Jul 23 2019

Climate Engineering and the Law: Regulation and Liability for Solar Radiation Management and Carbon Dioxide Removal

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

How will existing international legal frameworks apply to climate engineering?

Climate Engineering and the Law


Climate Engineering and the Law: Regulation and Liability for Solar Radiation Management and Carbon Dioxide Removal, edited by Michael B. Gerrard and Tracy Hester, Cambridge University Press, 2018, 350 pp

While climate engineering is the last resort for dealing with the challenges of climate change, it is one that states must be prepared to consider as the effects of unchecked CO2 emissions become increasingly untenable. This premise has motivated a new collection of articles by environmental law experts. If states do not take preemptive action, the book argues, they risk rogue actors attempting to engineer large-scale changes unilaterally by, say, spraying aerosols into the atmosphere to decrease the amount of sunlight we receive (“albedo modification”) or dumping iron filings into the ocean (“ocean fertilization”) to hasten the growth of carbon-sequestering algae. The collection offers a legal playbook for heading off worst-case climate scenarios, ones that would have seemed outrageous only a few years ago but are appearing more and more realistic.

While the collection’s scope is global, its focus is on strategies that people are already beginning to consider or test in the United States. It explores the current legal frameworks that might support or challenge the two main approaches to climate engineering—solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CRM). One by one, the book offers clear, brief explanations of the actions people are already taking, the scientific evidence supporting or challenging such interventions, the areas of global environmental law that might apply, and what might be the least resolved issue, namely, the relationship between available scientific research and the claims of climate engineers. The writing is plain enough to brief a lay person on the technicalities of climate engineering and relevant international agreements. At the same time, the chapters are well-cited and thorough enough to guide scholars interested in deeper exploration.

By its conclusion, the book moves from its initial agnostic stance toward the view that climate engineering is inevitable. Still, the collection reads as evenhanded; those hoping for a definitive position on the legalities of climate engineering will be unsatisfied, since the question has yet to be tested in the courts. The contributors do an excellent job of laying out the arguments international lawyers are likely to use on either side of the question and suggesting how an international agreement on climate engineering might clarify existing ambiguities.

Mar 5 2019

The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance: Consequences and Management of Regime Interactions

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How do different climate governance regimes support or conflict with each other in pursuit of an international climate policy?

Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance


by Harro van Asselt, The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance: Consequences and Management of Regime Interactions, Edward Elgar, 2014, 360 pp

Harro van Asselt argues in The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance (2014) that while the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is responsible for many global climate initiatives, other initiatives have developed outside of it and are not directly coordinated with the UN framework. This governance fragmentation is the key focus of his analysis. The book contributes to the growing emphasis on the diversity of actors involved in global climate governance and the importance of examining how formal and informal institutions interact.

While van Asselt emphasizes that his purpose is not to provide “ideal-type solutions” regarding regime interactions, the benefits of policy coherence rather than fragmentation seem to be assumed along with an emphasis on institutional coordination as a solution to regime conflicts. While both the pitfalls and promises of fragmentation are described, the shortcomings are discussed in greater detail than any positive outcomes of fragmentation. Open questions include, does conflict in regime interactions undermine policy goals? Or does overlap provide valuable duplication? The Fragmentation of Global Climate Governance provides a foundation for studying such interactions in global climate governance and encourages further analysis of interactions between hard and soft law, the role of non-state actors, as well as among climate regimes at different levels of governance.

Drawing on concepts from international law and international relations, the analytical framework provided by the author examines multiple features of regime interaction, including relationships between hard and soft law, causal mechanisms, intentionality and consequences (conflict, synergy, neutral).

Empirical chapters offer comparative case studies. Each begins with the UNFCCC as the dominant global climate regime, and then compares it to multilateral clean technology agreements (e.g., Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate), other global environmental priorities (e.g., Convention on Biological Diversity) and different branches of international law relevant to climate change (e.g., the World Trade Organization). Van Asselt focuses on the consequences (conflicts or synergies) of the ways in which these regimes interact.

His analysis of regime interactions suggests a number of parallel concerns at the international policy scale, as well as interactions across local and state levels. Van Asselt might have extended the findings from his three regime interaction cases to these parallel concerns, including interactions among more than two regimes as well, but these are not discussed in the present volume.

With the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, regime interactions––in particular those led by non-state actors and subnational governments––may be of even more importance. With greater flexibility due to the pledge and review process, the interactions between soft and hard laws and between regimes established in different sectors may require us to extend our understanding of the impacts of regime interactions for global climate governance.

Feb 1 2018

Clouds: Nature and Culture

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

To be on cloud nine!


by Richard Hamblyn, Clouds: Nature and Culture, Reaktion Books, 2017, 240 pp.

From the realm of literature and arts to the domain of astronomy and science, clouds have emerged from a muddle of uncertainty into the world of scientific certainty in the context of climate change. Capturing their picturesque journey from “an ultimate art gallery above” in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson to the “center of digital life below” as propounded by Steve Jobs, Richard Hamblyn provides a multifaceted narrative about nature’s most versatile creation. Packed with colorful pictures, Clouds could easily be the most comprehensive and authoritative text on the subject to date.

Hamblyn, an English lecturer at the University of London, has attained undisputed mastery of the subject, having already published two other books on clouds–– The Cloud Book and Invention of Clouds. While the first captures everything to do with the origin and development of clouds, the second is a cultural excavation of our understanding of the science of clouds. In this third book, Hamblyn has brought clouds down to earth and unveiled some of their mystery. Throughout human history, attempts to understand clouds and their behavior has been a subject of delight and fascination, offering limitless opportunities for creative contemplation.

Clouds is a magnificent collection of these stories – from their wooly journey through art, literature, music and photography to their sinister manipulation for military use and anthropogenic modification. (Failed) American attempts at precipitating flash floods during the Vietnam War are part of the legend. Such secret military efforts have invoked widespread prompting by the international community to declare clouds as “a resource that belongs to no one.” Legal remedies for appropriating clouds through artificial seeding may be needed as competition over access to rainwater escalates.

Science is only beginning to understand the role that clouds play in shaping future conditions on earth––a warm atmosphere may reorganize the day-to-day behavior of clouds in ways that could either amplify or mitigate climate change. The trouble, warns Hamblyn, is that clouds have a habit of behaving in complex and surprising ways. The fact that our warming climate is producing ever more lightning strikes is one of many such surprises. Each 1 degree rise in temperature increases lightning activity by around 12 per cent. Will clouds turn out to be agents of global warming or will they end up saving the day by reflecting ever more sunlight back into space?

Clouds challenge human intelligence. Philosophers like Aristophanes have long professed that “from clouds come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason; also, our speculative genius and all our argumentative talents.” Wondering if clouds were objects or phenomena or processes, Leonardo da Vinci described them as formless triggers of visual invention, their fleeting magnificence and endless variability providing food for thought for scientists and daydreamers alike. Our current predicament with clouds is taking us back in time to reimagine and reunderstand them. There may be clues in art and literature to help us make a fresh beginning!

Hamblyn contends that the law of unintended consequences needs to be kept in mind when embarking on geo-engineering projects aimed at tampering with the atmosphere and with clouds. Clouds are too sensitive not to be taken into account in such anthropogenic adventures, he cautions. In short, there is no way of knowing what will happen to our rapidly changing atmosphere.  Just as in centuries past, when clouds were employed as ready metaphors of doubt and uncertainty, it looks as if they will continue to be so for centuries to come.

The crucial issue is that life without clouds would not be physically possible. Far from just being a source of water, they have a larger role to play in keeping the earth hospitable for living beings. Clouds provides insights into the history and science of clouds, and offers guidance regarding the sensitive handling of the woolly product/process hovering between the sky and earth. Colorfully illustrated, this is the ultimate guide to the past, present and future of clouds.

Jul 31 2017

Democratizing Global Climate Governance

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Can global climate governance be more democratic? Assessing deliberative democracy and networked governance in pursuit of global climate goals. 


by Hayley Stevenson and John S. Dryzek Democratizing Global Climate Governance, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 256 pp.

In Democratizing Global Climate Governance Hayley Stevenson and John Dryzek argue that global climate governance can be improved by engaging civil society in multilateral climate negotiations and in the growing networks of actors involved in climate change policymaking. Using critical discourse analysis, the authors examine the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); discussions surrounding the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit; and the work of networks of corporations, nongovernmental organizations, community groups, foundations, government and international organizations. Stevenson and Dryzek focus on discourse (and language) as a key mechanism linking a range of actors. While discourse analysis is a unique contribution to the literature on global climate governance, their discussion of the tension and potential synergy between the formal UNFCCC activity and less-formal networks encourages readers to rethink the role of democratic deliberation in climate governance.

The first two chapters introduce the authors’ argument along with a theory of deliberative democracy as it applies to global climate governance. Chapter 2 unpacks the seven components of their deliberative framework as well as four basic discourses: mainstream sustainability, expansive sustainability, limits and boundaries, and green radicalism. Chapter 3 focuses on discourse analysis in public spaces, assessing four discussions related to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit: the World Business Summit on Climate Change, the Business for the Environment Summit, Klimaforum09, and the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and Mother Earth. The authors argue that “the democratization of global climate governance can be advanced in the absence of centralized, comprehensive and effective global agreement. […] this requires recognizing and harnessing the coordinating function that discourses play in political life” (p. 59). The subsequent chapters build on this notion by illustrating how a systems approach to deliberation empowers discourse in public spaces.

Chapters 4 and 5 each discuss a different empowered space, or a space where institutions make collective decisions and ensure some form of public accountability. Chapter 4 analyzes the UNFCCC as a formal empowered space and primarily finds support for mainstream sustainability discourse, in particular for “ecological modernization and climate marketization.” Chapter 5 analyzes the informal empowered space created by public partnerships, public-private partnerships and private initiatives. The networks of actors in this space differ from the UNFCCC networks. They obtain authority by filling gaps in regulation, identifying common interests and using peer pressure to support voluntary rules and standards. Three networked governance examples are analyzed in some detail: the Clean Technology Fund, the Climate Technology Initiative’s Private Financing Advisory Network and the Verified Carbon Standard. Based on a “deliberative democratic deficit” in these networked spaces, the authors argue for stronger linkages between the UNFCCC and networked governance.

Chapters 6 and 7 examine the deliberative components of transmission and accountability. These two features of deliberative democracy are vital to the way ideas from public spaces are transmitted to empowered spaces and link accountability back to the public spaces. Yet, transmission and accountability tend to be weak in both formal and networked governance for climate change. Chapter 8 proposes a number of ways to strengthen transmission and accountability. Finally, chapter 9 concludes with a discussion of reflexivity in climate governance, highlighting opportunities to disrupt the status quo. Missing is a discussion of the part political power and financial resources play in forming and propagating the discourses present in the UNFCCC and networked governance. Democratizing Global Climate Governance provides researchers and practitioners with a whole new set of questions to ask.

Jul 31 2017

Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

This review was first published in Current Science, July 10, 2017.

While the United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels, in spite of both population and economic growth, the health of its rivers continues to remain a concern.



by Sean W. Fleming, Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways,  Princeton University Press, 2017, 216 pp.

Its global prevalence notwithstanding, the state of water in nature reflects our inadequate understanding of its intricate flow dynamics. Despite its abundance, access to water eludes millions of people, and the stress on the ecosystems involved continues to grow. More than one billion people lack access to clean water, and in the near future, the global demand for water will be twice what it is now. With no substitute for this life-nurturing fluid, it is more important than ever that we ask the right questions so we can get past the current muddle.

All rivers are alike in the broadest sense, but they have different meandering curves, diverse aquatic fauna and distinct morphological features. Unraveling this distinctiveness and the (unknown) variables that contribute to it are the challenges that confront hydrologists. Existing watershed models are insufficient. Indeed, many of the best modelers don’t rate their results too highly. Part of the problem, in the words of Belgian Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, rests on our innate desire to simplify complexity. Unfortunately, reducing elaborate systems into simpler subsystems doesn’t necessarily help: we end up learning more about less. Such an approach is particularly unhelpful when we are trying to understand river hydrology. The uncertainty involved is a function of a great many environmental and social factors that shape stream flow and underlying aquifers.

Sean Fleming’s Where the River Flows calls for a paradigm shift. He favors a radical departure from the usual disciplinary thinking; indeed, since rivers are a reflection of the profound interrelationships between landscapes, ecosystems and societies, no disciplinary perspective can adequately address their complex dynamics. He believes that fractal mathematics along with chaos and information theory can be used to generate new insights into the overall patterns of river systems. As anthropogenic impacts on the natural environment (like climate change) accelerate, there is a need for both finer detailed forecasts (e.g., will my farm get rain next week?) and big picture understanding (e.g., will the river topple its banks this coming season?). New insights in both dimensions are critical to understanding the common but differentiated patterns that each river generates in its unique geomorphological setting.

Unfortunately, a counter narrative persists, making it harder to get a better sense of river hydrology. Damming, diversion and contamination pose formidable challenges, beyond the normal ecological complexity, to figuring out how to sustain healthy stream flows for human welfare and ecosystem survival. Be it the Mississippi, Ganges or Yangtze, river degradation has thrown off balance the delicate equilibrium between ever-increasing human populations and their relentless aspiration to stay adequately watered. The United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels in spite of both population and economic growth, but the health of its rivers continues to remain alarming. While every drop of water pumped from the Colorado river is used at least 17 times, which may sound like good news, the net impact of all that pumping on the Gulf of California has grossly disrupted the hydrological cycle. River water hasn’t reached the delta since 1960.

Fleming calls for an entirely new way of viewing the natural environment, suggesting that we need to process vast and complex information to reconceptualize and understand the dynamics of the natural environment. But can reams of hard data and new quantitative modeling techniques give us a better sense of river systems that are not only dynamic but also living entities? As the need for more accurate, precise and consistent forecasts move center stage in our dealings with the rivers, somehow cultural perspectives must also be included. It is not clear how we can convert human observations into actionable information.