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The Geopolitics of Emerging Geoengineering Technologies

Date: Thursday, 29 September 2011

Click play to listen to the audio recording of the seminar.
Time: 10.30am – 12pm
Venue: Conference Room 2, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Nanyang Avenue, Block S4, Level B4
Speaker: Dr Jason J. Blackstock, Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment, The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), Canada; and Research Scholar, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Austria
Chairperson: Dr Jochen Prantl, Visiting Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Energy Security Programme, Energy and Human Security Programme, RSIS Centre for NTS Studies



Dr Jason Blackstock introduced his seminar by highlighting the rapidly growing scientific and popular interest in geoengineering. He observed that the topic is likely to provoke heated debates across the globe, and as such, it is important to go beyond pure science and ponder the potential political and geopolitical implications of geoengineering projects.

In order to demonstrate how complex these implications might be, Dr Blackstock provided the audience with an illustration. Recently, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) had decided to get ships to limit their sulphur emissions. This move was motivated by health considerations, as sulphur is a significant cause of respiratory problems and premature deaths across the globe. At the same time, sulphur also happens to contribute to mitigation of global warming by reflecting solar energy. The IMO’s decision thus led to many discussions on how best to deal with the various economic, health and environmental implications.

That example demonstrated what geoengineering effectively is. In the words of Dr Blackstock, it is an attempt to use artificial means to alter the weather or/and climate. He further observed that, fundamentally, geoengineering is not just about technology, but about the decisions that we, as a society, make in order to manage the climate.


Explaining Geoengineering

Dr Blackstock began by offering a more precise definition of geoengineering. According to him, geoengineering, which should perhaps be more accurately called ‘climate engineering’, is the deliberate and large-scale (regional to global) alteration of the climate system. As such, it is concerned with manipulating the global energy balance.

There are two main types of geoengineering projects: the ones attempting to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the ones concerned with solar radiation management.

Removal of carbon dioxide is a means of mitigating the damage that has already occurred. It aims to reverse the current accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. One solution that has attracted high interest is the construction of the so-called ‘artificial trees’, i.e., devices for capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a way that resembles the functioning of real trees. The basic technology seems quite simple, yet for the artificial trees to be globally effective, they would need to be constructed on a very large scale and at enormous cost (which might nevertheless still be much smaller than the cost of cutting down emissions). Another method involves increasing carbon dioxide intake by the world’s oceans through means such as fertilisation. While potentially effective, this solution may produce significant side-effects and prove difficult to control. Overall, Dr Blackstock argued, at the current state of know-how, carbon dioxide removal techniques would require substantial expenditures and even then could prove to be either problematic or not very effective.

The other type of geoengineering project, solar radiation management, could be significantly more effective and perhaps easier to implement. The basic idea behind solar radiation management is to increase atmospheric reflectivity, or, in other words, to reflect a portion of sunlight back to space. The inspiration for this solution came from the observation of the weather and climate patterns following great volcanic eruptions. Major volcanic eruptions causing large emissions of sulphur have often resulted in a relatively immediate cooling effect, such as was observed in Europe in 1816 when it experienced the so-called ‘year without summer’. In theory, the same effect could be achieved by simply emitting large amounts of sulphur into the atmosphere. According to Dr Blackstock, doing so would not need to be too costly or complicated. Indeed, it would be so affordable and effective that in theory a single nation could alter climate patterns across the globe. So, why has no one done this? In Dr Blackstock’s opinion, the reason is this: while global average temperatures would most probably fall, it would be difficult to predict the specific effects on such phenomena as precipitation patterns. Thus, while the technique may solve warming, it could also create new climate change problems that may be equally or even more undesirable, at least for some countries.


Governing Geoengineering

Dr Blackstock continued his presentation by noting that there are three crucial parameters when assessing geoengineering: (1) the ability to counteract man-made climate change; (2) technical feasibility and cost; and (3) timescale (and the total potential magnitude) of impact. He also highlighted that, currently, geoengineering technologies are mostly ‘imaginary’, though they will certainly evolve with further research.

According to Dr Blackstock, we are to expect an increase in geoengineering research projects because so far we have failed to mitigate climate change and because greenhouse gas emissions are unlikely to be reduced any time soon. Thus, it is important to think about the various potential political and geopolitical implications of geoengineering. He noted that there are several issues that need to be addressed. First, there is the question of whether or not the mere debate about the potential of geoengineering could decrease the motivation to work on other mitigation solutions. Second, there is the crucial problem of who would be allowed to ‘control’ the climate and how that would be done.

These issues are likely to become increasingly more problematic as research in the field of geoengineering could progress quickly from the modelling and theorising phase to the actual testing and deployment phase, regardless of the potential environmental impact of such actions. For Dr Blackstock, the key question is one of legitimacy. Any significant geoengineering project must be conducted with a very high degree of international legitimacy.

In discussing the ways in which geoengineering could become a significant factor in global geopolitics, Dr Blackstock offered four scenarios. In the first one, geoengineering could be collectively governed through ‘rational replacement’ strategies, that is, approaches that focus on offsetting the negative consequences of new developments that could result in increased emissions of greenhouse gases. In the second, geoengineering may become attractive to a coalition of countries particularly interested in stopping climate change, if they see that agreement on a global solution is unlikely to happen. The third scenario would involve resorting to global engineering in the event of a major catastrophe if one of the Earth’s tipping points is reached. The fourth scenario assumes that geoengineering could become a source of international political instability. Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine the kind of frictions that might occur if one country were to use geoengineering technology to its benefit, but at the same time cause significant losses in another country’s territory.

According to Dr Blackstock, geoengineering technologies are now currently not fully realised, but they will very quickly mature over the next few years. It is thus perhaps the best time to create mechanisms for effective global governance of geoengineering that would allow us to avoid the potentially disastrous geopolitical consequences of the deployment of these techniques.

Dr Blackstock ended his presentation by arguing that a good international regime for governing geoengineering would ensure wide legitimacy of any geoengineering project, would mean that any new finding would rest in the public domain, and would take care that research is conducted in the most international manner possible.



An issue that was discussed was the extent to which Asian countries, and China in particular, are interested in geoengineering. According to Dr Blackstock, China is certainly interested in this option, but no specific geoengineering policy has so far been formulated. China’s government (at both central and local levels) has demonstrated some interest in rain-making techniques; Dr Blackstock finds this surprising considering the fact that despite 100 years of research, it has not been proven that such techniques are effective. In general, China seems to believe that given the current state of knowledge, it would not be sensible to attempt the manipulation of climate patterns.

The final question was about the use of geoengineering techniques for military purposes. Dr Blackstock confirmed that some army research units might be interested in studying weather modification methods. Any significant climate engineering technology would however have effects that would by definition go beyond the theatre of military operations and as such they would probably not be very attractive for the armed forces. Dr Blackstock further observed that it is in fact of crucial importance from the point of view of legitimacy and trust to ensure that the military does not become involved in geoengineering research.


About the speaker:

Dr Jason J. Blackstock has a unique background in physics, technology and international affairs, and is a leading international policy advisor and scholar in the field of geoengineering and the interface between science and global governance institutions. A professional physicist and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, Jason is Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) where he leads several international research projects evaluating the scientific, political and global governance implications of climate change, energy transitions and emerging geoengineering technologies.

Posted on: 29/9/2011 10:30:00 AM  |  Topic: Energy Security

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