Monday, June 22, 2009

Geo-engineering: Implications for International Stability

The security and climate community must plan for the prospect of unilateral geo-engineering. As the consensus that climate change is real grows, geo-engineering has recently emerged as a possible policy option. Foreign Affairs last month has an excellent article detailing the projected costs of geo-engineering that states:

“…just one kilogram of sulfur well placed in the stratosphere would roughly offset the warming effect of several hundred thousand kilograms of carbon dioxide…there is general agreement that the strategies are cheap; the total expense of the most cost-effective options would amount to perhaps as little as a few billion dollars, just one percent (or less) of the cost of dramatically cutting emissions.”

From the view of that state, geo-engineering c
ould be the rational and affordable choice if global carbon emissions continue to grow. Countries like the US have the infrastructure to withstand severe storm damage or disease outbreak. Most of Africa does not. Last year, the Council on Foreign Relations published a report discussing this scenario. Key passage:

“A nation that has not done much to prepare, either in reducing its contributions to global emissions or in building adaptive capacity, might conclude that the consequences of climate change had become sufficiently severe that it was going to unilaterally engage in geoengineering – imposing large negative externalities on the rest of the world in order to reduce its own impacts.”

If climate change continues largely unabated, what’s to stop a country facing monsoon after monsoon from unilaterally trying to cool the Earth? For “$25 billion and $50 billion a year a country could repeatedly emit sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to keep reflecting solar radiation despite the acid rain and unpredictable effects on plant growth for the rest of the world

The disparity between which states have the highest emissions and are the most able to adapt to climate change and the states who have low emissions but are the most vulnerable raises the prospect of rogue geo-engineering or attempts by states vulnerable to climate change to persuade more developed states who can afford it.

China or Russia are better equipped to develop geo-engineering technology and could do it with less fear of international sanction. Coincidentally, these countries have been resistant to cut back their emissions. Russia’s vulnerable economy benefits from high demand for natural gas and oil; China’s government has experimented with geo-engineering for decades. Cooling the planet is also much cheaper than cutting carbon emissions, which require large scale changes in transportation, energy and manufacturing. Regardless of which country is geo-engineering, there is no way for geo-engineering’s effects to be restricted. There are inevitable externalities that may cause global conflict and tension.

Hence, large scale research and development of geo-engineering technologies must coincide with effective international governance to prevent the possibility of “rogue” geo-engineering. Even better, making necessary cuts in carbon emissions would preclude the need to riskily geo-engineer.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the helpful information. Hope to hear more from you.