Preparing to Manage Geoengineering Contingencies

Author data: 
John Steinbruner
Publication Date: 
April 2013
Description: 
Contribution to WBUR's Climate Change Series
Project: 
Emerging Issues in Cooperative Security
File Name: 
Document Type: 
Articles and Op-Eds

In many Pakistani villages, residents go without power for 16 hours a day or more. Electric power is so unreliable and people are so frustrated that the Taliban has found it can mobilize political support and even induce people to attack power stations out of frustration.

This is serious trouble being driven in a major way by climate change that is beyond the government’s ability to control. And it’s just one example of the growing national and global security challenges climate change presents.

In the coming years, societies around the world will feel the effects of climate change, and some of them will not handle it well. Pakistan is a good example. It’s an fragile society, with a very prominent agricultural sector. It is highly dependent on the Indus River watershed, where 30 to 40 percent of river flow is derived from glaciers and melting snow.

Pakistan faces sharp allocation trade-offs:  Should it use its scarce water resources to grow crops (which provide 65 percent of the nation’s foreign currency earnings), or to generate electricity? Pakistan also faces competing demands for irrigation from different provinces in the watershed. Because of the country’s tenuous political situation, Pakistan favors irrigation over power generation, favors Punjab over Sindh province, and uses unrealistically high estimates of how much water is, in fact, available.

Thus, there’s a division of interest within Pakistan, which pits businesses dependent on electrical power against agriculture dependent on irrigation, and pits both against the country’s growing urban areas that depend on the availability of water resources. These tensions are already generating riots and violence within Pakistan on an almost daily basis.

We have to anticipate severe, even catastrophic, failures in some societies — whether in Pakistan or elsewhere — as the extraordinarily heavy burdens of adapting to climate change occur with increasing frequency and severity over the next three decades. Right now, we are not prepared for that future.

Nations subjected to severe pressures may well consider it a matter of supreme national interest to lower global temperatures “by any means necessary,” including geoengineering. Manipulation of the atmosphere, however, will almost certainly be considered a supreme global interest by the world as a whole.

Precisely because it is a growing national and global security threat, we — the U.S. and other nations — must prepare to manage geoengineering contingencies. As part of that effort, we will need to transform the security relationships among the U.S., the EU, Russia, China and India to elevate our interests in mutually productive collaboration.

We also need to establish protocols for global vetting of geoengineering field trials and ultimate approval. There are several countries, including our own, that are capable of conducting geoengineering operations — such as injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere — on their own and within their own airspace.