The question of whether or not environmentalists should support climate engineering generates intense conversation, and for good reason. The world’s atmosphere is currently hovering on the cusp of 400 ppm concentration of Co2, as is widely known among both the environmental and scientific community. This is a significant threshold for numerous reasons, but should mostly be considered to be a clear indication that the world’s economy has already produced far more carbon than what science is telling us is safe – according to Bill McKibben’s non-profit 350.org, 350-ppm is the limit to which scientists say our planet is no longer “livable” (350.org, 2015). Thus, seeing as the global economy has blown passed the 350-ppm marker, individuals concerned about the detrimental impacts of climate change are becoming more desperate in their calls for alarm, and the subsequent solutions that they are proposing.
Enter David Keith, an American scientist who recently wrote the book A Case for Climate Engineering. In his book, Keith describes the possible benefits (and seemingly few of its drawbacks) that could be accrued if more research and funding were invested in geoengineering projects, such as the dispersal of sulfate aerosols within the Earth’s stratosphere. The aerosols, according to Keith, are capable of reflecting a portion of the sun’s light, which if implemented on a global scale could decrease global temperatures, thereby providing society with a buffer of time to transition to a zero-carbon economy. Although the idea that something “…so cheap that almost any nation could afford to alter the Earth’s climate” (Keith, 2013, p.x) is enticing, climate engineering projects, such as the one suggested by Keith, are also rife with naive assumptions. The most significant of these assumptions include a lack of comprehensive examination of the role power dynamics play in shaping the political sphere; hubristic understandings of the planet’s complex self-regulating ecosystems; and the conjecture that the climate crisis is about finding the right technologies, not fixing ourselves.
Accordingly, in this essay I argue that the aforementioned faulty assumptions and a weak framework for deciding on whether or not a technology should be implemented have allowed a portion of society to believe that geoengineering could be a viable way for transitioning to a zero-carbon society. And, that the mere proposal of investigating climate engineering projects as a means to mitigating climate change is nothing short of lunacy.
- Naive Assumptions Concerning Power
While reading Keith’s book, I could not help but believe that his interpretation of geoengineering’s relationship to the political sphere is naïve. This is largely because he consistently underestimates the role that power dynamics play within the political sphere. Two examples of these phenomena and how they are relatable to geoengineering are discussed below.
Firstly, so called “experts” often claim that they have created some sort of novel mechanism that can solve a relevant problem, only to find later on that it won’t work in the “real” world. One example of this is the cap-and-trade system that was recently implemented in the European Union. Numerous individuals believed that it would be capable of greatly reducing the amount of carbon that was emitted. However, after numerous years the program has yet to achieve it’s goal of creating a price on carbon that forces the pollutant’s existence to decrease. According to George Monbiot, this is due to the fact that polluting industries lobbied intensively to create an over-abundance of carbon permits, effectively decreasing the cost to emit carbon (2014). In other words, entrenched power dynamics allowed for special interests to dictate how something was governed. The relevance of this anecdote to geoengineering is striking.
If geoengineering were implemented on a global-scale it would mean that the effects of climate change would be partially masked for as long as the engineering projects were conducted. This is an immensely important factor, because this would mean that carbon could be emitted without actually experiencing some of its most negative side effects for a period of time (e.g. rising oceans & increasingly severe climate patterns). And, not surprisingly, fossil fuel companies have taken notice. Murray Edwards, the CEO of Canadian Natural Resources, an oil company that is involved with tar sands oil, invested in Keith’s company Carbon Engineering (Klein, 2014). Thus, by investing in geoengineering, it is likely that CEOs, such as Edwards, recognize the possible benefits that their industry could reap from masking the negative effects of fossil fuels.
Accordingly, by promoting the concept of geoengineering individuals are providing fossil fuels companies an avenue for them to avoid regulations of their carbon-intensive products. And, although Keith throughout his book stresses that he believes governments should greatly reduce their carbon emissions in concert with geoengineering projects, it is highly unlikely to occur, because of power dynamics. In other words, why would the fossil fuel corporations that have been so successful in preventing any meaningful action on climate change not manipulate and contort geoengineering to their benefit? Why would geoengineering not be susceptible to the same entrenched power dynamics that affected Europe’s cap-and-trade system? Why wouldn’t companies like Exxon mobile manipulate geoengineering so that it would allow for them to continue extracting fossil fuels, while making billions? These questions and others like them suggest that geoengineering projects, like the one that Keith suggests, are susceptible to the same power dynamics that have so far prevented meaningful action on climate change.
A second example of Keith’s political naivety is his seemingly lack of knowledge concerning the development and use of nuclear bombs. In his book, Keith goes so far to compare geoengineering to nuclear bombs, because they are both “leveling technologies” (Keith, 155). What he meant by that term is that they are both capable of being developed relatively inexpensively; therefore they both necessitate either “embargos” of “military force” in order to control them. As a result, it seems that Keith recognizes that both technologies are capable of immense destruction, but that is where his historical knowledge concerning their relativity seems to cease. If only he were to have researched a bit more he might have learned that the scientists who were instrumental in developing the atomic bomb never thought that it was actually going to be used (Klein, 2014). They, like Keith seemingly does, simply assumed that governmental regulations would make certain that their inventions would be used for only good uses. But, as history has shown us, when powerful entities obtain powerful technologies things aren’t always used the way they were originally intended.
Therefore, the atrocities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima should be reminders to everyone, especially geoengineer promoters, that although something may be developed for good intentions, it does not mean that it will not be contorted once it has reached the political sphere. In other words, scientists, such as Keith, should be incredibly wary of how geoengineering could be used in ways that it was not intended for (e.g. allowing for corporations to continue burning fossil fuels).
III. Hubristic Understandings of Global Self-regulating Ecosystems
While reading A Case for Climate Engineering I also began to come away with the perception that scientists seem to have a good understanding of the possible negative implications that putting aerosol sulfates into the atmosphere might have on a number of important planetary processes, such as precipitation patterns. However, after a greater critical analysis of his book I began to realize that contradictory statements concerning the reliability of modeling and testing geoengineering abound. And, after reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, I also realized that Keith failed to address key criticisms of aerosol sulfates on precipitation patterns. Accordingly, it is these types of failures that lead me to believe that geoengineers seem to be “overconfident men prone to complementing each other of their fearsome brainpower” Klein, (2014, p.267). In other words, in believing that they themselves are capable of manipulating something as dynamic and complex as the climate system they have seemingly fallen into reductionist perspectives, which has encouraged hubristic tendencies.
A prime example of this overconfidence exists when one analyzes the debate concerning geoengineering’s possible impacts on global precipitation patterns. Keith in his book referenced a study, which he and two of his doctoral students coauthored, that found that injecting aerosol sulfates into the atmosphere can actually mitigate the impacts that climate change will have on changes in precipitation, thereby acting as a stabilizing force (2013). And, although he recognized the fact that modeling geoengineering impacts on climate cannot derive “precise” estimates, they still “seem” capable of making generalizations from them (Keith, 2013, p.56). Thus, even though a conflict of interest arises when one considers the fact that he co-authored the study, it is possible to come away with the interpretation that scientists know a sufficient amount about geoengineering to make the claim that it will not negatively impact global precipitation patterns.
But, in a subtle twist, a few pages later, in reference to the fact that real world small-scale testing is important for understanding aerosol sulfates better, Keith proclaimed that “…we can never be certain of the efficacy and risks of geoengineering from models alone…” (2013, p.16). Thus, if models alone can’t provide us with a holistic understanding of the impacts that aerosol sulfates will have on planetary processes, what will? Could a full-scale testing of a couple of years answer all of our questions? Well, just a little further into the book he addressed that query: “even [if] it [aerosol sulfates] were tested at ‘full-scale’ we will still not resolve all of our uncertainties” (2013, p.63). In other words, according to a different scientist, because of the fact that the climate system is highly dynamic and difficult to interpret, it could take roughly ten years of testing aerosol sulfates at a global-scale to determine whether or not geoengineering impacts such things as weather events (Bunzl et al., 2010 as cited in Klein, 2014). “In short, you could not conduct meaningful tests of these technologies without enlisting billions of people as guinea pigs- for years” (Klein, 2014, p.270).
Accordingly, by referencing his own study and then subsequently devaluing the benefits of both modeling and testing, while also ignoring the fact that only decade-long testing could answer some very important questions, Keith seems to have been acting out of ego, rather than humility when attempting to predict geoengineering impacts on the Earth’s precipitation patterns.
Keith’s seemingly arrogant analysis of geoengineering’s possible impacts on precipitation patterns does not get any better when one considers another fact: history. According to Alan Robock, a leading volcanologist, “…if you look at global average precipitation over the past fifty years, the three years with the lowest global precipitation were after the three largest volcanic eruption” (as cited in Klein, 2014, p.274). It is therefore a possibility that by injecting sulfates into the atmosphere, which mimics volcanic eruptions, geoengineering could cause decreased levels of precipitation globally, as has consistently happened in the past. Nowhere in his book does Keith address this issue.
- It is Technologies Problem, Not Ourselves
Technology has seemingly become the panacea to all of our society’s needs. Whenever a new disease is encountered physicians devise a new “magic” pill to cure it. If a new pathogen or pest begins to eat our crops agronomists simply create a new pesticide or fungicide. In essence, western society seemingly systematically fails to solve the underlying root causes of our problems. Rather than tacking a step back and analyzing the real reasons why something is wrong we now myopically use the market and its technologies to solve it. Climate change is no different.
In his book, Keith attempts to discredit the argument that geoengineering will weaken efforts to mitigate climate change by using simple analogies: having sex and driving cars. According to Keith, society created geoengineering, condoms, and seatbelts to reduce the risks associated with their behaviors. And, although condoms and seatbelts have decreased their associated hazards less effectively than anticipated, “[i]t would be perverse in the extreme to argue that risk compensation justifies withholding condoms or seatbelts” (131). Thus, applying the same thinking to geoengineering, it is supposedly perverse to withhold geoengineering just because it might decrease societies impetus to reduce carbon. Although clever, this analogy is based on logic that fails to address the underlying reasons for society’s problems.
In other words, rather than supplying palliative after palliative, maybe human beings should not be driving 3,000 – 5,000 lb. pieces of metal down the road at high speeds. Couldn’t seatbelts simply be enabling highly illogical and unsafe travel to occur? Instead, maybe colossal efforts should be taken to greatly improve mass transit and biking capabilities. The same can be said for our sexual activities: Rather than promiscuously engaging in sexual activities that dramatically increase one’s risk of disease, and arguably promote unhealthy relationships, maybe such things as monogamy and abstinence would be the best way to prevent disease and pregnancy, while also promoting more meaningful relationships.
The same can be said for geoengineering: Maybe, instead of ravenously consuming fossil fuels, clear cutting forests, promoting unsustainable agricultural practices, and believing that technology is simply going to be our savior, society should be fundamentally altered to realign itself to a more sustainable path. Or, even more to the point, maybe “… the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves” (Klein, 2014, p. 279).
- A Weak Framework for Identifying When to Use Technology
By simply observing western society, it is easy to see that technology is thoroughly embraced by most. Every year another Iphone is created that supposedly makes life better, or easier. Scientists herald advances in our ability to extend the span of one’s lifetime as a success, while not even considering the quality of one’s life. In short, society has consistently adopted numerous so-called technological advances without contemplating their possible negative ramifications – such as their possible detriments to the health of our communities.
In his book The Art of Common Place the agrarian writer and poet Wendell Berry lays out two philosophical frameworks for determining whether or not a technology should exist. Accordingly, I believe that if society were concerned about sustainability it would be wise to adopt both stances. And, if embraced both frameworks would likely force society to refuse the adoption of things like geoengineering.
The first framework provided by Berry regards health: According to Berry, health is not possible on the individual level. In other words, to speak of health one must recognize the fact that health can only exist at the community scale – both ecologically and socially. This is because of the fact that human beings are highly interconnected to our ecological surroundings. Or, in the words of Berry himself, “I believe that the community – in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures- is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms” (Berry, 2003, p.146). By thinking of the world in isolated parts, which geoengineers like Keith are arguably guilty of, certain people have allowed for the belief that humans can live in a world that is not a healthy whole. It is this kind of thinking that allows one to believe that geoengineering is a viable option.
The second framework, which Berry outlined when defending the fact that he would not purchase a computer, essentially states that technology should be used only when something simpler cannot solve it. In other words, “[i]f you are already solving your problem with the equipment you have –a pencil, say- why solve it with something more expensive and more damaging?” (Berry, 2003, p.79). In doing so, humans can avoid having their work being replaced by technology and in the meantime allow for the creation of more aware, thriving, intelligent, active, resourceful individuals. That is to say, by not being supplanted by computers, or other forms of technology, human beings would have a greater opportunity to become more human being-like.
Accordingly, by adopting both frameworks, it would be unlikely that society would consider the practice of geoengineering. Because, by accepting the fact that human beings are apart of a fabric of life that is highly interconnected we are led to the understanding that what is detrimental to the Earth is also harmful to us. Secondly, if we were to only adopt the simplest technologies to solve or problems there would be no room for discussion on the topic of geoengineering. What could be more complex than attempting to restructure our atmosphere than to block out the sun?
To conclude, I believe that geoengineering is something that should only exist within a paracosm (an imaginary world). This is because, as I have argued above, the architects and promoters of geoengineering projects systematically ignore the realities of the political domain and underestimate the complexities of the Earth’s self regulating ecosystems, while also ignoring that fixing climate change is arguably about fixing ourselves. If we want to continue to live in a world that is livable we must confront our deepest held assumptions, such as how we define health. In other words, we must adopt new philosophical frameworks for perceiving, such as the one’s put forth by Wendell Berry. In dong so, we may actually begin to solve the root causes of climate change.
Berry, W. (2003). The art of the commonplace: The agrarian essays of Wendell Berry. Counterpoint.
Keith, D. (2013). A case for climate engineering. MIT Press.
Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster.
Monbiot, G. (2014, July 1). Put a price on nature? We must stop this neoliberal road to ruin. Retrieved February 1, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/jul/24/price-nature-neoliberal-capital-road-ruin
Robock, A., Bunzl, M., Kravitz, B., & Stenchikov, G. L. (2010). A test for geoengineering?. Science, 327(5965), 530-531.
350.org. (2015, January 1). What We Do. Retrieved February 5, 2015, from http://350.org/about/what-we-do/
Aside from this, the paper is really strong. In fact, I would recommend submitting it to the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment (http://dcgeoconsortium.org/) through Professor Simon Nicholson. Before doing so, I would edit out the sniping comments and cast it as a critique of sulfate geoengineering in general rather than simply a criticism of Keith. Do you know Simon? If not, I can connect you.