Geoengineering climate change: can the law catch up? Climate engineering and international law: what is in the national interest?

Author:Lane, Lee
Position::Proceedings of the One Hundred Fifth Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law

This panel was convened at 9:00 a.m., Saturday, March 26, by its moderator, Rebecca Bratspies of City University of New York School of Law, who introduced the panelists: William C.G. Burns of Williams College's Center for Environmental Studies; Lee Lane of the Hudson Institute; and Hari Osofsky of the University of Minnesota Law School.*


The title of this panel is "Geoengineering Climate Change: Can the Law Catch Up?" This query prompts a counter-question: Why, exactly, would we want that to happen? A few thoughts might help to frame a discussion of possible answers.

President Obama is plainly resolved to press ahead with new plans to limit emissions. Most Republicans in Congress are equally determined to block this effort. In effect, the United States seems to be locked in the same climate policy stalemate that has prevailed for the last twenty years.

On both sides of all this strife, those of a more pragmatic cast of mind have reason for dismay. On the one hand, even the most sanguine proponents of greenhouse gas (GHG) controls should see by now that China, India, and other fast-growing countries will continue building coal-fired power plants; therefore, U.S. GHG controls can do little to lower whatever risks climate change poses.

On the other hand, even the most adamant foes of GHG controls must know that the majority of climate scientists and American voters want action to lower the perceived risks of climate change. These demands, in their opponents' eyes, threaten to cause serious net harm to the U.S. economy. To such opponents, it is not climate change, but ill-conceived efforts to halt it, that presents the more dire threat. That Obama and his allies pursue GHG controls so doggedly, and with so little regard to costs and benefits, lends credence to these fears.

At least some people from each side of the debate, then, should welcome a way of lessening the perceived risks of both climate change and the measures proposed to counter it. Such an option may exist. It is called climate engineering (CE).

The more promising kinds of CE do not lower GHG concentrations. Rather, they would reflect back into space a small amount of the incoming sunlight; all else being equal, temperatures would fall although GHG levels would not. (1) CE, therefore, may lessen at least some of the risks of global warming.

At least two sunlight-based CE concepts may be able to offset all the warming expected in this century. (2) One of them involves lofting a fine seawater mist into low-level marine clouds. There, the droplets would "whiten" the clouds, i.e., they would cause them to reflect more sunlight (3) and perhaps lengthen their lives. (4) One delivery concept would use a fleet of high-tech, wind-powered, remote-controlled ships to produce the spray. (5) The clouds that form in the wakes of ships at sea offer a natural analogue to the concept. (6)

The second approach contemplates injecting very fine sulfate particles into the stratosphere. (7)...

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