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Can solar geoengineering be democratically governed?

Jesse Reynolds Guest Post by Jesse L. Reynolds, Joshua B. Horton, David W. Keith / July 19, 2018

Some commentators argue that the potential use of solar geoengineering would pose serious challenges to democratic forms of government and governance. At the extreme, they have argued that solar geoengineering and democracy would be simply incompatible.

This argument has gained some traction in recent years, but we believe that it comes up short. Along with four coauthors, we recently published an article in Global Environmental Politics – a leading academic journal in its field – that counters this “incompatibility argument.”

By way of a brief background, if solar geoengineering worked as current evidence suggests, it would partially counteract human-caused climate changes due to excess greenhouse gases, including anomalies in water availability and temperatures, at relatively low direct cost.

But solar geoengineering cannot reverse all climate changes, and any specific method of solar geoengineering will no doubt carry additional environmental risks. At best solar geoengineering can therefore supplement emissions cuts, but cannot substitute for them. Developing credible international governance of solar geoengineering will be difficult.

Within this context, we reject the four claims that we consider to be at the core of the incompatibility argument.

1. A challenge to democratic institutions?

The first core claim is that solar geoengineering would stretch democratic institutions to the breaking point. This could happen, in the first instance, because its imperfect offsetting of climate change would result in “winners” and “losers” with potentially irreconcilable disputes, for example regarding compensation for harm.

Yet even if solar geoengineering were to distribute gains and losses unequally (a proposition that is sometimes exaggerated beyond what is warranted by evidence from climate models), this would not fundamentally differ from other responses to climate change, nor from important political decisions more broadly, which invariably produce “winners” and “losers.”

Another way that solar geoengineering might threaten democratic institutions lies in the diversity and instability of the intentions behind it, which could undermine any agreement to use it. Yet plural and evolving interests are a central feature of democracy, the purpose of which is precisely to reconcile competing views and accommodate changing preferences.

A final way that democratic institutions could be endangered is through powerful economic interests that might co-opt solar geoengineering. In general, however, private interests advocating for policies that benefit them is not considered inherently incompatible with democracy; indeed, self-interested pluralism may be essential to democracy. A more valid concern is that solar geoengineering might be exploited by powerful interests that wish to continue burning fossil fuels. That’s not happened yet, but it could. While this is a legitimate concern, it does not reflect any underlying conflict with democracy as a political system.

2. A right to opt out?

The second key claim of the incompatibility argument is that solar geoengineering’s global scale strips people of their right to opt out of its effects. This implies that a right to opt out of collective decisions is a core tenet of democracy.

Put bluntly, this is simply not how democracy, or any government, works. In all democratic states, citizens are expected to comply with a government’s laws so long as they were developed democratically and are consistent with fundamental rights.

In fact, it is the absence of a right to opt out that gives governments—including democracies—the capacity to address collective problems. If individuals had an opt-out right, a government could not perform most of its essential functions, including taxation and providing basic security. If opting out were generally viewed as a cornerstone of democracy, then reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be even more difficult than it already is.

At the global scale, asserting a right to opt out of the effects of a solar geoengineering deployment that was widely viewed as legitimate would both undermine the purpose of global governance – that is, managing and resolving transnational problems – and undercut the institutional and policy stability on which successful global governance depends. It is, of course, entirely plausible that solar geoengineering could be deployed in ways that lack legitimacy, but this is no different than any other public policy issue.

The point is that a right to opt out is not—indeed cannot—be inherent to any political process that aims to bind constituents to authoritative decisions.

3. Too technocratic?

The third core claim of the incompatibility argument is that, because decisions about solar geoengineering would be highly technical, a narrow set of expert elites would be required to operate and manage the technology. Such undue technocratic governance would be undemocratic, according to proponents of the incompatibility argument.

To be clear, any deployment or large-scale outdoor experiments of solar geoengineering would indeed require expert input, guidance, and decision-making. However, this does not mean that decision-making must be technocratic in a way that excessively wrests authority from democratic institutions.

Societies – including democratic ones – routinely govern many activities that rely on technical experts with varying degrees of accountability. Experts advise legislators and are appointed by elected representatives. Even when they are minimally or even indirectly accountable—typically to prevent interest groups from disproportionately influencing outcomes—expert decision-makers remain ultimately answerable to the public, for example via renewable terms or provisions for removal, each at the discretion of elected representatives.

At the very least, experts’ actions and legacies are subject to public debate. Many technologies from air traffic control to power grids rely on technocracy, as do legal institutions such as constitutional courts, yet these are all widely seen as compatible with democracy.

4. Global authoritarianism?

The final key claim of the incompatibility argument is that solar geoengineering would necessitate a truly global environmental management system, which would centralize power and favor authoritarianism. This claim, however, is imprecise: it is not always clear whether the imagined authoritarianism would be required at the national level, the international level, or both. Since democracy manifests differently at different levels of decision-making, broad but ambiguous claims about technological incompatibility are effectively meaningless.

The claim is also confused: authoritarianism is often equated with centralized decision-making, yet there is a wide spectrum of degrees of political centralization, including within democracies. Lastly, the claim is presumptive: it assumes that solar geoengineering decision-making would be centralized. Although such a centralized vision has dominated the discussion, solar geoengineering could in theory be implemented by numerous, loosely coordinated actors with no central control, each contributing to a global result.

Conclusion: Solar geoengineering is not incompatible with democracy, but vigilance is needed

Given the weaknesses of these four core claims, we reject the argument that solar geoengineering is inherently incompatible with democracy. Indeed, we ultimately attribute these weaknesses to an unstated belief in technological determinism combined with an implicit commitment to a romanticized version of deliberative democracy.

Although we reject the incompatibility argument, we do not correspondingly argue that solar geoengineering is necessarily, or even likely to be, democratic in practice. Yet we can think of multiple ways in which the development, implementation, and maintenance of solar geoengineering could be undertaken in accord with democratic principles.

In the end, it is incumbent on all of us to remain attentive to solar geoengineering’s governance challenges and to think carefully about how to design norms, rules, and institutions that would help prevent outcomes contrary to democracy and widely held values.

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