May 2020 was reportedly the joint hottest month on record and it is estimated that we now have only 6 months to prevent a post lockdown emissions rebound, which will result in a climate catastrophe. Even with aggressive mitigation tactics, there are increasing fears that we will overshoot our 1.5ºC warming target, with inevitably devastating effects on natural resources, economies and human rights.
In response to impending climate change disasters, a range of technologies have been created to dislodge our current warming trajectory. However, as will be explored below, these technologies remain largely untested and underexplored, with potentially catastrophic results on our ozone, environment and resources, threatening a wide range of human rights as a result.
Among the many climate disaster-delaying mechanisms that are currently being researched, there is a category of potential substitute technologies that fall under the umbrella of ‘geoengineering’. Broadly speaking, these technologies work by either directly removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or increasing the reflectivity of the Earth to limit heating rates and combat rising global temperatures.
The reality of climate change is a constant looming threat to the fulfillment of human rights globally. While the positive effects of the pandemic on global emissions have been celebrated (and rightly so), they are miniscule in the context of our colossal history of global emissions.
In his July 2019 report, Philip Alston, who recently finished his mandate as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, laid out clearly the environmental impacts that maintaining our current approach to climate change will incur. Alongside food insecurity, forced migration, disease and death, he writes that “climate change threatens the future of human rights and risks undoing the last 50 years of progress in development, global health and poverty reduction”, with developing countries bearing 75–80% of climate change impacts.
Whilst a formal, stand-alone right to a healthy environment is not explicitly protected within an international instrument, calls for it to be recognised lend incredible weight to geoengineering technologies and their potential to limit the impacts of climate change and its effects on human rights through environmental devastation.
These technologies can vary massively in approach, scope and expenses. They fall into two broad categories: ‘solar radiation management’ (SRM) and ‘carbon dioxide removal’ (CDR). SRM technologies can range from the injection of reflective materials into the atmosphere, such as diamond particles; to the introduction of giant space mirrors to effectively reflect the sun’s rays. CDR technologies can include the mass dumping of iron sulfate into the oceans to increase phytoplankton and decrease carbon dioxide levels; as well as ‘direct air capture’, where carbon dioxide is sucked directly out of the atmosphere – a technology that Dominic Cummings recently secured £100 million from the UK Treasury to pursue.
One form of SRM that is gaining particular traction is known as ‘Sulfur Aerosol Injection’ (SAI).
SAI is a form of Solar Radiation Management that works, in essence, to raise the volume of sulfur within the atmosphere and increase the Earth’s reflectivity as a result. Akin to the effects of volcanic eruptions, it has the potential to decrease, or even reverse, the warming of the Earth. This technology is appealing due to its cost effectiveness, estimated by the Co-Director or Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program to cost between $2 to 2.5 billion annually. This price-tag seems relatively commendable when considering the World Bank’s estimate that natural disasters currently cost $18 billion a year to low- and middle-income countries through damage to power generation and transport infrastructure alone. In this regard SAI represents a comparatively cheap option to potentially cool the planet to pre-industrial temperatures and potentially negate some of the effects of climate change.
Human Rights Considerations
The implementation of SAI is projected to have a range of impacts on the environment, with a number of human rights implications as a result. While the true range of rights potentially affected are not yet known, some of the key issues that will be explored in this article are; the right to information; free, prior and informed consent; the right to health; and the right to food.
Right to information
The current lack of research on geoengineering impacts raises numerous questions surrounding the right to information and issues of informed consent. At this stage, the level of available resources and research surrounding geoengineering remains relatively inadequate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has commented that, while geoengineering technologies may be theoretically effective in reducing overshoot, they “face large uncertainties and knowledge gaps as well as substantial risks and institutional and social constraints to deployment related to governance, ethics, and impacts on sustainable development.”
This gap in research and governance, allows scope for large-scale and flagrant human rights abuse and indigenous communities are often those that pay the highest price. In 2013 for example, a businessman dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate off the coast of British Columbia to increase phytoplankton numbers and decrease carbon dioxide levels as a result. A claim was then raised by a First Nation community who had been told that this would be a ‘salmon enhancement project’ . They stated that they would not have given consent if they had been informed of the potential negative effects, or that this project was in fact in breach of two international conventions; The Convention on Biological Diversity and The Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes. While a Canadian investigation was launched, no charges were ever laid. This is a stark example of the need for improved governance and enhanced regulation surrounding geoengineering and the collection of free, prior and informed consent, a legal norm specific to indigenous populations and grounded within the provisions of the UNDRIP.
Right to health
With regards to SAI, there are significant unknowns which could occur as a result of increasing carbon dioxide levels and generating a new atmospheric make-up. Within the northern hemisphere, increasing atmospheric sulfur is predicted to cause a chemical reaction that would devastate the ozone layer and could push back ozone recovery in some areas for 30-70 years. Increased exposure to UV as a result would massively increase rates of skin cancer, cataracts, and the reactivation of some viral infections, therefore representing a widespread threat to the right to health. To employ this technology, states would need to undertake a balancing act to consider the individual’s right to health against a global need to reduce the Earth’s heating rate and fulfil the right to a healthy environment. Without extensive, controlled research of the impacts of these technologies, and an adequate human rights investigation of their results, appropriate balancing of competing rights is impossible to conduct.
Right to food
Additionally, SAI is also predicted to severely affect precipitation levels in the global south, playing havoc with monsoon patterns in Asia and Africa and potentially leading to humanitarian disasters and widespread food insecurity. A change in precipitation levels would directly affect the global south, and a number of developing countries as a result. This possibility would play heavily into criticisms of wealthier states abusing their power without consideration for less prepared nations and exacerbating existing socio-economic imbalances, especially in a scenario where a wealthier state decides to employ these technologies unilaterally without due consideration of its international implications.
The resulting climate catastrophes of precipitation changes could devastate the right to food, which is protected under multiple instruments and explicitly defined by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights. The OHCHR have also stated that freedom from hunger and the access to adequate food needs to be ensured even within the context of natural disasters. The Royal Society of London have indicated that the effect of SAI geoengineering on weather patterns could impact the food supply to billions of people, raising significant human rights concerns regarding geoengineering and the right to food. It sparks essential questions regarding the fairness of states who seek to fulfill a healthy environment and do so at the cost of worsening inequality and increasing climate disasters within the global south.
Other potential impacts
Another looming drawback of SAI technology is the threat of a ‘termination shock’. Termination shock is a scenario in which the maintenance of SAI technology is suddenly dropped – whether through a breakdown in policy or relationships, the breakout of war, or an unexpected event such as a global pandemic – causing the collapse of the maintenance of the Earth’s ability to effectively reflect sunlight, with catastrophic results. The termination effect could see the global temperature rising at 20 times their current rate, with the global south inevitably bearing the brunt of the fallout, multiplying inequalities and power imbalances. The exponential increase in global warming effects would wreak havoc across the right to food, health, water, and adequate standard of living, amongst others. Though the likelihood of this eventuality is low, if materialised it represents a worst-case scenario equal to any of the most devastating future global warming scenarios.
There are many other questions raised by the potential consequences of implementing geoengineering technologies that are outside the scope of this piece, and even more still to be discovered. Some of the larger issues include; what role, if any, will international human rights law play in the governing of these technologies? Given the low costs of certain geoengineering technologies, will states unilaterally launch geoengineering missions, or do so in small coalitions? If launched separately, how will these different technologies interact? Which state, group of allied powers or international assembly of powers will maintain them? Or, more simply – who will control the thermostat? The development of this technology undoubtedly requires extensive research and governance, especially considering the overlap between states with the least political influence and states most at risk of its potential adverse effects.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Lawrance graduated with an LLB from the University of Liverpool and is currently pursuing an LLM in International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex. He is pursuing interests across topics of artificial intelligence, climate change, LGBTQ+ issues and ESC rights.