Just when you think the last boomlet for geoengineering the climate has expended itself and we might be rid of any serious consideration of it as a strategy for addressing climate change, it rises zombie-like from the dead and starts roaming the Earth again.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has recommended spending $100 to $200 million over the next five years to study the idea—its feasibility, possible unintended consequences, and an ethical framework for governing it.
The most important thing you need to know about geoengineering the climate is that we humans have probably been doing it since at least the dawn of agriculture. What we need now it seems is an intervention from TV talk show psychologist Dr. Phil to ask us his favorite question, “How’s that working for you?”
We have certainly been doing geoengineering since the dawn of the industrial age which we know has stoked climate change through carbon emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels; changes in land use (deforestation, primarily); modern agricultural practices (methane released by livestock fed on grains, for example); and industrial chemical releases, the most egregious of which is currently sulfur hexaflouride used in the utility industry as “a hugely effective insulating material for medium and high-voltage electrical installations.” Sulfur hexaflouride is 16,300 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time horizon and 23,900 times more potent over a 100-year horizon.
Now that’s a feat of real geoengineering and the people who discovered sulfur hexaflouride in 1901 weren’t even trying to affect the climate!
What I’m getting at is even more important than the unintended consequences mentioned in the NAS report above. “Unintended” in that case means we are actively looking for and evaluating such consequences. I’m more concerned about unanticipated consequences, that is, consequences we are completely blind to. That is, after all, what we are dealing with today, the massively negative unanticipated consequences of industrial society on the climate (and a lot of other natural systems).
What is it that makes us think we can anticipate the consequences of geoengineering the climate with enough precision that we won’t make things worse than they already are? I am reminded of an observation often attributed to Albert Einstein: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” We have treated the building and governing of industrial society as engineering problems. We believe that if we just use the proper equations for building a skyscraper or managing the economy, we’ll be all right.
If we treat climate change as simply an engineering problem, albeit on a large scale, we will be faced once again with the possibility of engineering failures on a planetary scale. Climate change is quintessentially a product of the way we think, the reductionist thinking we apply to practically everything we plan and execute in industrial society. We rarely, if ever, think about the consequences of our actions for the biosphere, the very envelope of life-sustaining processes that is our only home.
We generally act without reference to systemic effects which can amplify small changes radically. The small changes in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere cannot alone account for changes in the Earth’s temperature. Instead, those small changes trap heat which warms water creating more water vapor which, as it turns out, is the biggest driver of climate change. The excess vapor wouldn’t be in the atmosphere, however, were it not for the small additions to the carbon in the atmosphere brought on primarily through human activity.
Today, of course, we regard our carbon emissions as very large even though human-caused additions to the atmosphere are still counted in parts per million. We count those emissions as very large because their effects are very large.
If we set out on the path of geoengineering, we may face a host of unanticipated consequences that could be ruinous for some (and not others)—or ruinous for us all. I understand that the inability of our civilization to make any meaningful progress on addressing climate change is truly a crisis. But I do not believe we will address that crisis successfully by deploying strategies that use the same kind of thinking that got us here in the first place.
Image: “The SPICE project will investigate the feasibility of one so-called geoengineering technique: the idea of simulating natural processes that release small particles into the stratosphere, which then reflect a few percent of incoming solar radiation, with the effect of cooling the Earth with relative speed.” (2011). By Hughhunt via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SPICE_SRM_overview.jpg