In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Should We Govern Geoengineering like Nuclear Weapons or the Internet?
  • Elizabeth L. Chalecki (bio)

As the doomsday clock attests, humans are losing the struggle with climate change. The climate crisis isn’t just an environmental problem. It is a governance problem and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions hasn’t worked so far because nations have only agreed to piecemeal steps.1 Adapting to hurricanes, wildfires, floods, heat waves, and the other effects of a changing climate has been painful and dangerous and is likely to get harder. Climate change even threatens our national security.2 It is what is known as a wicked problem, affecting every part of our ecology and economy, defying all easy solutions, and requiring a level of collective action we haven’t yet been able to achieve.

If the climate threats to human well-being become sufficiently dire, nations will begin to consider deliberate manipulation of the Earth’s climate as an increasingly attractive option. Known as geoengineering, some of these technologies could be beneficial, but all of them carry risks of their own. Before we are forced to consider deploying geoengineering from a position of desperation, we should plan for its governance.

Geoengineering is currently defined as “an array of technologies that aim, through large-scale deliberate modification of the [E]arth’s energy balance, to reduce temperatures and counteract anthropogenic climate change.”3 The term widely encompasses various kinds of technology designed to either bounce sunlight away from the Earth or pull carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases directly from the air. The table below lists various methods:

The majority of these technologies are land-based and slow-acting, so their governance falls to the states on whose territory they operate. However, aerosols, cloud brightening, and ocean iron fertilization are known as commons-based geoengineering, as they have to be deployed from or have access to the upper atmosphere

Solar Radiation Management4 Carbon Dioxide Removal5
  • • stratospheric aerosol injection

  • • marine-based cloud brightening

  • • reflective crops and surfaces

  • • space mirrors or mirror confetti

  • • ocean iron fertilization

  • • weathering

  • • carbon capture and storage (sequestration)

  • • afforestation

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or high seas in order to work.6 This means that their governance then becomes a matter for all sovereign states and, thus, an issue area within international law.

Humans have never before had the scientific and technological ability to purposefully modify the Earth’s environment on a global scale. We do have ethical guidelines for future scientific research and development like the Oxford Principles and the Asilomar Report, and considering “the general good” and recommending “open and cooperative research” may be wise advice.7,8 But these frameworks do not provide enough specificity to help states build a new governance regime nor add geoengineering to an existing one.

Global scientific and technological regimes

Given the scientific and political unknowns (including whether these technologies will work, who gets to use them, and who will be responsible if something goes wrong), what can we learn about governing geoengineering from the international treaties and agencies that oversee other advanced scientific technologies? Several of them are governed at the global level, such as chemical and biological weapons and genetic modification. Others, like advanced computing and weapons technology, were considered so critical to national security that they were the subject of export controls like CoCom.9 Still others, like synthetic biology and nanotechnology, are new enough that they only have limited uses at the moment, and their governance lags well behind their development.

But the mere existence of a treaty addressing geoengineering is not enough. As with most new technologies, the devil is in the details: what form would the treaty take and what should it contain? Comparing geoengineering with nuclear technology and the internet can provide us with useful points of consideration because, though both regimes’ scopes are worldwide, they are nevertheless governed differently. Devastation from misuse of nuclear weapons would have planetary ecological effects.10 Simultaneously, satellite coverage and the nonexistence of borders in cyberspace mean that there is almost nowhere on Earth that the internet cannot reach.11 By looking at the utility, the barrier-to-entry, and the regulation of each technology, we might be able to...