The sky is the legal limit for geoengineers

THE 19th conference on climate change was praised for maintaining momentum in reaching a global climate change agreement in 2015. 

But are governments likely to deliver on their promises within the next two years, and will any agreement  reached be too little, too late? 

The concern that we are running out of time is fuelling an alternative response to climate change known as ‘‘geoengineering’’, which involves using technology on a global scale to control the Earth’s climate and offset climate change.

The most prominent geoengineering proposal is to spray minute reflective particles into the atmosphere. These are designed to act as a ‘‘global shadecloth’’ by blocking a small percentage of sunlight from warming the Earth. Scientists in the US and UK are developing this technology, and it looks feasible. 

For just a few billion dollars it may be possible to inject these particles into the sky in an attempt to cool the planet. However, there are risks of serious environmental side effects, including damage to the ozone layer and radical changes to the global climate system. And the colour of the sky will become whiter.

These risks are significant and could have global impacts. Scientists and governments must take  the utmost precautions if they chose to use geoengineering technology. There are no international laws to stop them attempting geoengineering, and it is unlikely that governments will be held accountable if something goes wrong. If a nation attempts geoengineering and damages the climate system or the atmosphere, it is doubtful that they could be sued for this damage under international law. 

International rules need to be developed to govern geoengineering. We need to start talking openly about geoengineering and consider how we want this technology to be used and regulated. This discussion should not be confined to scientists and politicians, or the pages of academic journals.

 Geoengineering has the potential to affect everybody, and therefore the voice of the people must play an active role. 

Stimulating public discussion of geoengineering is the goal behind the work of Sydney artist Dr Josh Wodak, currently on exhibition at The Lock Up Cultural Centre in Newcastle. In his exhibition, Shape Things to Come, Wodak explores how the relationship with the environment will shift if we take the geoengineering option.

Wodak’s work forces us to consider the sacrifices inherent in geoengineering and reflect on the morality of this option. Do we want to trade off the risks of climate change for the risks of geoengineering? Is bleaching the sky a fair price to pay to prevent rising sea levels? Do we have the right to usurp Mother Nature as the shaper of our world? 

Wodak’s work represents climate change as a game of Russian roulette. As climate change  progresses and the risks increase, more bullets are loaded into metaphorical guns. With the use of geoengineering, the guns in the artwork disappear and are replaced by a colourless, geoengineered sky. 

However, the lingering question remains. If we choose the geoengineering option, will it remove the gun or  add to the ammunition