The Simplification of Climate Engineering Connotations

Until quite recently, climate engineering was a consideration for the marges. It was discussed almost exclusively by scientists – and almost always the same small set of scientists. Slowly though, this has begun to change. When I first started to engage with the concept of climate engineering (or geoengineering as it is often called), any reference to my work when speaking to other people or writing about it was always a prompt for having to explain the entire endeavour, and in particular its intimate connection to anthropogenic climate change). Lately, slowly but surely, things are changing – although I still at times feel the need to comprehensively define what climate engineering is and what it stands for (see below).

Sure, people’s eyes still often glaze over when I utter the terms ‘geoengineering’, ‘climate engineering’, or ‘deliberate climate intervention’. Sure, the vast majority of people have little inkling of what climate engineering actually entails – though this is in no small part due to definitional inaccuracies and lack of clarity. Sure, those who do have some knowledge of it typically ask me if I am aware that climate engineering is, in fact, a horrible idea, and often want to know what applied work I am going to engage in in opposition to climate engineering research. But compared to five years ago when I first read about geoengineering, the whole endeavour seems to be experienced as not quite as outlandish, perhaps not quite as unfeasible, and mostly, not quite as trivially unlikely as many may have thought. Over the past several years, as climate politics has digressed and the Earth has continued to heat up, a conventional mitigation (and adaptation) ‘solution’ to climate change started to feel increasingly inadequate. Today, climate engineering, typically defined as the ‘deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change’ (Royal Society, 2009) is more and more being seriously considered by actors and stakeholders in power. With this increased consideration comes increased attention – and perhaps, increased legitimacy.

What exactly is meant by climate engineering is subject to a continual reevaluation. In general, it has come to connote a last-ditch effort to counteract global warming by unconventional means, roughly subdivided in two categories. One, typically the less controversial, concerns pretty much any and all means of extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere again. Examples of considered technologies range from afforestation to carbon-sucking factories, to fertilising the ocean with iron, making it grow more algae. Naturally, these technologies have drawbacks – they can be expensive, and even downright dangerous – but they are considered less controversial than the other option, solar radiation management, because these technologies deal with the root cause of climate change: the excess of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. However, due to the expensiveness or slow nature of these options, solar radiation management, which is concerned with managing the Earth’s albedo (basically: the Earth’s reflectivity to limit the amount of solar energy entering the climatic system) is also seriously considered. Again, this category connotes a wide range of options, but the most prominent are stratospheric aerosol injection – SAI – (spraying tiny particles in the stratosphere), and marine cloud brightening (brightening clouds, preferably in the arctic regions, to enhance reflectivity and provide local cooling). The problem is that the options do not deal with the root cause of global warming. Yes, they cool (if they work), but they aren’t a long term ‘solution’ as long as we don’t engage seriously with mitigation (and hopefully carbon capture too).

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Graphic from the Royal Society Report in 2009 – different proposed climate engineering methods, portrayed in a simplified, associative manner

Particularly in recent weeks, there has been a flurry of attention around the idea of ‘tinkering with the environment to fight climate change’. In the aftermath of a Sloan Foundation conference in Washington DC organised by Ted Parsons and the David Keith Group, which I was lucky enough to attend, several influential media outlets have published full-length articles, opinion pieces and analyses on the topic. Some of these pieces were outright negative, falsely alluding to veiled political ties, prompting David Keith and Gernot Wagner, some of the world’s most vocal supporters of climate engineering research, to write a furious rebuttal. Other outlets took a more fact-based approach.

Few articles recently however have attempted a thoughtful approach to climate engineering as extensively as the New York Times’ article, ‘Is it O.K. to Tinker With the Environment to Fight Climate Change?’, published on 18 April of this year(referenced above). In the article, journalist and author Jon Gertner analyses the different considerations one should make when thinking about something as supremely megalomanic (my words) as actively intervening in the climate. As becomes clear through his thoughtful and mostly fair representation of the issues involved in climate engineering, achieving a full and clear understanding of this complex issue clear is nigh impossible.

Flowtube used by Zhen Dai at the David Keith Group (Harvard University) to measure chemical reaction of proposed aerosols for SAI

Heavily leaning on the expertise of David Keith, Gertner risks an unduly optimistic account of climate engineering. I was lucky enough to spend nearly four months in Cambridge, Mass. with David Keith’s research group, having participated in plenty of group meetings and having gotten to know him and his team quite well. David Keith and his group of researchers are fair-minded, highly critical individuals. David has an uncanny ability to recognise pressing issues and developing hazards well in advance, and is hardly one to avoid the hard questions. Contrary his reputation in some parts of the climate engineering community, he does not look to push climate engineering research at any and all cost, and no one should have any reason to doubt his integrity. It is extremely impressive to observe the way David and his team organised themselves and their research and I think their work is invaluable. Still, one must keep in mind that that David does have a stake here. He, and many on his team, are extremely effective communicators and orators, and quite adept at making climate engineering seem more palatable than it perhaps should be.

Here, I want to zoom in on one particular argument of David’s a thought experiment really to explicate the difficulty of grasping the climate engineering issue in all its dazzling complexity, and to show how easy it is to make it seem more palatable or scary than it really is. It concerns the paragraph below, extracted from the Times article:

‘Keith suggested that I try to flip my thinking for a moment. “What if humanity had never gotten into fossil fuels,” he posed, “and the world had gone directly to generating energy from solar or wind power?” But then, he added, what if in this imaginary cleaner world there was a big natural seep of a heat-trapping gas from within the earth? Such events have happened before. “It would have all the same consequences that we’re worried about now, except that it’s not us doing the CO emissions,” Keith said. In that case, the reaction to using geoengineering to cool the planet might be one of relief and enthusiasm (New York Times, April 18, 2017)’.

It is this thought experiment, a valid and informative one to be sure, that speaks to the heart of the issue for me. I concur with David that in this imaginary cleaner world, it is likely that people would react to climate engineering with relief, and perhaps even with enthusiasm. However, there are two main reasons why this thought experiment is flawed (and even problematic).

The first reason has to do with David’s wish to decouple the ‘sin’ – humans’ burning of fossil fuels – from the potential value of climate intervention. The decoupling in Keith’s thought experiment effectively shows that we cannot view climate intervention in isolation. Climate engineering should (and with this I agree) be fundamentally seen as intimately connected to climate change. We would not be talking climate engineering without climate change. In his example, global warming due to natural causes makes it easier to act, because decoupling the sin from the solution removes part of the odious connotation of climate engineering. At the same time, it retains the dangers of climate change. If we bore no blame, would we have more right to desperate, unequal and dangerous attempts?

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Graphic used to represent global temperature changes, and the relative difference between the use of climate engineering and the absence of climate engineering (NAS, 2015). Note how the scenario without climate engineering is coloured threateningly, while the climate engineering scenario exhumes tranquility

Part of the appeal of a climate intervention in the case of a natural seep of heat-trapping gas is the perceived inevitability of the climate change. It seems that in  David’s example, really nothing else could be done to avoid catastrophic climate change. And anthropogenic climate change may feel inevitable – and, looking at the current political climate, catastrophic levels of warming probably may well be –, in fact it shouldn’t be. A priori, it really isn’t. Something else could (and should) be done. By introducing the ‘natural’ (e.g. extra-human) example as a valuable comparison, a similar assumption is invoked: climate change will happen no matter what. I agree with David’s colleague Professor Daniel Schrag, who in the Times article points out that ‘we haven’t even started doing the hard stuff’, and emphasizes that climate change will happen. I thus also agree with the validity and critical, crucial nature of research into climate engineering. By simply introducing a natural, inevitable source of climate change as an analogy, however, our intuition gets unduly skewed. It normalises climate engineering more than it should. 

Secondly – and this is perhaps a more forceful rebuke of the oversimplification inherent in thought experiments such as this one – in ‘flipping our thinking’, we are implicitly asked to ignore or forget that decoupling the sin is a grotesque oversimplification of reality. Who can say how we would have felt were climate change not anthropogenic? Climate engineering stems from the same intellectual and social traditions as the ‘sin’ itself. While these traditions have given us a great many advantages and improvements, they are also complicit in creating climate change and a whole host of other planetary problems and global inequalities. Decoupling CO2 emissions and climate change, in order to show that the issues may not be that deliberately altering the (natural) climate, is inherently wrong: instructive and yet misleading. Deliberately or not, it presents an imaginary of climate engineering as a silver bullet. Part of what should scare us is lost. Climate engineering is not simply a technological issue, nor is it simply an issue of social design. It is a co-produced effect of a hundred years (or more) of climate science and industrial – often military-industrial – development. It cannot exist outside of this history.

Poster Presentation about Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI)

I suspect David Keith would agree with some (or most) of the criticism here. I am fairly certain that he would immediately admit his analogy has in it deep flaws. Nonetheless, introducing such a comparison to the wider world has an effect: it makes climate engineering seem like a life-saver. To be sure, it can be. People are absolutely right to do research, and to claim that one day we may be very, very thankful that such research was done. But our world is not an imaginary clean world. Our world is messy, decisions made are often the wrong ones, and climate engineering cannot be decoupled from anthropogenic climate change. Introducing an imaginary cleaner world invokes a more idealised picture of human society. Some of the messiness of ‘the real world’ seems to be lost. In an imaginary clean world, it would be much easier to jump at the solutions promised by climate engineering because we would be without the experience of decades of environmental abuse, because this world might not be as familiar with the unexpected consequences of implemented technologies, and because it may not have been subject to decades of organised denial (so forcefully accounted in Conway and Oreskes’ Merchant of Doubt).

Introducing the imaginary of a clean world, in which climate engineering is regarded with relief, risks obscure precisely those costly lessons. Our technology, whichever technology but large-scale technology in particular, comes at a price. A fair discussion on climate engineering will not be possible without delving deep into the very connotations and associations that make us recoil from the endeavour. The imperfection of our human world, the social construction of our technology, is part and parcel of those associations. So, while an analogous clean world with a similar climate problem may serve to show that some intuitions about interfering with the climate may – just may – be rather flexible, it simultaneously serves to obscure a host of other problematic associations.

Ever since I was introduced to this incredibly difficult topic, I have tried to make up my mind. How do I feel about it? How should we go about it? I have yet to arrive at a single answer or at a comprehensive solution. I support climate engineering research, I really do. To not do the research seems callous in a time when climate disaster becomes ever more likely, becomes an ever more prominent imaginary. I also appreciate that there may come a time when we might need to think about deployment. I might even consider that to make such deployment (and research) workable someday, some sort of simplified narrative would be politically expedient. Perhaps it would simply be necessary.

But we are not there yet. Both proponents and opponents in the climate engineering debate simplify matters to suit their own agenda. I have written here on an imaginary parallel created by those for, but could easily have taken a similar rhetorical device from those opposing climate engineering. Unpacking the different imaginaries, the multiple proposals, the convoluted and often problematic history, is itself incredibly problematic and difficult. Determining which scenarios trigger which connotations is close to impossible speculation. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And it certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call out simplification when we see it.

Some months ago, at KTH Stockholm’s Stories of the Anthropocene Festival, a Cambridge professor told me that ‘we mainly find incredibly difficult ways to tell people what they already know’. He may have been right. Still, I hope that at some points in time, we are able to empower ourselves to spell out what people know, yet do not realise. I hope at least in climate engineering, I can do my bit.

Posted by : Jeroen Oomen

Posted At : 12:52 pm

Posted On : 16th May 2017

Posted In : News, Our Blog

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