Vested Interests and Geoengineering Research

Much remains uncertain about geoengineering, which may offer important benefits—or risks. In moving ahead, there is a set of guidelines that should prove valuable.

On March 11, 2011, Japan suffered one of the most devastating earthquakes in its history, followed by a massive tsunami that engulfed reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant located near the coast. In Japan, the government body that regulates O nuclear power is not highly independent of the utilities it oversees, and regulators had failed to address known safety issues with the reactors. After the crisis, Japan lurched toward a nuclear-free ideology. How can you blame them?

But the catastrophe was not fundamentally caused by a lack of technical information or know-how. Reviewers of the incident found that during the crisis, regulators and company officials made some highly questionable management decisions that were influenced by fears of financial loss and of losing face. Indeed, the catastrophe could have been avoided if good decisions had been made based on available data without the influence of vested interests. As a result, Japan’s energy future has been delimited by human foibles and the resulting breakdown of trust in nuclear energy.

If the tsunami in Japan flooded one coastline and several nuclear reactors, climate change may flood all coastlines and cause worldwide dislocations of people, failures of agriculture, and destruction of industries. The likelihood of these impacts has lent legitimacy to the investigation of intentional climate management, or “geoengineering.” Society may, at some future time, attempt geoengineering in order to stave off the worst, most unbearable effects of climate change. The technical challenge alone is enormous, but Fukushima provides a cautionary tale for managing the endeavor. Is it possible to develop a trustworthy capacity to manage the climate of Earth?

Incentives for manipulation

The potential opportunities, benefits, harms, and risks of geoengineering the climate will almost certainly create incentives to manipulate geoengineering choices, and the stakes will be enormous. Societies globally would be wise to face these potential vested interests as they begin to consider researching geoengineering.

Governments should charter the institutions charged with developing geoengineering research to be rewarded for exposing methods that are bad ideas as well as good.

Vested interests, in this realm, relate to fortune, fear, fame, and fanaticism, and what to do about them. In moderation, seeking fortune or fame, exercising caution, or being guided by philosophy are appropriate and can lead to innovation and good decisions. However, these attributes may become liabilities when nations, institutions, or individuals seek to manipulate the decisionmaking process to make money, enhance stature, save face, or influence decisions based on fanatical ideology. Society can and should expect people to act with honesty and integrity, but should also plan for dealing with vested interests.

Before moving to planning, it is first worthwhile to examine the forces at work.

Fortune. Parties who stand to gain or lose fortunes by promoting or opposing a geoengineering decision have a vested interest in manipulating that decisionmaking processes. Researchers or companies with a financial stake in experiments or possible deployments may seek to push research or deployment in a direction that is ill-advised for society as a whole. Recently, for example, a company desiring to sell carbon credits for sequestering carbon in the ocean conducted a rogue experiment on iron fertilization (the Haida experiment) off the west coast of Canada without obtaining permission or giving due consideration to potential environmental impacts. At this time, there is no legal framework in place to protect society’s interests from a financially motivated company attempting such a geoengineering experiment. In the history of environmental remediation, companies that made money from remediation activities have at times fought changes in regulation that would obviate the need for remediation. For example, California used to require the excavation of soil that had been contaminated by leaking gasoline tanks, until researchers documented that naturally occurring soil bacteria would eventually consume the leaked gasoline, thereby obviating expensive excavation. Companies that stood to make a profit from excavation fought this change in regulation. Similarly, a company with contracts to perform geoengineering would have a vested interest in continued deployment.

Countries that produce fossil fuels and companies comprising the fossil fuel industry may view geoengineering as a way to delay or distract attention from mitigation efforts and thus promote the technology to protect their interests. The chief executive officer of Exxon Corporation, Rex Tillerson, articulated his opinion about climate change, glibly commenting: “. . . we’ll adapt to that. It’s an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions.” The opinion espoused by Tillerson reflects his company’s vested interests. Investigators have documented cases where companies with vested financial interests have bought studies to suppress or manipulate data related to climate change, smoking, and pharmaceuticals in order to obtain favorable opinions, decrease funding, or delay the publication of research. In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskis, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, described what she saw as the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to manipulate the scientific process and conduct extensive misinformation campaigns related to climate science. These lessons reinforce the idea that the design of a geoengineering enterprise should limit the influence of financial incentives.

Fear. The idea that humans can control the climate is fundamentally hubristic. Individuals involved in geoengineering should be appropriately fearful of this technology and should have great humility and healthy self-doubt that they can control the consequences of intervention.

But there are inappropriate fears that should be avoided. Those involved in geoengineering should not fear losing face when they point out problems or discover negative results. Scientific journals should publish negative results, which for geoengineering are equally as important as positive results. Society surely needs to know if a proposed technology is ineffective or inadvisable.

An institution charged solely with managing geoengineering research would have a vested interest in having geoengineering accepted and deployed, because its continued existence would depend on the approach under consideration being a viable course of action. The institution might be tempted to overstate the benefits of the technologies if it fears losing funding. An institution whose focus is on geoengineering might not want to listen to minority opinions that could slow the momentum of research funding.

As a case in point drawn from recent events, during the economic collapse, there were minority positions within the Bush administration that could have saved the national economy from disaster. For example, the chief of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Brooksley Born, repeatedly warned of the dangers of the unregulated derivative market. Her prescient minority voice was suppressed by powerful groupthink within the administration that was vested in economic growth, and she eventually resigned. One cannot help but wonder how many minority voices were suppressed out of fear in light of Born’s experiences. People who are in the minority and sense problems or dangers must not be afraid to speak against the majority or powerful figures who might become invested in the success of geoengineering research.

Fear is a powerful human motivator and often drives institutional culture. It would be a grave mistake to create institutions and power structures in which people are motivated to become overconfident about their ability to control the climate or fear speaking out when they represent minority opinions or are bearers of bad news.

Fame. Perhaps universally, humans have a desire for recognition. Scientists and engineers and other advocates are not immune from wanting to become a Nobel Prize winner, or be called on by the media, or even just have an enviable publication record. The desire for recognition can become a vested interest that leads to a loss of perspective.

Individuals developing geoengineering concepts are likely to know more about the subject than anyone else, and their expertise has tremendous value for society. However, it is always better to have a fresh pair of eyes on a difficult and consequential subject. Society should not depend solely on the developers of technology to assess the effectiveness and advisability of their proposals.

Fanaticism. Unlike climate change, geoengineering is not yet an ideologically polarized partisan issue, but it could become so. Society would clearly benefit from a debate over geoengineering that is grounded in quality information and reasonable dialogue. Fanaticism would polarize and distort the debate and the sound decisionmaking that society requires.

A reasonable ideological position drifts into fanaticism when it hardens into a rigid devotion. Most people have ideological positions on matters of importance, but human philosophies are incomplete and imperfect. For example, in a moment of surprising candor in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan, famously testified that there was a flaw in his free-market ideology, and that the flaw helped cause the crisis. The tendency to adhere too rigidly to one’s worldview can put one in danger of sliding into fanaticism. Fanatics often use unreasonable and unscrupulous means to promote their causes. To state the tragically obvious: Fanatics can sincerely do much harm.

Many groups and people will oppose the very idea of geoengineering for legitimate philosophical reasons and use honest means to argue against such research. They will raise important issues that need to be debated. However, motivated segments with a vested interest in their ideology or worldview can behave like fanatics, ignoring or misrepresenting factual information and using questionable techniques to create distrust, a situation that could in turn lead to an inability to act strategically in face of climate catastrophes.

On the right side of the political spectrum, for example, an individualistic free-market ideology might lead to fanatical positions that see geoengineering as an alternative to “heavy-handed” government regulations to mitigate greenhouse gases. For example, Larry Bell, an endowed professor at the University of Houston and frequent commenter on energy-related matters, remarked in his latest book, Climate Corruption, that for many on the right, climate change “has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution.” Their vested position, aligned with Exxon’s, could be “we will just engineer our way out of this problem.”

On the left, rigid environmental or antitechnology ideologies might lead some groups to oppose any discussion of geoengineering. Geoengineering is born out of a fundamental concern for global environmental health, but as with the climate problem in general, it has conflicts with an environmental ideology that narrowly focuses on species preservation, regional conservation, and what is called the precautionary principle. (One version of the precautionary principle states: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”) Based on an ideology that centers on species preservation, some environmental groups oppose the development of renewable power plants that are designed to help provide energy without emissions but that could cause climate change that could wipe out many species around the globe. In the case of geoengineering, there are environmental groups, such as ETC, that cite the precautionary principle as grounds for banning all geoengineering research, which it sees as a threat to biodiversity. In an ironic twist, rigid antitechnology ideology might become a wedge used by some environmental groups to reject any consideration of geoengineering, even when research is motivated by a desire to preserve biodiversity.

Addressing the four F’s

Moderating the corrupting effects of fortune, fear, fame, and fanaticism should be integral to the development of future geoengineering choices. Society can pay attention to institutional and policy issues that would prevent vested interests from doing harm and provide a counterbalance to human foibles. In this spirit, we offer some guidance for transparency, institutional design, research management, public deliberation, and independent advisory functions. Our suggestions reflect and expand on ideas presented in the Oxford Principles, issued in 2011 by a team of scholars in the United Kingdom as a first effort at producing a code of ethics to guide geoengineering research, and in a report on geoengineering and climate remediation research published in 2011 by the Bipartisan Policy Center, an independent think tank based in Washington, DC. These overlapping strategies each deal with more than one vested interest and could help build genuine trust among scientists, policymakers, and the public.

Transparency. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” When all parties present accurate information clearly and forthrightly, vested interests become less influential. To enable effective public accountability and deliberation, information must be transmitted in a way that is comprehensive, but useful to the lay public. Information users need an accurate understanding of such things as funding priorities, research results, limitations, predictions, plans, and errors. This can be referred to as “functional” transparency, to emphasize that the meaning and significance of the information made transparent should also be transparent, not obfuscated in a blizzard of data.

Functional transparency presents challenges. Scientists use many specialized caveats to express what is known about the climate that are understood by and important for scientists, but can obscure the significance of information and be misleading to nonspecialists. For example, climate scientists have had a difficult time articulating the connections between extreme weather events, such as storms Irene and Sandy, and global climate change. The relationship between weather and climate is complex, and scientists know that such extreme storms have a finite likelihood of occurring with or without climate change. Yet understanding the connections between extreme weather events and climate change is important for effective public deliberations on climate mitigation and adaptation. Scientists’ need for cautious, complex caveats often clouds the issue in public deliberations.

Also, the public is more likely than the scientific community to focus on the context for research. For example, public discourse on geoengineering research, especially outdoor research, is likely to focus on the purpose of the experiment (in fact, some public deliberation never gets beyond this issue), on alternatives to the experiment, on the potential benefits of the methods being researched, and on the potential risks of the experiments being used. This may be especially true whenever there is the possibility that vested interests may be involved, in which case people are wisely concerned about the motives and goals of research. As a case in point drawn from agricultural biotechnology, the debate has largely centered on the motives and goals of research. Proponents of biotechnology often claim that their goals are to address the problems of world hunger and agricultural sustainability. Opponents question these motives, charging that the real goal is a singular focus on increasing the wealth of researchers and their corporate sponsors.

Scientists, however, do not always make the purpose of research completely transparent. For example, some highly legitimate and important climate science research—say, on cloud behavior—simultaneously informs geoengineering concepts. This research spawns the publication of geoengineering analyses, even though geoengineering is not explicitly named as a purpose of the research. Investigators can and do purposely downplay or obfuscate geoengineering as a purpose of research, because this topic is controversial. Just as in the debate about biotechnology, the lack of transparency about the purpose of the research may eventually erode trust and undermine public deliberation about geoengineering. Norms for research transparency should include forthright statements about the purpose of research. There should be clear and understandable assessments of the scope and state of knowledge and expected gains in understanding that could come from research. The transparent release of research information should be designed to inform public deliberation.

As a good example of bridging the divide between scientific discourses and public deliberations, Sweden’s nuclear waste program conducted a study, called a “safety case,” of a proposed repository for nuclear wastes. The study proved a primary tool in developing a public dialogue on the topic, and the process resulted in a publicly approved, licensed facility. The safety case communicated in lay language the technical arguments about why the proposed repository was thought to be safe. It also described the quality of the information used in the argument; that is, how well the factors contributing to safety were understood. The document laid out future plans about what would be done to improve understanding, the expected outcome of these efforts, and how previous efforts to improve understanding performed as expected or not. At a follow-up iteration of the safety case, the results of recent experiments were compared with previously predicted results. Over time, the transparency of this process enabled everyone, including the public, to see that the scientists investigating the future behavior of the proposed repository had an increasingly accurate understanding of its performance.

What lesson does this experience hold for geoengineering? Whereas the goal of this nuclear waste research was to build a successful repository, the goal of geoengineering research is not to successfully deploy geoengineering but rather to provide the best information possible to a decision process about whether to deploy. Nevertheless, the safety case provides a useful example for satisfying the norm of transparency required for effective public deliberations on scientific issues.

There is reason to hope that the propensity for ideological decisionmaking can be limited by transparency in geoengineering research. The experience at Fukushima, however, suggests that the opposite is true: Vested interests can drive nontransparent and poor management decisions that destroy public trust and encourage more extreme, fanatical responses. To engender trust, the people or groups conducting or managing research should explain clearly what they are trying to accomplish, what they know and do not know, and the quality of the information they have. They should reveal intentions, point out vested interests, and admit mistakes, and do all of this in a way that is frank and understandable— all examples of actions that enhance trust. Any subsequent modifications of plans and processes should be transparent and informed by independent assessments of purpose, data, processes, analyses, results, and conclusions.

Institutional design. Institutional design can foster standards of practice and appropriate regulations that will counteract many vested interests. Public funding of research is the first act of research governance, as it implies a public decision to do research in the first place. If research is publicly funded, then democratically elected officials can be held accountable for it. Although public funding would not by itself prevent privately funded research, it would fill a vacuum that private money has so far filled. Furthermore, publicly funded research should not lead to patenting that would produce financial vested interests. Geoengineering should be managed as a public good in the public interest.

Governments should charter the institutions charged with developing geoengineering research to be rewarded for exposing methods that are bad ideas as well as good. One way to obviate institutional vested interest in the success of a method would be to create institutions responsible for a wide spectrum of climate strategies. If an institution investigates an array of alternatives, it would have great freedom to reject inferior choices. In an ideal world, institutions would be created to develop technical strategies for dealing with climate change in general, the defining problem of our time, and these institutions would be given broad purview over mitigation efforts, adaption requirements, and the evaluation of geoengineering.

Just as institutions should not be punished for admitting to failed concepts, individual scientists involved in geoengineering research should not have their careers depend on positive versus negative results. If they discover adverse information, it should be valued appropriately as adding to overall understanding. Organizations that fund research and universities and laboratories that conduct research should publicize and reward research results demonstrating the ineffectiveness, inadvisability, or implausibility of a geoengineering idea. Just as NASA scientists in the early years applauded when a rocket (unmanned, of course) blew up, institutions should reward curiosity and courage in the face of failures.

Research management. Most research in the United States today is “investigator-driven,” in which funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, may design a general call for proposals, but the investigators generate the research topics. Funding agencies may convene workshops to explore strategic research needs that subsequently become part of a programmatic call for research proposals. Workshops help to illuminate research that will contribute to an overall goal, but this process does not organize research to achieve a mission per se. There are important previous instances when research with a large-scale public goal was conducted in a collaborative “mission-driven” manner. Now the nation rarely uses this model, and investigator-driven research is the norm.

Geoengineering research (and climate research in general) might benefit from rediscovering, and perhaps reinventing, collaborative mission-driven research modes that focus on a structured investigation of all interconnected parts of the Earth-human-biosphere systems of interest. Interconnections, key failure modes, and critical information needs would be among critical factors to be systematically identified and addressed. The complex, potentially powerful, and intricate problem of intentional management of the climate requires a systems approach. As well, collaborative mission-driven research management would serve to balance the motivation of individuals by rewarding success in meeting the overall goals of research and would compensate for the somewhat random focus of investigator-driven research.

Initial reactions to this suggestion may tend toward the negative, given how mission-driven research was conducted during the Cold War. In the United States and the former Soviet Union, this style of research resulted in massive radioactive releases into the environment, causing extensive contamination of soil, sediments, and surface- and groundwater throughout weapons complexes. Learning from this experience, and using the suggestions offered here, could lead to a reinvention of mission research for geoengineering that would be open, transparent, publically accountable, and environmentally motivated.

There also may be a need to revise the current method, peer review, for assessing the outcomes of research. Peer review will remain necessary—in part, to help balance the exuberance of individual scientists—but by itself will probably be inadequate. Peer review of journal articles would cover geoengineering projects in pieces, without taking into consideration their tight connection to the context and the entirety of the system problem. There is a potentially useful alternative method that was developed for assessing the results of research on nuclear weapons systems that could not be published for security reasons. With severe limitations on access to peer review, laboratories conducting the research pitted two teams against each other to provide checks and scrutiny on research results. In this “red team/blue team” model, one team develops the research, and the other tries to ferret out all the problems. This approach balances a team that might represent institutional and personal vested interests in promoting a technology with a team whose vested interest is in finding out what is wrong with the idea. For evaluating geoengineering research and results, the red team/blue team approach could be considered a more systematic form of peer review.

Public deliberation. Effective public deliberation of the issues, benefits, risks, liabilities, ethics, costs, and other relevant issues will expose and help to neutralize any vested interests that might be in play. Public deliberation can highlight inappropriate profit-making concerns, point out unbalanced scientific positions, call attention to hubris and institutional bias, and counter the influence of partisan positioning on decisionmaking. Public deliberation will be enhanced and facilitated by research that is conducted transparently in trusted institutions that are managed to produce outcomes in the public interest; that is, through all of the suggestions described here. Public deliberation is perhaps one of the few approaches that can help expose ideologies for what they are, whether they come from the political right, which often obfuscates and denies climate science, or from extreme environmentalism, which often uses scare tactics to stop any technological choice anywhere, anytime. No group or individual should get a pass for mendacity in the face of the choices the nation will have to make regarding climate. Public discourse and deliberation will help prevent manipulative dialogue sponsored by ideologues from becoming decisive.

Deliberative dialogue facilitates real-life decisions about setting and prioritizing research goals and selecting the most appropriate means to achieve those goals. For geoengineering, society needs discussions that characterize ethical and social goals; examine competing alternatives; discuss practical obstacles; consider unwanted side effects; assess the technology, including its effectiveness and advisability; and ultimately produce policy recommendations. The deliberative process requires placing scientific research and technological developments in a larger social and ethical context, using this analysis to select intelligent and ethical goals, and identifying appropriate and effective means to achieve those goals.

A recent project in the United Kingdom is a successful example of effective public deliberation on geoengineering. In 2011, a team of researchers planned an experiment to investigate the feasibility of using tethered balloons to release small aerosol particles into the atmosphere that might reflect a few percent of incoming solar radiation and thereby cool things down a bit. The field test would be part of a larger research project, called Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering, or SPICE, that involved laboratory and computer analysis of several geoengineering techniques. Although the proposed experiment was nearly riskfree— the plan was to spray a small amount of water into the air—public deliberation about the plans revealed that this work looked like a “dash to deployment” for an immature solar radiation management technology. Research on deployment was not deemed to be necessary or important at this stage. Deliberation also exposed the fact that one of the investigators had intellectual property interests in the balloon technology, and this seemed to violate the principle that geoengineering should be conducted as a public good. Consequently, the investigators themselves stopped the experiment. This honest response helped the investigators accrue credibility and build trust, because their decision responded appropriately to public deliberation.

Independent advisory functions. An independent, broadly based advisory group would facilitate all of these suggested strategies for addressing vested interests. Such a group could help develop standards and norms for transparency, assess and evaluate institutional design, help to develop norms for research management, and lead the way in developing modes and norms of public deliberation. Because the issues raised by geoengineering go far beyond science, an advisory body should also be able to address a variety of broader issues, such as ethics, public deliberation, and international implications. This expanded charge implies that a board’s membership should also go beyond scientific expertise.

Forming independent advisory boards will face a number of barriers. Indeed, the need for an advisory function highlights the inherent controversial nature of geoengineering research, a fact that can make the political choice to start research even more difficult. In the United States, a public board of this type would probably have to meet the standards of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which is intended to ensure that advisory committees are objective and transparent to the public. Ironically, the act’s requirements effectively inhibit the formation of advisory committees, because they require funding, which is now scarce. There are other potential problems as well. Much current research on geoengineering is very preliminary, and perhaps all of the techniques identified so far will be ineffective, will have unacceptable side effects, or will be impossible to deploy under real-world conditions. Some people in the geoengineering field are concerned that having an advisory board to oversee research might interfere with the research before it has demonstrated that there is anything—positive or negative— that is worthy of oversight. Also, it is not clear what agency or person in the government should form such a board and to whom it should report.

As a practical example of how an advisory body might prove useful, consider again the SPICE balloon/aerosol experiment in the United Kingdom. If there had been an advisory board in place, it might well have recommended that the government cancel the experiment. Such a recommendation would have facilitated government action to stop the experiment, rather than leaving the decision up to the scientists involved, and this step would have given a rather different message to the public about managing controversial research.

The potential value of advisory boards also has been backed up by the research community itself. At a 2011 workshop on geoengineering governance sponsored by the Solar Radiation Management Initiative (an international project supported by the Royal Society in the United Kingdom, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Third World Academies of Science), participants were asked to consider various forms of organizing geoengineering research. All of them favored a requirement for an independent advisory group, perhaps the only conclusion of this meeting that had unanimous agreement.

In practical terms, consideration of such advisory boards will give rise to many questions about their membership, scope, and authority. To whom should a board report, and how should a national advisory board relate to the international community? How should an advisory board relate to the many governmental and intergovernmental agencies that would almost surely be involved in geoengineering research of one kind or another? Review boards that deal with research involving human subjects cannot actually authorize such research, but they do have the authority to stop research deemed unethical. Should a similar authority be developed for advisory boards on geoengineering research? Answers to these questions should evolve over time, perhaps starting with informal, nonbinding discussions among the various agencies involved.

Just as scientists do not yet know very much about the effectiveness, advisability, and practicality of possible geoengineering technologies, society also does not know very much about how to manage knowledge as it emerges from geoengineering research. If society is to govern this effort without the ill effects of vested interests, it will be necessary to learn how to govern at the same time as researchers are gathering information about the science and engineering of the various concepts. So the early formation of advisory boards or commissions to guide the development of governance is perhaps the first and most important action in countering the potential adverse effects of vested interests and in ensuring that any decisions to pursue or not pursue geoengineering remain legitimate societal choices.

Preparing in advance

Although the future of geoengineering remains uncertain although tantalizing, one thing is clear. It is not too early to begin the conversation about the human weaknesses, vested interests, and frightening possibilities of mismanaging geoengineering. The Fukushima disaster is just one in a long list of reminders of the consequences of not anticipating and moderating the effects of such all too human foibles as fortune, fear, fame, and fanaticism. It is unthinkable that geoengineering should be added to this list of human-caused technological tragedies.

And though much remains to be learned, it is also clear that a number of approaches are already available to moderate the corrupting effects of vested interests: norms for transparency, institutions designed for honest evaluation, management of research in the public interest, public deliberation to expose vested interests and counter fanaticism, and independent advisory boards to highlight and recommend specifics in all of these areas.

The challenge, then, is to get started. Earth is facing ever greater climate threats. Solutions need to be identified and implemented, with all appropriate speed. For many people, geoengineering may offer important help—if the nation, and the world, proceed in a deliberate, thoughtful manner in conducting research and applying the lessons learned.

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Cite this Article

Long, Jane C. S., and Dane Scott. “Vested Interests and Geoengineering Research.” Issues in Science and Technology 29, no. 3 (Spring 2013).

Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring 2013