Research & Development

2. Research & Development Stage

In the years since discussion of geoengineering emerged openly on the public stage, laboratory research of different technologies has accelerated, publication and discussion of results has been voluminous, and the first few field trials have taken place. Experiments on the effects of iron fertilization in the ocean have occurred, sulfate particles have been sprayed from helicopters to test their reflective properties, and a hose and balloon technology for deploying aerosols came close to being trialed. This type of research and development in climate engineering raises its own set of ethical issues.

The Line between Testing and Deployment

A puzzle arises because some types of geoengineering research may not always be cleanly separable from geoengineering deployment. For example, the limitations of computer-based climate models mean that it may be impossible to test the response of the global climate system to certain type of albedo modification without some measure of implementation. ‘Process’ experiments to test the efficacy of deployment technologies—such as the UK’s S.P.I.C.E. experiment—could likely be done at a small scale with negligible climate impact. Field-testing the efficacy of space mirrors, on the other hand, may not be possible without inducing an actual change in global temperatures. This blurred line between testing and deployments leads some to complain that, even if they are separable in principle, any testing sets us on a short and very slippery slope towards actual deployment of climate engineering.  From the research policy standpoint, discussions about the regulation and permissibility of certain kinds of testing is sorely needed.


ETC Group. (2010). Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering.

Keith, D. & Parson, E. (2013). End the deadlock on governance of geoengineering research. Science, 339(6125), 1078-9.

Ott K. (2012). Might solar radiation management constitute a dilemma?. In C. J. Preston (Ed.), Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management. Lanham, MD: Lexington Press.

Principles Governing Research

The controversial nature of geoengineering has spawned several attempts to supply ethical principles to govern research and the path to deployment. One of the earliest attempts (2009) were the so-called ‘Oxford Principles,’ which recommend: (1) regulation of geoengineering as a public good; (2) public participation in geoengineering decision making; (3) disclosure of geoengineering research and open publication of results; (4) independent assessment of impacts; (5) governance before deployment. In addition to the commitment to transparency and wide participation, the Oxford Principles stipulate that geoengineering should not be driven by profit—which raises questions about whether adequate public funding of research will be forthcoming.

Morrow et al. (2009) provide a different take on ethical requirements for research: they recommend using principles from medical ethics to govern any geoengineering research that takes place outside of the lab. For instance, a principle of respect requires the public consent before scientists initiate any potentially harmful field research. Principles of beneficence and justice demand a favorable risk to benefit ratio and the fair distribution of any benefits or harms that do occur. A minimization principle requires the smallest possible experiment to test a given hypothesis. While generally accepted within the ethics community, both these and the Oxford Principles have a certain looseness to them, lacking both binding force and clear consensus as to when their conditions are met.


Morrow, D., Kopp, R., & Oppenheimer. M. (2009). Toward ethical norms and institutions for climate engineering research. Environment Research Letters, 4(4), 1–8.

Rayner, S., Redgwell, C., Savulescu, J., Pidgeon, N., Kruger, T. (2009). Oxford memorandum submitted to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.

Rayner, S., Heyward, C., Kruger, T., Pidgeon, N., Redgwell, C., & Savulescu, J. (2013)  The Oxford Principles.  Climatic Change (online)


Lock-In and Path Dependency

Expensive technologies that require the development of large amounts of institutional structure and research expertise may be prone to 'path dependency' or 'lock-in.' The more time and money that are invested in research, the harder it becomes to stop that technology from moving toward implementation. Konrad Ott warns that the beginning of research into geoengineering sits at the top of a ‘slippery slope’ toward deployment. Some commentators fear that considerable institutional momentum could develop behind geoengineering research, pushing it rapidly and undemocratically into deployment.

One might observe that some measure of path dependency is an unavoidable phenomenon associated with any large technological endeavor. Experience suggests this is particularly true in the energy field due to the enormous investments in infrastructure required. Given this, is there any reason to be particularly concerned about lock-in with geoengineering? Gardiner's warnings about moral corruption and the general political inertia around climate change suggest that the potential lock-in of geoengineering is especially worrisome. Those who share these concerns worry that institutional and research momentum may drown out voices for the more sober structural changes required for a safer path forward.


Gardiner, S. (2010). Is ‘‘arming the future’’ with geoengineering really the lesser evil?. In S. Gardiner, S. Caney, D. Jamieson, & H. Shue (Eds.), Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (pp. 284–312). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ott K. (2012). Might solar radiation management constitute a dilemma?. In C. J. Preston (Ed.), Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management (pp. 33-42). Lanham, MD: Lexington Press.

Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) (2011). Solar radiation management: the governance of research.  

Participation of the Vulnerable

Uncertainty about the effects of many geoengineering technologies on local and regional weather patterns make it quite likely that some may suffer unintended harms from geoengineering.  A few of those might be persons already most vulnerable to the harms that geoengineering is designed to minimize. If certain injustices have the potential to be compounded under geoengineering, it may be morally required for vulnerable populations to be represented in the research discussions that will set the technology’s path. Early engagement with those most marginalized and vulnerable to climate disruption presents some of the greatest challenges and one of the most significant moral demands of future climate engineering.

Certain indigenous peoples are among those who may be negatively impacted by geoengineering. Based on past experience, some commentators are deeply skeptical about the likelihood of there being any genuine attempt to engage with indigenous peoples. Far more likely, says Kyle Whyte, a member of the Potawatomi Nation, is that a geoengineering agenda will already be set before tribes are ‘consulted’ about what is going to happen. Other vulnerable populations around the world may face similar treatment. Preston argues that the call for the inclusion of marginalized voices is not simply a matter of justice but that such input has the potential to improve the research itself.  This can happen when attention is directed towards specific needs and potential burdens that may have been neglected. The need for wide inclusion of different voices is especially pressing for technologies that promise large social impacts in frameworks with high uncertainty. Including marginalized voices in planning geoengineering research may not just be good ethics, it may also lead to good science.


Preston, C. J. (2012). Solar radiation management and vulnerable populations: The moral deficit and its prospects. In C. J. Preston (Ed.), Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management (pp. 77-94). Lanham, MD: Lexington Press.

Shue, H. (1992). The unavoidability of justice. In A. Hurrell & B. Kingsbury (Eds.), The International Politics of the Environment (pp. 373-397). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whyte K. (2012). Indigenous peoples, solar radiation management, and consent. In C. J. Preston (Ed.), Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management (pp. 65-76). Lanham, MD: Lexington Press.