Geoengineering must stay peaceful

Geoengineering must stay peaceful
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Climate change has been viewed as a national security threat multiplier. To offset its damage, scientists in the United States and other countries are working on technology to manipulate the climate. This is known as geoengineering that is divided into two types, which are carbon dioxide removal to take out carbon from the air and solar radiation management to reflect a small fraction of sunlight away from the earth.

Most of this technology is still in its infancy, but its strategic importance is evident. As countries face climate security threats beyond anything seen before, they might consider geoengineering as the new form of defensive technology to manipulate the environment in their favor. Yet some of this technology holds the potential to disrupt the earth and mount a coercive threat with implications as serious as those in wartime.

Since every country is impacted by climate change in some fashion, the research and policy debate over geoengineering occurs across borders. But what about the security issues in the battle against climate change? Could geoengineering provoke or contribute to a conflict? International environmental law makes almost no mention of geoengineering and only prohibits its “hostile use” so many scholars today assume this would be a peacetime act. There is little hope to achieve the temperature target with the Paris Agreement without some form of geoengineering, and some of the technology has lower costs compared to mitigation.


However, if the moral and ethical frame of geoengineering should shift from one of global benevolence where all stakeholders have a voice and international law applies, to one of national security and international law is dismissed, a climate arms race becomes more likely. We have viewed emerging science militarized in history. The early scientific work around atomic physics crossed international borders, since scientists conducted experiments and cabled one another with their theories. But the fear that Nazi Germany was developing the atomic bomb drove the United States to establish the Manhattan Project under great operational secrecy. The open academic discussion on a new and exciting branch of physics was halted as it became subsumed into security and defense.

We now watch countries across the Himalayas, Central Asia, and South America dealing with some regional tensions grounded in water scarcity and environmental degradation. Layering the emergent geoengineering technology in addition to traditional geopolitics creates the potential to exacerbate current conflicts or generate new ones. For instance, recent research indicates anthropogenic warming of the Mediterranean Sea can alter rainfall trends in the Sahel. If geoengineering uncovers more such regional climatic feedback links, the opportunity arises for both targeted disaster relief and intentional local climate disruption.

Geoengineers face a problem that rests on both its scientific and political uncertainties. Should we develop one global geoengineering monitoring system? Should we develop countermeasures in case of an unauthorized deployment? Can countries unite to avoid a climate doomsday scenario? How can we use geoengineering for peacebuilding?

We would like to propose that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Paris Agreement be amended to include a clear stipulation for peaceful use. We also recommend the formation of a new international agency to oversee geoengineering deployments to ensure global welfare remains at the forefront of its use. However, the scientists and scholars working on geoengineering should consider very seriously the possibility that security and defense, instead of climate stability, will dictate how and when this technology gets deployed.

The technology today is still confined to computer models and proposed small experiments. But millions of dollars have been raised and spent on geoengineering research. When the technology matures and is deemed operational, the current open academic debate over geoengineering as benevolent science to increase global welfare could easily be turned to a future closed matter of national environmental security. If this technology is militarized, any country that has the capability to deploy it will no longer ask whether to do it, but rather how and when it should.

Elizabeth Chalecki is a research fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a professor at the University of Nebraska. Jack Pan is the founder and chief executive officer with Ocean Motion Technologies.