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How to legitimately govern geoengineering

Guest Post by Daniel Edward Callies, postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego’s Institute for Practical Ethics / February 27, 2019

[The views of guest post authors are their own. C2G2 does not necessarily endorse the opinions stated in guest posts. We do, however, encourage a constructive conversation involving multiple viewpoints and voices.]

Most people recognize the necessity of governing geoengineering. There is a clear need for an international institution (or a set of institutions) that can help regulate research, coordinate development, and either facilitate or prohibit future deployment of the different geoengineering technologies. Of course, we don’t want just any old institution making decisions about geoengineering – we want a legitimate institution making such decisions. But what would it take for a geoengineering governance institution to be legitimate?

In a recent paper, I argued that Allen Buchanan’s concept of institutional legitimacy can help answer that question. According to Buchanan, legitimacy assessments are social practices. Labelling an institution legitimate or illegitimate requires a proactive society-wide deliberative process. When it comes to geoengineering governance, the international community will have to deliberate and agree upon the criteria that a governance institution ought to fulfil if it is to justifiably coordinate action around research, development and any future deployment of these controversial technologies.

So, the question is: what criteria ought a geoengineering governance institution fulfil if it is to justifiably coordinate the action of the international community?

As I’ve already mentioned, it is up to the international community to determine what those appropriate criteria are. That notwithstanding, in what follows I want to highlight what I think are three of the most important such criteria.


Transparency is paramount when it comes to geoengineering governance. When an institution is making recommendations or offering guidelines for conducting research, for example, the international community will want to know what it is basing these recommendations on and how it arrived at them. Transparency is integral to holding institutions and institutional agents accountable. But, furthermore, transparency can serve as a kind of public justification and engender greater trust in the institution and its recommendations. And this greater trust in the institution, in turn, leads to more efficient coordination around desirable institutional goals.

Substantive Justice

Next, the international community will want to make sure that the institution is serving the cause of justice. That is, we’ll want to insist that the benefits and burdens engendered by the institution are distributed equitably (this is also referred to as “distributive justice”). Perhaps the greatest injustice of climate change is that the most devastating burdens will fall disproportionately upon developing countries and poor persons within all countries, while the benefits of the activities that have triggered climate change (i.e., greenhouse-gas-intensive activities) have accrued predominantly to developed countries and wealthy populations throughout the globe. This unfair distribution of benefits and burdens is patently unjust. Co-authors and I have highlighted the potential for geoengineering to reduce some climate injustice. But it likewise carries the potential to exacerbate the injustice that climate change will bring about. A geoengineering governance institution should lead to a world with less climate injustice, regardless of whether that means fostering research and development of the technology or placing a moratorium on deployment.

Procedural Justice

Of course, mere outcomes are not the only concern; equally important are the decision processes that lead to these outcomes. Given the diversity of opinions and interests at stake, procedural justice is especially important when it comes to geoengineering. Procedural justice requires what I call fair terms of inclusion and fair terms of participation. By fair terms of inclusion, I mean that all those with legitimate claims to participate in the decision-making process are included. By fair terms of participation, I mean that all those included in the decision-making process wield justifiable influence over the outcome. Influence over the outcome could be voting rights or could be an allotted speaking time during an inclusive deliberative process. But however decisions about geoengineering end up being made, the international community should insist that the process be guided by fair terms of inclusion and fair terms of participation. And, as others have urged, decisions about geoengineering shouldn’t be left to policy-makers and experts alone – there is likely a prominent role for the public to play.

Determining the Appropriate Criteria

Now, these normative criteria are vague. And there are certainly other criteria that a governance institution ought to fulfill if it is to justifiably coordinate the international community’s action around geoengineering (I actually highlight five in the paper, and there may be other criteria to consider as well). But one thing seems certain: any institution that neglects norms of transparency, substantive justice, and procedural justice will fall far short of being legitimate. Moreover, a lack of transparency and a disregard of substantive and procedural justice would be detrimental to the institution’s main goal – coordinating action around geoengineering.

The global community needs to have this conversation and determine both what the appropriate criteria for geoengineering governance are, and what, specifically, it would take for such criteria to be met. With the speed at which geoengineering technologies are being researched, and with the lethargic pace at which we are reducing our emissions, it is a conversation that is long overdue.

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