Archive for the ‘Academic’ category

Tipping points in the Arctic

When the summer melting season ended in 2007, the icecap floating in the ocean over the North Pole had shrunk to its smallest size ever recorded. According to satellite data, the remaining summer sea ice measured almost forty per cent less than the average for the period of 1979 to 2000. More than one-and-a-half million square kilometres that had been covered with ice the year before was open ocean. The event was a serious confirmation that had been suspected for a while in the scientific community: that the Earth may be prone to abrupt climate change and tipping points. The new science of non-linear change is challenging our notions of what climate change is and when it will occur—and it is utterly alarming.

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Abrupt climate change and geoengineering

Catastrophic or abrupt climate change

We tend to think of climate change as something that happens very slowly, over a very long time. We further tend to think that its more serious effects are still decades away. We are learning now that both assumptions are wrong. While scientists are getting a firmer understanding of how the climate works and how sudden and self-sustaining climatic changes can be triggered, it is becoming clear that climate change is in fact not decades away. For many, it is already here.

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Geoengineering under a climate emergency

Geoengineering under a climate emergency:
Exploring governance pathways and pitfalls

Master research paper. Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo, 2010.

After receiving feedback for my master research paper (MRP) in January, 2010, I wrapped up my Master of Arts degree in Global Governance. The only thing left is to actually receive it, which will happen on 17 June.

Here is my MRP, then, finally. The MRP was the major accomplishment of the master, and though it is shorter than a thesis, it still ended up at 70 pages (of text — 92 pages altogether). I wrote about what I was planning to cover in my MRP a year ago, and the final paper isn’t far off the mark, though I chose to de-emphasise securitisation and write more about governance.

I will blog about this topic shortly–give a condensed version of the MRP–but here is the abstract. The paper is available for download in its entirety on the right.


Geoengineering has been advanced as a possible emergency option to sudden and disruptive climate change—a climate emergency. This paper advances the nascent geoengineering governance discourse, looking specifically on issues and challenges relating to how geoengineering can be used as a remedial option in case of a climate emergency.

The main contribution of this paper is the examination of six potential governance alternatives for geoengineering, assessed according to three fundamental characteristics that the paper argues any geoengineering regime must evince, to wit, holism, adaptability and legitimacy. Using path-dependency theory, it further explores how the current parochialism and fragmentation in global governance could affect the long-term development of the geoengineering discourse, before finally looking at how unilateral geoengineering could result from a global discourse on catastrophic climate change gone astray.

High levels of complexity, risk and uncertainty are inherent in both climate change and geoengineering and present substantial obstacles in the development of geoengineering governance. The fundamental question of this paper is how we can foster robust and resilient governance and responses for climate change and other environmental problems.

Geoengineering and the Arctic


Desperate times, desperate measures: Advancing the geoengineering debate at the Arctic Council

I’m pleased to announce that the result of my internship at IISD this summer has been published; my first (real) publication! I worked on it for about a month and a half, and I’m quite pleased with it (if I may say so). It was co-written with Henry David (Hank) Venema, with me as lead author. I owe a lot to Hank, however, who helped me out, jogged my brain circuits, gave me the idea for the paper, and wrote a few crucial paragraphs I was struggling with.

Read the paper:

Abstract and download-page at


The Arctic is like the canary in the coalmine, warning us about the increasing impact of climate change, which is felt first there. In 2007, the Arctic ice cap shrunk to its smallest size ever recorded, 37 per cent below the recorded average. Its abrupt decline, which deviates widely from the largely linear and predictable trend observed over the past few decades, has alarmed the scientific community and suggests we may be closer to a dangerous “tipping point” than previously anticipated. At the same time, economic globalization is coming to this marginalized region at last through increased resource exploitation, leading in turn to further emissions of greenhouse gases and further climate change.

As unsavoury as it may be, this paper will argue that we must investigate geoengineering as an emergency option in case the mitigation regime fails. Given the dramatic consequences of climate change in the Arctic and the role of this region in the global climate, the Arctic countries have a special responsibility to lead this investigation and the debate surrounding it. As the only circumpolar governance forum on environmental issues, the Arctic Council is an obvious venue for this process. The paper explores the state of global geoengineering governance and how it should be constructed, and how the Arctic Council can contribute.

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It’s time for an update about what I’m doing these days. Apart from taking a course in Complex Systems Theory (think Jurassic Park, when Jeff Goldblum is talking about “chaos theory”; it’s in the same alley, though there is a lot more to it) that is really tickling my intellectual fancy, I’ve been working on figuring out what my master research paper (MRP) will be about. I have to write the MRP in the fall of 2009, it has to be original research and about 60 pages in length. Because of my interest in climate change, I have chosen to write about geoengineering. I have been lucky enough to get the support of Dr Thomas Homer-Dixon, formerly of the University of Toronto and author of i.a. “The Upside of Down” and “The Ingenuity Gap“, who will supervise me. Dr Dan McCarthy, my teacher in complex systems, will be my secondary adviser.

What is geoengineering, you might ask

While there is no single and universally agreed-upon definition, suffice it to say here that geoengineering is actively and intentionally attempting to change the global climate (geoengineering is sometimes used to describe geotechnical engineering, which is unrelated). There are two fundamental ways of changing the climate: either control the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2); or, attempt to control the temperature of the Earth directly, through solar radiation management. While the former is almost by definition more benign (depending on how it’s done), the latter is for the most part significantly easier and less costly. It has indeed been calculated that releasing sulphur dioxide (SO2) into the stratosphere—for the purpose of cooling the planet by deflecting sunlight—could cost as little as $30 billion a year using a fleet of Boeing 747s. For the time being, I will leave you to ponder what possible negative consequences that could have (what could possibly go wrong…). I will blog more about geoengineering later.

Excerpts from my MRP proposal:

Why study geoengineering?

While humankind is gaining the technical capability to change the climate and the body of scientific literature about geoengineering is quickly expanding, the political, economical, social and security implications of such a capability are still largely unexplored. Also, the lack of progress in climate change mitigation and the high risks associated with climate change, combined with tremendous uncertainty about how it is going to unfold, give the issue further urgency.

As climate change becomes more pronounced, world leaders, politicians, economists, scientists, newspaper columnists and the wider public may start to demand geoengineering solutions, especially if the climate deteriorates rapidly—a climate emergency. Such an event cannot be ruled out, as we cannot assume that the global climate change trend will be linear or orderly or that the climate models of the IPCC are accurate. However, the potential effects of the various geoengineering schemes on the environment are as poorly understood as the climate itself, while the stakes will be astronomical.

Questions I will ponder:

Primary Question

  1. What are the geopolitical consequences of geoengineering in the event of a climate emergency, and what would be the role of global governance under such a scenario?

Secondary questions

  1. What organisations currently exist that could deal with a climate emergency?
  2. What would be the role of the Security Council (SC)? How could the SC be adapted to cope with the challenge?
  3. Is securitisation of the problem desirable? What are the benefits and drawbacks of this?
  4. What happens if a country, group of countries or a private interest party acts unilaterally? What are the geopolitical ramifications, whether the implicated party is one of a host of undemocratic and poorly governed countries or a member of the Security Council P-5?

Further reading

For a short introduction to geoengineering, I recommend reading the entry for geoengineering in the Encyclopedia of Global Change, written by David Keith, one of the foremost geoengineering scientists.

Link to PDF.