Research into technologies for manipulating the planetary environment in order to forestall the effects of climate change is rapidly proceeding from small laboratory and desktop studies to the field. Concurrent with these developments, there have been calls for the establishment of governance mechanisms to ensure that the risks and concerns that this research presents are addressed appropriately, given the complex issues at stake. Chief among these have been calls for transparency.
The paper “Disclosure-based Governance for Climate Engineering Research”, which has just been published in the CIGI Papers Series, attempts to articulate some of the key challenges and opportunities that disclosure-based governance faces as it moves from principle to practice.
In the paper, A. Neil Craik and I explore the risks and concerns associated with research on climate engineering, and distinguish between the direct physical risks that experimental activities may have on the environment, and the more disparate social concerns associated with them. Interestingly, recent research proposals seem to carry very small or even negligible physical risks to the environment because of their small scale. It is social concerns – including the potential impact of climate engineering research on mitigation efforts and the controllability and desirability of climate engineering as a mature technology – that are likely to present the greater challenge for governance. To address this challenge, we must understand the potential impact of transparency practices as one of a number of possible governance activities.
The paper therefore also explores the role that transparency might play in addressing these risks and concerns – through minimising physical risks by making them apparent to decision-makers and through building trust between key constituencies. Finally, we offer two possible mechanisms that might be utilised to serve those functions: environmental impact assessment and research registries or clearing houses.
When research leaves the laboratory, the need to operationalise these governance principles will become urgent. However, there are additional questions concerning whose responsibility this should be. A number of options exist, from international and national regulation to policies enacted by research funding bodies and voluntary initiatives by the scientific community. There are no easy answers here, and more work is necessary to discern an appropriate governance response. This would address the concerns at play in a way that minimises risk and builds trust, while at the same time remaining flexible enough to accommodate new developments in this rapidly evolving field of scientific inquiry in which we all have a stake.