Proposed large-scale intentional interventions in natural systems in order to counter climate change, typically called “climate engineering” or “geoengineering,” stand to dramatically alter the international politics of climate change and potentially much more. There is currently a significant and growing literature on the international politics of climate engineering. However, it has been produced primarily by scholars from outside the discipline of International Relations (IR). We are concerned that IR scholars are missing a critical opportunity to offer insights into, and perhaps help shape, the emerging international politics of climate engineering. To that end, the primary goal of this paper is to call the attention of the IR community to these developments. Thus, we offer here an overview of the existing literature on the international politics of climate engineering and a preliminary assessment of its strengths and lacunae. We trace several key themes in this corpus, including problem structure, the concern that climate engineering could undermine emissions cuts, the potentially “slippery slope” of research and development, unilateral implementation, interstate conflict, militarization, rising tensions between industrialized and developing countries, and governance challenges and opportunities. The international politics of climate engineering is then considered through the lenses of the leading IR theories (Realism, Institutionalism, Liberalism, and Constructivism), exploring both what they have contributed and possible lines of future inquiry. Disciplinary IR scholars should have much to say on a number of topics related to climate engineering, including its power and transformational potentials, the possibility of counter-climate engineering, issues of institutional design, international law, and emergent practices. We believe that it is incumbent on the IR community, whose defining focus is international relations, to turn its attention to these unprecedented technologies and to the full scope of possible ramifications they might have for the international system.
Solar geoengineering has been proposed as a means to cool the Earth by increasing the reflection of sunlight back to space, for example, by injecting reflective aerosol particles (or their precursors) into the lower stratosphere. Such proposed techniques would not be able to substitute for mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as a response to the risks of climate change, as they would only mask some of the effects of global warming. They might, however, eventually be applied as a complementary approach to reduce climate risks. Thus, the Earth system consequences of solar geoengineering are central to understanding its potentials and risks. Here we review the state-of-the-art knowledge about stratospheric sulfate aerosol injection and an idealized proxy for this, ‘sunshade geoengineering,’ in which the intensity of incoming sunlight is directly reduced in models. Studies are consistent in suggesting that sunshade geoengineering and stratospheric aerosol injection would generally offset the climate effects of elevated GHG concentrations. However, it is clear that a solar geoengineered climate would be novel in some respects, one example being a notably reduced hydrological cycle intensity. Moreover, we provide an overview of nonclimatic aspects of the response to stratospheric aerosol injection, for example, its effect on ozone, and the uncertainties around its consequences. We also consider the issues raised by the partial control over the climate that solar geoengineering would allow. Finally, this overview highlights some key research gaps in need of being resolved to provide sound basis for guidance of future decisions around solar geoengineering.
The literature on the costs of climate change often draws a link between climatic ‘tipping points’ and large economic shocks, frequently called ‘catastrophes’. The phrase ‘tipping points’ in this context can be misleading. In popular and social scientific discourse, ‘tipping points’ involve abrupt state changes. For some climatic ‘tipping points,’ the commitment to a state change may occur abruptly, but the change itself may be rate-limited and take centuries or longer to realize. Additionally, the connection between climatic ‘tipping points’ and economic losses is tenuous, though emerging empirical and process-model-based tools provide pathways for investigating it. We propose terminology to clarify the distinction between ‘tipping points’ in the popular sense, the critical thresholds exhibited by climatic and social ‘tipping elements,’ and ‘economic shocks’. The last may be associated with tipping elements, gradual climate change, or non-climatic triggers. We illustrate our proposed distinctions by surveying the literature on climatic tipping elements, climatically sensitive social tipping elements, and climate-economic shocks, and we propose a research agenda to advance the integrated assessment of all three.
Climate change has significant implications for biodiversity and ecosystems. With slow progress towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, climate engineering (or ‘geoengineering’) is receiving increasing attention for its potential to limit anthropogenic climate change and its damaging effects. Proposed techniques, such as ocean fertilization for carbon dioxide removal or stratospheric sulfate injections to reduce incoming solar radiation, would significantly alter atmospheric, terrestrial and marine environments, yet potential side-effects of their implementation for ecosystems and biodiversity have received little attention. A literature review was carried out to identify details of the potential ecological effects of climate engineering techniques. A group of biodiversity and environmental change researchers then employed a modified Delphi expert consultation technique to evaluate this evidence and prioritize the effects based on the relative importance of, and scientific understanding about, their biodiversity and ecosystem consequences. The key issues and knowledge gaps are used to shape a discussion of the biodiversity and ecosystem implications of climate engineering, including novel climatic conditions, alterations to marine systems and substantial terrestrial habitat change. This review highlights several current research priorities in which the climate engineering context is crucial to consider, as well as identifying some novel topics for ecological investigation.
Side effects resulting from the deliberate injection of sulfate aerosols intended to partially offset climate change have motivated the investigation of alternatives, including solid aerosol materials. Sulfate aerosols warm the tropical tropopause layer, increasing the flux of water vapor into the stratosphere, accelerating ozone loss, and increasing radiative forcing. The high refractive index of some solid materials may lead to reduction in these risks. We present a new analysis of the scattering efficiency and absorption of a range of candidate solid aerosols. We utilize a comprehensive radiative transfer model driven by updated, physically consistent estimates of optical properties. We compute the potential increase in stratospheric water vapor and associated longwave radiative forcing. We find that the stratospheric heating calculated in this analysis indicates some materials to be substantially riskier than previous work. We also find that there are Earth-abundant materials that may reduce some principal known risks relative to sulfate aerosols.