An important opportunity to engage with SAI research governance

Janos PasztorBy Janos Pasztor / 24 June 2020

Earlier this month, the advisory committee to a Harvard University research group invited comments on how it should help govern an experiment about stratospheric aerosol injection.

This is an important development, not just for the experiment in question, but for how it might set the tone for future discussions and governance processes in this space.

To that end, I believe there is a significant opportunity here to engage constructively, and to help build the kind of governance this kind of research very much needs.

What is the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx)?

​Harvard’s Keutsch Research Group describes the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) as “a scientific experiment to advance understanding of stratospheric aerosols that could be relevant to solar geoengineering”.

Solar geoengineering is one name given to a family of proposed technologies which would aim to reflect sunlight into space in order to lower global temperatures. (C2G, in line with the IPCC, uses the term solar radiation modification, or SRM.)

Stratospheric aerosol injection is one of the most controversial of those potential approaches, and creates particular governance challenges.

According to its website, SCoPEx “will make quantitative measurements of aspects of the aerosol microphysics and atmospheric chemistry that are currently highly uncertain in the simulations. It is not a test of solar geoengineering per se.”

What is the SCoPEx Advisory Committee?

Given this experiment’s potential significance, the Keutsch Research Group last year “decided to establish an independent Advisory Committee to provide advice on the research and governance of SCoPEx.”

That Advisory Committee recently launched a website of its own, and on 3 June this year, invited visitors to share “relevant feedback and questions”, through an online form, which would inform how it develops its governance framework.

“Because solar geoengineering research has global implications, we especially welcome comments from people outside the US,” the Advisory Committee said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the time or resources to respond individually to all comments, but we will consider everything we receive. We will summarize key themes, and use those themes to guide more focused engagement as well as our final recommendations to the research team.”

What does C2G say about SAI research governance?

C2G was established precisely in order to catalyse the governance of such proposed climate-altering technologies, including their research.

Governance of research is essential for many reasons, including to ensure public safety, provide the knowledge base to identify those approaches that societies can support, and to guard against a slippery slope to deployment.

C2G does not (and does not plan to) take a position on the SCoPEx experiment itself, nor on the specifics of the Advisory Committee and its approach.

We do, however, promote the development of research governance frameworks in general, and of the use of international and best practice guidance (e.g. the Rio Principles, the Aarhus Convention) in their design.

Efforts such as this SCoPEx consultation can play a valuable role in developing understanding and experience. That is why we see this as an important moment to engage constructively in what may be a first opportunity to collectively build a suitable framework.

To be clear: C2G sees value in this effort to the extent that it can help develop and test a framework for robust governance – not because it supports or opposes the specifics of SCoPEx, or the specifics of this governance framework. Those questions are for society to decide, in an inclusive and transparent debate.

What does an inclusive governance process look like?

C2G sees governance as a broad concept, which involves diverse people and groups coming together to learn, discuss and inform decisions at many different levels.

One crucial element is to consult widely, and to provide the opportunity for those consulted to say “yes” or “no”, and for that “no” to be taken just as seriously as a “yes”.

In this specific case, that would mean the possibility for the Committee, if it so deems necessary, to advise the Keutsch Research Group not to go ahead, and for that advice to be acted upon.

The process to reach any such conclusion should be transparent, and conducted in a manner that encourages engagement by a diverse range of interlocutors, and not be hijacked by any party.

The opportunity for people to present their views in an unhindered and transparent manner is as important as the independence and conduct of an advisory committee itself.

This won’t be easy. SAI creates very specific challenges, and evokes strong feelings on all sides of the debate.

And over the past few years, C2G has learned that interlocutors do not always distinguish between promoting the governance of an action, and promoting the action itself.

Yet that distinction is essential. Holding broad based governance discussions can lead to many outcomes: including doing more of something, less of something, or doing something differently.

Not holding those discussions at all can create many serious risks.

C2G would therefore hope for any governance process – and those who engage in it – to be free of any personal attacks or threats, or other impediments to an inclusive discussion.

What if research governance was stopped?

It may be worth considering what would happen if the SCoPEx Advisory Committee did not exist, and, by extension, if the world did not develop research governance frameworks for other such research efforts.

Would that stop such research from going ahead?  I suspect that is unlikely.

The world faces an extraordinary challenge in keeping temperature rise below 1.5°C or even 2°C, and the consequences of insufficient action are becoming more apparent every year.

Given the rising urgency of the climate crisis, it seems to us in C2G that research projects like SCoPEx are likely to become more common.

In fact, we would contend that such research activities are necessary: the world needs to know more about what approaches may be available, under what conditions, in order to reduce risk.

Yet for the moment, in spite of some guidance available from the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the world currently has insufficient rules in place to guard against research leading to ungoverned deployment, or other potentially dangerous consequences.

The need for governance now

Faced with the lack of effective global safeguards, developing tailored governance for specific research projects has become an urgent imperative.

Given the likelihood of more research activities, it is also an important part of governance to create a global repository of who is doing what in this area.

If the international community fails to build inclusive governance, it risks driving these activities into an ungoverned space, with potentially alarming consequences.

That is a risk I do not believe we should be taking.

Ultimately, for some stakeholders, the biggest governance challenge posed by such experiments is not the direct impacts of the experiments themselves, but rather that they may represent the first of many steps on a “slippery slope” to deployment.

One important step to address such concerns would be by governments agreeing to not deploy such technologies until enough is known about them to make science-based, and socially responsible decisions whether or not to deploy.

This, of course is a much bigger challenge than a single experiment’s advisory group can address.

Yet, addressed it must be!  How should such an agreement be achieved; in what forum or fora; and when; are key governance questions that the community of stakeholders need to find answers to.  We at C2G look forward to continuing to engage with the community in this quest.

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