The Sciences

Should Human Attempts to Modify the Climate Be Considered a Public Good?

As countries gear up to modify parts of the world's climate to suit their needs, we need to decide if the effects of their actions will be a public good or a public bad.

Climate engineering, or just geoengineering, refers to deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change.

And of the five key Oxford Principles to govern climate geoengineering, the first is that it should “be regulated as a public good”. However, ‘public good’ means different things to different audiences. Climate scientists, social scientists, economists, the general public and policymakers could all infer different things from what it means to look at something as a public good.

In a new study published in the journal Global Transitions, Robert Holahan, an associate professor at Binghamton University, New York, and I argue that the technical definition of public goods in economics detracts from the central question of stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI). Specifically, the definition of public goods doesn’t account for the divergent and disproportionate effects of SAI on some groups and regions.

The ‘good’ in public good refers to an ‘economic good’ or a thing – as in goods and services – that has two main characteristics: non-excludability and non-rivalry. Non-excludability refers to the fact that once a public good is provided, it is difficult to exclude individuals from enjoying its benefits even if they haven’t contributed to its provisioning. Non-rivalry refers to the fact that the consumption of a public good does not negatively impact other individuals’ ability to also benefit from a public good.

For example, national defence is a public good: once provided, it is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous for all residents living within a country. That said, public goods need not be ‘good’, as in something morally desirable.

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Going by the technical definition discussed above, air pollution is also a public good: once provided, it is non-excludable and non-rivalrous. To avoid the confusion between the technical and the normative connotation attached to ‘good’, many scholars use the word ‘public bad’ to refer to public goods that produce bad outcomes. But technically speaking all public bads are essentially ‘public goods’.

The literature on public goods recognises the confusion caused by the vocabulary of public goods. Holahan and I make two new arguments, one related to the theory of public goods and the other to the importance of the use of the vocabulary of public goods in policy debates.

First, we discuss the importance of heterogeneous externalities – that is, multiple and divergent effects of a public good. A common example of public goods used in economics textbooks is that of a lighthouse, which benefits all ships nearby. However, a lighthouse could also produce negative consequences; e.g., the glare produced by a lighthouse could interrupt sleep for local residents or their night-time enjoyment of a popular beach.

We argue that the theories of public goods don’t account for these multiple and divergent effects. Divergent effects are non-issues if they have harmless consequences, like glare from a lighthouse disrupting the view (at least if a small number of people are affected). But when the side effects of using a public good are heterogeneous and uncertain, with the potential to affect hundreds of millions of people – as with SAI – the technical definition of public good doesn’t tell us anything about its net effects.

This doesn’t refute the technical status of SAI as a ‘public good’ but has significant implications for policy and governance debates.

So, second, we focus on policy debates. When confronted with the kinds of issues set out above, the advocates of SAI argue that it’s possible to its minimise potential side effects by using just the right amount of SAI at the most optimal set of locations in the stratosphere. This reply evokes images of scientists in lab coats operating a global thermostat – a role that most scientists reject outright. Even if we assumed that the global community can find an enlightened group of scientists motivated by egalitarian concerns, the scientists will need to surmount enormous scientific uncertainties related to unknown, and the potentially unknowable, effects of SAI on atmospheric dynamics.

At our present level of understanding, scientists can at best hope to produce climatic outcomes of certain specifications at a certain scale of aggregation with some certainty. For example, they could make an assurance that the average change in monsoons over south and southeast Asia are likely to be moderate. That still excludes the possibility of significant variations within the region, even within the boundaries of a large country like China or India.

Referring to SAI as a public good, while technically true, distracts us from thinking about the implications of the potentially large sub-regional and subnational effects. And accounting for these heterogeneous effects has significant implications for governance of SAI research, which should focus on regional modelling, economic and social effects, and the deeply political questions surrounding how geoengineering science is translated into policy interventions.

At both the national and international level, the powerful and the wealthy often influence the policymaking process. It’s especially salient when national governments, notorious for not being accountable to a majority of their citizens, are asked to represent the interest of populations that are divided along caste, class, gender, ethnicity and subnational regions. Whether the adversely affected groups are heard in policy conversations or compensated in the event of adverse impacts depends on how responsive and effective the national government is to the interests of the non-powerful.

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Social science research shows that political and economic power don’t always manifest in the form of outright coercion or suppression of the powerless. Indeed, the exercise of power in this era is intertwined with the institutions of democracy and the discourses of deliberation and participation. The vocabulary of ‘public goods’ lends itself to similar discourses in the context of geoengineering debates, in which policymakers and members of the public confound its technical meaning with its normative implications. As such, this vocabulary – and the larger set of discourses the proponents of geoengineering are marshalling – reinforces the power of the dominant actors, agencies and institutions.

The question of accountability of powerful actors and institutions is as important as those of the science of regional modelling and socio-economic impacts. Thinking through these questions is indispensable to any discussion of the governance of SAI or other forms of climate geoengineering.

Prakash Kashwan is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut and a senior research fellow of the Earth System Governance Project. This commentary was originally published by the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment and has been republished here with permission. It has been edited for style and clarity.