The emerging politics of climate engineering
In 2009, climate engineering officially arrived on the US congressional agenda. As we have seen in the previous sections, this is when climate engineering took shape as an issue in its own right, not only in US climate policy, but around the globe. But what exactly does this mean, we may ask, for a set of techno-scientific concepts that largely ‘remain to be invented’?1 How, in other words does a rather diffuse, even speculative, set of techno-scientific measures take concrete political shape? How does it unfold its political status and meaning?
This chapter sets the book’s stage. It follows climate engineering through the lens of federal US policymaking. The chapter distinguishes two distinct arenas in which climate engineering began taking shape in the political sphere around 2009. On the one hand, climate engineering materialised as a matter of fact(s); it was assembled as a policy measure when policymakers and experts began establishing an ‘official record’ on the issue. On the other hand, climate engineering became structurally internalised by the political system; it took shape as a set of techno-scientific challenges that began guiding efforts to steer the development of relevant expert capacities within the federal infrastructure.
Both contexts can be understood as arenas in which science ‘meets’ politics. This means these arenas not only draw our attention to different dimensions of the emerging ‘politics’ of climate engineering, but they also introduce us to distinct sets of scientific experts and notions of expertise, as well as suggesting different timescales at play in assembling this techno-political project of climate engineering. In a nutshell, this chapter argues that understanding how climate engineering came to be requires asking how scientific struggles have come to ‘match’ political struggles.2
Producing an official record, establishing the facts
To the public, the arrival of climate engineering in US politics became particularly visible around 2009, when a number of hearings, reports, and position statements on the issue began popping up. From the congressional inquiry and public hearings on the issue to the internationally discussed Royal Society report and the various volumes prepared by the US National Academies, it seemed like a pile of documents was being produced, each somehow seeking authority in defining climate engineering and determining its potential as a policy measure. Table 3.1 provides an overview of the most prominent of these documents that have informed the US political exploration of this issue, beginning in 2009.3 In the following, I want to suggest that this pile of documents can be understood as a critical arena in which climate engineering began to take political shape.
Specifically, climate engineering took shape in these documents as a matter of fact(s). Hearings are held and reports are documented, as stated by Ann Keller, ‘to communicate something publicly’. They are the result of efforts by policymakers and scientists to produce an ‘official record’ on the issue of climate engineering. This pile of documents thus opens a ‘purposive arena’ of communication.4 These formats have provided policymakers, as well as selected experts, with a visible platform to purposefully establish climate engineering as a political issue in its own right. They have been essential in defining ‘what climate engineering is’ in terms of categorising, ordering, and assembling it as a governance object, engaging various expert groups in definitional struggles over what is at stake, and in determining its promise, risks, and potential as a viable policy measure to counteract climate change.5 Via this ‘official record’ on climate engineering, we can thus trace how this option of governing climate change by engineering the Earth’s climate system was envisioned, and how climate change was made legible to politics as an engineering challenge.
As we will see, science ‘meets’ politics in this arena in the form of a kind of ‘staged advice’. This means that, somewhat paradoxically, scientific expertise becomes politically meaningful here precisely by suggesting a clear division from ‘the politics’ of climate engineering. One of the key dynamics we can observe in this arena of politicisation is the attempt to ‘de-politicise’ climate engineering. We already gained a glimpse into what this means in the introduction to this book. This form of staged advice effectively suggests that what we observe in these hearings and assessment reports is an independent foundation of facts, separated from the potential future political decisions on the issue that they might inform, all the while assuming the highly political role of defining possible, feasible, or desirable futures in this context.6 Keller referred to this phenomenon as the ‘politics of objective advice’.7 We will come back to this notion of ‘staged advice’ in Chapter 6. In the following, we will first distinguish two important components of this official record on climate engineering – congressional fact gathering and scientific assessment reports. We will unpack how science comes to bear on politics within these distinct settings, before turning to the definitional struggles that are waged here.
Congressional fact gathering
At the heart of the effort to produce an official record on climate engineering stood a programmatic congressional inquiry into the issue beginning in the fall of 2009 (see Table 3.1). In its own words, the House Science Committee of the 111th Congress ‘began a formal inquiry into the potential for geoengineering to be a tool of last resort in a much broader program of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies’.8 The visible centrepiece of this inquiry consisted of a group of congressional hearings, which we briefly looked at in the previous chapter. Under the leadership of Bart Gordon, the Science Committee held three hearings under the banner of ‘Geoengineering: Parts I, II, and III’ in 2009 and 2010. These three hearings were part of a cooperative endeavour between the US and the UK parliamentary bodies, seeking to coordinate their efforts in establishing an evidence base on the issue. According to Gordon, it was a meeting in April 2009 with MP Phil Willis, then Chair of the UK Science and Technology Committee, that gave the impetus for the US inquiry into climate engineering.9 Beyond the hearings, this inquiry was driven by legislative assessments. These were assessment reports, compiled by the Science Committee itself, and by two congressional support bodies, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) (see Table 3.1). Legislative branch agencies integrate scientific and political observations intra-organisationally – i.e. their assessments and policy analyses are formally geared towards the needs and concerns of the legislative branch. It was such a request from GAO (in this case for ‘information on geoengineering’), that initiated the formal congressional inquiry into climate engineering in autumn 2009.10
In the United States, such congressional inquiries are essential in starting the legislative pursuit of any newly emerging issue. They are instrumental in forming a political agenda; they serve as a carefully assembled foundation of evidence that can be built upon at different points in the legislative process – for example, when crafting legislation, when attributing governmental funds, or when initiating programs that concern the newly emerging issue. Climate engineering thus takes political shape in this context of a congressional inquiry through the perspective of commissioned and invited expert voices. Like the scientific assessment bodies, which we will turn to below, these hearings and reports literally set the parameters of the debate to come. Congressional hearings provide a visible platform to establish a topic without yet a clear political stance having to be taken on the issue. This seems particularly relevant in the context of controversial issues, such as climate engineering.
Scientific assessment reports
Scientific assessment reports have provided a further essential component of efforts to produce an official record on climate engineering. In this context, policymakers task expert organisations beyond the federal bureaucracy with providing scientific assessments. Examples in the UK and US include, for example, the Royal Society and US National Academies, which provide scientific assessments in response to concrete inquiries or requests. These institutions pool scientific excellence – primarily drawn from universities – for distinct, problem-oriented analyses of specific topics. Publications such as the 2009 report by the Royal Society, the 2015 and 2019 volumes by the US National Academies, or the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have been essential to the emerging politics of climate engineering, as they, similar to the legislative inquiry into climate engineering, literally define the issue at stake. And by doing so, these assessments crucially guide the political exploration of the issue. Aarti Gupta and Ina Möller have demonstrated that these assessments, in fact, ‘constitute a source of de facto governance’. That is, they effectively exercise governance effects despite this being unacknowledged.11 In addition to determining knowledge gaps and formulating research needs, these scientific assessments effectively structure ‘de jure types of governance’ by normalising and institutionalising the issue at hand.12
Throughout the congressional hearings on climate engineering, policymakers and expert witnesses have mobilised individual observations provided by the Royal Society, the US National Academies, and the IPCC as something akin to a baseline of accepted ‘facts’ on climate engineering. These reports became politically relevant not simply by uncovering hitherto unknown information, but by structuring the political inquiry; they essentially guided the debate, as policymakers and experts referred to these reports as providers of institutionally certified positions.13
Take, for example, the response to the testimony of John Shepherd, chairman of the Royal Society report, in the first programmatic congressional hearing on climate engineering in 2009.14 Ever since Shepherd’s appearance, the report’s findings have been a key reference point in attempts to shape a universally accepted definition of climate engineering. The appraisal by such a prestigious scientific association has served as a critical source of political legitimacy in discussing these measures. The Royal Society report has assumed almost unrivalled prominence in structuring political exploration of climate engineering and linking scientific to political observations in this context. By doing so, the report effectively governed the further development of the overall field of climate engineering research, differentiating research communities, preparing research programs, and guiding funding streams.15
We can see similar impacts from the reports by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and the IPCC, which have continually guided US political explorations of climate engineering. The congressional inquiry into climate engineering has pointed to the almost ceremonial relevance of the IPCC in defining the official status of the climate change issue and suggesting legitimate response measures. The IPCC’s decision to either include or exclude climate engineering concepts in its assessment reports have been closely monitored, with policymakers discussing the extent or scope to which this happened, the particular choice of working group or chapter that addresses these concepts, and the distinct choice of words used to frame its findings and position statements.16 As we will see in later chapters, NASEM, too, has explored the notion of climate engineering in a range of reports published since 1992. Looking back, these reports document how substantially the shape of climate engineering policy has shifted over the years.17
Definitional struggles: Devising modes of climate intervention
The two settings of congressional fact-gathering and scientific assessments draw our attention to a variety of definitional struggles that have surrounded the production of this ‘official record’ on climate engineering, and which we will turn to in the following. These definitional struggles shed light on the contestation that is involved in the formal establishment of relevant ‘facts’, on the work of categorising, demarcating, ordering, and assembling climate engineering as a potential policy measure. These struggles concern what climate engineering is or rather what it should be; they determine what kind of solution these measures promise and in response to what kind of problem. As a result, these struggles calibrate how the relation of science and politics is envisioned.
When climate engineering arrived on the congressional agenda in November of 2009, it was primarily discussed as ‘geoengineering’.18 With this choice of label, the Science Committee, as well as the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service (CRS) followed the British Royal Society, which had presented its report ‘Geoengineering the Climate’ with much fanfare and public attention just a couple of weeks earlier. Both the congressional inquiry and the Royal Society report defined geoengineering almost identically as the ‘deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming’.19
Since 2009, the picture has become more complex. In addition to the still popular term of ‘geoengineering’, we can trace a growing variety of concepts that have been devised and pitted against each other to determine particular agendas surrounding the idea to deliberately modify the climate. In 2010, Bart Gordon, who we met earlier in this chapter as the chairman of the Science Committee, argued that actually, ‘climate engineering’ would be the more meaningful term:
[…] I feel that [geoengineering] does not accurately or fully convey the scale and intent of these proposals, and it may simply be confusing to many stakeholders unfamiliar with the subject. Therefore, for the purposes of clarity, facilitating public engagement, and acknowledging the seriousness of the task at hand, this report will use the term ‘climate engineering’ in lieu of ‘geoengineering’ going forward.20
With the choice of ‘climate engineering’, Gordon thus marked a political vision for these measures, rather than paying heed to scientific intricacies. He emphasised the decided purpose and intent of this inquiry – the serious and targeted effort to engineer the climate. The Government Accountability Office seems to have followed this terminological suggestion, switching from mainly using the term ‘geoengineering’ in its 2010 reports to ‘climate engineering’ in its 2011 technology assessment.21
Others took issue with this choice of words. When, a couple of years later, the National Academies (NASEM) provided their 2015 study on the issue, they argued against the label of ‘climate engineering’ precisely for its misguided idea of control. The label would imply ‘a greater level of precision and control than might be possible’. NASEM, however, also rejected the notion of ‘geoengineering’, as the concept would suggest ‘a broad range of activities beyond climate (e.g., geological engineering)’. Instead, the experts suggested yet another label, namely ‘climate intervention’:
The committee concluded that ‘climate intervention’, with its connotation of ‘an action intended to improve a situation’, most accurately describes the strategies covered in these two volumes.22
Ever since, this notion of ‘climate intervention’ or ‘atmospheric climate intervention’ has gained popularity, not only in scientific assessments.23 Recent suggestions to speak of ‘climate repair’, ‘climate restoration’, or ‘climate remediation’ emphasise this intention of ‘improvement’ as suggested by the 2015 NASEM report even more explicitly, alluding to the ethical responsibility of humans to restore what has been harmed.24 We will take a closer look at these labels in Chapter 6.
Distinguishing Modes of Intervention
Aside from arguing for a terminological adjustment, the 2015 NASEM report furthermore suggested a differentiation of the technical debates over climate engineering. The working group decided against one comprehensive study. Instead, the report came in two volumes, following two different kinds of climate intervention – either reflecting sunlight back to space or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (see Fig. 3.1).25 The Academies therein further reinforced the differentiation of climate engineering research as already suggested in the 2009 Royal Society report.
Efforts to govern climate change by removing CO2 from the atmosphere are generally referred to as carbon dioxide removal (CDR).26 The boundary between what is considered as CDR – and therefore as ‘climate engineering’ – and what is considered as climate change ‘mitigation’, i.e. reducing anthropogenic impacts on climate, is somewhat fuzzy. There is no universally agreed upon demarcation between the two approaches and CDR measures are increasingly considered a key component in an effective mitigation strategy. However, a common heuristic in this context is to follow the source from which CO2 is captured. The Royal Society suggests that any measure which captures CO2 that has already been emitted into the atmosphere should be referred to as climate engineering.27 Two approaches have gained particular attention in this context, both of which will play a prominent role in this book: so-called direct air capture (DAC) and ocean fertilisation measures.
Direct air capture describes various proposals to chemically ‘scrub CO2 directly from ambient air’.28 The idea is to either use this extracted CO2 to produce a concentrated stream of gas that can then be utilised in industrial processes or in the chemical production of carbon-based products, or to remove it from the air and permanently store it in a reservoir. For the long-term storage of the captured CO2, various options have been discussed, such as utilising enhanced CO2 mineralisation processes, like enhanced weathering, or storage in geologic formations.29
In addition to such land-based approaches, the discussion over CDR also includes ocean-based techniques. So-called ocean fertilisation measures seek to enhance the ‘marine biological pump’, that is, the natural carbon sink of the ocean.30 According to NASEM, the basic idea is to stimulate growth in phytoplankton by adding limiting nutrients to surface waters and therefore increase the flow of organic carbon into the deep ocean.31 The technique, which is most prominently discussed in this context, is the fertilisation with iron.
These CDR approaches are categorically distinguished from so-called solar radiation management (SRM) approaches. SRM generally refers to the idea of governing climate change by reflecting some of the incoming sunlight back to space.32 The measures under discussion aim to enhance the Earth’s reflectivity, which is also referred to as the Earth’s ‘albedo’. We find a multitude of labels used to describe such efforts in the current debate over climate engineering, some emphasising technical intricacies, some the political ambitions of these approaches. These include solar radiation management, solar geoengineering, sunlight reflection methods, albedo modification and many more.33
Two approaches have received particular attention in this context – marine cloud brightening and stratospheric aerosol injection. The former involves brightening marine stratus clouds by spraying seawater into the lower atmosphere. The basic idea is that seeding these marine clouds with tiny droplets of seawater would increase the cloud droplet concentration and enhance their longevity, meaning it would make them brighter and longer lasting, thus reflecting a higher fraction of incoming sunlight back to space.34 The idea of Stratospheric Aerosol Injection, in contrast, is to replicate and technologically ‘enhance’ volcanic eruptions. The concept would thus entail injecting millions of tons of reflective particles into the stratosphere, where they are expected to remain for a longer time, forming a sun shield for the Earth.35
These visions of governing climate change by reflecting sunlight back to space or by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere have confronted science and politics with a set of concrete technical challenges. David Keith, one of the invited congressional experts, famously suggested that solar radiation management ‘is cheap, fast, and imperfect’,36 while carbon dioxide removal has generally been assessed as comparatively safe, yet uneconomical and difficult to scale. In other words, what makes these two modes of climate intervention into two fundamentally different approaches is not merely their underlying ‘science’, but the effort to translate abstract scientific ideas into concrete policy measures. Both approaches come with distinct sets of technical challenges which arise precisely from efforts to match scientific observations on intervening in climatic change to the political challenge of governing climate change – and that means the challenge to provide feasible, effective, and safe means to tackle climate change.
In technical debates over climate engineering, experts’ judgements over the status of the respective measures revolve around two different dimensions, as we will see in the following. On the one hand, their judgements concern what we might refer to as the political economy of climate engineering. That is, the political feasibility of the discussed measures, their status as viable policy tools. This is usually determined along the lines of cost, scalability or effectiveness, and risks or potential side effects of the devised measures. To put it differently, what hurdles need to be overcome to turn these approaches into economic, effective, and safe policy tools? On the other hand, the experts’ judgements concern technical challenges or what we might refer to as the politics of evidence. That is, the grounds on which to judge the political feasibility and technological readiness or general status quo of the discussed approaches. We briefly touched on these issues in the introduction already, when approaching the question of what climate engineering is. The controversial debates surrounding climate engineering research governance nicely illustrate the epistemological battleground that lingers behind this line of research: are we looking at ‘the first’ experiment that ‘tests a way to cool Earth’ or at a harmless scientific exercise that merely squirts out some innocuous fluids?37 How would we know? Where should we draw the line? How will it matter? Discussions in this dimension focus on questions of what can be considered as (politically) relevant, viable, robust forms of evidence; they concern the epistemological status of experimental or theoretical findings, of ‘indoor’ vs. ‘outdoor’ observations, of insights from modelling studies and computer simulations vs. insights from ‘natural’ analogies.
Governing Climate Change by Sucking Carbon from the Air
The ‘official record’ on efforts to govern climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is built on rather confident statements regarding the relevant evidence base. Congress, for example, found that the basic engineering principles of the discussed measures were comparatively well understood,38 and the National Academies, too, judged that carbon dioxide removal would most likely ‘not introduce novel global risks’.39 Rather than unanticipated risks and side-effects, the experts deemed cost as a critical hurdle in realising CDR at scale (‘at scale’ means to an extent which would actually provide a meaningful policy tool for counteracting climate change).40 According to the expert assessments, the political feasibility of CDR thus hinges primarily on questions of economic feasibility and commercialisation. In its 2020 Congressional Action Plan, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, for example, argued that carbon removal ‘at a scale of 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year by midcentury’ would be needed, while the largest operating plant in North America, a pilot plant by the Canadian company, Carbon Engineering, is able to remove a ton of CO2 per day.41 Drawing on the National Academies’ assessments, the committee therefore emphasised that Congress would need to ‘prioritise’ direct air capture research and development in federal agencies.42 Since 2019, Carbon Engineering has been working to engineer the world’s biggest direct air capture plant in the world – a plant that, according to the company, is expected to remove one million tons of CO2 per year (see figure 3.2.).
So, how does scientific expertise come to bear on the politics of climate engineering here? On the surface, it seems as if expert judgements on the feasibility of climate engineering exemplify a linear relationship between science and politics: in the case of carbon dioxide removal, the invited experts were able to build their assessments on quite a substantial body of evidence – a body of evidence that contains more than three decades worth of field trials, experiments, and demonstration facilities. Yet, this body of scientific research, its scope and quality, is hardly independent from political judgements on carbon dioxide removal. Instead, it rests – at least partially – on the political support for these measures, driven by interest from the fossil fuel industry.43 The research itself, in other words, is importantly shaped by politics, both through available funding and existing regulation.
As a result of this comparatively large body of research and field studies, carbon dioxide removal, and specifically ocean fertilisation measures, remain the only climate engineering approaches thus far for which a regulatory framework exists, one that addresses, ‘in principle’, both research and implementation.44 With ocean fertilisation field studies mounting since the early 1990s, political pressure from environmental NGOs and policy-oriented studies on the subject, for example, led to a 2008 resolution by the London Convention and Protocol, banning ocean fertilisation efforts for commercial purposes. Scientifically motivated field studies, however, are not prohibited, only subject to strict assessment.45 The research landscape is thus shaped both by political support, as well as concerns and restrictions. Regulation seems to evolve in this case not prior to, but alongside with, research.
Although it may seem (and is presented) as though this ‘official record’ on climate engineering provides a neutral baseline of facts and figures for policymakers to base their decisions on, we can see here that the picture is much more complicated than that. If we ask for the genesis of the presented facts and their essential breeding ground, we readily see that politics is already involved in the very production of this ‘official record’. The definitional struggles and experts’ disputes that surround the establishment of this record nicely hint at the interdependence between the scientific research on climate engineering on the one hand, and the political interest in them, on the other. In other words, the very foundation of ‘facts’ that the political judgement on these technological approaches rest on, is itself a result of political judgements; the two are reciprocally coupled.
Governing Climate Change by Reflecting Sunlight Back to Space
Experts’ judgements on the status of solar radiation management have looked quite different to those on carbon dioxide removal. Instead of cost and scale, it was in this case the associated risks and side effects that stood at the centre of the debate. Again, we find strikingly confident assumptions that solar radiation management will be ‘cheap’ and ‘fast’ compared to the reduction of emissions.46 Such judgements established solar radiation management as a politically attractive tool that might be implemented swiftly and with large impacts,47 all the while raising controversial debates over questions of governance. These questions included, for example, who would get to decide when to deploy and when to cease a potential SRM program, or how the legal liability of potential damages would be decided on. The official record on solar radiation management has therefore much more explicitly concerned the legitimacy and desirability of these approaches as a viable response to tackling climate change. Experts’ assessments have warned quite prominently, for example, that solar radiation management would not address the causes of climate change, but only its symptoms.48 Building on this observation, the so-called ‘moral hazard’ argument has played a crucial role in the debate over SRM. This argument holds that policymakers need to take into account the effect that the mere consideration of these measures has on the ultimate goal of climate change mitigation. The concern is that even the very idea of a potential ‘sun shield’ might make people feel ‘insulated’ from the risk of global warming, thus making them ‘more likely to engage in risky or detrimental behavior’.49
In the case of solar radiation management, such normative and ethical questions regarding the basic outlook of these technological concepts and their potential risks and side effects were linked to epistemological concerns over how to decide on these issues. The central problem that the experts presented was how to examine the global effects and risks of a large-scale introduction of aerosol particles in the stratosphere.50 They primarily disputed if and how technological effectiveness could be tested without actually deploying these measures, raising the question of how to generate a reliable and robust evidence base on the promise of SRM as a policy device.51 Many of the invited experts emphasised the need for field studies to gather the kind of scientific evidence that would be necessary to avoid ‘expos[ing] the world to serious risk’ in the case of a sudden future ‘emergency’.52 They bound the possibility of a meaningful political decision on these measures at some point in the future to the need of field studies today.53 The experts warned that essential engineering details, from ideal particle size to delivery mechanism – as well as potential side effects and risks – have remained understudied and undertested:
How do we deliver the source to the region of release? […] Once we have a detailed idea of precisely what source we want, can we produce that source? […] After injecting the source in the stratosphere do particles form as models suggest? How do we track the plume? What instruments are required to measure the particle properties, the plume extent, and the reduction in sunlight below the plume. Do the particles coagulate and grow as our models suggest? Do the particles mix and evolve the way our models tell us they will (from source to the first scale, and from the first scale to the globe scale?).54
Yet, the question of how such a meaningful field study on solar radiation management would look was heavily disputed. How to experiment with altering incoming sunlight without actually altering incoming sunlight? While some experts argued that there is, in fact, a viable distinction between ‘small-scale field studies’ and ‘full-scale deployment’, others questioned this very distinction.55 ‘We are caught between a rock and a hard place’, one expert witness explained:
Too small a field test, and it won’t reveal all the subtleties of the way the aerosols will behave at full deployment. A bigger field test to identify the way the aerosols will behave when they are concentrated will have an effect on the planet’s climate […]. I have not seen a suggestion on how to avoid this issue.56
To illustrate the dilemma, another expert witness compared the challenge of generating robust evidence on solar radiation management approaches to the historical process of understanding global warming:
[…] a real-world geoengineering experiment would have to be conducted for a long time, 10 or 20 years or longer, so as to gather enough data to calculate the statistics. It is only after 60 years of global warming since about 1950 and decades of the IPCC process that we have a clear understanding the greenhouse gases are responsible.57
As a result of this basic dilemma, the official record on solar radiation management crisscrossed a gaping divide between concrete assumptions regarding the problematic or promising (‘cheap’, ‘effective’) future reality of this ‘technology’ and the most basic epistemological questions concerning its design and effects. The scientific assessments and congressional inquiry connected sweeping and fundamental legal-normative questions to basic scientific challenges. They bound the task of anticipating the potential geopolitical consequences of a rogue state wielding an imaginary sun shield to the epistemological status of climate models; these assessments linked the normative and moral consequences of a speculative global thermostat to observations of a tethered balloon.58
Coming back to the 2015 NASEM climate intervention volumes, these assessments thus further cemented a differentiation of scientific debates along concerns over the policy implications and societal risks of the respective intervention approaches – namely CDR and SRM. NASEM argued that
the committee’s very different posture concerning the currently known risks of carbon dioxide removal as compared with albedo modification was a primary motivation for separating these climate engineering topics into two separate volumes.59
While the two-volume structure of the report reflects technical criteria concerning potential intervention approaches, the Academies’ explanation for ‘climate intervention’ as a meaningful label reflects an orientation towards the broader societal vision of this research. It is this broader vision, then, which keeps a set of otherwise disparate lines of research under one roof.
This differentiation of climate engineering along CDR and SRM became further institutionalised when, in 2019 and 2020, NASEM began to prepare entirely separate reports on each set of the suggested intervention approaches, drawing on different groups of experts.60 These assessments document an increasingly specialised policy debate that has begun moving away from umbrella terms of climate engineering or geoengineering, and instead fosters notions of ‘negative emissions’, ‘atmospheric interventions’ or ‘sunlight reflection’ measures. As we follow the technical details of these approaches, we encounter similar varieties of labels, each carrying layers of definitional struggles, rebranded purposes, and signs of the times.
As I suggested in the introduction to this book, these definitional struggles over climate engineering become meaningful as they demonstrate how the very concept of climate engineering, in all its semantic variations and evolutions, essentially bundles very different research contexts in their promise to fundamentally alter the politics of climate change. These definitional struggles precisely illustrate that the question of what climate engineering is and can be, is hardly just an academic one. The various labels and categorisations of climate engineering become meaningful and subject to heated debate as they bind various lines of scientific inquiry to the societal challenge of tackling climate change. The conceptual and semantic justifications for one against the other concept, calibrate this relation of scientific inquiry and political intervention, each emphasising different sides or aspects of this charged relation.
Internalising climate engineering in the federal infrastructure
The official record on climate engineering – the established ‘facts’ on this matter – opened another arena in which climate engineering began to materialise in the political realm. The visions and assessments of what climate engineering is, can, or should be, presented politics with a concrete set of techno-scientific challenges, as we have seen in the previous section. These techno-scientific challenges did not merely remain the subject of abstract expert talk but had structural consequences too: politics began to structurally internalise climate engineering in the form of these techno-scientific challenges. It translated these expert assessments into federal programs, funding decisions, rules and legislation.
This arena of the emerging politics of climate engineering thus directly builds on the previous one. Yet, it draws our attention to a slightly different notion of ‘politics’. Instead of bringing into focus the epistemic authority of selected experts and policymakers to assemble climate engineering as a governance object, this second arena sheds light on the structural consequences of these definitional struggles. It traces the political institutionalisation of this newly defined issue within the federal bureaucracy.
Science ‘meets’ politics in this arena not in the form of staged advice, but in the form of relevant expert capacities within the federal infrastructure. Policymakers in this case assessed which kinds of climate engineering-relevant expertise was already at their disposal within the federal bureaucracy. Building on this inventory, they took matters into their own hands, seeking to steer the proper establishment of such expert capacities and the respective advancement of research and development.
Taking inventory, charting new territory
One aspect of this political internalisation of climate engineering appeared as a kind of climate policy introspective. As part of its programmatic inquiry into climate engineering in 2009, Congress began to screen and inventory the federal landscape for relevant climate engineering expertise.61 Around that same time, a number of initiatives and task forces appeared on the political scene, devising ‘strategic plans’ and charting roadmaps for policymakers and the government to advance and guide a future approach to the issue.62 According to the Science Committee itself, the goal of this political inventory was to look forward. Such an inventory would allow policymakers to effectively ‘guide future government and academic structures for research and development activities in this field’.63 The arrival of climate engineering on the political agenda entailed the introduction of a new category in this context, a category, along which existing expert capacities and legal frameworks could be inventoried, assessed and developed. As a new category, climate engineering began re-aligning climate science and politics in the form of political resources and funds, expert capacities, and legal frameworks. To politics, climate engineering emerged here as both, already existing and entirely new.
We get an idea of how climate engineering took political shape in this case – how this ‘inventory’ bound past to future, the existing to the new – by turning to the assessment provided by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). As we have seen in the previous section, the congressional request for GAO’s assessment formally introduced climate engineering to the US climate policy agenda in the fall of 2009.64 This assessment concerned both existing research and development capacities, as well as the applicability of federal laws and legal frameworks to climate engineering.
To begin with, the Science Committee tasked GAO with assessing ‘the extent to which the federal government is sponsoring or participating in geoengineering research or deployment’.65 We can see how difficult and necessarily messy this endeavour must have been. How to decide what qualifies as a climate engineering and what does not? GAO decided to distinguish between three forms of climate engineering-relevant ‘activities’: (1) activities that were technically designated to ‘conventional carbon mitigation efforts’, but were, in fact, ‘directly applicable to a proposed geoengineering approach’; (2) activities that concerned ‘basic scientific understanding of earth systems, processes, or technologies’ but might be ‘applied generally to geoengineering’; (3) activities which are explicitly designated as climate engineering-relevant and do ‘not overlap with a conventional carbon mitigation strategy’.66
The (albeit small) US budget for climate engineering in the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years varies substantially depending on whether all the above categories are considered as climate engineering relevant activities or only the explicitly designated ones:
GAO’s analysis found that 43 activities, totaling about $99 million, focused either on mitigation strategies or basic science. Most of the research focused on mitigation efforts, such as geological sequestration of CO2, which were identified as relevant to CDR approaches but not designed to address them directly. GAO found that nine activities, totaling about $1.9 million, directly investigated SRM or less conventional CDR approaches.67
As a result, the agency argued that, yes, ‘federal agencies are sponsoring research relevant to geoengineering, but there is no coordinated federal strategy, making it difficult to determine the extent of relevant research’.68 GAO presented its final results to Congress in 2010, pressing its main message already in the study’s title: ‘A Coordinated Strategy Could Focus Federal Geoengineering Research and Inform Governance Efforts’.
Congress additionally asked the Government Accountability Office for ‘the extent to which federal laws and international agreements apply to geoengineering’.69 This not only concerned the provision of relevant scientific expertise; it also meant evaluating the legal and regulatory frameworks within which this new approach to tackling climate change would operate. Formulating the challenge of governing climate change as a challenge of deliberately modifying climate change meant a substantial shift of perspective in this context. Climate engineering essentially turns the politics of climate change upside down.
In addition to commissioning the report by GAO, the US Science Committee dedicated the final of its three programmatic hearings on climate engineering especially to legal and governance questions, and it tasked the Congressional Research Service (CRS) with providing further advice on these issues.70 In their assessments, both GAO and CRS examined the applicability of US law to this new category within US climate policy. The agencies took stock of existing entities and frameworks within the federal bureaucracy ‘that might apply if climate engineering were tested or deployed at a large scale’.71 Due to the global impacts of any envisioned climate engineering scheme, both agencies furthermore pointed to the relevance of international legal frameworks.72 Against this backdrop, existing regulatory frameworks, such as ENMOD, the London Protocol, the Law of the Sea, the Antarctic Treaty, or the UNFCC were assessed regarding their applicability and their potential for respective adjustments.73
GAO remained rather vague in their assessment, simply noting that ‘the extent to which existing federal laws and international agreements apply to geoengineering is unclear, and experts and officials identified governance challenges’.74 The judgement of CRS illustrates the difficulties of translating an umbrella term, such as climate engineering, into concrete governance measures. The agency concluded that a flexible governance system would be needed as ‘different technologies, different stages of the research and deployment cycle, and different environments for research and deployment activities may require different methods for oversight’.75
Tasking agencies with conducting original research
Aside from the US political inventory of relevant climate engineering capacities, the political system began to take matters into its own hands. In the following, we will see how politics internalised climate engineering into the federal infrastructure by approaching relevant agencies and departments directly and seeking to deliberately steer the development of climate engineering expertise. The prospect of advancing climate engineering as a potential policy tool turned basic scientific challenges into direct policy concerns; it made the political system attempt to jump scientific hurdles.
To begin with, the political system began internalising climate engineering by tasking federal agencies with conducting original research. In particular, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency within the Department of Commerce, emerged as a critical node of policy-relevant climate engineering expertise in this context. The agency was the target of both efforts to establish relevant carbon dioxide removal, as well as solar radiation management expertise.
We get a sense of what this means by examining the presidential proposals and congressional negotiations of the agency’s budget between 2009 and 2012. In 2009, the House Committee on Appropriations argued that ‘ocean fertilisation’, one particular approach to carbon dioxide removal, ‘[…] has the potential to be used for climate change mitigation in the future, but that further research is needed’ and that ‘the Committee [therefore] encourages NOAA to support research into carbon sinks through ocean fertilization’.76 One year later, the topic was again on the agenda of the agency’s budget hearings. When the Science Committee assessed the Obama administration’s budget proposals for NOAA, it wanted to know what research would be needed to better understand climate engineering, and specifically, what kinds of ‘research capabilities, both internal to the agency and through external partnerships’ NOAA could provide to contribute to such a better understanding.77 Jane Lubchenco, then NOAA Administrator, pointed out that a successful climate engineering approach ‘would require full scientific understanding of the underlying physical and chemical processes’. She emphasised the need for extensive research, not only natural scientific, but also economic, and suggested that ‘enhanced communication and expanded efforts’ between ‘NOAA, other parts of the federal government, university and industry partners, and the international community’ would become necessary.78
In its 2012 budget proposal for the agency, the House of Representatives officially tasked NOAA with assessing the mitigation potential of ocean fertilisation measures.79 Specifically, the House Appropriations Committee suggested that the agency should ‘address key scientific questions regarding the potential impacts of iron fertilization on the oceans’ and should coordinate in this effort ‘with other Federal agencies, academia, and the private sector, as appropriate’.80 In the report that NOAA published in response to this inquiry, the agency suggested the immediate scientific merit of exploring this policy option. It reported that ocean fertilisation research
has made an extremely valuable contribution to the scientific understanding of the ocean carbon cycle and its role in the global carbon cycle on time scales ranging from glacial episodes thousands of years in the Earth’s past to today’s changing climate.81
These records thus suggest how climate engineering effectively ‘matched’ political with scientific challenges, to use Zeke Baker’s words here.82 It directly and seamlessly bound political efforts at tackling a societal issue to scientific struggles of understanding the ocean carbon cycle. The political vision of governing climate change by removing CO2 from the atmosphere made complex scientific challenges – challenges no less than gaining ‘full scientific understanding’ of the physics and chemistry of climate change – into an immediate political concern.
Almost ten years later, we can trace a similar dynamic with regards to solar radiation management approaches. In December of 2019, Congressman Jerry McNerney (D-California) introduced the Atmospheric Climate Intervention Research Act to the House of Representatives. This proposed legislation sought to amend the America COMPETES Act83, a bill which was originally introduced by Bart Gordon and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007 to ‘improve the competitiveness of the United States’ by means of ‘invest[ing] in innovation through research and development’.84 If enacted, the proposed Atmospheric Climate Intervention Research Act would essentially formulate research into solar radiation management as one critical component of such a research program geared at national competitiveness and innovative capacities. Specifically, it argues that the prospect of ‘inject[ing] material to temporarily reduce global radiative forcing of climate’ introduces ‘significant risks’, which need to be properly monitored. It also adds that NOAA is responsible for that task.85 The bill suggests that this task would require
significant improvements to observations of the abundances and chemistry of the stratospheric gases and particles and the reflectivity of the stratosphere to establish the baseline state of the stratosphere and its trend over time and to develop enhancements to stratospheric models used for predicting climate impacts of material introduced into the stratosphere by natural or other means.86
Building on this assessment, the bill tasks NOAA with improving these observational and measurement capabilities so that it could provide an understanding of the ‘proposed atmospheric interventions in Earth’s climate’ and particularly ‘the effects of proposed interventions in the stratosphere and in cloud-aerosol processes.87 In effect, the bill thus formulates climate engineering as another critical chapter in the national strategic cultivation of climatological research. Solar radiation management emerges here not as a shocking change of perspective, but rather as a critical building block in the logical continuation of US political efforts to advance climate change expertise within the state.
Awarding cash prizes to push commercialisation of DAC
Aside from these efforts to steer the development of basic expertise within the federal bureaucracy, the political system also began to internalise climate engineering in the form of more concrete technical challenges. One example, which has gained a lot of political traction since 2009, is the commercialisation of direct air capture (DAC) technology. Expert assessments on the political feasibility of DAC have hinged primarily on questions of economic feasibility and commercialisation, as we saw in the previous section. The political system began translating and internalising this issue of economic feasibility and commercialisation of DAC in a number of ways, whether by authorising funds to advance original research within the federal bureaucracy, or by incentivising external research via Cash Prizes or grants, or by investing in demonstration facilities.88 The political system in a sense sought to ‘jump start a DAC industry’, as the Climate Crisis Select Committee put it.89
I want to elaborate on just one example in particular: between 2009 and 2019, John Barasso, a Republican Senator from Wyoming, introduced a number of bills to Congress that sought to push commercialisation of direct air capture (DAC) technology by awarding cash prizes.90 While the Carbon Dioxide Capture Technology Act of 2009 and the Carbon Dioxide Capture Technology Prize Act of 2011 were not enacted, the Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies Act of 2019 – the USE IT Act, for short – passed the Senate in 2019. Building on the technical possibility ‘to separate carbon dioxide from … the atmosphere’, the first two bills sought to ‘provide incentives to the development and implementation’ of technologies which would achieve this separation ‘in an economical manner’.91 The 2019 bill similarly emphasised that ‘high cost’ remains the ‘main prohibitive aspect’ when it comes to DAC technology.92 But, how might the political system seek to steer techno-scientific innovation? In this case, it resorted to promising cash prizes. If enacted, the 2019 bill would authorise the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to administer a competitive prize program that awards ‘up to $35 million in funding’ to DAC research projects.93
As in the previous examples, the outlook of climate engineering essentially turns a scientific puzzle into a concern of direct national strategic relevance here. Alluding to the research project that eventually led to the building of the Atomic Bomb, the commercialisation of DAC technology was presented as a national priority in the ‘Land of the Manhattan Project’.94 We will come back to how important this framing of climate change as a national-strategic innovation challenge has been to the political advancement of climate engineering measures in the US since the early 2000s in Chapter 5. This language indicates how the outlook of climate engineering corresponds to a somewhat odd or at least striking problematisation of climate change. Climate change appears here not merely as a curious scientific puzzle, but as an innovation challenge that needs to be tackled by a concerted national effort. These prizes frame, define, and institutionalise climate change as a challenge that concerns techno-scientific innovation capacities as a matter of national pride and security. The labels assigned to the cash prize initiatives (on which the 2019 bill builds) invoke the transformative power of techno-scientific innovation for national strategic goals. These include ‘Grand Challenges Prizes’, ‘Freedom Prizes’, or ‘Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prizes’.95 Advancing research and development in this context emerges as an essential component of a national energy policy strategy,96 and appears as an opportunity to display world leadership.97
Climate engineering expert agencies within the federal infrastructure
This internalisation of climate engineering into the federal bureaucracy brought a set of acronyms to the fore: NASA, NOAA, EPA, NCAR, NSF, but also DOE, USDA, DOD, DOS or USGS.98 These acronyms stand for a group of federal agencies and departments, bundling climate engineering expertise within the state. Taken together, they bind the emerging politics of climate engineering to a historically grown expert infrastructure that has provided scientific expertise to US climate policy for many years.
As we will see in more detail in Chapter 4, the core of this group of expert organisations were essential in institutionalising the climate change issue in the federal bureaucracy. Roger Pielke Jr. has illustrated in detail how these agencies pushed a federally coordinated climate change agenda and ‘developed expertise and responsibility for different aspects of the climate change issue’ as soon as the late 1970s, first in the form of the National Climate Program, and then, since 1990, in the form of the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).99
We will take a closer look at some of these agencies in Chapter 6 (see also Appendix). For now, it is simply relevant to note that this set of expert agencies embeds the recent rise of climate engineering as a controversial strategy of last resort in the broader trajectory of climate change expertise in US politics. This observation prepares one of this book’s bigger themes, which is that the recent rise of climate engineering as a controversial ‘Plan B’ is yet another chapter in the federal cultivation of climate change expertise. To quote Roger Pielke Jr., these organisations make the emerging politics of climate engineering part of a story of ‘how science was enlisted in support of policy development through the institutions of US government’. The status and role of these organisations reflects the reciprocal dynamic of observing and addressing societal challenges. The formulation of problem and response are necessarily intertwined.
This internalisation of climate engineering into the federal bureaucracy illustrates that political issues do not appear from thin air. Expert capacities, programs, and agencies are hardly created from scratch. Instead of amounting to a distinct, momentous decision, climate engineering arrived in the political sphere in this arena as a kind of climate policy introspective, a new category to assess, to inventory, and around which to further develop a historically grown federal infrastructure. This new category became meaningful by sorting and advancing what was already there, by taking stock of existing federal activities, which could then be adjusted, expanded and differentiated.