Geo-Engineering the Climate: A Preliminary Examination of International Governance Challenges and Opportunities

AuthorKevin Keane
PositionAlumnus of Trinity College Dublin
© 2020 Kevin Keane and Dublin University Law Society
‘Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to
understand more, so that we may fear less.’
- Marie Curie
Geo-engineering has been the subject of debate and controversy for over
a century. As early as 1841, American meteorologist James Pollard Epsy
published The Philosophy of Storms, in which he claimed to have discovered
a method through which ‘rain may be produced artificially in time of
drought’.1 In the early 20th century, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius
became the first scientist to posit that increased CO2 levels would impact
the atmosphere. He suggested in 1908 that, in response to this, atmospheric
levels of ‘carbonic acid’ should be increased so that ‘we may hope to enjoy
ages with more equitable and better climates’.
Despite the work of Epsy, Arrhenius and others, the consideration
of geo-engineering as a serious response to global warming is a relatively
new development. Climate scientist David Keith recalls that at the
beginning of his career the topic ‘could hardly be discussed in polite
scientific company and was verboten in environmental circles’.
position is changing rapidly, due to advances in technical capacity and
* Kevin Keane is an alumnus of Trinity College Dublin. He graduated in 2017 with an
Honours degree in law. He is currently pursuing his Masters in Public International Law in
Utrecht University, specialising in Environmental Law. The author would like to thank the
Editorial Board for their generous assistance with this article, as well as the many members
of his friends and family who gave their time and input throughout the process..
1 James P Epsy, The Philosophy of Storms (CC Little and J Brown 1841).
Andrew Calbery, The Fight Against Geoengineering (Friesen Press 2017).
Robert Olsen, ‘Soft Geo-engineering: A Gentler Approach to Addressing Climate Change’
(2012) 54 Environment: Science & Policy for Sustainable Development.
2020] Geo-engineering the Climate
the reality that the global community is running out of time and options
in our response to increasing emissions and a warming Earth.
If geo-engineering is ultimately relied upon as an element of the
response to global warming, it will profoundly impact the entire
international community. If implemented successfully, it may form an
integral part in the effort to hold the increase in global average
temperatures to ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels’, as laid out in
the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) has acknowledged that in order to achieve the more
ambitious target of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5°C, the
application of some form of geo-engineering will be unavoidable.
However, the potential unintended consequences of geo-engineering, or
‘nasty surprises’,
as Bodansky describes them, have the capacity to cause
irreversible and disastrous damage to the environment.
Geo-engineering is an umbrella term that covers a multitude of measures,
each with varying degrees of risk, effectiveness, cost, and technical
readiness. An overview of a representative selection of these measures will
be provided in Section I.
To date, the primary international law response to climate change
has been to negotiate international instruments that seek to limit
emissions, beginning with the Stockholm Declaration and culminating
most recently in the Paris Agreement in 2015. Although international
environmental law has achieved some significant victories in curbing
emissions of certain pollutants most notably the Montreal Protocol’s
success in phasing out the production of ozone-depleting substances
these efforts have not been successfully applied to the effective limiting of
Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. These efforts will be analysed in further
detail in Section II. The failure of these attempts to date has contributed to
the IPCC’s conclusions that some form of geo-engineering will have to be
incorporated into future climate change mitigation strategies.
International law will have an important role to play in regulating and
governing geo-engineering, either in seeking to restrict its development,
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Global Warming of 1.5°C, Summary for
Policymakers(IPCC 2018).
Paris Agreement (entered into force 4 November 2016) art 2(a).
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (n 4).
Daniel Bodansky, ‘The Who, What and Wherefore of Geo-engineering Governance (2013)
221 Climatic Change 539.
Donald Kaniaru, The Montreal Protocol: Celebrating 20 Years of Environmental Progress
(UNEP/Earth Print, 2007).
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (n 4).

To continue reading

Request your trial