Reining in Phaëthon's Chariot: Principles for the Governance of Geoengineering

Abelkop, A.D.K.; Carlson, J.C.


Despite decades of concern about climate change, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase, and there is a substantial body of scientific evidence suggesting that planetary warming is occurring more rapidly and with more dramatic impacts than previously anticipated. Governments are unable to reach agreement on how to address the problem and, in many cases, are unwilling to take effective unilateral action to reduce emissions. As a result, some scientists (and governments) have begun talking seriously about the possibility of counteracting the warming effect of GHG emissions by intentionally altering fundamental planetary processes.

Known as “geoengineering,” the proposals range from efforts to create algal carbon sinks by fertilizing the oceans with iron to reducing the amount of sunlight that enters the earth’s atmosphere by enhancing cloud cover, injecting light-reflecting sulfur particles into the atmosphere, or putting mirrors in space to reflect sunlight away from the planet. Although some of the suggestions are the stuff of science fiction, certain proposals offer realistic and relatively inexpensive options for offsetting the warming effect of GHG emissions.

This paper argues that there is an urgent need for the international community to establish a governance framework to control geoengineering experimentation and implementation. All proposals currently under discussion are likely to have some adverse, possibly severe, impacts on ecosystems or climate. Moreover, the harm may be most severe in locations far from where the geoengineers live and work.

To ensure proper consideration of environmental risks and, in particular, proper consideration of harms that may be imposed on populations other than those of the geoengineers themselves, an international governance framework is needed. Drawing on existing norms of international environmental law, the authors recommend a set of governing principles and a governance structure for making decisions concerning the deployment of geoengineering solutions to climate change.