Geoengineering Tensions

Published on 15 February 2018


  • Geoengineering research is a challenging scientific and engineering prospect, which clashes with features of scientific practice which make it conservative.
  • Arguments pertaining to moral hazard and the international cooperation required for geoengineering governance are important (but defeasible).
  • Attempts to rebrand geoengineering, or to decouple geoengineering research from the deployment of technologies, either turn on questions scientists are not qualified to answer, or factors outside of their control.
  • Attempts to govern geoengineering via intervening on actual scientific research (via stage-gating, for instance) are of limited use given the nature of the objections to that research.
  • Governance relating to geoengineering must be sensitive to (1) the conservative nature of scientific research, (2) the need for governance to extend beyond the traditional boundaries of scientific research itself.


There has been much discussion of the moral, legal and prudential implications of geoengineering, and of governance structures for both the research and deployment of such technologies. However, insufficient attention has been paid to how such measures might affect geoengineering in terms of the incentive structures which underwrite scientific progress. There is a tension between the features that make science productive, and the need to govern geoengineering research, which has thus far gone underappreciated. I emphasize how geoengineering research requires governance which reaches beyond science’s traditional boundaries, and moreover requires knowledge which itself reaches beyond what we traditionally expect scientists to know about. How we govern emerging technologies should be sensitive to the incentive structures which drive science.

This paper was published in a Special Issue of Futures edited by Dr Adrian Currie, which collected many papers which were originally presented at our first 2016 Cambridge Conference on Catastrophic Risk in 2016.

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