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Deciding where to set the earth’s thermostat

Stuart Brand

Clive Hamilton is an Australian academic and author. His last two books were Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change and more recently a book published last year on geoengineering called Earthmasters: the dawn of the age of climate engineering.  It is both a chilling and a fascinating read, an insight into something I didn't know that much about, engineering the climate in response to climate change.  We caught up with him by Skype, and began by asking him, "what's geoengineering?"

"It’s a range of technologies aimed at offsetting the effects of climate change. They fall into two broad classes: the so-called carbon dioxide removal methods and the solar radiation management methods. There are a couple of dozen in each of those classes. The carbon dioxide removal methods aim to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere one way or another, fix it in some safer form and perhaps bury it underground or under the oceans, in perpetuity it’s hoped.

Solar radiation management involves a number of schemes whose object is to reduce the amount of solar radiation or sunlight reaching the earth’s surface and thereby to cool the planet. Solar radiation management methods of course are not tackling climate change at source, but attempting to deal with one of the symptoms – the major symptom – of human-induced climate change and that is the warming of the globe. But it doesn’t deal with the other symptoms of excessive greenhouse gas emissions, notably the acidification of the oceans.

Geoengineering

The thing that alarmed me reading ‘Earthmasters’ is how far progressed the science and the politics around geoengineering are. Can you give us a sense of where it’s at now?

Climate scientists and others have dabbled in geoengineering schemes for 20 or so years. It was only in 2006 when the famous scientist Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on the hole in the ozone layer, published an article saying the situation is so dire that we need a plan B and therefore we need to start a major research programme on solar radiation management, on a method known as sulphate aerosol spraying. With that article, Crutzen broke the taboo amongst climate scientists on talking about and researching geoengineering and there has been a huge growth in publications in scientific journals on a range of geoengineering schemes.

There’s now a significant community of climate scientists studying geoengineering schemes and publishing their results in professional journals but also in the grey literature. There are a range of conferences and in fact it’s gained so much momentum that the IPCC in its recent 5th assessment report has for the first time included an evaluation of geoengineering as a response to climate change.

On the political front, I think it’s true to say that the taboo on talking about geoengineering remains. We can imagine, for example, if President Obama said that America’s response to climate change will be to research a programme of coating the earth with a layer of sulphate aerosols to reduce the levels of sunlight reaching the surface. There’d be uproar and mayhem and the United States would be accused, legitimately, of shirking its responsibilities, of refusing to tackle this threat except through Dr Strangelove kinds of technologies.

There’s a big taboo, politically, on talking about geoengineering in public, although we know that in private on Capitol Hill in the United States for example, and indeed here in the parliament in Canberra, there are politicians, principally Conservative ones, who are in their offices speculating on the desirability of geoengineering as a substitute or a complement to emission reduction methods which they concede are manifestly inadequate.

Perhaps a more interesting development on the politics of it, whilst it’s not part of the mainstream political debate; there are a number of right-wing think tanks in the United States who are taking seriously the geoengineering response to climate change.

To the best of your knowledge, has it actually happened on any meaningful scale anywhere in the world yet?

No, it hasn’t. There have been a few experiments carried out, particularly with the geoengineering scheme known as ocean iron fertilisation. In the atmosphere there have been no serious experiments carried out on any geoengineering scheme. I must stress that this is despite the claims of the so-called chemtrails activists who have been claiming for many years that the government – and they often don’t specify which government, it’s a sort of generalised oppressive force, perhaps the UN – engage in the spraying of chemicals out of the backs of commercial and military aircraft over wide areas.

They never really say what kind of chemicals, but these chemicals are sprayed by ‘the government’ in order to destroy crops or control our minds one way or another. The chemtrails conspiracy theories should be dismissed out of hand. We are, after all, serious about science and there are no serious scientists, no cloud physicists or other kinds of atmospheric scientists, who can find any evidence whatsoever for these chemtrails claims. So we should not be misled by chemtrails activists who have leapt on geoengineering as some kind of vindication of their crazy claims.

What do the solutions that geoengineering offers tell us about the mindset that got us into this climate mess in the first place?

There’s a range of views in what might be called the geoengineering community. If you look at somebody like Paul Crutzen, who has been called the caretaker of life on the planet, he’s a man who is deeply anxious about the implications of climate change but believes the major nations of the earth are so incapable of responding adequately that we’re going to end up with some kind of climate emergency that if not stopped would lead to catastrophe and therefore we must have this Plan B.

But what we see in fact is climate engineering heavily influenced by a particular kind of American technocratic thinking. The view is that humankind has intervened, largely successfully in natural systems for a very long time, so why should we not attempt to regulate the earth’s climate system as a whole? Humans can generate technological means to exercise control over the climate system. Given the links of the climate system to other parts of the earth’s system, this means exercising control over the earth in its entirety.

Clive Hamilton

In writing my book ‘Earthmasters’, I traced some very interesting and multifarious links between many prominent scientists, particularly in the United States, working on geoengineering and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory which was, along with Los Alamos, one of the two principal nuclear weapons research facilities in the Cold War. There are a lot of links of personnel and research associations.

In fact, one of the first papers to advocate sulphate aerosol spraying was written by Edward Teller, the godfather of the United States nuclear weapons programme in the Cold War and a virulent anti-communist who believed that the power of the United States lies above all in its control over massive natural forces. In his case, control took the the form of the hydrogen bomb, and various nuclear weapons. There’s a similar kind of mindset–that humankind is the species on earth that has the capacity and possibly the right to develop these extraordinarily powerful forms of technological invention, this control of massive powers.

This kind of thinking naturally links weapons research in the Cold War to some kinds, and I stress only some kinds, of geoengineering, notably sulphate aerosol spraying. The idea is that we can coat the earth in the upper atmosphere with a permanently supplemented layer of tiny particles that would turn down by 1 or 2 or 3% the amount of sunlight that reached the earth’s surface and thereby control the temperature of the earth and the climate system as a whole.

What ethical issues does geoengineering raise? What are the key ethical concerns for you?

First of all it should be said that for someone like Paul Crutzen, one of the most profound ethical problems is the impact of global warming itself and the unequal effect that it will have. The poor and vulnerable of the world will be harmed most by human induced global warming and therefore we have a duty to stop that if we can through technological means.

I must stress that some schemes are more benign but we’re focusing on the grander ones that aim to regulate the climate of the earth as a whole. These schemes have some profound ethical dilemmas. If humankind has the capacity to intervene in the earth’s climate systems so as to regulate the temperature of the planet, then we have to ask who are these human beings who are going to do this? It is unlikely to be a democratic decision, perhaps through the UN.

It’s much more likely to be a technological system of control in the hands of one or a small number of powerful nations such as China, Russia or the United States. If one government has the power to instruct a group of scientists or engineers to turn the earth’s thermostat down a bit, down a bit more, no up a bit more,  whose interests are they going to be thinking of when they adjust the temperature? Not the interests of the Bangladeshi peasants facing rising sea levels. Not the Indian or Pakistani rice farmers who may soon be severely affected by some shift in the monsoon, which is one of the possible impacts of sulphate aerosol spraying.

We also must remember that generals have always dreamed of controlling the weather. Here we’re going from weather, which is a local phenomenon, to the climate of the earth as a whole. So we can expect the whole process to be militarised or at a minimum have profound geo-strategic implications.

One further ethical dilemma within a terrible tangle of ethical dilemmas is the role of expert scientists, those who possess a highly specialised knowledge at the disposal of their political masters. Those masters will use it to make decisions about where to set the earth’s thermostat. So we have a situation in which the wellbeing of everyone on the planet would potentially lie in the hands of a group of technocrats based in the Arizona desert or in some nondescript facility on the outskirts of Shanghai.

You can see that this generates severe ethical dilemmas and explains why a grouping of nations of the South have started to move at international fora, notably the Convention on Biodiversity, to develop methods of regulating research into geoengineering technologies.

You write in the book of the connections between geoengineers, oil companies, neo-liberal economists and politicians. This turning of the biggest challenge we’ve faced, in terms of climate change, into an opportunity for new technologies, felt to me like the last stand of business as usual. Does it actively undermine the pursuit for international agreement on climate change?

Firstly it’s important to stress that there are some people engaged in geoengineering research who find abhorrent the idea that geoengineering should be used as a substitute for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. They have been driven into research on geoengineering because they believe that Plan A, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, will not work and therefore we need a Plan B.

But there are others with less noble motivations, who see geoengineering, particularly sulphate aerosol spraying, as a substitute for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, as a way of protecting the political-economic system from change, from the kind of power shift that a new energy economy based on zero or very low emissions energy technology would entail.

Of course, measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions are not going to be especially difficult economically around the world, but they are going to challenge, they are challenging the market and political power of perhaps the most powerful corperations on earth, the oil and coal companies and those heavily dependent on fossil fuel energy.

We are seeing some of those fossil fuel companies dip their toes into the emerging area of geoengineering research. It’s important to stress that it’s not the case that the whole thing is being run by the oil companies, that they are somehow pulling the strings from behind a curtain of invisibility. They’re not. This whole push towards geoengineering has come quite independently, but having seen it emerge, the oil companies are starting to undertake small engagements, Shell for example and BP and ConocoPhilips have made small investments in certain kinds of geoengineering research.

A bit more insidiously, Murray Edwards, a tar sands billionaire in Canada, has invested in a company founded by David Keith, perhaps the principal scientific advocate of geoengineering research, a company called Carbon Engineering Limited which is developing air capture technologies. Murray Edwards can see that it may well be the case if his tar sands investments succeed and lock in massive amounts of carbon dioxide emissions in decades to come, then the world community in desperation may well turn to these geoengineering companies. So he wants a little slice of that action too. He’s in a way hedging his bets.

One other thing that’s important to mention here is that there’s been a flurry of patents taken out by private corporations and individuals over a range of geoengineering technologies–by the scientists themselves, entrepreneurs and companies who just see a commercial opportunity if the world shifts towards geoengineering. There’s one important company called Intellectual Ventures run by a man named Nathan Myhrvold who was chief technology officer at Microsoft. There are a number of heavy hitters in the geoengineering community who have a financial or other stake in Intellectual Ventures.

That company has taken out patents on more than one technology for regulating the global climate. This of course raises some very serious ethical concerns, that private corporations should own the intellectual property for regulating the climate of the earth as a whole.

 The theme of the Transition Network website this month, this interview sits as part of this, is around health and Transition in relation to promoting health locally. What are the public health implications of geoengineering?

The health implications of geoengineering depend heavily on which kind of technology we’re talking about. If we’re talking about biologically-based air capture, or carbon dioxide capture from the ambient air–so technologies like growing trees or algae, capturing the carbon dioxide that way and burying it somewhere underground for a very long time–then the health implications are probably minimal. Of course they have to be weighed against the massive health implications of climate change which are already very apparent and are becoming more severe.

When we’re talking about other grander technologies, again I’m thinking of sulphate aerosol spraying which is kind of a landmark technology here, it’s a complex question. On the one hand, by reducing the amount of global warming, which it could do, it would have health benefits.

On the other hand, it’s going to have side effects that could be very damaging to the health of people around the world. For instance, as I mentioned, it’s thought it may shift the Indian monsoon which is vital to the food supply for a billion people living in Pakistan and India. It’s thought that sulphate aerosol spraying will cause severe damage to the ozone layer with serious impacts.

So there’s no general answer to that question. Each technology needs to be investigated to evaluate the kinds of effects on human health and indeed animal and plant health.

One of the people who’s an advocate for geoengineering is Stuart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Discipline, who is part of a group of people who called themselves 'eco-pragmatists', who argue that GM and nuclear and geoengineering are good because science shows that they work, and who would brand yourself and myself no doubt as luddites or anti-science for even having qualms about geoengineering. What additional filters do you believe that we should put new technologies through before suggesting their widespread use?

Stuart Brand is part of an interesting, and in my view quite worrying, new grouping of ‘eco-pragmatists’ who essentially say that humankind is the technological animal. Our technology has produced very great benefits and advantages in the past, why should we not go for broke, develop the technologies and use them to take control of the earth as a whole? I don’t know what’s happened to Stuart Brand, I don’t know whether he’s stopped smoking something, but he’s really undergone quite a dramatic transformation. Stuart Brand and his Whole Earth Catalogue all those years ago had a different kind of social analysis, a different kind of social vision to the capitalist greed-oriented and consumerist society that we had when he first wrote it, and that we have on steroids now.

Because the kind of vision that he now puts forward, along with the eco-pragmatists in the United States, is essentially a powerful defence of the status quo. These people argue that the bearers, the implementers of technology are private corporations and so environmentalists should get on board with capitalism, even capitalism reddest in tooth and claw, and help provide the financial incentives for corporations to pursue the cheapest and perhaps the most technologically advanced option, which may be using sulphate aerosols.

I see the ecopragmatists as essentially a new group of apologists for the prevailing economic and political order, people who claim to be environmentalists but in fact have a vision of environmentalism which is not much more than painting a  pale green tinge over the prevailing economic and political system, the same system that has given us the problem..

To see the eco-pragmatists become the handmaidens of those who have caused the problem, and have acted so vigorously to stop the world responding to the problem in the most appropriate and effective way, really leaves me breathless.

You’ve written four books now about climate change. Next December in Paris is COP 21, the latest round of the COP negotiations. We interviewed Sir David King here recently who was the Chief Scientific Advisor here in the UK who was very positive, feeling that this was the time that something would come out of this process. Is your sense that anything useful may come out of it, and what for you feels like what needs to come out of that process in order to be meaningful?

It’s easy to be pessimistic about international political processes, and who isn’t? We certainly have a plethora of evidence of failure, notably Copenhagen which left everyone feeling so depressed environmental activists could barely get themselves off the ground for a year or two. But I think we have to remember that history is often extremely unpredictable and there can be a gathering of forces for action that aren’t necessarily apparent.

We can point to potentially helpful trends; of course we can point to more depressing trends. One of the more hopeful trends is that there’s certainly progress in some crucial nations, particularly China. I think that China may be one that takes climate change very seriously. If an entente can be reached with the United States then I think some major steps could be made.

It’s also true that there have been some quite marked technological breakthroughs in the last two or three years that certainly make the task of technological transition easier once the world does really get serious about it. I’m not ruling it out. I guess if we put our realist hats on, particularly if we were betting a large amount of money on it, we’d bet against any substantial breakthrough happening in Paris. But who knows – I’m Mr Pessimism, having written ‘Requiem for a Species’, a book that most people, when they read it, sends them in to a deep depressive funk for three to six months, because it speaks the truth.

I’m not naturally a pessimistic person but there’s a point where healthy illusions become dangerous delusions, and some maintain their illusions for far too long in the face of all the evidence. My friends who are environmentalists are naturally optimistic people, but they were not listening to what the scientists were really saying. But I think the mood of the environmental movement has shifted quite markedly towards a more realistic conception of where we’re at, and it’s ugly.

Requiem for a Species suggested that runaway climate change is all but inevitable. Is there a point in that process where you would consider geoengineering an option, and if so, which technology would you favour? How bad does it have to get before Clive Hamilton thinks, "oh, sod it, go on then?"

People ask me whether I’m for or against it, and having written ‘Earthmasters’ clearly I’m a sceptic. That is, I’m not convinced that the technology, thinking particularly of sulphate aerosols, could be implemented in the foreseeable future in a way that wouldn’t carry massive problems that would outweigh the benefits. But, as the earth heats, the attraction of radical technological intervention will grow because the need to make some kind of Plan B response could become desperate.

It’s impossible to say when that point will come. Nevertheless I recognise there are circumstances in which the situation may be so dire that the world – and of course there is the question is what is meant by ‘the world’ – decides that these risky technologies really have to be used. I may be in a position where I have to, with heavy heart and deep anxiety, say on balance it has to be done. But the situation would have to be truly dire.

What can people do about it?

The first thing is to become informed. That’s why I wrote the book.  Before I wrote it there were a few reports being written by scientific or quasi-scientific organisations all of which said we must have a massive research programme. It would be a program controlled by elite scientists without any oversight essentially. And then there were a whole bunch of scientific papers which were beyond the reach of most lay people. There were a couple of popular books which were really a bit of gee-whizzery.

So concerned citizens need to get a better idea of what geoengineering is scientifically, what the politics of it are, what the forces gathering behind it are. So once they have become informed, and of course that’s a continuing process, they have to think what to do about it organisationally.  There are a couple of groups starting to work on it, in particular the ETC group, is based in Canada. It’s been campaigning for a while and for a small organisation has had a big impact.

But I think it’s also important for people who are members of environment groups, like Greenpeace, RSPB, and Friends of the Earth, to start getting their organisations involved. Most environment organisations large and small in the United States and in Australia, really don’t want to talk about geoengineering. The reasons are usually complex. One is that they feel as though if they start talking about it they will validate the discussion of geoengineering, which they don’t want to do.

Others feel that there’s so much on their plate that they don’t have the resources or the capacity to get across geoengineering. Others believe that as long as it’s not on the political agenda there’s no point in diverting people and resources to it because there’s no one to lobby yet. And others in the United States are often dependent on funding sources that they acquire for particular projects; they have enough trouble getting money for the things they want to do, so they don’t think they could raise funds for things they don’t particularly want to do.

So the reasons are complex, but I think sooner or later the environment groups are going to have to come to grips with geoengineering and they should do so sooner rather than later because the whole thing is gathering so much momentum that every environmentalist is going to have to take a well-informed stance on the issue.

So that’s what I would urge people to do.

Lastly, what does geoengineering potentially mean for democracy? What are the implications for democracy both within nation states and also globally?

Well certainly it’s a technology that has the capacity to regulate the climate system of the earth as a whole – well I only have to say it don’t I? The mind runs off – who’s going to control it, who are they going to consult, will it be run by the military, what happens when it goes wrong? What role will the UN have in it? Will there be some kind of international oversight? It’s one thing to turn the thermostat down but what if it all goes pear-shaped and the system has to be stopped? Who’s going to make those decisions?

But the more immediate problem is not the question of who will control the technologies when they’re deployed, but who is controlling the research? I don’t think it’s wise to oppose all research into geoengineering technologies as a matter of principle. The more important question is who has oversight in the research programme? Which bodies have a role to play in regulating it and setting the direction?

Earthmasters cover

At the moment, it’s essentially private organisations, scientists, government researchers in China and Russia for example. The people who would perhaps be affected most by geoengineering, should it ever eventuate, are people in countries of the South. So I think the urgent issue is to bring some democratic control over the research programme that is happening now around the world.

As things stand, a number of those countries of the South are using international fora like the London Convention on ocean dumping and the Convention on Biological Diversity to put a damper on research in to geoengineering. But what I think it needs is some kind of international regulatory process that would allow the nations of the world to have oversight, perhaps just beginning with a research registry and transparency in research efforts, but leading to an international accord for regulatory control.

At the moment there is no international law governing the research or the deployment of sulphate aerosol spraying. Any country could do it now and there is no international law to stop them. In fact, a billionaire with a Messiah Complex like Richard Branson could start doing it next week.

So what I think we need is some international instrument to govern this technology. For my money, the best avenue would be to develop a protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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