C2GTalk: An interview with Marcos Regis da Silva, Executive Director of the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research
What are the challenges facing international governance of solar radiation modification?
14 November 2022
Why did the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI) hold a meeting to discuss Solar Radiation Modification?
The fragmentation of international environmental governance creates challengesZ for states looking to create governance for solar radiation modification (SRM), says Marcos Regis da Silva, Executive Director of the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI) during a C2GTalk. Policymakers in the Americas welcomed a recent IAI meeting which provided more information about SRM, and the state of its governance, to help them take decisions about the best way forward.
Dr. Marcos Regis da Silva is Executive Director of the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI). He is responsible for the provision of strategic advice to high level policy makers on issues related to global change and their socio-economic impacts. He also provides advice on linkages between the IAI’s scientific agenda and global governance environmental frameworks, especially the Sustainable Development Goals. He is responsible for the long-range strategic planning and financial oversight of the IAI Directorate to ensure the implementation of the IAI’s programme of work.
Previously he held the post of Chief, Knowledge Management and Outreach Services with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). He was responsible for issues related to the use of new information and communication technologies, including those to conduct international trade in specimens of CITES-listed species that is legal, sustainable and traceable. He was previously with the Convention on Biological Diversity where he was responsible for the implementation of the Clearing-House Mechanism and for the technical implementation of the Biosafety Clearing-House under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
Before joining the United Nations, Marcos was a Programme Officer with the NAFTA Commission on Environmental Cooperation where his duties included the development of the North American Biodiversity Information Network. He holds a PhD from McGill University and was an Adjunct Professor with the Department of Distance Education and a Computer and Networks Librarian.
Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Perhaps we could begin with you telling us a little bit about the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research, what it’s doing, what its priorities are, and some of the challenges you’ve faced during your tenure as Executive Director.
Absolutely. We are an intergovernmental organization. That’s important to note because it was established by treaty and it is composed of 19 State governments in the Americas, from the Arctic all the way to Patagonia. Although it is only 19 governments, it covers about 95 percent of the territory in the Americas including all the mega biodiverse countries.
The IAI was founded to pursue scientific excellence on projects that may provide policymakers with the information needed to make better decisions. In other words, we don’t dwell on policy, we dwell on science, but the science is government-driven again to target those areas identified that are most urgent and pressing. Of course, climate change is an issue.
Also what makes it of interest is that all the projects that we support are transdisciplinary. In other words, they have to be between or among three different institutions located in three different IAI parties or States that joined the Convention; and also they have to be conceived in a way that it’s multidisciplinary, that it’s based on open science, with a heavy dose and support for open data.
In this regard I think we have initiated many, many interesting projects. We have one of the most-well-established networks of scientists in the world. We cooperate with governments, nongovernmental organizations, donor agencies, and so on. Lastly, we also host the Belmont Forum at the IAI Secretariat in Montevideo, and the Belmont Forum is a global association of funding agencies interested in the development of transdisciplinary research.
Tell me a little bit about how your tenure as Executive Director has been. What have been the big themes? You mentioned climate obviously, but what have been the big themes in terms of how you marry this interface between science and policy over the past few years?
Again, we sit at the very nexus of science to policy. We are not in the policy realm. We are right at the center of science policy.
We have the difficulties that other regions have: the need for greater institutional capacity, for example; a divide between the Global North and the Global South; a misunderstanding of the scientific endeavor and the need to communicate this a little bit more clearly to the general public; funding is always a huge issue because all the projects are not from the core budget, not from the voluntary contributions the parties make, but we seek funding for the type of projects that we need. We have been able to meet all of these challenges put together very effectively.
I wish we had more time so I could go into the capacity-building programs that we have. One is the Science, Technology, Policy (STeP) Fellowship Program where we place early-career researchers in government institutes to learn the mysterious bureaucratic processes of how policy comes about but also give the ministry access to the scientific expertise that they may be lacking; we are establishing a Science Diplomacy Center; we have transdisciplinary training, and so on and so on.
Basically our challenges are very similar to those challenges faced by other intergovernmental organizations, including the United Nations.
How would you characterize right now the state of global efforts to tackle climate change and also to prepare for the consequences of what seems an increasingly likely overshoot of the 1.5°C temperature goal?
We have a diverse set of countries.
We have the United States that has the capacity to undertake these projects, and then we have smaller States in Central America where it can be very difficult for them to implement a solar radiation modification project (SRM) but there is a concern throughout our region regarding this, primarily because a number of decisions have been made regarding SRM.
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (CBD), for example, has adopted a number of decisions that have global implications on SRM. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that has studied the issues related to climate change has placed SRM within one of its latest reports. The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEP) has discussed this in their Environment Assembly. There have been a number of issues at the International Platform for Climate Change, UNEP, CBD, and so on and so forth.
The countries of the region that lack the capacity, that haven’t really thought about this, requested the IAI to more or less examine what SRM is and provide information on what this means. What are the critical issues in Latin America right now regarding climate change? Well, it’s the fear that we will not remain at 1.5°C, that we are going to go way above that. Given that so many cities are coastal cities in Latin America, Latin America is a breadbasket. If you look at the impact that Ukraine is having on the world food supply, imagine if the Southern Cone of Latin America is unable to produce as much as it does.
All of these issues come to the fore, and SRM was one of the issues that we decided to provide our parties with the information to be able to make more effective decisions when this is under discussion in international fora.
You’ve mentioned the 1.5°C overshoot, and also we see increasing concern about tipping points, we see ongoing challenges to get the world to respond at the right speed and extent needed for mitigation and so forth, and I’m looking forward to discussing SRM within that context in a second.
Just what is this moment we’re living through on climate? Is it a moment of profound risk? Perhaps you could characterize it.
This issue I think is very clear because the IPCC in its latest report has put things in context. We are facing an existential crisis. It’s no longer “maybe we should look at this” or not. Action has to be taken today, and the IPCC has made that completely clear. I applaud IPCC for its report for the quality of the studies. I think the IPCC has done absolutely tremendous work, and many of our scientists are authors of the IPCC.
Again, how does a region articulate a vision to be able to tackle this existential crisis as a community of States? Also, there’s a number of issues that come to the fore because four countries are responsible for 50 percent of all emissions; ten countries are responsible 75 percent of all emissions. If most countries in Latin America reached zero emissions, it would make no difference whatsoever; and actually if all of Latin America and the Caribbean reached zero emissions, we’d still be facing an existential crisis.
So the issue then for the Latin countries becomes mitigation and adaptation: How can we mitigate the effects of going above 1.5°C and how do we adapt to this very existential crisis?
Beyond 1.5°C what kind of risks do we start to see increasing? There will obviously be a general increase of risk, but there may also be questions of tipping points, questions that are both physical and potentially social. Do you see moments coming up in the march upwards with every tenth of a degree that are almost lines in the sand over which we should not and cannot cross?
In South America in the Southern Cone, there is tremendous preoccupation with food security and water security because this region has been undergoing various cycles of drought, and the economies of many of the countries here are based on agriculture, so it will not only have a very serious impact but it will also have a very serious economic impact on the global food supply. A lot of people seem to forget this.
I think possibly Ukraine is the best example of how just one country can impact the whole world’s food supply. Imagine the Southern Cone; imagine Argentina and Brazil, which are in one of the richest agricultural regions in the world.
Second, sea rise is a tremendous preoccupation because of many of the coastal cities, and very little has been done in terms of planning. What happens?
And then we have the small island States in the Caribbean, which are really at the forefront of climate change, and they face the consequences now, it’s not tomorrow, the intensity of hurricanes for example, sea rise, food security.
Lastly, social-wise we already see this. Part of the migrations from Central America to North America are obviously caused by climate. How do we deal with this socially? What are the solutions to it? How do we deal with it in a humane and effective way with large-scale human migrations due to climate?
All of these things have come to the fore.
As you mentioned, obviously emissions reduction, also including removals of carbon adaptation, are the priorities; but the issues you raised earlier, scientists are also exploring whether risks could be reduced by the potential use of SRM, and that’s the idea that a portion of incoming sunlight could be reflected in order to lower the global temperature. But this is a controversial idea, not enough is known about it, and it could bring new risks of its own.
In August, as you mentioned, you organized a conference of the Americas hosted by the government of Jamaica on the science and governance of SRM. What was the reason you hosted this meeting and what were its biggest priorities?
My organization, the IAI, is implementing an Emerging Issues Program where we bring awareness to the governments of the Americas on very important new issues. Synthetic biology, for example would be of great interest to Latin America and the Caribbean. The reason for the meeting was to provide policymakers of the Americas with an understanding of what constitutes SRM (Solar radiation Modification), why they should be concerned with it, what is the state of governance, to provide them with scientific information so that they are able to bring this back to their ministries and provide a briefing to their ministers, and also give our States a better understanding of the issues when this comes up international fora.
This is a controversial topic as we know. How did parties respond to this being put on the agenda and respond to the discussion? What was your sense of how this was received?
I think what’s important to understand is that the IAI does not dwell on policy, so we made no recommendations whatsoever in this area. The objective of the meeting was information: this is happening, this is being discussed, this is the science, this is the governance, and these are the issues.
I think parties were grateful, I think parties appreciated the opportunity to understand this more, then it’s up to the governments of the Americas to decide where they go on from here.
Are there any key takeaways from the conference, or are you basically waiting now for your members to digest what they learned and come back with potential next steps?
I’m basically waiting to see what happens next, if they wish the IAI to undertake more of a review of SRM, if they wish to push this aside and ignore it. Again, we are party-driven, we are government-driven. We put the issues on the table, we give them the information, but as sovereign States they make the decision where to go next.
Now I don’t know if this is the correct word, but it would appear that small island developing States appear to have more of an interest in SRM than land States. I have no data to back this up, it’s just a feeling, but perhaps because small island States are really on the forefront of climate change, when push comes to shove, when their societies are at danger, then I think they may search for other solutions.
Given its global impact, SRM would certainly require international governance, involve learning and research issues, as well as any eventual decisions about whether or not to deploy and how or under what circumstances. What do you see, on the basis of what you learned in the conference and your general learning, are the main governance challenges facing SRM right now?
I think SRM faces the same governance that many new issues face that don’t fit in any one multilateral instrument. It’s a cross-cutting issue. The fact that the Convention on Biological Diversity is discussing SRM points to that difficulty.
That difficulty comes about because of the fragmentation of environmental governance. We have a study by UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) in 2010 that identified over 1500 environmental treaties. Now many of them will be bilateral of course, but still that points to the fragmentation because each treaty will have its own international ministry representation, you’ll have a different budget, many of the global treaties have the Conference of the Parties (COP).
Most of the biodiversity conventions, or most of the conventions period, are not UN conventions, they’re administered by the United Nations but they have their own governing body, the Conference of the Parties; you have a number of conflicting decisions; you have very scarce budgets; so there is this confusion in the governance world when it comes to new topics, especially SRM.
Part of the purpose and the objective of the meeting was to lay out where the governance is going, what discussions under the different governance bodies have been made, and perhaps this is an opportune moment for governments to discuss among themselves what would be the best existing instrument or even if a new instrument would be more appropriate.
I guess, as usual, that’s not something that you have a view on that you would present or recommend to your member states; or perhaps is there some sense in which you can offer options, different ways in which we might approach this? I’d be very interested in your thoughts of what might be the most appropriate places to hold these discussions both in regional and international fora.
What we do, Mark, is that we present the challenges. In my opinion working for governments, I think we have environmental governance fragmentation. The issue of SRM is going to continue to be discussed, and then it’s up to the governments to decide the most appropriate mechanisms to use to make use of those discussions.
I think it would be highly inappropriate for me to recommend an instrument or recommend a new instrument, but I do think it falls within my mandate and responsibility to raise this issue with governments and suggest that it may be an opportune moment to discuss the challenges that we have with a view to perhaps develop more effective public policies regarding this issue.
Bearing that in mind, would it be appropriate or possible for you to share thoughts on what some of the key characteristics would be of such a governance mechanism? Without saying where or how, what are some of the key elements that that governance mechanism should address when having discussions about SRM?
First of all, the number of parties to that multilateral tool. The Convention on Biological Diversity of course has almost universal membership, but the United States has not acceded to the Convention, and the United States of course has great capacity should they make a decision to invest in this area.
IPCC is an assessment mechanism. It gives the information to parties; it doesn’t make decisions. The reports go to a conference of the parties for the decisions to be made.
Again, it’s a difficult question because this goes very much at the national level, then to the regional level, then to the international level. What the IAI tries to do is provide some coherence to the topic, to have an understanding of the science behind the topic; we send this to governments, and then allow governments to develop new policies they so urgently need.
In terms of the science and the sources of information about SRM, including information suggesting what we know and what we don’t know and what the priorities should be in terms of learning new information, how does one ensure that that discussion is as inclusive and just and equitable as possible, and is there a way in which IAI can help ensure that inclusivity?
I think the meeting that we had in Jamaica is a first step because we had some of the most outstanding scientists involved who are researching this, plus policymakers who may have an interest in knowing more about it. Given that we span the Americas, we had parties with very high institutional capacity to be able to invest in this area if they so choose and parties that simply could not do a large-scale project.
So I think this is very important. They not only met with the scientists during the meeting, being able to ask questions directly, but also in the corridors, during dinner, at the hotel, and so on, informal meetings; and you know that these informal meetings are sometimes far more valuable than the formal meetings. So I think this is a first step.
Now, depending on the feedback that the IAI receives from its governments, we will push for more meetings, more information, more in-depth explanations of this, we’ll try to have parties that have an interest in developing this to discuss what they are doing, and so on.
In this context in international governance there are three issues that come to the fore, and I think this needs attention at discussions related to SRM: liability, redress, and enforcement. With a multilateral treaty that is dealing with SRM, what are the mechanisms available for enforcement, liability, and redress?
We talked a little bit before about the interface between science and policy and how the public should understand science. One of the challenges of communicating around SRM — and other issues of course, but definitely comes to the fore with SRM — is communicating risk of one course of action against the risk of not taking that course of action, risks both known and unknown. It can be very difficult for people to balance this. They’ll tend to focus on “Oh, that’s risky,” but then find it difficult to measure that against the fact that not doing that also has risks.
I’d love your thoughts. You’ve been doing this for some years. How do you actually go about explaining to people there are risks on both sides of the ledger, and how do you go about helping people balance and evaluate those different risks?
The risk/risk approach is really the best one to take with SRM because suppose we reach 3°C — or suppose we go above 3°C, let’s think of a worst case — in systems we always try to think of the worst-case scenario so that you are prepared for it. I think the one message that we have to bring about to the public with SRM is that it is not a solution. Emissions have to be lowered, we have to keep the temperature at 1.5°C; but all SRM offers is a small amount of space for governments to be able to take action to lower their emissions, to do whatever they have to do to keep us at 1.5°C or below. It’s not a solution.
The fear, I think, in discussions related to SRM is that many people feared that SRM will be used as a solution so that there will be no need to limit emissions. I think it’s a very valid preoccupation on the part of the public and policymakers concerned.
It’s explaining this context, that if the world gets to a point where human society is facing existential, urgent threats and something is not done, then the impact is going to be severe. This is where I think the consideration of technologies offered by SRM come to the fore.
If States are able to lower their emissions and take the necessary action required to keep us at 1.5°C — or let’s hope below 1.5°C, even more — then there is no need to consider SRM. Even at 3°C we don’t know if SRM will offer the solution; and then, even if temperatures are lowered, we don’t know how the ecosystem may react. It’s this understanding of the unknowns, the risks, the correlations, and so on that I think communicating is so important.
I think this is why the IAI focus on the science, to provide the policymakers with the science and the opportunity to query the scientists in the language they are used to, in the policy-like language you are used to, you are able to make more sense of this risk/risk approach.
But do you ever know if you knew enough? How would you know? How would you have a sense that you probably have sufficient information to make this assessment now?
The models are still relatively crude. We don’t have enough information to be able to say with a high degree of correlation what the final result will be. What we can say is that we are facing an existential threat that if policies are not implemented very quickly to keep us at 1.5°C, then the impact would be severe and where we’ll need solutions to the challenges that we’ll be facing under that scenario.
One of the characteristics of science policy and the use of science in public debates recently has been the rise of deliberate misinformation propagated through various online tools — the “infodemic,” I think as it was called by the World Health Organization. How have you come across that in your work? How have you found ways to counter that spread of deliberate misinformation that might lead people to make decisions on the basis of deliberately wrong facts, figures, and information?
This issue is under discussion in every single scientific organization. It is a huge problem.
Also, the whole issue of science communication — how do we communicate exactly a risk/risk approach where we don’t have all the information, where things are grey, they’re not yes-or-no — “Well, maybe, it depends,” “A correlation is not cause-and-effect” — how do we explain all of these things in a context that it makes sense when we have competition from different types of media, social media and so on, that very effectively communicates at an emotive level things that people have a reaction to? A huge question, and I don’t have an answer to it.
The one thing that we do try to do is provide science-based information to policymakers so that they can cut through the misinformation and understand the topic better. That’s why I think it is so important that scientists and policymakers always have a forum to be able to discuss issues together so that they are able to understand each other’s terminology, each other’s priorities, and each other’s way of thinking.
Climate change is difficult for everybody to tackle; it’s such a big topic; it can lead to grief and anxiety including for hardened professionals in the field. Essentially, if you understand what you’re talking about in climate change, it’s hard not to be affected by it.
How do you personally navigate this balance between hope and agency and rational approaches to this while also acknowledging the depth and extent of the challenge we face? What kind of philosophies do you turn to for that?
I used to teach introductory stats. The first-year students especially in the social sciences and communications had an overriding fear of mathematics. My favorite example that I used was the jar of jellybeans where any individual guess of how many jellybeans were in the jar would not be as close to the real number as the total sum on average of all their guesses together. I’ve always thought that there’s some type of magic in it.
In a way, this is how I think of the electorate. I think if we can cut through the misinformation, I think if we can give the policymakers who are able to communicate clearly these challenges, if they have the scientific-based information they require, I think the sum total of the electorate will make the right decisions eventually.
I’m an optimist about this, although I guess there’s a lot to be pessimistic about. I still hold a very strong belief in the democratic, republican process of decision-making through an electorate that votes for a vision and a choice. I think for the IAI, as an international civil servant working on behalf of that, it is our utmost responsibility to provide governments with the best scientific-based information we can have to be able to make effective decisions on behalf of their electorate.
I can’t say more about this. I am an optimist about it, and I think that we will be able to survive. I think we will be able to face these global challenges as a community together.