Headline: Climate Engineering in Science, Society and Politics


Even with ambitious efforts to protect the global climate, the adverse impacts of climate change – ranging from rising sea levels to prolonged droughts – could still be massive. In light of this, scientists are debating the feasibility of technical interventions in the Earth’s climatic system. Commonly referred to as “climate engineering”, these interventions raise fundamental questions that cut across science, technology, policy, culture, and society. These questions will be addressed by the Futures Present project, which will explore the myriad interlinkages between science and society, the treatment of risk and scientific uncertainty, the social construction of futures, and the discursive dynamics of research and policy agendas and their critical investigation.

From rising sea-levels to prolonged droughts—calculations show that even with ambitious climate action, there is still a risk that the impacts of climate change will increase massively. The objective of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, and if possible to 1.5 degrees, demonstrates the need to act forcefully and quickly. Alongside mitigation and adaptation, technological interventions into the climate system are therefore currently being considered as a potential means to noticeably reduce the risks associated with climate change. These novel and large-scale efforts to develop planetary sunshades and carbon sinks—often summarised under the term “climate engineering”—represent a mode of thought that has fully arrived in the Anthropocene: If the side effects of human activities are known to influence global systems to such an extent that geoscientists proclaim the “age of humans” as a new geological epoch, then this knowledge can also be used to intentionally intervene in such global systems.

Navigating the Anthropocene

Climate engineering therefore raises fundamental questions that are characteristic of the central challenges of the Anthropocene. Can intentional interventions into global systems be legitimised and controlled, and if so, how? What constitutes a risk and what risks are acceptable if the local effects of global interventions are difficult to predict and verify? How strongly can action rely on techno-scientific knowledge characterised by major—often irresolvable—uncertainties? How do conceptions of planetary futures emerge, and how can these processes of imagination be designed to be inclusive and open? Is it acceptable to turn global systems into objects of targeted manipulation, and what would this mean for how “nature” is understood in contemporary societies?

This research project investigates how a wide array of stakeholders, agendas, and bodies of knowledge shape the ongoing development of climate engineering as a set of imaginaries, discourses and policy options, to better understand how these central challenges are being navigated by present-day societies. Contemporary entanglements between science, society and politics form the core of the project, with central themes including

  • different ways of assessing and managing risk and uncertainty;
  • the emergence and shaping influences of speculative conceptions of the future; and
  • the justification and questioning of research and policy strategies through discourse and framing.

Climate Engineering as a challenge for climate policy

Based on the insights gained, the research group also approaches climate engineering as an overarching challenge for climate policy in the wake of the Paris Agreement. Can and should climate engineering play a role in achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement? What constitutes appropriate governance of climate engineering, and how can it be achieved?

In order to facilitate interaction between science, society, and politics on the topic of climate engineering, members of the research group are organising an international transdisciplinary conference that will take place from October 9–12, 2017 in Berlin (www.ce-conference.org).

The research group’s findings will be presented at conferences, in three PhD theses, and as academic journal articles.