International engagement and African perspectives on geoengineering

October saw the release of a report on a series of workshops on geoengineering governance, held around Africa in 2012 and 2013.

By Andy Parker

Geoengineering is one of the most divisive issues for environmentalism today. Since it involves the development of inherently global technologies that could save or threaten vulnerable ecosystems and millions of people, so it should be.  A review of the literature, whether peer-reviewed or not, shows that the research community finds regular cause to squabble over what should be studied, what the political implications might be, and for the millionth time, what geoengineering is, is not, and whether a new name is necessary.  Next year’s most high profile geoengineering conference, “Climate Engineering Conference 2014”, shows that the latter debate rumbles on even in the wings of this website.

Amongst all the discord there is at least one small area of general agreement: there is not yet enough diversity – by some stretch – among the people researching, discussing and thinking about climate engineering (CE). All government-level assessment reports have come from Europe and North America, largely reflecting where most of the work on geoengineering is currently taking place. However SRM[1] is unavoidably a global issue, and the chances of it being handled prudently, equitably, and cooperatively should be greatly increased by international cooperation over research and governance from the outset.

The SRM Governance Initiative (SRMGI)[2] has been working to address this lack of diversity, and last month published a report on a series of outreach meetings held around Africa in 2012 and 2013, in partnership with the African Academy of Sciences (AAS). SRMGI is an international NGO-driven initiative launched in 2010 and co-convened by the Royal Society, TWAS[3], and Environmental Defense Fund. It is neither for nor against SRM, and simply aims to foster inclusive, interdisciplinary and international discussions on research and its governance.

Much of the work of SRMGI concentrates on bringing in new voices and perspectives, particularly from the developing world. The logic is simple and the case is strong: no one can yet know whether SRM will be helpful or harmful, but we do know that developing countries are often most vulnerable to environmental change, whether caused by global warming or any technological attempts to slow it down.  As they stand to gain or lose the most from SRM, building the capacity of developing countries to take part in research, governance and international negotiations is likely to be of great importance.

The African workshops took place in Senegal, South Africa and Ethiopia in 2012 and early 2013, bringing in over 100 participants from 21 different African countries. Funding was largely provided by a grant from the IAP (the global network of science academies) and all meetings were run jointly by SRMGI and the African Academy of Sciences. The workshops followed the same approach developed by SRMGI at its previous meetings in China, India, Pakistan and the UK, with three factors perhaps most important to their success:

Firstly, local partnerships have been crucial. As with previous local SRMGI partners (such as the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Pakistan, or the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in India), AAS’s convening power, networks of experts, and excellent reputation were invaluable assets.

Secondly participant interaction is prioritised over expert lectures.  After initial introductions to the science of SRM, and reviews of the physical and socio-political issues, discussion turns over to local participants drawn from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. Quickly breaking down into small groups, they are encouraged to explore and express their own concerns, hopes and ideas regarding SRM research and governance. 

Thirdly, this atmosphere of open exchange is maintained only by the explicit rejection of consensus positions or meeting statements. I have seen protagonists at geoengineering meetings fight fierce rhetorical battles over the soul of a consensus statement, and while such spectacles can be rather luridly compelling, no one - protagonist or spectator - ever seems to come away richer for the experience.  Knowing that there is no meeting statement to sway, however, and that opinions will simply be discussed and recorded, can often lead to much more gentle and thoughtful exchange.

Unsurprisingly the three meetings threw up a wide range of opinions on SRM, its implications, and how research should be governed.  There was no clear pattern of support for or opposition to solar geoengineering amongst participants. In general there was a high level of support for small scale and safe research, and a high level of opposition to full-scale deployment of SRM at this stage, but less agreement over how best to govern research projects conducted outside the laboratory.  Participants also generally showed strong support for some ideas for continued African engagement with SRM, including the establishment of a pan-African expert group or SRM research in some African universities.

The meetings and report do not constitute a controlled academic study of attitudes, nor a comprehensive public engagement exercise. They are designed to kick-start African stakeholder engagement with SRM, in the hope that it can lead on to bigger things.  There are already some modest reasons for optimism in this regard: the African Academy of Sciences has been considering possibilities for more sustained engagement with SRM research, governance and policy, while seven outstanding young African researchers took part in this year’s annual Interdisciplinary Geoengineering Summer School at Harvard University, and made lasting connections with over 50 other young researchers from around the world. At the school some of the African researchers organised a breakout session to work out how they might set up and maintain a network of young researchers from developing countries interested in discussing SRM research and governance.  While on an absolute scale these are only small steps forward, they are huge advances from where we were a year ago, or would be now without the African outreach meetings.

One of the stated aims of CEC14 is to continue to expand international engagement with CE. It seems very promising that it might be able to take some of SRMGI’s outreach work on to the next stage: providing a forum for all the new voices from different regional meetings to come together in one place, and build linkages between countries not already playing a large role in CE discussions.  It is hard to specify in advance what value these connections might have, but easy to see many ways in which they could be very valuable: from international research projects to better informed government negotiators to development of widely respected governance proposals. It is hoped that the networks forged by initiatives like CEC14 or SRMGI could, over time, lead towards a culture of thoughtful cooperation over research and its governance, rather than unilateralism and mistrust.  And at the very least it is high time that Africans, Indians and South Americans had their turn to disagree over what to call geoengineering, rather than it being a distinctly European/American pastime.

If you are interested in participating in CEC14, you can submit a proposal to host a session here. Please check back regularly to this blog for updates in conference planning, including opportunities to apply for travel funding.

Andy Parker is a lead coordinator for the SRM Governance Initiative, a Research Fellow in the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a member of the CEC14 steering committee.


[1] Solar Radiation Management, aka solar geoengineering.  This is one of the two suites of technologies that are grouped together under the umbrella term CE, along with Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR).

[2] It was decided early in the SRMGI process to focus only on the governance of solar, not carbon geoengineering, as it was felt that the governance challenges, technological characteristics, and socio-political implications of the two CE classes differ significantly, plus most CDR techniques already have natural governance ‘homes’ in existing national or international law.

[3] The World Academy of Sciences, formerly the academy of sciences for the developing world