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The fair compensation problem of geoengineering

A officer from the observation post near Mount Bromo takes a reading of the physical size of the volcano

The promise of geoengineering is placing average global temperature under human control, and is thus considered a powerful instrument for the international community to deal with global warming. While great energy has been devoted to learning more about the natural systems that it would affect, questions of political nature have received far less consideration. Taking as a given that regional effects will be asymmetric, the nations of the world will only give their consent to deploying this technology if they can be given assurances of a fair compensation mechanism, something like an insurance policy. The question of compensation reveals that the politics of geoengineering are far more difficult than the technical aspects.

What is Geoengineering?

In June 1991, Mount Pinatubo exploded, throwing a massive amount of volcanic sulfate aerosols into the high skies. The resulting cloud dispersed over weeks throughout the planet and cooled its temperature on average 0.5° Celsius over the next two years. If this kind of natural phenomenon could be replicated and controlled, the possibility of engineering the Earth’s climate is then within reach.

Spraying aerosols in the stratosphere is one method of solar radiation management (SRM), a class of climate engineering that focuses on increasing the albedo, i.e. reflectivity, of the planet’s atmosphere. Other SRM methods include brightening clouds by increasing their content of sea salt. A second class of geo-engineering efforts focuses on carbon removal from the atmosphere and includes carbon sequestration (burying it deep underground) and increasing land or marine vegetation. Of all these methods, SRM is appealing for its effectiveness and low costs; a recent study put the cost at about $5 to $8 billion per year.1

Not only is SRM relatively inexpensive, but we already have the technological pieces that assembled properly would inject the skies with particles that reflect sunlight back into space. For instance, a fleet of modified Boeing 747s could deliver the necessary payload. Advocates of geoengineering are not too concerned about developing the technology to effect SRM, but about its likely consequences, not only in terms of slowing global warming but the effects on regional weather. And there lies the difficult question for geoengineering: the effects of SRM are likely to be unequally distributed across nations.

Here is one example of these asymmetries: Julia Pongratz and colleagues at the department of Global Ecology of the Carnegie Institution for Science estimated a net increase in yields of wheat, corn, and rice from SRM modified weather. However, the study also found a redistributive effect with equatorial countries experiencing lower yields.2 We can then expect that equatorial countries will demand fair compensation to sign on the deployment of SRM, which leads to two problems: how to calculate compensation, and how to agree on a compensation mechanism.

The calculus of compensation

What should be the basis for fair compensation? One view of fairness could be that, every year, all economic gains derived from SRM are pooled together and distributed evenly among the regions or countries that experience economic losses.

If the system pools gains from SRM and distributes them in proportion to losses, questions about the balance will only be asked in years in which gains and losses are about the same. But if losses are far greater than the gains; then this would be a form of insurance that cannot underwrite some of the incidents it intends to cover. People will not buy such an insurance policy; which is to say, some countries will not authorize SRM deployment. In the reverse, if the pool has a large balance left after paying out compensations, then winners of SRM will demand lower compensation taxes.

Further complicating the problem is the question of how to separate gains or losses that can be attributed to SRM from regional weather fluctuations. Separating the SRM effect could easily become an intractable problem because regional weather patterns are themselves affected by SRM.  For instance, any year that El Niño is particularly strong, the uncertainty about the net effect of SRM will increase exponentially because it could affect the severity of the oceanic oscillation itself. Science can reduce uncertainty but only to a certain degree, because the better we understand nature, the more we understand the contingency of natural systems. We can expect better explanations of natural phenomena from science, but it would be unfair to ask science to reduce greater understanding to a hard figure that we can plug into our compensation equation.

Still, greater complexity arises when separating SRM effects from policy effects at the local and regional level. Some countries will surely organize better than others to manage this change, and preparation will be a factor in determining the magnitude of gains or losses. Inherent to the problem of estimating gains and losses from SRM is the inescapable subjective element of assessing preparation. 

The politics of compensation

Advocates of geoengineering tell us that their advocacy is not about deploying SRM; rather, it is about better understanding the scientific facts before we even consider deployment. It’s tempting to believe that the accumulating science on SRM effects would be helpful. But when we consider the factors I just described above, it is quite possible that more science will also crystalize the uncertainty about exact amounts of compensation. The calculus of gain or loss, or the difference between the reality and a counterfactual of what regions and countries will experience requires certainty, but science only yields irreducible uncertainty about nature.

The epistemic problems with estimating compensation are only to be compounded by the political contestation of those numbers. Even within the scientific community, different climate models will yield different results, and since economic compensation is derived from those models’ output, we can expect a serious contestation of the objectivity of the science of SRM impact estimation. Who should formulate the equation? Who should feed the numbers into it? A sure way to alienate scientists from the peoples of the world is to ask them to assert their cognitive authority over this calculus. 

What’s more, other parts of the compensation equation related to regional efforts to deal with SRM effect are inherently subjective. We should not forget the politics of asserting compensation commensurate to preparation effort; countries that experience low losses may also want compensation for their efforts preparing and coping with natural disasters.

Not only would a compensation equation be a sham, it would be unmanageable. Its legitimacy would always be in question. The calculus of compensation may seem a way to circumvent the impasses of politics and define fairness mathematically. Ironically, it is shot through with subjectivity; is truly a political exercise.

Can we do without compensation?

Technological innovations are similar to legislative acts, observed Langdon Winner.3 Technical choices of the earliest stage in technical design quickly “become strongly fixed in material equipment, economic investment, and social habit, [and] the original flexibility vanishes for all practical purposes once the initial commitments are made.” For that reason, he insisted, "the same careful attention one would give to the rules, roles, and relationships of politics must also be given to such things as the building of highways, the creation of television networks, and the tailoring of seeming insignificant features on new machines."

If technological change can be thought of as legislative change, we must consider how such a momentous technology as SRM can be deployed in a manner consonant with our democratic values. Engineering the planet’s weather is nothing short of passing an amendment to Planet Earth’s Constitution. One pesky clause in that constitutional amendment is a fair compensation scheme. It seems so small a clause in comparison to the extent of the intervention, the governance of deployment and consequences, and the international commitments to be made as a condition for deployment (such as emissions mitigation and adaptation to climate change). But in the short consideration afforded here, we get a glimpse of the intractable political problem of setting up a compensation scheme. And yet, if the clause were not approved by a majority of nations, a fair compensation scheme has little hope to be consonant with democratic aspirations.


1McClellan, Justin, David W Keith, Jay Apt. 2012. Cost analysis of stratospheric albedo modification delivery systems. Environmental Research Letters 7(3): 1-8.

2Pongratz, Julia, D. B. Lobell, L. Cao, K. Caldeira. 2012. Nature Climate Change 2, 101–105.

3Winner, Langdon. 1980. Do artifacts have politics? Daedalus (109) 1: 121-136.

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