, would take at least some number of years to see.

JANOS PASZTOR: That is why it is very important that as we consider complicated issues like climate engineering we don't put it in a bubble, in a silo, but we rather look at it in broad economic, environmental, and development terms, because it will have impacts on food security, on the way people live, where people live, where they may have to move or not move.

So these are complicated issues that we need to look at in totality, and then I think we will be able to arrive at much better judgments.

STEPHANIE SY: What is the urgency as far as having this conversation? I mean, you are a high-up guy in the climate change universe. You are a senior advisor to the UN secretary-general on climate change. How mainstream are these discussions, how high-level are they at this point, and is there an urgency to be having this conversation?

JANOS PASZTOR: At the moment, most of the discussion about this issue is in academia, or possibly in the private sector. There is very little in the policy world. That is one of the challenges that we have to work on, is to make sure that there are proper dialogues and discussions in a way that the discussion moves from academia into the policy world, and, in particular, the inter-governmental policy world. There has been some, so we are not starting from scratch, but certainly not enough.

Now, in terms of urgency, there is no urgency today to decide whether or not we want to use this. But at the same time there is urgency because we are already at 1 degree Celsius above the historical average, the pre-industrial average, and our goal is 1.5. We are actually quite close to that already.

These technologies, whether they are carbon removal or emission reductions, take a long time to implement. So it is not like this: you decide today, you put in the technology, and tomorrow you have solved the problem. It can take decades to use these at scale. So there is urgency to start talking about it now so that in 10, 15, 20 years from now we will be ready to take decisions.

STEPHANIE SY: You have to be so future-thinking in order to build a framework on something like this, and account for the fact that national borders may change in the process of this technology being developed. Have you ever tackled something like this, of this magnitude?

JANOS PASZTOR: Well, the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was the first, probably, major international agreement that actually looked ahead and tried to solve a problem, which at that time, in 1992, was not yet visible like it is today. It was trying to address a problem that was coming.

That is amazing, I think, that the international community was able to address an issue that wasn't yet really real. Now it is real, and it will get a lot more real.

STEPHANIE SY: It is also amazing that that became real in 15 years, that between Rio and Paris there were NASA scientists, climate scientists, pointing to specific weather events and saying, "Severe weather events are becoming more frequent and this is linked to climate change," within 15 years.

JANOS PASZTOR: Yes, and that is remarkable. So I think we can be very positive about that, that things can happen, things can move. Even then, it is very complicated. It is possible to gather the international community and then move forward. It is very difficult because you have 195 member states who are very different in socioeconomic development, in cultural approach, in scientific capacity, and so on, and yet they all have to agree. But it can happen, it has happened, and I am confident that it will happen.

STEPHANIE SY: Are you hopeful? In seeing things from the view where you have been in the Arctic, you have seen the real-world effects of climate change, you've been involved in the political discussions, now you are involved in these discussions about an alternative response, geoengineering. Do you feel hopeful about where the world is now in addressing climate change?

JANOS PASZTOR: I am hopeful, and I am hopeful based on what has happened in the past. Things have evolved, and they were not always perfect, but solutions were found. We are much better off in terms of climate change, in terms of addressing climate change, than we were 20 years ago. So there is progress. So I am hopeful and I am optimistic that we can do this.

But at the same time, I am a realist. We live in a very complicated, rather imperfect world, if I may put it that way, and we have to simply plan for a range of possibilities, not just for the best, not just for the optimal. If we do that, then I think we will succeed.

STEPHANIE SY: In the process of researching geoengineering and climate engineering, a couple of the websites I ended up pulling up were these conspiracy websites—chemtrails—and I had to learn that there is a community of people out there who for decades have been talking about government experiments in the stratosphere and solar radiation management. It didn't seem that far-fetched from what we were actually talking about today.

JANOS PASZTOR: This is actually quite important that you raised this because it has a big implication on the governance frameworks that we need to develop. Imagine you have people and you have this all over the world; in the United States, in France, elsewhere people who believe that this is what is happening, when in fact, to my knowledge, nothing like that is happening and I haven't heard any experts saying that there is something like that happening.

STEPHANIE SY: You mean experiments by the government in the stratosphere to aerosolize the stratosphere?

JANOS PASZTOR: No. There is just nothing known about that.

But imagine if one day there is real action in terms of climate engineering, stratospheric injection of aerosols or changing the brightness of clouds. The perception of people of what that will do is just as important as what actually happens. So if a country thinks that their rains are missing this year because of the geoengineering, then, whether it is true or not, there will be a perception, and there will be a perception by the public, perhaps perception by authorities, and you have to deal with that.

STEPHANIE SY: And that can create global instability.

JANOS PASZTOR: It can create, absolutely, global instability.

Think of two countries. Think of these days India and Pakistan. Think of a situation where one of them thinks that the rains are not coming because of the action of the other one in terms of solar radiation management.

STEPHANIE SY: Not only would you not be able to know whether it was true; you wouldn't be able to prove it not to be true.

JANOS PASZTOR: One solution to that, of course, is that we have to really improve our monitoring systems, our modeling systems, so that we are in a much better position to actually demonstrate what is happening, and be really transparent about this. Right now there is academic work, yes. There may be private sector proprietary work that you don't really know about. The military may be working on some issues there. But we don't know what is going on, really. So an important part of the governance framework is transparency, engagement of different people, different organizations, and so on, and the public as a whole, so that there is more information flowing.

We will always have conspiracy theories.

STEPHANIE SY: Do you find there is resistance? I actually had the opportunity recently to interview the acting director of the Earth Sciences Institute at NASA, and I asked him what he thought about geoengineering. He was very much dismissive of it.

Are you running into that, as well, among climate scientists who just say, "Don't even look at that because we don't understand the consequences, and we don't want to go down that road; it's a slippery slope"?

JANOS PASZTOR: As I said earlier, we don't know enough to be able to decide whether or not really those are viable, or which of those different techniques are viable, and viable complements to existing technologies.

But, given the magnitude of the challenge of climate change, and given the range of possibilities of ideal or not-so-ideal outcomes in terms of implementation—for example, the Paris Agreement—I think we have to be responsible global citizens and researchers and policymakers and at least find out enough about these technologies to be able to decide whether or not we want to pursue them.

At the moment we don't know enough to decide. So you can then say, "Well, it's not serious; let's throw it away." But maybe we are throwing away a technology that could be one really important pillar of our future action—maybe.

STEPHANIE SY: Where is the research now?

JANOS PASZTOR: The challenge we have with research is twofold. First of all, particularly when it comes to the solar radiation management options, most of it was done through modeling in the laboratory and there have been no experiments to ground truth these models. For example, there has been no release of aerosols in the stratosphere, even limited quantities, to measure the dispersion, how it works, things like that. Without that, we will never know really sufficiently.

STEPHANIE SY: Are we at the point in the modeling where that testing is close? When I think about testing that, there is no way to do that in a controlled way. You would actually be deploying the technology even to test it.

JANOS PASZTOR: The challenge we have here is that at the moment almost all of the direction of the research is generated by the researchers themselves. They, as good scientists, figure out where they want to go next, and if they are good at fundraising, they get money for it and they do it.

What is missing is signals from the normal political processes of countries, or at the intergovernmental level, of where the research should go, in a strategic sense. It is missing because there is no real policy discussion. That is what needs to change so that the society, whether at the national level or at the global level, decides, "We want to know whether these are viable. Therefore research needs to go there to find out the missing information, the gaps." That signal is missing, and I think that is an important part of the governance framework that has to happen soon, either to say, "Stop everything; we will never want to go there," or to give clear directions to the research community, and provide the funding necessary to make these things happen.

STEPHANIE SY: Janos Pasztor, thank you so much. Really interesting.

JANOS PASZTOR: You're welcome.

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