The International Politics of Climate Engineering: A Review and Prospectus for International Relations
International Studies Review 18 (2016) 438–461
24 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2015 Last revised: 13 May 2018
Date Written: July 15, 2015
An emerging set of proposed technologies to reduce risks from climate change stands to dramatically alter the international politics of climate change and potentially much more. These large-scale intentional interventions in natural systems, typically called ‘climate engineering’ or ‘geoengineering’, may be able to break through the collective action problem of greenhouse gas emissions cuts and greatly reduce climate risks rapidly and at low cost. At the same time, they pose their own environmental and social risks while potentially turning international climate politics ‘upside down’. Tensions brought about by climate engineering could conceivably lead to international conflict and pose a threat to global security. Alternatively, climate engineering could help reduce existing tensions and avoid potential security threats. There is currently a significant and growing literature on the international politics of climate engineering. However, it has been produced primarily by scholars from outside the discipline of International Relations (IR) and, in many cases, published outside of traditional academic journals. These scholars and other commentators often make claims which draw loosely from IR yet lack deep theoretical underpinning. Furthermore, it is strongly dominated by the neoliberal Institutionalist perspective, yet in our opinion should be of interest to a wide range of IR researchers, including those who previously have felt little reason to engage with environmental matters such as climate change. We are concerned that IR scholars are missing a critical opportunity to offer insights into, and perhaps help shape, the emerging international politics of climate engineering. To that end, the primary goal of this paper is to call the attention of the IR community to these developments. Thus we offer here an overview of the existing academic literature on the international politics of climate engineering, and a preliminary assessment of its strengths and lacunae. We trace several key themes in this corpus, including problem structure; the concern that climate engineering could undermine emissions cuts; the potentially ‘slippery slope’ of research and development; unilateral implementation; interstate conflict; militarization; rising tensions between industrialized and developing countries; and governance challenges and opportunities. The international politics of climate engineering are then considered through the lenses of the leading IR theories (Realism, Institutionalism, Liberalism, and Constructivism), exploring what they have and — to a greater degree — what they could contribute, as well as potential lines of inquiry. Many informed observers — though only a few disciplinary IR scholars — have asserted that climate engineering has the potential to alter international relations in profound ways. Scholars rooted in the major IR theories should have much to say on a number of topics related to climate engineering, including its power and transformational potentials, the possibility of counter-climate engineering, issues of institutional design, international law, and emergent practices. We believe that it is incumbent on the IR community, whose defining focus is international relations, to turn its attention to these unprecedented technologies and to the full scope of possible ramifications they might have for the international system. If climate engineering field research or even implementation moves forward, knowledge and insights from IR, spanning the diverse range of leading theories, could play a crucial role in helping ensure that it proceeds on a well-informed basis grounded in our best understanding(s) of world politics.
Keywords: climate engineering, geoengineering, climate change, global warming, international relations, international law, environmental law
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