Climate engineering: Recasting expertise?

By Stefan Schäfer

Narrating the future makes it manageable. The stories we tell about emerging sciences and new technologies lay the groundwork for how we govern them. However, these stories—the casts involved, the roles assigned—change over time, and through them, our understanding of what matters for governance. The debate around climate engineering—the idea that it may be possible to intentionally intervene in the global climate—is a contemporary case of such storytelling.

‘Climate engineering’ is a discursive figure more than a technical term. There is no accepted definition of what exactly counts as climate engineering. Its purpose, however, is thought to be clear: Reducing some of the impacts of climate change. Proposals are commonly grouped into two categories. First, reflecting sunlight away from Earth, for example through the injection of reflective particles into the stratosphere; and second, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, for example through the coupling of bioenergy generation with carbon capture and storage. Some proposals date back to the 1960s, but attention has been rising considerably since the mid-2000s.

Comparing today’s debate on climate engineering with the historical debate on genetic engineering during its emergence in the 1970s can help us understand how the stories that we tell about science and technology play out in practice, how they have changed over time, and what the unfolding consequences of these changes are. One specific episode is particularly illuminating. Both debates had their ‘Asilomar Moment’: During early stages of discussions, those involved gathered at a conference center in Asilomar, California, to discuss what they perceived to be the pressing questions at stake in the respective debates.[i]

The 2010 meeting on climate engineering was explicitly modeled after the 1975 meeting on genetic engineering. The convener of the 1975 meeting, Nobel laureate Paul Berg, was invited as an advisor and ‘honorary chair’, and the 2010 program brochure espoused the 1975 meeting as ‘a land-mark effort in self-regulation by the scientific community’, noting that, like those researching climate engineering today, ‘scientists in other fields have previously faced public concerns about the risks of experimentation’, and that ‘because of the effectiveness of the ultimate guidelines and procedures [developed by the scientific community at Asilomar, St.S.], there have been no dangerous releases of organisms modified with recombinant DNA technologies’.

Clearly, the 2010 meeting sought to tap into ‘Asilomar-in-memory’—the collectively held imaginary that progress is best served when scientific inquiry can proceed without external interference, based on scientists’ voluntary enactment of responsibility.[ii] It attempted to borrow the prestige and legitimacy associated with ‘Asilomar’, aiming to enable those gathered there in 2010 to follow the route of scientific self-governance charted by their predecessors 35 years earlier.

However, comparing the respective meetings showcases the extent to which the stories that they are embedded in fundamentally differ, with important consequences for the cast of characters assembled, the set of questions asked, and the governance solutions considered.

The 1975 meeting on genetic engineering focused on the topic of ‘biohazards’: The risk that researchers and the public might be exposed to potentially dangerous modified organisms. This deliberate and explicit bracketing of broader social, political and ethical concerns led to a corresponding understanding of governance, focusing on technical measures of containment via physical and biological barriers to prevent exposure.

The 2010 meeting on climate engineering took off in a different direction. Already the invitation letter emphasized that the meeting would consider ‘aspects ranging from scientific and technical issues to those of transparency and governance’. The conclusions to the meeting reflect this broader concern with the social, political and ethical concerns involved in researching climate engineering. Building on the Oxford Principles, five governance principles were articulated. None of them refers exclusively, or even mainly, to technical questions—all focus on the broader concerns that research in the field is seen to be entangled with.[iii]

In fact, this broadening was already inscribed into the participants list of the meeting, which extended beyond the physical sciences to disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and law. The expanded set of concerns raised by this heterogeneous cast confounded the meeting’s attempt to emulate the self-governance initiative of 1975. While the narrowly defined scientific-technical questions that were considered to matter for governance in 1975 could be claimed to fall within the expertise and, accordingly, the self-governing authority of scientists and technologists, the social, political and ethical concerns tabled in 2010 could not be contained in this way.

This reconfiguration represents a departure from previous stories told about techno-scientific emergence. Under these conditions, will a novel constellation of experts arise and endure? What kinds of knowledge will come to be seen as relevant, and what kinds will be dismissed? How will new experts enact their roles? What answers will they provide, what governance solutions espouse? How will they react if their presence is contested by established forces?

It is important to keep in mind that the set of concerns that were raised around genetic engineering originally did include its social, political and ethical implications as well, and that an active narrowing-down occurred over time.[iv] A similar dynamic may yet play out in climate engineering. But for now things seem to be following a different plot, in which a broader set of concerns takes center stage and significantly impacts our understanding of what matters for governance.


 [i] Schäfer, Stefan and Sean Low (2014) Asilomar Moments: Formative Framings of Recombinant DNA and Solar Climate Engineering Research, in Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A, 372: 20140064. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2014.0064

[ii] Hurlbut, J. Benjamin (2015) Remembering the Future: Science, Law, and the Legacy of Asilomar, in Jasanoff, Sheila and Sang-Hyun Kim (eds.) Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, University of Chicago Press, pp. 126-151.

[iii] For the Oxford Principles, see http://www.geoengineering.ox.ac.uk/oxford-principles/principles/. For the Asilomar recommendations, see http://blogs.nature.com/news/2010/11/asilomar_geoengineering_confer.html.

[iv] Evans, John H. (2002) Playing God? Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

A version of this article was published on the blog Experts: Past, Present, Future – A Forum on Expertise about Sustainability, Energy and Development from the 19th Century to the Present.

Header image: istock/Viorika

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