The startling revelation that American businessman Russ George recently dumped 100 tons of iron in the Pacific Ocean as part of a purported scientific experiment underscores the need for formal oversight of geoengineering research.
George initially claimed the experiment was intended to boost the salmon fishery. George's past as a geoengineering promoter, however, revealed the experiment's true purpose: to test ocean fertilization as a means of geoengineering the Earth's climate. More importantly, George's act should be viewed not as an aberration, but as the leading edge of mounting geoengineering efforts that demand international attention.
Geoengineering refers to a variety of unconventional proposals for responding to climate change. Examples include spraying tiny particles into the atmosphere to block the sun's radiation and fertilizing the ocean to stimulate phytoplankton growth in the hopes of storing carbon in the oceans.
Geoengineering techniques are far from mature, but the continuing collective failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has led to increased interest in research to develop and possibly deploy these techniques. Geoengineering is generally controversial because of its uncertain effects, its potential to undermine emission reduction efforts and the deliberate intervention with nature that it would involve.
George's experiment highlights several facts that point to the need for international oversight. First, present oversight of geoengineering research is weak. No treaty explicitly governs geoengineering research or deployment. Official statements issued by the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity do urge countries to avoid engaging in geoengineering activities without an adequate scientific basis and risk analysis.
These statements are nonbinding, however, and they have no effect on the United States, which is not a party to the convention. Moreover, "small-scale" research studies are not forbidden, although they are supposed to be strictly controlled and subject to a prior environmental assessment. A similar resolution specific to ocean fertilization was adopted by the parties to the London Protocol, a treaty that specifically governs ocean dumping. George failed to follow the procedures for obtaining proper authorization to conduct legitimate scientific research under either treaty, but the sanctions for this failure are unclear.
As an alternative to treaty-based regulation, some have called for the scientific community to develop norms to govern geoengineering research. Unfortunately, there will always be those who ignore applicable norms. Furthermore, a norms-based approach is likely to generate only vague principles and will fail to ensure effective societal oversight.
Interest in conducting geoengineering field tests is on the rise. George's activities are not the first geoengineering field experiments. As part of its exploration of the potential release of stratospheric aerosols to block solar radiation, the British government planned, but recently canceled, field tests of a system for delivering aerosols through a kilometer-long hose suspended in the sky. Researchers at Harvard University have floated the idea of releasing aerosols from a balloon over New Mexico. Bill Gates, Richard Branson and other individuals have poured millions of dollars into geoengineering research and into the preparation of reports advocating further research and development.
Geoengineering field tests can involve substantial risks and uncertainties. Information on the potential harms from George's experiment is limited, in part because George did not subject the experiment to a prior environmental assessment.
Large-scale field tests, which could provide more information on whether geoengineering might actually reduce temperature rise and at what cost, are likely to have significant and widespread adverse effects. Concerns surrounding unsupervised field testing involve not only the hazards of field tests themselves. Because near-term research choices will influence long-term geoengineering policy, ensuring collective oversight of research, with widespread public discussion and input, is essential.
What should be done? We must create a system of geoengineering oversight that is comprehensive, global and backed by sanctions. Oversight must be comprehensive in its coverage of all methods of geoengineering, and it must encompass geoengineering deployment and field research. One important issue in this regard involves defining geoengineering and the research activities that would be subject to oversight. George claimed he was stimulating the local fishery, not geoengineering the oceans, and he persuaded a native Canadian group to invest millions of dollars to fund the effort on that basis.
Moreover, geoengineering oversight must be global in its reach. Ocean fertilization would likely occur on the high seas, beyond national jurisdiction, and many other geoengineering proposals likewise involve commonly held resources. At the same time, global oversight is also necessary because geoengineering research might be undertaken by a single nation or even by an individual. Although oversight efforts ultimately must rely on national authorities for their implementation, there must also be an international forum for reviewing national implementation efforts.
Finally, geoengineering oversight must be backed by meaningful sanctions to deter rogue actors. All field research should be disclosed, and where appropriate, subject to approval and external oversight. Left unchecked, geoengineering experiments like George's could lead to ecological disaster and global conflict.