Though you can't put science data to a vote, the policies based on science are for the public to decide.

Until a global policy is in place, scientists and organizations can easily circumvent international laws regarding geo-engineering by getting domestic approval, as we saw with LOHAFEX and environmental activist Russ George dumping iron in the ocean to create algal blooms, in defiance of treaties prohibiting it.

More geo-engineering, manual manipulation of the environment, to slow global warming's impact is going to happen unless a global governance structure with some teeth is put into place, says University of Iowa law professor  Jon Carlson.

"Geo-engineering is a global concern that will have climate and weather impacts in all countries, and it is virtually inevitable that some group of people will be harmed in the process," Carlson said in a statement. "The international community must act now to take charge of this activity to ensure that it is studied and deployed with full attention to the rights and interests of everyone on the planet."

Geo-engineering is not new, mankind has done it forever and by the 19th century scientists even proposed seeding clouds to increase rainfall. There is a long list of geo-engineering ideas that could be used to slow the impact of global warming while other methods are developed to actually mitigate the damage - everything from planting new forests to absorb carbon dioxide or painting roofs white to reduce solar heat absorption and even making really big sunglasses for the planet.

Some are complex and controversial, like manually cooling oceans so carbon dioxide-laden water sinks to the bottom more quickly or injecting chemicals like hydrogen sulfide or sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, creating an aerosol shield that reduces the amount of solar heat reaching the earth's surface.

The international legal implications are obvious - if Germany wants to approve LOHAFEX outside international agreements, it can, but the potential damage can be felt in other countries. While everyone agrees we should do something, doing something bad right away invokes the law of unintended consequences - nobody knows what will happen when actually put into practice. For instance. Carlson uses as an example that while manually cooling the ocean may be seen as a generally good idea, what impact will that have on farmers in India whose crops depend on rain from heat-induced tropical monsoons?

So it's no surprise lawyers advocate the creation of a new international governing body separate from existing organizations that would be tasked just with approving or rejecting geo-engineering plans. Geo-engineering activities should require they be publicly announced in the planning stage, and all countries are notified so they have a voice in deliberations.

As a model, Carlson suggests the International Monetary Fund (IMF). His proposed organization would give all countries a place during discussions, but reserve decisions to a small group of directors, each of which has a weighted vote that's based on their country's greenhouse gas production. That is, countries that produce more greenhouse gases will spend more money to combat global climate change, and so will have more votes.

Carlson's proposed body would oversee a compensation fund to help people and countries that are harmed by other country's approved geo-engineering activities, or by unseen effects of those activities.


How do you collect that money?  How do you enforce those laws?  That's a policy issue for the future.

Published in Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems.