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How can research into geoengineering be governed to limit its environmental and political risks?

Submit proposals:
Deadline:  July 20, 2014, at 11:59:59 PM U.S. Eastern Time
Rules:  All entrants must agree to the 2014 Contest Rules.
Prizes: Judges Choice and Popular Choice winners will be connected with and able to present to people who can support the implementation of their proposal, which may include policy makers, economists, business executives, NGO and foundation officials, scientists, and others.  They will be recognized and publicized by the MIT Climate CoLab and invited to showcase their proposals at a conference held at MIT fall 2014, where a $10,000 Grand Prize will be awarded. See 2013 conference.


Guidelines from Advisors and Fellows

What is geoengineering?

Geoengineering encompasses a variety of technical interventions designed to counteract some of the effects of rising atmospheric greenhouse gases, without reducing emissions. Geoengineering strategies can operate at a global or local level and commonly fall into one of two broad categories: solar radiation management (SRM) or carbon dioxide removal (CDR).

SRM techniques aim to reduce warming by either decreasing the amount of the sun’s heat that reaches the planet’s surface or by increasing the amount of heat that is reflected back out. Ideas include:

CDR techniques use biological or chemical processes to ‘suck’ greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Some ideas are:

Although SRM and CDR techniques are the most commonly discussed geoengineering ideas, other techniques might exist. For example, proposals to tow icebergs across the ocean to warmer coastlines could alter climate systems and might be considered geoengineering methods. Participants should keep all geoengineering possibilities in mind when considering the question of this contest.

Additionally, some commentators tend to catalogue geoengineering initiatives as either “hard” or “soft.” These categories are not strictly defined, but soft geoengineering ideas tend to be reversible and smaller in scale and they are often deployable at a local level. The distinction may be useful in considering the question of this contest.

Why is research into geoengineering risky?

To date, most research into geoengineering methods has consisted of theoretical desk- or computer- based simulations. However, such research can only be verified by field-testing. Many geoengineering techniques (including some of those described above) involve manipulation of the air, the ocean or outer space. These are open, complex systems that transcend international borders. The opportunity for small-scale field-testing is therefore limited and unintended consequences of trial-and-error testing have the potential to do serious environmental harm.

There are also socio-political risks associated with geoengineering research, such as:

Why is overseeing geoengineering research a challenge?

Not everyone agrees that research into geoengineering should proceed. However, many of those who support such research are concerned that the day may come when geoengineering, in some form, will be needed. They argue that in such an instance, the decision to deploy geoengineering initiatives should be based on solid evidence and that the only way to avoid bad ideas is through research and review. Many also argue that geoengineering research will happen regardless, so it should happen in the most transparent and cautious way possible. Establishing effective transparent regulations for geoengineering research requires the navigation of a number of considerations, including:

The contest

Participants are free to engage with any of the issues outlined above and provide a solution that addresses some of the challenges of progressing geoengineering research responsibly. The solution may be in the form of a set of policy guidelines, a method for global negotiation, proposed text for an international treaty, a technology assessment framework, a public engagement program or anything else that seems appropriate. The answer must include the following:

The proposal may in the form of text, audio or video but must not exceed the character limit set out on the submission page (about 2000 words) or 10 minutes in total.


Contest photo source: Jeff McNeill