The following is a guest post by Elizabeth L. Chalecki, fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and associate professor of international relations at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is 411 parts per million and rising, and the world is increasingly seeing the international security effects of a changing climate. These effects range from loss of physical territory due to sea level rise to higher order effects such as climate-driven migration, the greater spread of infectious diseases, geopolitical instability in the thawing Arctic, and increasing resource conflicts. In addition, the recent discovery of methane-leaking lakes in the Arctic pose the alarming possibility of runaway climate warming with an unknown start date. A quick look at the hockey stick shows us that humans have never lived in this world before.
As nations fail to meet their greenhouse gas mitigation plans, and the cost of adaptation to damages becomes alarmingly high, deliberate climate manipulation technologies known broadly as geoengineering will increasingly look like a viable option for avoiding the worst effects of climate change. Under current international custom, the nation that first develops new scientific technology and makes it operational has the presumed right to use it as they see fit, particularly for their own national security. This means that, as climate change becomes more of a threat, geoengineering could become a valid national defense response.
Nations have used other scientific and technological developments for national defense before. German chemist Fritz Haber turned his scientific work to deadly effect with the development of phosgene weapons in World War I. The Manhattan Project scientists knew full well their discoveries could be used for energy production or bombs of unparalleled lethality. Currently, dual-use technologies such as satellites, cyber systems, and even robots are deployed for national defense. Although the circumstances of their use can be restrained by customs, treaties, and multilateral organizations, the right to use them has never been in question. Would geoengineering be any different?
Commons-based geoengineering (CBG) are those types of climate manipulation technologies that are deployed in the global commons: stratosphere or high seas, and they include stratospheric aerosol injection, ocean iron fertilization, and marine-based cloud brightening. CBG is not yet comprehensively governed by international law; environmental laws and laws of war only apply indirectly or under specific conditions. However, the national security framework is inseparable from the scientific, legal, and ethical questions surrounding CBG, just as it was for the development of the atomic bomb. If a great power nation such as the United States decides to deploy CBG, this might be seen as tacit permission for other great powers like China or middle powers with the scientific capability like the United Kingdom to do the same, especially if they regard this technology as providing a strategic or tactical advantage. This could then result in a kind of climatic arms race to see which state could manipulate the climate to their benefit first.
States in the current international system hold sovereignty as their cardinal value—indeed the entire system is structured around sovereignty and voluntary cooperation. National security in this context is an attempt to maintain territorial sovereignty and protect a nation against external threats. The very potential of CBG to successfully alter the global climate makes its use a violation of sovereignty because it renders a nation unable to protect its territory against the incursion of another state.
In addition, nations that are facing the enemy-less threat of climate change must learn to mount an enemy-less response, but the absence of war does not mean the absence of wartime collateral damage. By 1963, the United States, Soviet Union, and other nuclear nations conducted over five hundred bomb tests between them, and the subsequent radioactive fallout was discovered in plants, animals, and ecosystems far from testing sites. While CBG is not expected to involve radioactivity, its downwind or down-ocean effects could cause a material change in living conditions for millions of people, which makes the use of CBG a matter for international humanitarian law.
Security policymakers must ask themselves whether the existence of a climate-related security threat gives any nation the right to attempt to manipulate the global ecology with CBG. In wartime, a nation is permitted to use any means to defend itself as a matter of normative international relations, but a climate change-related threat, such as food insecurity resulting from a drought-stricken harvest, can still be exigent in peacetime. Since traditional international security doctrine does not account for the enemy-less threat, we need to do further thinking about the rights and responsibilities nations have in balancing their sovereignty and national security against the stability of the global climate. Studying the future use of technology may not seem urgent in the face of more recognizable security threats, but we need to consider the use of CBG now before we are forced into a hasty decision with potentially disastrous consequences.