May 22, 2018 — Tracy Hester, a lecturer in environmental law at the University of Houston Law Center, is a co-editor and contributor to a new book that examines the legal aspects of climate engineering. These technologies offer the potential to offset or avert the worst impacts of global warming through the large-scale manipulation of the climate.
"Climate Engineering and the Law," which Hester co-edited with Columbia Law School Professor Michael B. Gerrard, was published in April by Cambridge University Press. It provides the first text dedicated solely to the legal aspects of climate engineering.
"We all hope that global emissions of greenhouse gases will drop to safe levels to avoid irreversible or catastrophic harm from climate change. Unfortunately, we haven't seen that type of reduction yet — and as a result someone, somewhere, will want to explore or deploy climate engineering technologies as a countermeasure," Hester said. "We need to think through how our existing laws will govern these first steps and protect against foolish risks or unfair harm. And, where those laws fall short, we need to explore what new rules should help fill those gaps."
The book's contributors explore issues of government approvals that would be necessary for intentional modifications of the environment; how liability stemming from such modifications might be assessed and compensated; and how a governance system could be structured and agreed upon internationally.
"The leading climate engineering technologies come in two flavors: one type would reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface, and the other would remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the ambient atmosphere," Hester explained. "These approaches differ in fundamental ways and pose different risks and opportunities, and our laws and governance systems need to recognize the best approaches unique to each type."
He said climate engineering is controversial and hotly contested. "These technologies pose enormous challenges. Who controls their deployment, or decides what amount of surface warming is acceptable? What happens when a technology benefits one country, but harms another?" Hester added. "Since the most vulnerable populations already face the worst effects of climate change, do we have a special obligation to account for their interests if we pursue climate engineering? Some of the answers to these questions will ultimately turn on our existing and future international and domestic laws, which we hopefully will use and craft with foresight and care. That effort needs to begin now."