Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | January 23, 2014

A Decarbonization Proponent’s Thoughts on David Keith’s Case for Climate Engineering

Professor David Keith gave a talk on January 21 here at the University of Toronto sponsored by the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs. The talk was a synopsis of his new book A Case for Climate Engineering and preceded a lively discussion with panelists from the University of Toronto (me, Professor Bryan Karney from engineering, and Professor Franklyn Griffiths from political science) as well as members of the audience. For someone committed, personally and academically, to decarbonization as the path for addressing climate change, Professor Keith’s arguments were intriguing in a number of ways—he especially got me thinking about the political pathways to doing geo-engineering ‘right’ and the need for dialogue amongst those working towards decarbonization and those working on geo-engineering.

On a more visceral level, with the latest round of disheartening news on the climate mitigation front—the European Union’s challenges sustaining its world-leading ambition on climate action—his talk forced me to consider that what used to seem like desperate measures (e.g. spraying pollutants in the stratosphere to help us deal with our inability as a species to wean ourselves off polluting fossil fuels) must now be part of the serious conversation about what do with climate change. That’s depressing in a number of ways…but it’s also motivating.

By way of summary, Keith makes a number of key arguments and I highlight three here (these in no way exhaust the analysis or argument—they’re among the ones I found thought provoking):

  • It is possible (and feasible with today’s technology) to employ solar radiation management (by way of putting sulfuric acid aerosols in the stratosphere) to slow the rate of climate change by reflecting  a small amount of sunlight back into space before it warms the earth. Keith makes the case that it’s possible to do this is in a manner that minimizes environmental risk. The obstacles to this kind of response to climate change are political, not technical (a familiar refrain for any response to climate change).
  • We should not consider this kind of climate engineering as a substitute for decarbonization, but rather a way to ameliorate the effects of warming that we are already committed. Keith stresses that it should be considered a tool not the tool for minimizing the risks of climate change (which, remember, arise from less conscious geo-engineering by way of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions).
  • We should start a concerted effort to study this kind of solar radiation management and look to deploy it in a deliberately slow and ramped up manner. Keith argues we should get started relatively quickly at least with serious scientific study.

What impressed me about his book and presentation was how thoughtful and careful an advocate of climate engineering Professor Keith is. He readily admits the uncertainties involved in the kind of climate engineering he is proposing we take seriously. He gets the concerns that people have with climate engineering (though he is not convinced by the objections) and spends a good deal of time thinking from the view points of those for whom climate engineering is verboten. This, in addition to his clear prose, makes the book a wonderful read.

I’m not in a position to judge the merits of Keith’s case on a technical or atmospheric science basis. As I understand it, the (physical) scientific debate over solar radiation management is robust and unsettled. The political ramifications and difficulties of climate engineering are now being addressed in a growing literature (e.g. this piece by Blackstock and Long and this one by Humphreys). The political challenges boil down to two key questions, it seems to me:

  • What kind of governance structures do we need to do climate engineering right? And by right, I mean in a way that does not produce conflict, at least does not exacerbate current inequality (and maybe even enhances the prospects of the poor), and does produce a positive climate outcome.
  • Who decides? Who decides how to study, whether to study, whether to deploy, and how to deploy?

Answering these questions is no mean challenge, especially as Keith himself notes “We lack even rough agreement about the norms of managing large-scale climate control, let alone an effective international mechanism for resolving debates around it.” (p. 115). The politics of climate engineering are, in many ways, as fraught and difficult as the politics of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At least people are asking these questions, though. Where I think we need more emphasis, as climate engineering becomes part of the mainstream discussion on responding to climate change, is on the link between climate engineering and decarbonization efforts. To his credit, Keith explores this link as the source of a possible objection to climate engineering. The logic here being that if we develop climate engineering, it might sap the motivation for decarbonizing. Further, climate engineering could even be used strategically by those actors who depend on fossil fuels economically and actively oppose decarbonization efforts (this point was elegantly made by Franklyn Griffiths during the panel discussion—he called it brute climate engineering).

What strikes me, however, is that we need to go beyond thinking about avoiding competition between decarbonization and geo-engineering efforts to conceive of ways that studying and potentially deploying geo-engineering techniques can enhance the momentum for decarbonization. It may be just through fear—if it’s bad enough that we need to employ geo-engineering, we’d better get moving on decarbonization. I suspect, but do not know, that there may be other ways that climate engineering and decarbonization efforts can work synergistically—where the development of climate engineering efforts like the ones advocated by David Keith enhance the development of pathways to decarbonization.  I hope so, otherwise we may be left with very poor choices.



  1. I agree, a fantastic talk and Keith makes a great case for starting the conversation. What scares me is that Keith’s realism on climate engineering is not matched by an equally hard-headed view of climate politics. While it may be collectively rational for states to get together and agree to “apt” geo-engineering as Griffiths called it — just enough to moderate the climate while also decarbonizing — history suggests this is pretty unlikely. Much more likely is that states will resist strong collective management of the technology since major powers won’t want to give up their prerogative to use it and weaker vulnerable states will distrust major powers to act in their interests. There is also little historical evidence that even the most dire powerful planetary threats – think nuclear weapons – led to the kind of collective governance that Keith in his talk argued would inevitably be the result of climate crisis. (International Relations wonks will remember John Herz made a similar argument about nuclear weapons in the 1950s and than moderated his views a decade later when he realized that nationalism and sovereignty were a lot more resilient than he suspected). A more likely scenario is that viable climate engineering will lead to political conflict in international institutions that look a lot like the ones we have today, which in turn will produce swings between calls for what Griffiths called “brute” geo-engineering and doing nothing. Both would be bad outcomes. Worse, political conflict could produce swings in the deployment of the technology, which even Keith acknowledges could be disastrous (to be effective, climate engineering requires a long-term commitment). Even an active debate risks undermining a commitment to decarbonization, though it doesn’t necessarily have to. Like you, I hope Keith is right that a conversation can lead to ways the two can go hand in hand.

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