Sep 4, 2013
Scenarios for solar geoengineering futures
Report brings together experts in climate science and policy to map key challenges.
Is it possible that a concerned businessman would try to stop climate change by deploying an untested technology? A novel workshop held at Yale University imagined a future in which a fictional billionaire released sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the stratosphere from a hidden base in the Canadian Arctic. As the workshop report was being prepared, American entrepreneur Russ George dumped one hundred tons of iron sulfate off the western coast of Canada in a rogue demonstration of ocean fertilization. The workshop participants did not have a crystal ball; instead, they used an imaginative technique called "scenario planning" developed in military and business circles to pressure-test strategies and plans against a wide variety of plausible futures.
On August 20th, the workshop's organizers released Scenario Planning for Solar Radiation Management, the culmination of a process that explored the most significant uncertainties in the emerging and controversial research area of solar geoengineering. The organizers simultaneously announced the creation of the Geoengineering Scenarios Working Group, which will explore the use of scenario methods in the geoengineering research context by conducting its own activities and collecting other relevant scenario work. The report is available from the GSWG's website (http://ge-scenarios.org). It was sponsored by the Yale Climate and Energy Institute (http://climate.yale.edu/) in partnership with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (http://www.cigionline.org) and with additional support from the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (http://envirocenter.yale.edu).
Advocates of research into solar geoengineering propose that the deliberate reduction of incoming sunlight may help counteract human-induced climatic changes. However, these methods remain largely hypothetical and untested. The final form and direct climatic impacts of these technologies are as yet undetermined; their potential side effects and societal impacts are even harder to envision; and the mere possibility that humans could deliberately manipulate the climate may radically challenge existing climate change negotiations, international governance, and humanity's relationship with the natural world. For a situation this complex, predicting the future is essentially impossible, and conventional political studies are of limited value.
Scenario planning methods allow for a creative space, beyond the confines of particular academic, policy and civic communities, to explore and evaluate possible pathways in highly complex and uncertain issues. By doing so, they enhance the ability of our current policies to recognize and address a range of future contingencies. As one of the earliest efforts to apply scenarios methods to the geoengineering debate, the workshop's organizers hope that this report will catalyze the development of expanded, iterative and multi-workshop exercises that will incorporate additional expertise and experience from the communities affected by the emergence of this provocative new issue.