Canary in the Gemeinschaft

(This is a reproduction – with missing hyperlinks restored – of a guest post at the Oxford Geoengineering blog)

Current discussions about Solar Radiation Management (SRM) are based on a consensus that intertwines science and politics. Most scientists agree, as represented by the Royal Society’s reports, that geoengineering is increasingly plausible and that it is also undesirable, for all sorts of reasons. The political consensus is that, while carrying on our research, we mustn’t even entertain the possibility of deploying such things (assuming they are deployable). To target the symptoms of environmental degradation in this way would distract us from dealing with the cause.

The geoengineering community have succeeded in stabilising the global discussions about this technology. But for how long? Until now, most public statements by scientists and governments have sung these same lines in unison. But the foundations for the discussion are less solid than they appear. Those interested in questions of governance must therefore ask what it will take for them to change.

One recent discussion provides a ‘canary in the gemeinschaft’ – an early warning of social and cultural vulnerability. The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee recently discussed the possibility of dangerous tipping point in the climate as a result of the retreat of arctic sea ice. As well as discussing the science behind this risk, and its uncertainties, they heard from John Nissen, an activist who has been arguing not only for greater policy attention to the issue, but also for SRM as a policy option to combat what he calls an ‘emergency’.

The committee were (we hope) reassured that the massive uncertainties around geoengineering made this proposed solution worse than the problem it was destined to tackle. And there are good scientific arguments that the emergency isn’t as pressing as Nissen suggests. But, now that geoengineering is being talked about in polite company, I think that we can expect more of this sort of thing. We will see crises – environmental and political – be constructed in the service of SRM research as well as deployment. And we will see fringe voices becoming increasingly vocal. There is therefore a need to make the current, science-led discussions more ‘socially-robust’.

Having observed and occasionally joined the geoengineering governance discussions that have taken place up to now, I am reassured by their breadth and open-mindedness. Yes, we have occasional echoes of hubris and some scientists are operating under the illusion that they can control not just the science, but also the politics and the wider debate about desirability and ethics. But my bigger concern is the discussions we haven’t yet heard, either because they are behind closed doors, or because they will be led by new entrants, unencumbered by the norms, disciplines and assumptions of incumbents.

So it seems there is an urgent need to stress-test our current assumptions. This should be done deliberately, with scenario analysis and the encouragement of wider, messier public debates about science and technology. Because otherwise it will happen accidentally.


About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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2 Responses to Canary in the Gemeinschaft

  1. Yes, I totally agree Jack. The debate needs to be up front and out there. But how and who will do it and who will pay?

    When I have suggested such things the concern is, as you say, about the inability to control the dialogue. It highlights that despite some of the slightly more sophisticated language of dialogue and co-creation, you only need to scratch the surface a little to see it is only a very thin coating over the top of a robust ‘deficit model’ belief system.

    However, having said that, I am also appreciative of how uncomfortable for us all ‘letting rip’ might be. The comments sections of even very ‘reasonable’ articles on a variety of subjects is enough to put anyone off large scale debate on such a controversial issue!

  2. Pingback: Should we continue research into geoengineering? « Citizen Science

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