Climate Engineering and Small Island States: Panacea or Catastrophe? (Opinion Article)

Lefale and Anderson (2014) – Climate Engineering and Small Island States – Click for download

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 18.17.41Climate engineering research may soon no longer be confined to the domain of a few nations. It may even be only a matter of time before the topic emerges into international climate, trade and development policy making. The past five years have seen dramatic increases in media coverage and publications on the topic.[1] Policy dialogue focuses on the conceptualization or the modeling stages of climate engineering, but engagement in climate engineering field-experiments and demonstrations also demands urgent attention. Increasing evidence now suggests there is a growing need for the development of an international governance mechanism to regulate the research and deployment of climate engineering techniques with complex and widespread impacts- perhaps a protocol(s) or other legal instrument(s) on climate engineering under existing international treaties & conventions (e.g. UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or the Convention on Biological Diversity, as at the London Convention and Protocol in the case of marine geoengineering).

For small islands, the emergence of climate engineering as a possible supplement to mitigation and adaptation strategies presents a political, policy, and scientific dilemma. They must engage, without delay, in the international climate engineering conversation. Climate engineering- in particular, solar radiation management (SRM)- will likely have profound effects on them. It could be the panacea they are searching for in their quest to stabilize the climate or a potential anthropogenic catastrophe in the making.

Climate change is the most serious challenge facing small islands. Greenhouse gas emissions from small islands are negligible in terms of global emissions but the threats of climate change and sea level rise to small islands are very real.[2] Indeed, the very existence of some atoll nations is threatened by rising sea levels even though these island nations did not contribute to the problem. Furthermore, impacts of climate change on small islands will have serious negative effects on socio-economic and bio-physical resources – although some local impacts maybe reversed through effective adaptation measures.[3]

In addition to climate change, there is increasing recognition of the risks and negative impacts on small islands from climate-related processes originating well beyond the borders of an individual nation or island. Such trans-boundaries processes include: airborne disease from the Sahara and Asia, distant-source ocean swells from mid-latitudes, increase plant and animal species and the spread of aquatic pathogens.

Small islands are disproportionately affected by current hydro-meteorological extreme events, both in terms of the percentage of the population affected and losses as a percentage of GDP.[4] Under climate change, the risk of damage and associated losses are expected to continue to rise. Much of the existing literature on climate risks in small islands focuses on managing present day risks, rather than future high risks, through risk transfer, risk spreading, or risk avoidance.[5] Risk transfer is largely undertaken through insurance, risk spreading through access to and use of common property resources, livelihood diversification, or mutual support through networks, and risk avoidance through structural engineering measures or migration.[6]

Given the preceding background, a group of representatives from Small Island Developing States in the Pacific (Pacific SIDS) gathered in Suva in August 2013 to discuss high future risks of climate change, with specific focus on the potential risks of climate engineering.[7] The workshop reviewed the current state of scientific research on climate engineering to inform policy discussions surrounding climate engineering research and deployment. A wide range of opinions were raised, including, but not limited to the list of the ‘Reasons for Concerns’ (RfC) about Climate Engineering’ (RfC-CE), summarized in Box 1.

            Box 1: Climate engineering: Pacific SIDS RfC-CE

  • Incomplete knowledge: Due to still incomplete knowledge about changes in climatic processes and ecosystems likely response to these changes, the impacts of climate engineering on global, regional, national, and microclimates bear major uncertainties. Moreover, the cessation of solar radiation Management (SRM) would be particularly difficult. As it does not remove greenhouse gases, it can only suppress the warming for an unknown period of time. Once SRM projects are terminated, temperatures will likely increase at alarming rates, without considerable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The warming is likely to be much quicker than present and predicted rates of warming, signifying greater challenges for ecosystems and society;
  • The Precautionary Principle: There are enormous ecological, social, environmental, political, ethical, legal, scientific, technological and economic issues associated with the use and application of climate engineering that are yet to be fully identified and understood. These include questions of procedural and distributive justice, governance, undetermined and unintended consequences on climate engineering on people, systems and sectors, and national and international legislation to address issues arising from new technologies.
  • False sense of security: The mere possibility of climate engineering could hinder ongoing international efforts to mitigate and adapt to anthropogenic climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other international Agreements and Conventions and related legal instruments, as it may create a false sense of security.
  • Slippery slope effect: The issue of the “slippery slope effect” from climate engineering research to deployment once climate engineering technologies become available. A slippery slope argument states that a relatively small first step leads to a chain of related events, culminating in some significant effect, much like an object given a small push over the edge of a slope sliding all the way to the bottom.
  • Inclusiveness: The need for inclusiveness through international and multilateral cooperation as a means of ensuring views and participation of all countries, large or small, developed or developing, on issues such as climate engineering that are likely to affect all human society and natural systems will be critical for developing locally relevant policies and measures and reducing risks; and,
  • Uncertainties: Prevailing uncertainty in the sensitivity of the climate system to anthropogenic forcing, inertia in both the coupled climate-carbon cycle and social systems, and the potential for irreversibility’s and abrupt, nonlinear changes in the Earth system with possible significant impacts on human and natural systems call for research into possible climate engineering options to complement climate change mitigation efforts.

The discussions at the Suva workshop strongly suggest Pacific SIDS are not yet in a position to properly and fully engage in the current climate engineering conversation. While the lack of financial and human resources are the main contributing factors, it is clear Pacific SIDS are again being subjected to an international conversation on a global issue that is likely to have major effects on them and yet have limited knowledge and influence on the outcome.

The current approach to international climate engineering policy-making mirrors that of the climate change policy-making processes in the late 1980s/early 1990s where Pacific SIDS were subjected to UN-sponsored climate change conferences in the lead up to the Earth Summit (UNCED) in 1992 without a full understanding of climate change and the stakes to their survival. The experiences have left many Pacific SIDS highly skeptical about externally driven initiatives. Pacific SIDS have to engage in the climate engineering conversation in order to determine regulatory policies and measures in their best interests.

One way of ensuring small islands perspectives on climate engineering are taken into account is for the international community to establish, without delay, an intergovernmental body, under the auspices of the UN system, tasked with the development of an international governance mechanism for climate engineering research and deployment. Although a number of options have already been explored, there needs to be an internationally sanctioned body to progress development of the governance mechanism.

For Pacific SIDS, one of the key lessons learnt from the climate change negotiations over the past 20 years is the power of working in genuine partnership with other ‘like-minded’ nations under a coalition. Coalition is an effective mechanism for improving a group of countries bargaining leverage in multilateral negotiations. Pacific SIDS are small and stand to gain little from large UN-sponsored negotiations unless they work together as a coalition.

In 1990, concerned about the effects of climate change and sea level rise on low- lying islands, a group of ‘like-minded’ SIDS formed a coalition, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), to attempt to have a greater impact on UN negotiations in the UNFCCC. Though they differ vastly in their culture, heritage, languages and economic bases, AOSIS members share a common vulnerability to climate change – the issue that brought them together. AOSIS negotiating positions were guided by a number of carefully formulated principles that pertain specifically to climate policy, including that the international community response to climate change must be: 1) guided by science; 2) legally binding global GHG emissions reduction targets and timetables commitments be established without delay; 3) recognition of the common but differentiated responsibilities of nations based on their historic emissions; 4) the right to develop; 5) application of the precautionary and polluter pays principles and 6) fast-track the development and transfer of climate friendly energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.[8] The most important of these principles from the AOSIS perspective is the second; legally binding global GHG emission reduction targets and timetables commitments, coincidently the same principle underpinning the current rush to fast-track climate engineering research and deployment. The AOSIS principles for climate change policy making should be adapted to the present dialogue on climate engineering (e.g. CE be (1) guided by science; 2) legally binding policies and measures regulating CE research and deployment; 3) recognition of the common but differentiated responsibilities in managing CE risks; 4) the right to develop CE technologies; 5) CE research and deployment be guided by the Precautionary Principle; and 6) fast-track the development of an international governance mechanism to regulate the research and deployment of climate engineering techniques taking into account principles 1 to 5) but more importantly to future international negotiations on the regulation and implementation of climate engineering programs and activities.

Guidance from the AOSIS and UN development experiences (e.g. Agenda 21, MDGs, Barbados Program of Action) should be applied to risk analysis and evaluation of climate engineering in small islands. Potential consequences should be evaluated through an environmental and social impact assessment process. Activities that are considered highly uncertain or indeterminate outcomes should be carefully monitored. By setting a regulated monitoring system in place at all levels – local, national, regional, sub-regional and international – at the early stages of climate engineering research and deployment, potential catastrophes can be minimized.

The challenge for small islands is to ensure their perspectives, needs and concerns are fully heard and incorporated in the ongoing international climate engineering policymaking dialogue and conversation. Questions about the socio-economic and environmental effects and consequences of climate engineering must be explored before endorsement and implementation of policies and measures that may have irreversible, unintended side-effects.

As we have witnessed from the impacts of climate change, global development and progress have predominantly negative consequences for small islands. Mechanisms to encourage their participation and stave off future negative impacts must be financially supported by the international community. We have a history of sidelining small island issues in the global arena, so the question that must be asked about climate engineering policy-making is, “Will their voices be heard this time around?”


Lefale, P.F. 2001. Climate Change Negotiations; Observations from the Frontline. LLM Dissertation Paper (No. 1), International Environmental Law (LLM 708), Faculty of Law, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand (unpublished).

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2007. Mimura, N., L. Nurse, R.F. Mc Lean, J. Agard, L. Briguglio, P. Lefale, R. Payet and G. Sem. Small Islands, Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. M. L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P., Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 687-716. Available at:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2014. Nurse, L. R.F. Mc Lean, J. Agard, L. Briguglio, V. Duvat, N. Pelesikoti, E. Tompkins, and A. Webb. Small Islands, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (in press).

Beyerl, K. and A. Maas. 2014. Perspectives on Climate Engineering from Pacific Small Island States. Workshop Report, IASS Working Paper, April 2014, Potsdam.

Beiter, C.W. and D.J. Sneidal. 2013. “A Bibliometric Analysis on Climate Engineering Research. WIRES Clim Change (4): 417-427.


[1]Beiter and Sneidal, 2013

[2]IPCC, 2014; IPCC, 2007

[3] IPCC, 2014

[4] IPCC, 2014; IPCC, 2007

[5] IPCC, 2014

[6] IPCC, 2014

[7]Beyerl and Maas, 2014

[8]Lefale 2001


photo credit: <a href=””>yewenyi</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;

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