Real-World management? Governance is the hard part.

Transitioning from happy-go-lucky living on the Real World to managing the planet poses daunting scientific and technical challenges. But these are the least of our problems. My younger (smarter, richer, better-looking, and only) brother noted this in an e-mail:

“… I think a critical factor in determining whether “earth whispering” will succeed or not is time frame. 

       The Wright brothers were able to become effective “airplane whisperers” within a relatively short period of time. Thus, they saw the chance for success and remained focused enough to achieve it. Further, the two of them were able to make significant strides on their own. That must have also helped their continuing motivation.

      Learning to be earth whisperers is obviously a much bigger—and potentially a much longer duration—job. But we do have some fancy tools going for us—-everything from artificial intelligence to instantaneous, world-wide communication. But we also have a big, extra impediment to progress: The fact that a wide array of governments will have to figure out how to work together towards success.”

Well said! Governance is the challenge.

“Earth management” implies some level of understanding of how the planet works, and how it will change in response to human activity, but also – and this is the tough part – some degree of consensus among the 200 nations representing seven billion people from diverse cultures and economic circumstances, about what to do and how and when to do it. Married couples, and partners, know all too well that reaching agreement on consequential matters can be difficult; achieving unanimity among 233 people can be even more so (it might be more in the ratio of 2 to 233 factorial). Government-to-government engagement obviously helps but is by no means a silver bullet.

The world’s track record in this arena is chequered. The United Nations provides seven decades of experience with respect to an array of humanitarian and public-interest issues. More narrowly, global efforts to cope with climate change, centered around the work of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), offer a recent look. The latter actually provides some reasons for cheer. The world started with cookie-cutter approaches demanding nations all contribute “equally” to reducing carbon emissions. These proved an abject failure. Efforts then shifted to the more nuanced idea that each nation will initially contribute what can be supported by its internal domestic politics, to be followed by periodic adjustments, each driven in part by a bit of international shaming. In so doing, the world’s nations seem to have hit on an approach that so far has proven robust even in the face of US withdrawal from formal participation (a withdrawal that will likely be only temporary).

Thus far, scientists have entered such waters with laudable caution, even with regard to governance of the conduct of research itself. For instance, in 2015 the U.S. National Academies of Science issued companion reports on climate intervention research, looking at both Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration and Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth. In both, they explicitly acknowledged the governance issue but refrained from making recommendations. Instead they pleaded their study groups weren’t constituted for such a task.

That is about to change. The Academy is embarking on a new study, Climate Intervention Strategies That Reflect Sunlight to Cool Earth, which addresses both research and governance in an integrated fashion. From the statement of task:

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine proposes to undertake a study that would develop a research agenda and recommend research governance approaches for climate intervention strategies that reflect sunlight to cool Earth. The proposed study would aim to address research needs and relevant research governance in tandem, such that the understanding and thinking on each can inform the other.

The study will focus on sunlight reflection strategies that involve atmospheric interventions, including marine cloud brightening, stratospheric aerosol injection, and cirrus cloud modification. It will consider trans-disciplinary research related to understanding the baseline chemistry, radiative balance, and other characteristics of the atmosphere; estimating the potential impacts and risks, both positive and negative, of these interventions on the atmosphere, climate system, natural and managed ecosystems, and human systems; technological feasibility of these interventions; and approaches and metrics for detecting, monitoring and quantifying the multiple physical and societal impacts of solar climate interventions.

The study will explore and recommend appropriate research governance mechanisms at international, national, and sub-national scales. It will consider research governance that already exists, examples of research governance mechanisms currently being used or considered for other areas of scientific inquiry that could be adapted to the realm of climate intervention research, and any potentially new frameworks required.

To accomplish this, the NASEM study group will be composed of two subpanels. The first will develop a detailed trans-disciplinary research agenda for sunlight reflection strategies. The second (our focus here) will explore and recommend appropriate research governance mechanisms. To quote again from the statement of task: 

The committee will assess questions such as:

  • How best to foster meaningful public participation and consultation in research planning and oversight, and to ensure transparency and accountability regarding a project’s goals and plans, potential risks, and eventual results?
  • How to ensure that research is designed to minimize the chances of unintended impacts and is aimed at promoting the collective benefit of humankind and the environment?
  • How to identify and apply professional standards of good scientific conduct?
  • How to balance adequate oversight, review, public consultation, and approval mechanisms with norms for freedom of scientific inquiry?
  • How to harness the benefits of potential private sector involvement (e.g., innovation, capital investment, cost minimization) without creating vested financial interests in operational deployment, inappropriate intellectual property claims, or threats to national and international public good?
  • What statutory limits might affect what work can be funded by federal agencies and what research may need to adhere to particular existing federal policies or international agreements or processes?
  • How to identify the governance mechanisms that should be in place in advance of field research at various scales?

A disciplined look at such issues is sorely needed and should be most welcome.

Three comments in closing: First, as social scientists in the crowd will quickly (and correctly) note, the answers to these governance questions are probably not so much in hand as they remain to be explored, teased out, investigated, and addressed as  research topics in and of themselves.

Second, it’s not too early to begin thinking about the international conversation, and indeed governance/oversight that would be needed to scale up governance of such research to governance of worldwide operational intervention sometime down the road.

Third, perhaps you’re reading this and thinking you know someone who could contribute usefully to the NASEM conversation, or you might be thinking you could be that person.

Don’t be bashful! Go on line and nominate them – or yourself. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are looking them – and for you. Raise your hand!

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