Debating solar geoengineering on the Kialo Visual Reasoning platform

By Malini Bose, Festus Ojo, and Dustin Tingley

Solar geoengineering poses many possibilities but comes with a whole range of complex considerations. Debates on the topic, especially online, are often messy and governed by emotions. In this blogpost, we introduce recent work on a visual reasoning platform called Kialo to help represent the multiple considerations in a reasoned way.

Solar geoengineering merits careful deliberation

Solar geoengineering holds the potential for significant benefits. It also comes with substantial risks. On the one hand, solar geoengineering may help reduce global temperatures faster than any other method, and mitigate some of the adverse impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, changes in water availability, and intensity of tropical storms. On the other hand, it may be accompanied by unpredictable environmental harm, a reduced commitment to cut carbon emissions, and international conflict. Given these wide differences in opinion around solar geoengineering, debates around the technology often turn emotional. Meanwhile, questions abound.

What scientific benefits and risks would deployment entail? Is it ethically permissible for human beings to research, and potentially deploy this technology? At a political and societal level, what national and international structures would need to be in place to initiate this process? Who should be responsible for funding and deploying the technology? In the event that something were to go wrong, who would be held accountable? Given the high-stakes, complex questions involved, the policy and science communities need to carefully consider every small argument that makes up the bigger question.

Representing complex considerations via the visual reasoning platform Kialo

While social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter have mass audiences, the debates they host run the risk of becoming unstructured, unsubstantiated, binary, and/or toxic, producing an effect known as the “echo chamber.”

Kialo – an interactive online platform with the goal of “empowering reason” through engaging debates – could be more appropriate for these complex discussions. By facilitating visual reasoning through a tree-based structure, it could encourage users to explore arguments and sub-arguments for and against various aspects of solar geoengineering fully and deeply. Its interactive interface, and voting and commenting systems could allow for public ideation and structured interaction among different types of stakeholders – climate experts with laypersons, scientists with politicians, and so on.

Two Debates

To initiate an engaging discussion about solar geoengineering research and deployment, we have created two Kialo debates. The first debate is a general discussion on whether solar geoengineering research should be undertaken (Kialo 1). Figure 1 shows its three main theses related to the worlds of natural science, social science, and ethics. 

Figure 1: Three main theses around whether to conduct solar geoengineering research (Kialo 1)

The second debate asks what kind of restrictions should be placed on solar geoengineering research, if it were to happen (Kialo 2). Here, the three theses are delineated by stakeholder (instead of domain), and correspond to research conducted by the government, universities, and private sector respectively, as demonstrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2Figure 2: Three main theses around possible solar geoengineering research restrictions (Kialo 2)

Broadly, the debates are structured in the following way. Each thesis has a set of supporting claims (first-order pros) and opposing claims (first-order cons). Each first-order claim is then supported or rebutted with second-order pros and cons. Many of these second-order claims have third and fourth-order pros and cons. A pro or con response is always relative to the claim immediately above. At every level, pros are depicted in green, and cons in red. Figure 3 demonstrates Kialo’s hierarchical structure.

Figure 3: Demonstrating the hierarchical nature of Kialo debates

In constructing the debates, we have tried to keep the main claims as simple and straightforward as possible, before delving into the supporting and opposing arguments for each claim. We have also provided citations to external resources under most of the arguments. These debates represent hundreds of hours of work. 

The first Kialo highlights various considerations that should be deliberated in order to advance solar geoengineering research, from temporal (“The moral decision can be postponed”) and operational (“Relatively inexpensive technology”) to institutional (“Required cooperation and appropriate regulation unlikely”) and ecological (“Could cause new environmental risks”). Table 1 enumerates the number of claims that Kialo 1 contains in its current form, while Figure 4 depicts the main arguments for and against the research of the technology under the “social science” branch.

Table 1
Table 1: Current structure of Kialo 1
Figure 4: Kialo 1’s “social science” thesis

The second Kialo on which type of stakeholder ought to be responsible for conducting solar geoengineering research makes the assumption that government agencies would be funded through tax collection, research conducted and/or funded by private for-profit groups would use their own revenue, while research conducted by universities would depend on a mix of private and public funds. The sub-arguments highlight our initial take on the pros of each institution – the ability of the government to align research with public interest and protect the technology from falling into the wrong hands; the ability of universities to attract the best talent; and the ability of private companies to drive efficiency. They also point out the cons of each – the risk of weaponization if the military gets involved with the government, the possibility of private money influencing university research, and the dangers of incurring profit on a public good.  Table 2 enumerates the number of claims that the Kialo contains in its current form, while Figure 5 depicts one of the sub-arguments for government-conducted research.

Table 2Table 2: Current structure of Kialo 2
Figure 5
Figure 5: Demonstrating an argument for government-conducted research

Where do we go from here?

Our work on these two Kialo debates is only a first step. To begin with, we are excited to make these debates live so that users from different professional domains, countries, levels of subject matter expertise, and political views can support and refute the claims we have put forward using the commenting and polling tools, as well as add their own claims, arguments, and citations should they wish to make suggestions. We hope that the links we have provided will help a wide range of people participate in the debate. Given the degree of curation to date, we plan to allow individuals to make suggestions rather than directly edit the debate. Moderators can then decide whether or not to accept a suggestion. Importantly, there is no stipulation that arguments opposing solar geoengineering will be ignored. Our goal is to fully flesh out all the complex considerations.

Eventually, we believe that policy makers and scientists will be able to use platforms and debates like these to engage with each other as well as the public, and therefore shape the future of solar geoengineering technology in an effective and inclusive manner.

Malini Bose graduated from Harvard Kennedy School with a Masters in Public Policy in 2018. Festus Ojo is a sophomore at Harvard College studying Computer Science. Dustin Tingley is Professor of Government in the Government Department at Harvard University. He serves on the advisory committee of the Solar Geoengineering Research Program.