Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator


Newsflash: It’s 2029 and “SolarGate” protests have erupted across major cities of the Pangean Union in the wake of a whistleblowing engineer’s revelations.

The protests stem from news reports based on the whistleblower’s “shocking revelations of dubious geoengineering” experiments in Deceptia, one of the countries that belong to the bloc, citing serious public health and agricultural concerns with the technology. Investigative reporters disclose the fossil fuel company’s coverup of corrupt payouts and plans to go to market with their exploratory use of sulphates in the stratosphere to cool the Earth.

It turns out that a panel of intergovernmental experts had approved the experiments beforehand, prompting widespread public backlash against the scientific community. Hacktivists want a global moratorium. The public crisis of trust keeps growing even after a union-commissioned study finds no evidence of any negative impacts.

A global organization, Nations United, calls a solar radiation management conference to craft a recommendation for its General Assembly. That was the scenario facing a cohort of 30 participants in Geneva Science Diplomacy Week 2024 on Tuesday during a “Climate Diplomacy Simulation” at the University of Geneva, or UNIGE, organized by the Wroclaw, Poland-based Centre for System Solutions and GESDA.

They were instructed to role play various stakeholders with competing interests at the conference. The role-playing reflected the week’s emphasis on experiential learning about issues and topics from the 2023 GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar®. “First they do, then they get the theory,” GESDA’s Head of Science Diplomacy Capacity Building Marga Gual Soler explained.

The cohort broke into small groups around the different roles and debated a proposed moratorium on all solar geoengineering technology and uses. The discussion became technical but the atmosphere turned chaotic.

Human rights was not explicitly mentioned. Some asked what values and principles guided decision-makers. The session emphasized the importance of being empathetic enough to recognize others’ values and build trust.


All photos by Michael Chiribau, UNITAR Division for Multilateral Diplomacy 

Getting the big picture

The groups informally gravitated toward a single negotiation around one big table, leading to their near-unanimous recommendation of a conditional moratorium: scientists can perform regulated research but all uses and field deployments would be banned. The proposal reflected the belief that the pursuit of more field data at all costs would be dangerous. Yet scientists also argued that more field data – not modeling – was needed.

“The conundrum in the global governance of this particular type of climate technology is that large-scale experimentation equals deployment, so the line between scientific research and application is blurred,” Gual Soler said. “This is why we need anticipation, to maximize the opportunities and beneficial uses of emerging science  – and the involvement of diplomacy, industry and society in the conversation from the start.”

Noam Obermeister, the lead designer of the simulation and a science policy facilitator, said he was amazed at how much the participants got out of the exercise. “I think that’s a testament to the interdisciplinary competence of the people that GESDA put together,” he said, adding that the cohort was one of the rare groups to quickly attain a “bird’s eye view” of the situation but there was little to no discussion about tradeoffs or who stood to profit.

“It was interesting to see how they quickly moved to form a consensus and favored the multilateral over bilateral approach. There weren’t any sneaky deals, but the result was quite conservative,” he said. “There was no radical action. It was a watered-down compromise. I think they learned the multi-stakeholder approach, while desirable, is really hard. That’s the big lesson here.”

At a session on computational diplomacy, several UNIGE professors and a PhD candidate discussed their project crunching data on resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council, the most powerful arm of the world body because it can take legally binding action.

The project by UNIGE’s Lab for Science in Diplomacy (SiDLab) presents an opportunity to bolster science diplomacy with a systematic method of inquiry based on computational science. It can be used to quantitatively analyze, study, and understand critical mechanisms underpinning foreign policy and international relations.

“The data science process is an interdisciplinary field,” said Roland Bouffanais,  a complexity scientist and associate professor at UNIGE, said. Didier Wernli, an associate professor at UNIGE’s Global Studies Institute, said the project had identified almost 2 million documents on the UN library database.

The data reflects the growing importance of security threats such as pandemics, non-state armed groups, terrorist groups and cyber attacks. “Member states are not the only decision makers and the UN Security Council needs to adapt to that,” said Moeen Hosseinalipour, a PhD candidate in interdisciplinary global studies and a teaching and research assistant. “There are a couple of reforms on the table and being discussed constantly.”

The day drew to a close with an interactive session on science diplomacy and emerging technologies at the Impact Hub Geneva hosted by the Swiss Young Academy and foraus. The immersion program, which runs through Friday, reflects Geneva’s multilateral ecosystem and is hosted by GESDA and its 17 partners from Geneva, Swiss and global institutions.       

All photos by Michael Chiribau, UNITAR Division for Multilateral Diplomacy  

Story by John Heilprin