Public Perceptions of Geoengineering (Opinion Article)

Cairns (2015) – Public Perceptions of Geoengineering – Click for download

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 17.15.26Given that geoengineering technologies remain for the most part hypothetical ideas, geoengineering research has been described as being at an ‘upstream’ moment.[1] This implies that, in contrast to more mature technologies which may already have become ‘locked-in’ or resistant to change[2], the ultimate forms – if any – that these technologies might take in the future is still amenable to being shaped by the concerns and values of society. Thus there is a fair degree of consensus that eliciting public perceptions about geoengineering approaches is important[3], and that it should happen while research in this area is at an early stage.[4] However, eliciting, understanding and representing what this group called ‘the public’ might think or feel about geoengineering is not necessarily straightforward.

Firstly, there are a variety of (stated and implicit) rationales for eliciting public views about potentially controversial technological developments like geoengineering. Fiorino distinguished between normative rationales (eliciting public perspectives about the possible development of technologies that would affect them is the right thing to do); substantive rationales (one gets substantively better, more socially robust decisions if one involves the public); or instrumental rationales (one should do it because it helps to achieve a given end – e.g. to get the public ‘on side’ with regard to a particular socio-technical development).[5] Also helpful to consider here, is Stirling’s distinction between the role of public engagement in closing down, or opening up policy processes[6]: is the aim of public engagement to reach a consensus or a majority view on geoengineering, or to justify a given policy commitment to a particular development trajectory? Or is it to open up the arguments, framings, and values inherent in these discussions to the widest possible range of perspectives, and illustrate the ways in which particular societal courses of action depend on the particular values, perspectives or framings that are privileged? The view one takes on the purpose of eliciting public perceptions will affect not only where and how one looks for these views, but the seriousness with which different ideas or concerns are treated, and the degree to which ideas such as ‘representativeness’ or ‘legitimacy’ of particular views are felt to be of primary concern.

Secondly, different ways in which this imagined group called ‘the public’ – a term which Laclau has called an ‘empty signifier’[7] – are understood or constructed, have implications for the ways in which it would make sense to elicit their views. For example, some social scientists have questioned whether this thing called ‘the public’ should be understood primarily as simply large numbers of private individuals, or whether it also makes sense to consider the many forms ‘collective self-realisation of publics’, including for example the views of social movements and civil society groups. Welsh and Wynne refer to these groups as ‘early risers’ sensitive to normative social and cultural commitments, embedded, but often undeclared, in techno-scientific developments, which they regard as emergent public issues, stakes and meanings.[8] Similarly, some have argued that public discourses on a topic such as geoengineering contain a series of ‘latent meanings’ likely to indicate the fault-lines along which public opinion will likely divide in the future.[9] Some have even made a case for the representation of discourses rather than individuals in deliberative processes, when the deliberative participation of all affected by a collective decision (such as is the case with decisions about geoengineering) is not feasible.[10] Following from these ideas, a number of authors have taken a discursive approach to examining, and subjecting to critical scrutiny, the range of discourses and framings of geoengineering in the public sphere, such as those expressed in academic publications or through a range of media channels[11], including more marginal public discourses such as the belief in chemtrails, which, I argue elsewhere, may be revealing of concerns and values which are likely to resonate with other publics.[12]

Thirdly, given that geoengineering technologies do not yet (and may never) exist, attempts to elicit public perceptions more directly (e.g. through surveys, interviews, focus groups or other deliberative exercises), need to overcome a number of methodological complications and potential pitfalls. Given that various studies concur that the awareness of the idea of geoengineering is still low among the majority of people[13], the way in which the topic is first introduced to people in order to elicit their opinions is crucially important. For example, a recent study[14] illustrates the well-recognised impacts of framings on elicitation of public perceptions, showing experimentally the ways in which the use of natural metaphors to describe possible geoengineering approaches resulted in more positive perceptions among individuals in the study, of those technologies. Framing discussions of geoengineering in terms of a response to a climate emergency may also have a powerful impact on subsequent attitudes towards these approaches, putting participants in a disempowered position should they wish to express dissent or disagreement with the idea of pursuing geoengineering research.[15] A number of attempts have been made to elicit public perceptions of geoengineering directly, including some large scale surveys[16], and several more deliberative workshops, which have explored public perceptions towards geoengineering in general[17], towards Stratospheric Aerosol Injection in particular[18], and towards a specific geoengineering research project, the SPICE project.[19] These different studies have produced interesting but sometimes divergent results based on their assumptions and methodologies. For example, based on the results of their large scale survey, Mercer et al concluded that there was what they considered a ‘surprisingly high’ level of support for solar radiation management among the public, and classified 29% of their sample (of 2893 people in the US, Canada and the UK) as ‘supporters’ of SRM and 20% as ‘detractors’.[20] On the other hand, a smaller scale deliberative study (based on seven focus groups involving between 6 – 8 participants in the UK) concluded that groups of supporters or detractors could not be so easily distinguished, and found that the process of deliberation in a group resulted in participants becoming increasingly more sceptical about SRM.[21] Similarly other deliberative exercises have not sought to classify publics into supporters or detractors, but highlighted the range of public concerns about proposed geoengineering technologies. Findings from these studies have echoed those of public engagement exercises around other novel or emergent technologies[22], by illustrating the fact that public concerns often encompass but go well beyond narrow questions of feasibility, safety or risk. For example, publics have raised questions like ‘who would control the technology?’ or ‘what else might it be used for?’, or ‘who would be accountable if things go wrong?’.22

Finally, it is worth highlighting that although the range of both discursive and more direct elicitation approaches to exploring public perceptions of geoengineering have produced some interesting findings and raised some important concerns and questions about geoengineering, one evident limitation of existing work is the narrow geographical diversity of the publics’ views that have been explored to date. Although there have been some limited attempts to expand the conversation about geoengineering into different geographical contexts (for example the African workshops held by the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative[23]; or workshops held in Beijing and Delhi by the Climate Geoengineering Governance Project)[24], it is widely recognised that debates about geoengineering are overwhelmingly taking place in countries in the Global North. This is clearly problematic, not least because the impacts of both climate change and proposed geoengineering interventions would likely disproportionately affect countries in the Global South.

In conclusion, given the potential impacts of geoengineering interventions, opening-up discussions and debates about geoengineering research to as broad as possible a range of public concerns and perspectives is of crucial importance. But eliciting and representing the views or perceptions of ‘the public’ towards geoengineering is a high-stakes activity, and it pays to be cautious in interpreting results, and alert to the politics of these processes. It is important to recognise the assumptions underlying the ways in which ‘the public’ are constructed in any given study, and to be alert to different (stated and unstated) rationales for eliciting public views. In order to avoid the accusation that public engagement exercises are simply tick-box exercises aimed at legitimising existing research trajectories, the concerns of different publics need to be taken seriously. Although there are still minority voices within the geoengineering research community which depict public engagement in geoengineering research as a bureaucratic intrusion into the scientific process, or an attempt to shackle scientific freedoms, many geoengineering researchers demonstrate a high degree of reflexivity about their research and its potential implication.[25] These researchers are very aware of the importance of understanding and engaging with the perceptions and concerns of different publics, and do not wish to carry out research without a social licence to do so.

Works Cited

Cairns, R. 2014a. “Climate Geoengineering: Issues of Path-dependence and Socio-technical Lock-in.” WIREs Climate Change, pp. n/a. DOI 10.1002/wcc.296.

Cairns, R. 2014b. “Climates of Suspicion: ‘Chemtrail’ Conspiracy Narratives and the International Politics of Geoengineering.” The Geographical Journal, online version.

Cairns, R. and A. Stirling. 2014. “‘Maintaining Planetary Systems’ or ‘Concentrating Global Power?’ High Stakes in Contending Framings of Climate Geoengineering.” Global Environmental Change 28: 25–38.

CEEW. 2014. CEEW Conference Report: Climate Geoengineering Governance. Available online at:

Corner, A. and N. Pidgeon. 2014. “Like Artificial Trees? The Effect of Framing by Natural Analogy on Public Perceptions of Geoengineering.” Climatic Change , doi:10.1007/s10584-014-1148-6.

Dryzek, J. S., and S. Niemeyer. 2008. “Discursive Representation.” American Political Science Review 102: 481–493.

Carr, W. A., C. J. Preston, L.Yung, B. Szerszynski, D. W. Keith, and A. M. Mercer (2013). “Public Engagement on Solar Radiation Management and Why It Needs to Happen Now. Climatic Change 121: 567–577 (2013).

Corner, A., N. Pidgeon and K. Parkhill. 2012. “Perceptions of Geoengineering: Public Attitudes, Stakeholder Perspectives, and the Challenge of “Upstream” Engagement.” WIREs Climate Change 3: 451 – 466.

Fiorino, D. J. 1990. “Citizen Participation and Environmental Risk : A Survey of Institutional Mechanisms.” Science, Technology and Human Values 15: 226–243.

House of Commons. 2010. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on The Regulation of Geoengineering.

Laclau, E. 2006. On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Macnaghten, P., and B. Szerszynski. 2013. “Living the Global Social Experiment: An Analysis of Public Discourse on Solar Radiation Management and its Implications for Governance.” Global Environmental Change 23: 465– 474.

Markusson, N., F. Ginn, N. S. Ghaleigh and V. Scott. 2013. “In Case of Emergency Press Here”: Framing Geoengineering as a Response to Dangerous Climate Change. WIREs Climate Change 5: 281 – 290.

Mercer, A. M., D. W. Keith, J. D. Sharp. 2011. “Public Understanding of Solar Radiation Management.” Environmental Research Letters 6, 044006 (2011).

Mooney, C. 2010. Do Scientists Understand the Public? Do Scientists Understand the Public ? American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

NERC. 2010. Experiment Earth? Report on a Public Dialogue on Geoengineering.

Nerlich, B. and R. Jaspal. 2010. “Metaphors We Die By ? Geoengineering, Metaphors, and the Argument from Catastrophe. Metaphor and Symbol 44: 1–19.

Parkhill, K. and N. Pidgeon. 2011. “Public Engagement on Geoengineering Research: Preliminary Report on the SPICE Deliberative Workshops.” Working Paper. Understanding Risk Research Group, Cardiff University. 1–29.

Pidgeon, N., A. Corner, K. Parkhill, A. Spence, and C. Butler. 2012. “Exploring Early Public Responses to Geoengineering.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 370: 4176 – 4196.

Porter, K. and M. Hulme. 2013. “The Emergence of the Geoengineering Debate in the UK Print Media: a Frame Analysis.” The Geographical Journal 179: 342–355.

Rayner, S., C. Heyward, T. Kruger, N. Pidgeon, C. Redgwell, J. Savulescu. 2013. “The Oxford Principles.” Climatic Change 121(3): 499-512.

Shepherd, J. et al. 2009. Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty. The Royal Society. Available online at:

Sikka, T. 2012. “A Critical Discourse Analysis of Geoengineering Advocacy.” Critical Discourse Studies 9: 163–175.

SRMGI. Governance of Research on Solar Geoengineering: African Perspectives. (2013). at African-Perspectives.pdf

Stilgoe, J. 2007. Nanodialogues: Experiments in Public Engagement with Science. Demos.

Stilgoe, J., M. Watson and K. Kuo. 2013. “Public Engagement with Biotechnologies Offers Lessons for the Governance of Geoengineering Research and Beyond.” PLoS Biology 11, e1001707.

Stirling, A. 2008. “‘Opening Up’ and ‘Closing Down’: Power, Participation, and Pluralism in the Social Appraisal of Technology.” Science, Technology and Human Values 33: 262–294.

Welsh, I. and B. Wynne. 2013. “Science, Scientism and Imaginaries of Publics in the UK: Passive Objects, Incipient Threats.” Science as Culture 22(4): 540–566.


[1] Corner et al. 2012

[2] Cairns 2014a

[3] Shepherd et al. 2009; House of Commons 2010; Rayner et al. 2013

[4] Carr 2013

[5] Fiorino 1990

[6] Stirling 2008

[7] Laclau 2006

[8] Welsh and Wynne 2013

[9] Mooney 2010

[10] Dryzek and Niemeyer 2008

[11] Cairns and Stirling 2014; Markussen et al. 2013; Nerlich and Jaspal 2010; Porter and Hulme 2013; Sikka 2012

[12] Cairns 2014b

[13] Pidgeon et al. 2012; Mercer et al. 2011

[14] Corner and Pidgeon 2014

[15] Parkhill and Pidgeon 2011

[16] Pidgeon et al. 2012; Mercer et al. 2011

[17] NERC 2010

[18] Macnaghten and Szerszynski 2013

[19] Parkhill and Pidgeon 2011

[20] Mercer et al 2011

[21] Macnaghten and Szerszynski 2013

[22] Stilgoe 2007

[23] SRMGI 2013

[24] For example, see CEEW 2014.

[25] For example, see Stilgoe et al. 2013.


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