Optimism and prudence in geoengineering governance

Janos PasztorMark Turnerby Janos Pasztor and Mark Turner, C2G2  / January 9, 2018

Optimism is necessary – especially at times of challenges. Bombarded with messages of doom, most people switch off. When offered agency, opportunity and hope, many more are willing to engage.

This is a lesson increasingly embraced by climate communicators, who have worked hard to create a more optimistic brand of messaging. “We can still beat this, as long as we cut emissions more quickly,” goes the refrain. But at what point does such optimism become counterproductive, if its assumptions are no longer true?

In the first year of our work at the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative (C2G2), we found a tension between communicating the need for geoengineering governance, and efforts to create more positive climate messaging. This tension has created a reluctance amongst certain actors to publicly engage.

The fear is that engaging with geoengineering governance (or geo-governance for short) is seen as a capitulation; an acceptance that mitigation is no longer sufficient. This could undermine the psychology of climate optimism, and cause the public to disengage. At its worst, engaging with geo-governance offers a moral hazard, whose act exacerbates the very problem it aims to address.

These are valid and reasonable concerns, well recognised by the geoengineering community. The concept of moral hazard was a consistent theme throughout the 2017 Climate Engineering Conference, a major gathering of experts held last year in Berlin.

But there is another moral hazard, equally important, but less often spoken out loud.

That is the challenge of excessive optimism, which leads people to believe solutions exist, or are about to happen, when in reality they do not. At its worst, people may become convinced they no longer need to worry at all, because a solution is already at hand. This reduces political pressure to act, with potentially terrible consequences for global suffering.

In the specific case of geo-governance, this optimism may cause people to shy away from planning for the future. Without pre-planning, and faced with a climate crisis, a country or even individuals could turn to “quick-fix” technologies like solar radiation management in an unregulated, ungoverned way, with serious implications for the environment, justice and international security. This is an entirely plausible scenario.

The unpalatable truth is that world is already at around 1.1°C above the historical average, and that is already bad enough. Neither are we anywhere near on track to keep within the international goal of 1.5-2°: according to UN Environment Emissions Gap Report, full implementation of current plans and comparable action afterwards will most likely lead to a global average temperature increase of about 3.2°C.

And those numbers are just the averages. Regional and local variations will be substantial, and the most pressing problems lie at the extremes. The actual future unfolding in front of us is terrifying.

More realities, as we know them:

  1. The mitigation commitments made by countries in Paris are insufficient to keep us below the 1.5-2°C range. There is currently no plan to keep us away from a catastrophic scenario.
  2. Most models which see the world staying below a 2°C rise by 2100 assume massive carbon dioxide removal, a branch of geoengineering which does not currently exist at the necessary scale, and whose implementation we have done practically nothing to plan for.
  3. Even with our best efforts to mitigate emissions we will almost certainly overshoot the 1.5°C target, creating significant negative impacts on large numbers of people.

So how do we at C2G2 deal with the tension between pragmatic reality and the psychological need for climate optimism?

Our priority is to create a trusted space to discuss the governance of geoengineering, without promoting, or opposing, geoengineering itself. But convincing people of the urgency of this discussion requires explaining the urgency of the challenge – and that means highlighting the far from optimistic message that the models are giving us.

Even making the case for geoengineering governance might become a potential moral hazard, if by highlighting pessimistic scenarios we risk reducing the willingness of people to engage.

We actively struggle with this challenge every day. Is it practically possible to nurture the public energy which optimism can bring, whilst being upfront about the urgency of our situation?

Perhaps not, but we can try, and possibly more intuitively than it at first appears.

We do so by saluting successes in sectors, such as renewable energy, which offer us grounds for hope, and hail the benefits of increased mitigation, not just in 100-year scenarios, but today. We celebrate improvements in energy efficiency, and more resilient systems, and ask for more.

But at the same time, we also highlight the virtues of the precautionary principle, and that suggests that it is simple good sense to plan for a broader range of scenarios than just an optimistic one.

We believe that people can relate to this, and hold both ideas (optimism and pragmatism) concurrently; in fact, this is a very familiar reality we all deal with in our everyday lives.

We do not need to assume a scenario of doom in order to save for a rainy day; we keep an emergency fund just in case, but also work towards a better, happier life.

We don’t conclude that taking out a health insurance for our children amounts to their inevitable illness; we take out the insurance, but also give them the happiest healthiest environment we can provide.

The same applies to climate: we can celebrate and promote the good things happening now, which give us hope, but we can also plan for the possibility that they may not be sufficient to do the job. One does not preclude the other.

This is a more nuanced message, perhaps, but it is also plain good sense. And as we face, in 2018, what increasingly looks like a new crunch point in global climate policy, getting it right may the most important task we have.

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