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A Pragmatic Approach to Climate Change: Part 2—Address the Governance Problem

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
September 22, 2021

This is the second in a series of columns I will write for PA Times Online about the role of government in managing climate change. The first column argued for a strategy that begins with concerted efforts to cool the earth immediately instead of waiting for the possible benefits of long-term reductions in carbon emissions (you can read the first column here). Several promising technologies are available for cooling the earth by reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the surface. These include the following:

  1. Cover as many structures as possible with materials that reflect solar energy back out into space
  2. Emit chemicals into the upper atmosphere to deflect solar energy (similar to the effect of a large volcanic eruption)
  3. Place structures in space to block some solar energy from reaching the earth (literally a parasol for the entire planet).

All these concepts operate under the umbrella ofgeoengineering, the field of dynamically managing the planet’s ecosystem.

With the exception of the first option, which would rely on each nation to install the necessary structures on buildings or even across the ground through each country’s own prerogative, there is a challenging governance problem lurking behind the scale of geoengineering required to cool the planet. The United States or any other country with similar means could take steps that would impact the entire planet without the consent of the world’s population. Furthermore, as has been noted, such steps could have unintended negative consequences such as accidentally causing crop loss and famine.

To be blunt, an initiative by the United States to place chemicals in the atmosphere or to build structures in space to deflect solar energy worldwide could be construed as an act of war. Here is one example of how that might be the case: A structure in space to block solar energy could be targeted to affect just a limited area of the planet. With such a structure installed, the controlling nation literally could prevent sunlight from ever reaching a specific location. If it wanted, the United States might ensure that the sun never rises in North Korea. Another country could do the same to the United States.

We cannot move forward with rapidly cooling the earth until this governance problem is solved. One of the foremost concerns of public administration has become absolutely central to any pragmatic approach to climate change.

What is especially worrisome is that the need for a global governance framework for climate change is escalating at a time when the most obvious of institutions for this purpose—the United Nations—is in a period of long-term decline. Battered by intense criticisms originating from political leaders in the United States and elsewhere, operating under an antiquated charter rooted in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, and struggling to address issues that greatly exceed its current financial means, the United Nations mostly has served the cause of climate change by sponsoring the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That was good enough to win the Nobel Peace Prize but not sufficient to manage geoengineering on a global scale.

All other existing institutions capable of multinational governance of geoengineering are regional in scale and not directly organized for this specific need (e.g., NATO, ASEAN, the European Union).

What a pragmatic approach to climate change requires is a new international organization specifically created to govern efforts to cool the planet rapidly. The participating nations will need to cede individual authority in exchange for reliable “fail safe” mechanisms that can roll back a technology if its consequences prove unpredictably harsh. While we must cool the planet, we also do not want to cause widespread famine or trigger the next ice age.

Is this a pipe dream? Consider that the incentives for participation are unlike those that motivated the creation of the United Nations or other similar institutions. The human species is facing a possible existential crisis because of climate change. As I noted in my prior column, there are about a billion lives immediately at stake. The decision by the United States or any other country to cede authority to an international organization will be made as a benefit-cost calculation. When the potential cost is widespread disruption of human life inside your own borders, there is a strong incentive to consent.

If you need a convincing example of how this pertains to the United States, consider the case of Maricopa County, Arizona, home to about 4.5 million people (4th most populous county in the United States) and rapidly running out of water while temperatures in the summers soar to 120 F or higher. The deepening aridification of the Colorado River watershed appears likely to make Maricopa County and its main city, Phoenix, uninhabitable. When this crisis reaches a tipping point, many of those 4.5 million people will try to flee for various other places in the United States—a climate-caused emergency migration at a volume that this country has never witnessed or managed. That is just a small taste of what is yet to come if measures to cool the earth are not implemented rapidly.


Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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