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Global Affairs

Optimists Beware!

by Rose Cairns

Geoengineering – the idea of using a range of technological approaches to manipulate the Earth’s climate – is a contentious subject. So contentious in fact, that up until 2006 when the Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen published an article advocating research in this area, the topic was almost taboo.

This has all changed, and Clive Hamilton’s new book Earthmasters is the latest in a recent spate of academic and popular texts exploring the issue, including Eli Kintisch’s ‘Hack the Planet’, Jeff Goodell’s, ‘How to Cool the Planet’ and James Fleming’s ‘Fixing the Sky’ . This flurry of activity leaves one with the uncomfortable sensation that if the old adage ‘all publicity is good publicity’ has any grain of truth to it, these books (critical or otherwise) are all contributing in their own way to normalising a subject which really might have been better off left on the fringes. Perhaps it was taboo for good reason. But then, as others have observed, it’s a bit late to attempt to close Pandora’s box now: the debates around geoengineering aren’t going to go away, better therefore that critical voices are at least added to the mix.

Earthmasters opens with a reminder (if one were needed) that the climate is in dire trouble: humanity has collectively failed to address rising greenhouse gas emissions and we are now faced with a bleak future of irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change. Up to this point, the book echoes the fairly standard catastrophic/emergency framing within which advocates of various geoengineering interventions tend to make their cases, the pipe dream of a 2-degree target, tipping points, et al. However, Hamilton is not an advocate for geoengineering, quite the reverse and seems stuck in quite stark lose/lose terms as a result. For example:

‘[attempting to take control of the Earth’s climate as a whole] is, surely, the ultimate expression of humankind’s technological arrogance. Yet if the alternative is to stand back and watch humanity plunge the Earth into an era of irreversible and hostile climate change, what is one to do?’ (p.18)

For those unfamiliar with the array of technological approaches currently labelled as geoengineering, Hamilton’s overview is a good place to start. Geoengineering approaches are typically categorised according to whether they attempt to reduce the greenhouse effect by removing carbon from the atmosphere (Carbon dioxide Removal methods), or whether they attempt to cool the planet directly by reflecting the Sun’s radiation back out to space (Solar Radiation Management methods, SRM). Dedicating a chapter to each of these categories, he describes the principles underlying the proposed functioning of each method, the suggested potential for either carbon dioxide removal, or (in the case of SRM methods) temperature reduction, the many practical/technical challenges each would face, and the complexities, uncertainties and ignorance that surround them. His summary provides an excellent counter-weight to any sense that these technologies might offer a simple way out of our climate predicament.

For example, ocean iron fertilization is premised on the idea that introducing iron dust into the oceans where it is currently lacking would stimulate plankton growth, which would absorb carbon dioxide, some of which would end up sequestered in the deep ocean. Hamilton draws attention to the limits of the technique: it seems there are only a limited number of ocean zones in which the technique might work (even in theory), and a full-scale iron fertilization deployment would need to cover one third of the surface of the southern ocean, and would only serve as a sink for one tenth of the world’s current excess carbon dioxide emissions – if it worked. Massive levels of uncertainty also surround the possible unintended consequences of the technique, particularly the issue of ‘macronutrient stealing’ which might result in biological productivity falling in other areas of the ocean.

Schematic representation of solar radiation management techniques (source: Wikimedia Commons, CC Share Alike License)

In the SRM category, a prominent suggested method is the idea of spraying sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere. This is based on observations of the effects of particulates released by volcanoes, it assumes particles will act as a solar filter, blocking some solar radiation and, so theory goes, return the Earth’s temperature to pre-industrial levels. Again Hamilton does a good job of highlighting the huge levels of uncertainty that surround the idea, and the likelihood of unanticipated effects particularly on rainfall patterns. For example there is some modelling evidence that the Indian Monsoon might be seriously disrupted (p. 64), or that rainfall over the Amazon might decline by around 20%. His persuasive conclusion is that ‘trying to estimate the combined influence of warming and SRM (along with anti-pollution measures) is little more than educated guesswork’ (p.65). There are many objections to sulphate aerosol spraying: the ignorance about effects; the many potential geopolitical issues; the so-called ‘termination effect’ (whereby temperatures would increase rapidly if an SRM intervention were started and then stopped), to name but a few. But what Hamilton calls the ‘killer objection’ is the fact that it cannot be tested without full-scale implementation (p.67). Smaller scale tests would reveal almost nothing about the possible effects of full-scale deployment. So essentially at the point at which it would be deployed, sulphate aerosol injection would always be a gamble on an unprecedented scale.

Many of the issues raised by Hamilton are well covered elsewhere, but a particular strength of these chapters is the way in which he brings to the fore the issue of the enormous scale of the infrastructures that would be required to deploy any of these techniques. This dimension, particularly with regard to proposed carbon dioxide removal methods is often glossed over in the existing literature. He touches upon the phenomenon referred to by social scientists as ‘lock- in’, whereby physical infrastructures, institutions, and political and economic commitments often result in large technological systems becoming resistant to change even if negative impacts or inefficiencies are discovered (nuclear energy and reprocessing being an oft cited case). He also highlights the perversity of the idea of constructing such an immense industrial infrastructure to deal with the carbon emissions, when we could just stop burning fossil fuels from the immense industrial infrastructures we have already built (p.50).

Given that geoengineering represents an attempt to address the symptoms of a problem (climate change) without any effort to address the causes of that problem (unsustainable development patterns), and therefore does not require any of the more fundamental shifts that climate campaigners have long called for, it is unsurprising that these ideas have found enthusiastic advocates among certain free market ideologues. Indeed, Hamilton argues that ‘geoengineering is an essentially conservative technology’ (p. 120), appealing to those to whom any infringement of economic freedoms is anathema. Perhaps the most interesting chapter of this book is Hamilton’s exploration of the personal and institutional linkages that constitute the core of this contested field, outlining the involvement of such right-wing think-tanks as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute and the Hoover Institution, as well as influential entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson. While the limited number of players has been widely commented upon – the term ‘geoclique’ introduced by Eli Kintisch in 2010 to describe this small group of highly influential individuals, has been widely cited – Hamilton draws attention to the potential importance not just of individuals, but of ways of thinking, and institutional cultures. For example, he highlights the fact that a surprising number of prominent geoengineering researchers and advocates have, at some time, worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Influential in nuclear weapons research during the cold war, it has developed a particular intellectual culture, characterised by the belief that ‘understanding and exercising control of the technologies was sufficient to render them safe, as if mastery in the technical sphere carried over in to the political sphere’ (p. 123). These ideas, Hamilton maintains, are already showing signs of being formative in the emerging debates around geoengineering.

Hamilton’s focus on the context of catastrophic climate change throughout the book highlights the thorny moral dilemmas and ambivalences that the subject of geoengineering inspires, as well as emphasizing the ways in which views about the topic are likely to cut across labels like ‘pro- environment’ versus ‘pro-economy’, or the ‘left/right fault line’ (p.123). However, rather than reading this problematizing of familiar categories as an opportunity to explore plurality or an opportunity to understand new configurations of perspectives, Hamilton imposes a new binary categorization on the topic. In his view the pertinent divide is between the ‘Prometheans’ (a worldview characterised by being technocratic, rationalist and confident of humanity’s ability to control nature) and the ‘Soterians’ (a ‘more humble outlook suspicious of unnatural technological solutions and the hubris of mastery projects’, p.124). He then makes the fairly melodramatic argument that:

‘climate engineering is the last battle in a titanic struggle between Prometheans and Soterians, with the prize nothing less than the survival of the world we know now’ (p.18)

Others have given different labels to this apparent cleavage – for example, in a 2012 article Brand and Fisher highlighted the persistence of a ‘technophile/technophobe’ split in environmental discourse. But they argue that the divide is false, ignores the multiple ways in which technology and society are mutually shaping rather than at odds, and is essentially unhelpful. In this case it is not clear what conceptual clarity is gained by framing the debate in these terms – all the more since he accepts that his categories cannot be neatly mapped onto positions of advocacy for, or opposition to geoengineering. It seems to be rather needlessly simplistic, essentialising and divisive. Hamilton devotes a chapter to ‘ethical anxieties’, but largely reduces his discussion of the ethics to a discussion of sulphate aerosols because, he argues ‘it illustrates the ethical anxieties most starkly’ (p.159). The implication being that the ethical issues he discusses are relevant to the whole spectrum of technologies to a degree. Given the diversity of technologies being mooted – from burying charcoal to putting mirrors in space – this doesn’t necessarily seem to be a justified assumption, and from an ethicist, one might expect a little more clarity here. One of the strongest arguments that comes out of this chapter concerns the idea of justice, and Hamilton drives home the point that given that proposals for climate engineering stem from a ‘cascade of institutional failings and self-interested behaviours’ it would be naïve to suppose that ‘deployment of a solar shield would be done in a way that fulfilled the strongest principles of justice and compassion’ (p.182).

Hamilton’s view of science also appears a little contradictory at times: on one hand he refers to the way in which the evidence on climate change demanded particular policy actions (p8), while on the other he critiques the ‘modern predilections to elevate technical truths over other kinds of truths’ (p.123). His view of the central role of science in ‘demanding action’ on climate change has led him to a natural focus on climate change denial as one of the central causes of the intractability of the climate change problem, however this seems to be somewhat misplaced. With or without the influence of climate scepticism, climate change has never been a simple problem, requiring as it does, radical social, economic and political changes (arguably the re-structuring of global societies and economies). Thus science did not, and cannot ‘demand actions’ because fundamentally these actions are about social choices and values, a point that seems to get lost in Hamilton’s analysis.

In sum, Earthmasters provides a good introductory overview of the types of technologies being talked about under the label of geoengineering, examines who is doing most of the talking, and gives a good overview of the kinds of ethical questions that permeate the field. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book raises more questions than it answers, and clearly illustrates Hamilton’s own attempts to formulate a coherent ethical stance on the topic. It is a good place to begin if you are interested in understanding debates that will, in all probability, become ever more prominent over the coming years. However, beware if you consider yourself an optimist: Hamilton clearly frowns upon optimism as, at best foolishness and wishful thinking, or at worst a species of ‘one upmanship’ (p.104). Such a dire outlook does rather leave one wondering what Hamilton’s real contribution is likely to be. Perhaps framing geoengineering in terms of a cosmic battle between good and evil (Soterians v Prometheans), and resolutely maintaining a techno-pessimistic view that this is likely to end in disaster, isn’t the most constructive place from which to start a debate, or attempt to galvanise social action in any particular direction.

Clive Hamilton: Earthmasters. The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering
ISBN: 9780300186673
Price: US$28.00
Yale University Press, New Haven 2013. 264 pages, Hardcover.

Dr Rose Cairns is a Research Fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, exploring the framings of geoengineering as part of the AHRC/ESRC Climate Geoengineering Governance research project.

This article was first published by the New Left Project. It is here reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License. 


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