Review of Earthmasters: the Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering by Clive Hamilton, Yale University Press, 2013
Clive Hamilton, an Australian, has written a number of books about climate change. In the recently published Earthmasters, he tackles the subject of attempts to manage the climate by geoengineering. I found this book well researched, well documented, clearly written…and alarming.
Hamilton starts by discussing the looming threat of catastrophic climate change, and the utterly inadequate response of governments. So…is it time to take a deep breath and contemplate a Plan B? He coins a couple of words to talk about basic philosophical differences on these issues: Prometheans are people who are certain that Man has a glorious destiny (you might say a Manifest Destiny) to completely control this planet and eventually others for our own purposes. Soterians (after the Greek goddess of safety and deliverance from harm) are more cautious, more concerned about the fall that cometh after hubris, and more respectful of the wisdom inherent in natural systems (I noticed that of the dozen or so proponents mentioned in the book, most are North Americans and all are men). Yet there are Soterians now advocating for geoengineering, because they believe the alternative is so catastrophic. The idea of direct measures to reduce climate change—measures other than the obvious, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions—have been under very quiet investigation for a long time, but were not publicly discussed until a paper by Paul Crutzen came out in 2006, because most scientists felt that open discussion of this “Plan B” would reduce pressure, already much too weak, to lower emissions. Now the cat’s out of the bag. The new IPCC report has a section on geoengineering.
Hamilton and others divide geoengineering proposals into two groups: those that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil, plants, the ocean, or deep underground…and methods of reducing the incoming sunlight without dealing with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The best known of the first category are those ideas about increasing ocean storage by adding iron dust or lime to increase the biological activity of the ocean. As the ocean already stores enormously more carbon than anywhere else, this seems feasible—but experiments have been done with disappointing results. Unsurprisingly, this is because biological systems are complicated. Adding iron, for example, causes a bloom but perhaps the extra microorganisms are the “wrong” kind, and perhaps the extra activity drains surrounding waters of other nutrients so that the net result is uselessness. Adding lime doesn’t depend on these complicated biological processes, but requires so much energy for pulverizing the limestone and spreading it that it makes no sense to do it—if we had that much new renewable energy, why not just replace coal-fired power plants with it and skip the liming?
Then there are the methods involving increased storage of carbon in biomass—from the sensible choice of refraining from deforestation, to biochar, to algae farms. Hamilton believes the possibility for much carbon diversion in these methods is limited. Underground sequestration, whether the CO2 is captured at power plants or removed from the air via gigantic machines, would require a huge new infrastructure.
Measures to solve the problem by reducing incoming solar heat gain include the brightening of clouds by spraying seawater up from a fleet of perhaps a thousand ships—each equipped with 28 billion one-micron nozzles—and eliminating cirrus clouds in the upper atmosphere by spraying a bismuth solution out of airplanes, which could include commercial flights. But the most popular and likeliest is spraying sulfur solutions into the atmosphere to mimic volcanic eruptions. The latter is called “easy, effective and cheap.” But there are questions about alterations of rainfall patterns with the first two, and the sulfur trick will damage the ozone layer and possibly reduce rainfall, can’t be tested at less than full-scale implementation (and many years of it to separate effects from the natural variability of weather). Also, once implemented it could not be terminated without catastrophic effects; a chart shows the temperature skyrocketing after termination to achieve the warming we would have had without the intervention within a couple of years, much too fast for most species, especially forests, to adapt. Grimly, he notes that air pollution (now largely from Asia) has kept warming to .8 degrees Celsius—otherwise it would be an additional 1.1 degrees Celsius hotter already.
After this description of proposed technologies, Hamilton turns to a description of “the players.” Proponents of geoengineering include Bill Gates, and several people connected to Lawrence Livermore Lab. He spends a few pages analyzing how the Cold War nuclear weapons projects might have influenced scientists to later support geoengineering. Some of the most prominent climate denial machines, like American Enterprise Institute, Hoover Institute and Heartland Institute, are now proponents of technological intervention to solve a problem they still claim doesn’t exist. There are also consortiums grabbing patents, hoping to make a mint by charging humanity for the rescue of our only home. Military men have begun thinking about how fine-tuning these schemes could benefit one nation at the expense of others. Even without such deliberate machinations, if any climate engineering is carried out and affects the weather, it is inevitable that some people and some governments will feel that they have been victimized by the results.
Next Hamilton examines the morality and the geopolitics of climate engineering, and considers possible regulatory frameworks. He considers the best arrangement to be international, perhaps via the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In the concluding chapter he looks at it from a philosophical point of view. I like the final pages in which he draws together the “human exceptionalism” of the Prometheans with the forces of corporate power (especially oil companies), those determined that growth must continue at all costs, those looking for military advantage, and the inertia of the status quo; clearly he fears that these forces operating in collusion will steamroll the opposition. As do I. It’s clear from many quotations that the initial reluctance of scientists to discuss the prospects of geoengineering for fear of providing an excuse to further delay mitigation was well-founded. That the right-wing think tanks who have made much of their bread and butter in recent years by climate denial are embracing geoengineering adds credence to Naomi Klein’s thesis that belief in climate change tracks political leanings because the obvious solutions are anathema to the right—things like more governmental regulation, especially at a global level, respect for nature and more taxation, along with less consumption and reparations to the global south. Once someone suggests a “solution” which may avert catastrophe via a high-tech operation controlled by a few and profiting corporations, the picture changes.
It may seem like anything that puts an end to the obstructionism of the global corporate right wing is a good thing. But if it depends on allowing enthusiastic Promethean cowboys to do their experiments on our only planet, while doing nothing to curb greenhouse gas emissions, nothing to reduce all the myriad other harms our frantic, growth-obsessed culture inflicts, and nothing to install renewable and low-impact replacements for fossil fuels while we still have some fossil fuels to help build the infrastructure…then Hamilton’s fears are indeed well-founded, and it’s important that we begin now to counter the impetus the Prometheans are putting behind the idea of geoengineering. After finishing this book, I find myself wondering: Have there been quiet conversations between proponents and policy-makers, and might these have something to do with the complete refusal of so many governments to countenance emissions limits?