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What Is Climate Geoengineering? Word Games in the Ongoing Debates Over a Definition

The definition of “geoengineering” will determine what technologies and practices will help govern a global-scale climate tweak.

Climate geoengineering advocates have long argued over how to actually define the term “geoengineering.” The precise details of that definition are important for various reasons, not the least of which is that it will determine what likely is to be subjected to the scrutiny and potentially complex and difficult legal governance processes that such a global scale climate-tweak effort would necessarily involve.

Already, as of 2010, the Convention on Biological Diversity, a treaty that 193 UN member countries (all other than the Holy See, Andorra and the United States) have ratified, adopted a de-facto moratorium on climate geoengineering in 2010. That was based in part on previous deliberations and decisions on one particular form of geoengineering, ocean iron fertilization, which also is regulated under the London Convention. Those decisions were negotiated and agreed in painstaking process, with each word and its implications carefully weighed in the balance.1 Obviously, there is much need to specify exactly what is geoengineering and, thus, subject to the moratorium or any other legal ruling.

For most people, it seems intuitively clear that, for example, spewing sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere – a technology in the category of “solar radiation management” (SRM) clearly would be considered “geoengineering.” We would not consider doing that for any other reason or intent – there are known anticipated serious risks and dangers, etc.

Already, as of 2010, the Convention on Biological Diversity, a treaty that 193 UN member countries (all other than the Holy See, Andorra and the United States) have ratified, adopted a de-facto moratorium on climate geoengineering in 2010.

But the distinction is much less clear for other technologies. For example, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), large scale afforestation/reforestation, or biochar – these approaches mostly involve using plant biomass and “biosequestration” and fall into the category of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies. They differ in that these technologies also are discussed under the framework of mitigation and adaptation – promoted as beneficial even at smaller scales (arguably). Many view these as less risky and more easily scalable approaches.

Scale, Intent and Perception

Definition debates have swirled around the importance of scale. For example, planting a few hectares of trees might not be considered geoengineering by most people, but planting a million hectares perhaps would. Especially if those involved vast monocultures of trees genetically engineered and planted specifically to store carbon (for example). Yet if those same million hectares were replanted to restore native forests, most would not consider that geoengineering.

Debates also have swirled around the issue of “intention”: Is the intent to reduce global greenhouse gas concentrations? Or something else, say offsetting emissions from a facility or an industrial sector or some other source of emissions. Would agroecological farming methods be geoengineering if the farmer is motivated by his understanding of carbon sequestration, but not if his intent were simply to produce decent food? How can “intent” be determined accurately?

Some goengineering advocates have argued the terminology is meaningless because we humans have long been intentionally altering the global atmosphere, so why come up with a new term? This argument falls along the lines that we already have messed things up so badly that we shouldn’t get into a fuss over whether to engage in something that seems potentially likely to mess them up more.

Others, such as James Fleming (author of Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control“), argue that requiring “intent” as a condition of the definition is slippery because there are plenty of “non climate” reasons that could be used to argue for the use of some geoengineering technologies (military, food security, etc). There are, as well, technologies that involve global-scale “tweaks,” but to non-climate systems (e.g. manipulation of nitrogen or water cycles).2

The definition debates also have swirled around making climate geoengineering sound more appealing to a public that is clearly repulsed by the idea. That repulsion was articulated humorously by Stephen Colbert in his recent interview with David Keith, and again by Al Gore, who referred to it as “insane, utterly mad and delusional,” and yet again by a recent survey study that concluded in an understated manner; “overall public evaluation of climate engineering is negative.”

Aware of these poor ratings, the term “soft geoengineering” was introduced by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. It states: “In environmental issues, even more than most public policy questions, perception matters. That is why ‘soft’ geoengineering techniques – less ambitious, less disruptive, and less threatening approaches – are important; they get people used to the basic concepts of geoengineering without scaring them. And in so doing, they expand the scope of the climate policy discussion in important ways.”

Winning over public acceptance matters, and terminology is key: precisely why we need to be wary and monitor these word games.

No Consensus

Virtually every major meeting on the topic of climate geoengineering, it seems, has dedicated time to grappling with the definition. The Royal Society defined geoengineering as “the deliberate and large scale intervention in the Earth’s climatic system with the aim of reducing global warming.” That definition was adopted by others, for example, including the US Government Accountability Office 2011 report. At the Asilomar conference in 2010, the term “climate intervention” was offered up as a more palatable term than geoengineering. The Bipartisan Policy Center then offered up “climate remediation,” defined as “intentional actions taken to counter the climate effects of past greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere” (mitigation referring to actions to reduce future emissions). About this, Jeff Goodell (quoted by Joe Romm) states: “The phrase ‘climate remediation’ is almost as bad as the phrase ‘clean coal.’ In both cases, it’s a phrase that reeks of spin and marketing. And while I can understand why Big Coal wants to push it, I think it was a mistake for this panel to choose this phrase. The idea, of course, is to make geoengineering – or, if you must, climate engineering – sound gentle and comforting. It is not gentle and comforting, it is a big, complex, morally fraught and dangerous idea, and attempts to disguise this with cuddly language are just going to backfire.”

The Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) offers that “SRM” could just as well refer to “sunlight reflection methods.” Certainly far more cuddly.3

Informally, some very hopeful advocates of geoengineering have even argued that the term “ecological restoration” should be used instead of “climate geoengineering.”

Implementation of some technologies would immediately and directly, or eventually and indirectly, very likely have transboundary effects. And then we can ask: were they intended or unintended? How can that be known?

The 2012 IPCC Working Group 1 report described geoengineering in the glossary as follows: “Geoengineering refers to a broad set of methods and technologies that aim to deliberately alter the climate system in order to alleviate the impacts of climate change. Most, but not all, methods seek to either (a) reduce the amount of absorbed solar energy in the climate system (Solar Radiation Management) or (b) increase net carbon sinks from the atmosphere at a scale sufficiently large to alter climate (Carbon Dioxide Removal). Scale and intent are of central importance. Two key characteristics of geoengineering methods of particular concern are that they use or affect the climate system (e.g., atmosphere, land or ocean) globally or regionally and/or could have substantive unintended effects that cross national boundaries. Geoengineering is different from weather modification and ecological engineering, but the boundary can be fuzzy.”

It is notable that it mentions “unintended effects that cross national boundaries” and “use or affect the climate system globally or regionally.” Including terminology regarding transboundary effects is both sensible and nonsensical. On the one hand, it highlights the fact that some approaches are likely to have differential impacts in different regions, raising the potential for quite serious geopolitical concerns and divergent interests. At the same time, the global atmosphere knows no boundaries, even if international laws do.

Implementation of some technologies likely would have immediate and direct, or eventual and direct transboundary effects. And then we can ask: Were they intended or unintended? How can that be known? What will the sociopolitical ramifications be? As Jim Thomas from ETC Group points out, this condition regarding transboundary impacts could lead to a case where fertilizing Lake Baikal would not be geoengineering, but fertilizing Lake Malawi would be.

A “thought experiment” here is useful: What if Canada decided to engage in very large-scale biochar or BECCS program, in the process wreaking havoc on their forests and biodiversity. Most international law would not consider that a transboundary concern – as they currently do not consider Canada’s high rate of deforestation to be any sort of treaty violation. Yet Canada could be considered to be in breach of the Convention on Biological Diversity geoengineering moratorium, because that is, in fact, conditional on biodiversity impacts.

The risks associated with underground “storage” of CO2 are enormous and much of the captured CO2 so far has not been “stored” but rather used for “enhanced oil recovery.”

What About Weather?

Regarding the issue of weather modification, IPCC correctly indicates the boundaries are fuzzy. A history of research and practice on weather modification already exists, derived in part from military research and development where the ability to stimulate rainfall in particular was found useful to hindering opposing forces in the Vietnam War. Startling and disturbing though it may be, one can today simply google “Weather Modification Incorporated” and find commercial services available (“When most people look up they see clouds. We see potential”). The weather modification industry has its own association and a dedicated journal. Most of its attention is focused on cloud seeding; ETC Group has included it in its rundown of geoengineering technologies – and Fleming similarly supports its inclusion. If weather modification is geoengineering, then we already are engaged. Even now it is becoming a last resort for regions such as the western United States, where drought conditions are severe and worsening.

BECCS is among the technologies perhaps most awkwardly poised in debates. IPCC has been a proponent of BECCS, although it does not necessarily – or consistently – identify it as geoengineering. The IPCC special report on renewable energy (2011) claims “Bioenergy technologies coupled with CCS substantially could increase the role of biomass-based GHG mitigation if the geological technologies of CCS can be developed, demonstrated and verified to maintain the stored CO2 over time. These technologies may become a cost-effective indirect mitigation, for instance, through offsets of emission sources that are expensive to mitigate directly.” They continue to incorporate BECCS into their scenario models with curious and undue confidence in its effectiveness. This in spite of the fact that there has been very little real-world experience with BECCS, and that the underlying assumptions regarding climate impacts of large-scale biomass technologies have been challenged very soundly (i.e. emissions and other effects from vastly increased demand for wood/crops are likely to be very large, and the assumption that regrowth will reabsorb those emissions is simply unfounded). Furthermore, the risks associated with underground “storage” of CO2 are enormous, and much of the captured CO2 so far has not been “stored” but rather used for “enhanced oil recovery.” How BECCS is treated in the soon-to be-released Working Group 3 report remains to be seen, but it is likely BECCS will feature in scenario modeling, as if viable.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) specifically was excluded (under pressure from Norway and in spite of resistance from some parties, including Bolivia).4 But large-scale bioenergy is not. Hence the conditions of the de facto moratorium would apply to biodiversity impacts associated with supplying biomass but not those associated with geological carbon storage.

Seeing the Forests

Many debates over the definition of climate geoengineering have stalled over the topic of afforestation and reforestation. Some prefer that these remain entirely and forever outside the definition, being situated in the realm of forestry and land-use practices unrelated to geoengineering. Others argue that those should in fact be defined as geoengineering if they are at a very large scale and done specifically with the intent to store carbon. And it has been argued that including the term “technology” in the definition is key. Doing so would at least create some basis for differentiating between, say, a forest restoration project where native species are replanted and an industrial monoculture of genetically engineered trees.

Their aim is to water down the definition and thus dampen resistance to the entire suite of technologies, i.e. they hope that people would not oppose even the most risky geoengineering approaches if, by association that would also mean opposing, say, afforestation and reforestation.

For the more enthusiastic advocates of biosequestration carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies, there appears to be mixed feelings as to whether these are best situated within or outside of the definition of geoengineering. On the one hand, some would like to see their pet biosequestration approaches supported and scaled up to global proportions, as any attempt to influence global atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations clearly would require. But, at the same time, they do not want to be associated with the bad press that other proposed geoengineering technologies – such as “spewing sulphuric acid into the atmosphere” – have garnered. They are concerned that such negative association will tarnish and hinder their vision for large-scale biosequestration technology development.

And yet others appear to have just the reverse logic – arguing for a hugely inclusive definition to include any approach promoted for sequestering carbon – not just “technological interventions” but even agroecological farming and ecosystem restoration and regeneration. Their aim is to water down the definition and thus dampen resistance to the entire suite of technologies, i.e. they hope that people would not oppose even the most risky geoengineering approaches if, by association, that would also mean opposing, say, afforestation and reforestation.

Now a number of recent initiatives have taken up yet another new terminology, “negative emissions technologies” (Oxford Geoengineering Institute, Stanford University Global Climate and Energy Program, Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland and others). Featured approaches are, once again, BECCS and biochar along with some other technologies. According to a review by FOE England, Wales and Northern Ireland, they are “one family of geoengineering techniques that are in general safer and more controllable than the other family of geoengineering technologies, solar radiation management.” Once again, it seems the goal is to separate CDR from SRM – the bad from the ugly?

Recently Ken Caldeira, a central figure in virtually all of the definition debates, suggested yet another new definition: “Geoengineering refers to activites intended to modify climate that have de minimis effect on an international commons or across international borders through environmental mechanisms other than an intended reduction of excess anthropogenic aerosol or greenhouse gas concentrations.” The insertion of “de minimis” effects is of course very tricky given that such a determination is so subjective. Caldeira specifically indicates that his intention is to get BECCS and direct air capture, which he considers to bear “no novel risks,” separated from the other approaches.

The debates over definitions of geoengineering have gone on and on ad infinitum, and remain contentious. But what has become clear is that boundaries are fuzzy, terms are vague, the implications of different definitions are uncertain and – most importantly – motives run the gamut.

As the recent debacle with Russ George’s ocean fertilization experiment in Haida, British Colombia, illustrates, geoengineering by another name is … salmon restoration? By referring to his iron fertilization experiment as a “salmon restoration” project, he managed to slip it past the radar of two international moratoria.

There are various agendas at play and potential for trickery in this game of defining, labeling and “messaging” about climate geoengineering. The current direction seems to be toward labeling some CDR approaches such as BECCS and biochar, large-scale afforestation and reforestation, etc. as “soft” and more benign – slipping back and forth seamlessly between discussions of mitigation and climate geoengineering and serving as a means to soften public perception of climate geoengineering as a whole. Our job will be to recognize those for what they are: Like other approaches to geoengineering, they are dangerously risky and unfounded technologies with the potential to cause massive ecosystem degradation and land/water/resource grabs. Meanwhile, we know many real, proven and workable solutions that make common sense: halt deforestation, transition to agroecological farming, reduce the gross overconsumption of resources by the wealthy, stop drilling, mining, extracting and burning fossil and bio fuels – just to name a few. Building the political will and public support for those is challenging, but the only real pathway to a liveable future.


1 CBD moratorium text: “Ensure, in line and consistent with decision IX/16 C, on ocean fertilization and biodiversity and climate change, in the absence of science based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms for geoengineering, and in accordance with the precautionary approach and Article 14 of the Convention, that no climate-related geoengineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place, until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social,economic and cultural impacts, with the exception of small scale scientific research studies that would be conducted in a controlled setting in accordance with Article 3 of the Convention, and only if they are justified by the need to gather specific scientific data and are subject to a thorough prior assessment of the potential impacts on the environment. …

2 Fleming, J. 2010. Fixing The Sky: the checkered history of weather and climate control.

3 The SRMGI is an initiative who’s stated goal is to expand the dialogue regarding governance of solar radiation management beyond the confines of a small group of northern white men – the geoengineering “clique” – who have been at the base of most discussion to date. But it would seem preferable for governance of such a global scale issue to rather fall under the auspices of the most inclusive and democratic (if imperfect) sphere that currently exists – namely the UN, and, within the UN, the Convention on Biological Diversity seems most suited. The Convention on Climate Change appears too dangerously dysfunctional to be relied upon.

4CCS has been excluded on the basis that applied to power stations, it is a means to reduce emissions from ongoing energy production, not a means to remove greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere resulting from the previous history of emissions. The potential risks and concerns with CCS must be carefully considered and strictly regulated, but potentially that may not necessarily be best achieved in the context of geoengineering decisions.

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