Prozac for the PlanetPrint
Can geoengineering make the climate happy?
By Christopher Cokinos
On the February Day when a Utah legislative committee approves a resolution disputing the reality of climate change, the credibility of science, and the necessity to regulate greenhouse gases, I stand alone on a cliff in the southern part of the state and look at the silty, gurgling Goosenecks of the San Juan River 1,000 feet below. Here, the river has spent millions of years digging through limestone, shale, and sandstone, not once altering its course even as the surrounding Colorado Plateau, through which it cuts, was uplifted. The river wanders here through some five miles, covering the distance that a raven would in one. A sign calls the Goosenecks of the San Juan “one of the finest examples of entrenched meanders in the world.” In nature an entrenched meander becomes a stunning canyon. This part of the San Juan River is a giant U with the middle filled by a massive, snow-skiffed hunk of land. The sloped and sheer sides, dark brown and lined with strata, slowly crumble.
I came here by car, searching for some high-octane profundities. I still love mobility, even with qualms. Such love is one of many entrenched meanders of human habit—all too often unbeautiful—that have put our species and others at risk.
In Utah, for example, estimates suggest that climate change will raise average temperatures from between 6.5º and 9.4º F. The American West has experienced warming that is “70 percent greater than the world as a whole,” according to one report, and the Colorado River Basin, of which the San Juan River is a part, “has warmed more than any other region in the contiguous United States.”
But we humans are not only consumers, travelers, destroyers. We’re not only believers or questioners or skeptics or deniers or hedonists. We are also toolmakers, and this may be our saving grace.
In his science fiction story, “The Weather Man,” Theodore L. Thomas imagines a future in which a Weather Congress carries the “fearful responsibility” of deciding not only what weather occurs where but which regions face punishment for political sins. As the Weather Congress considers leveling a drought against Northern Australia for an illegal trade policy, one delegate says: “It is a thing we should do only with the greatest of caution. It is a terrible thing to make men suffer, and even worse to do it to women and children.” From a room that contains “two hundred huge desks, the raised President’s chair, the great board that show[s] the weather at the moment on every part of the Earth’s surface, and the communications rooms,” the Weather Congress meets as “the supreme body of Earth, able to bend states, nations, continents, and hemispheres to its will . . . [able to] freeze the Congo River or dry up the Amazon . . . flood the Sahara . . . thaw the tundra, and raise and lower the levels of the oceans.” The Congress also digs into local details: The Lovers of the Lowly Cactus Plant request “less rainfall and more desolation in Death Valley to keep the Barrel Cactus from becoming extinct,” while a farmer in Africa protests a neighbor’s water allocation. In California, a dying man wants to see snow in July; that man is the inventor of the “sun boats,” Thomas writes, “those marvelous devices that made the entire Weather Congress possible. Sliding on a thin film of gaseous carbon, the sessile boats safely traverse . . . the hell of the sun’s surface, moving from place to place to stir up the activity needed to produce the desired weather.” The inventor gets his snow.
The cover of the “science fact and fiction” magazine Analog for June 1962 shows a godlike hand above the Earth, the forefinger poking into the eye of a hurricane, a more dramatic rendering of the control fantasy at the heart of Thomas’s story. This fantasy plays into the long history of humans seeking power over the weather, from invoking the mercy of ancient gods to the Swedish physical chemist Svante Arrhenius’s early 20th-century speculations about combusting fossil fuels in order to keep the next ice age at bay. Research into weather modification and even large-scale, long-term climate control received more than cursory attention by both sides during the Cold War. Three years after “The Weather Man” appeared, President Lyndon Johnson received a report from his Science Advisory Committee called “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment,” which suggested that fossil-fuel-induced climate change be mitigated by dispersing particles on the ocean surface. These particles would reflect sunlight and cool the planet. Years later, Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb, chimed in with other climate-modification proposals. Such schemes would be discussed in various reports in the 1980s and 1990s. No one paid attention. No one thought we needed to.
That was then. In the past four years, planetary climate modification, or geoengineering, has become the subject of intense inquiry. What exactly is geoengineering? First, consider the distinction between weather and climate. Weather is what’s happening more or less right now. Climate is the accumulation of weather over a standard average of 30 years. What geoengineering proposes to do is to modify climate, to deliberately intervene in natural processes, lowering global average temperatures and thus ameliorating the human effects that are warming the climate. There are two broad ways to do this: carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM). Carbon dioxide removal would use various methods to reduce anthropogenic CO2 levels in the air. Solar radiation management would send more sunlight back into space, reducing the input of what scientists call radiative forcing and what laypeople call heat. The former method works slowly, while the latter method can work within months. The authors of a 2009 Royal Society report said that geoengineering “is very likely to be technically feasible,” although it is not a substitute for reducing emissions in the first place. But the lack of political will to reduce emissions, the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the present and future effects of climate change, and the need to act fast to counter these trends have led a number of scientists and policymakers to give geoengineering serious consideration as a research endeavor and as a potential partial solution to near-term climate change.
The questions this endeavor raises are foundational, even though the parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide seem so minuscule and the predicted temperature increases don’t seem, in a daily context, to be so daunting. And yet. Just what is the sweet spot for the Earth’s global average temperature—or, rather, the temperature we want the Earth to have? Keep the warming to about a 2°C rise? Should the parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric CO2 be 350? 450? We’re already pushing 400 ppm. At 450 we might avoid warming the planet above the 2°C mark. But that’s a 50-50 proposition if we rely solely on reducing emissions, according to Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and, he says, “any pathway to 450 looks rather optimistic.” The Royal Society says that “it seems increasingly likely that concentrations will exceed 500 ppm by mid-century and may approach 1000 ppm by 2100.” Such levels could lead to civilization-ending global warming.
What should trigger our use of geoengineering? Five hundred ppm? A series of sudden and strange weather events? Rapid release of ocean methane, which is frozen now but if thawed would dump massive amounts of this greenhouse gas in the air? No one knows and no one yet agrees. Should geoengineering proceed as one in a suite of options while we wrangle with cutting emissions? Or is it a last resort when Iceland no longer lives up to its name? Here, too, disagreement reigns.
In its largest sense, geoengineering is not just an attempt to cool the planet’s atmosphere or to make our agitated climate happier. It’s an attempt to extend the lifespan of the Holocene, our current geologic epoch—which began about 12,000 years ago—so that humans and other creatures might last a bit longer than otherwise. Of course, some scientists call the current geologic period the Anthropocene—the era of global, human-induced changes to the atmosphere and biosphere. If that’s the case, then geoengineering is the ironic pursuit of vast technological means to return us to the Holocene. It’s a form of technological nostalgia.
Scientist Paul Crutzen, who invented the term Anthropocene, blew the lid off what had been a fringe science in a 2006 letter published in the journal Climatic Change. Crutzen, a Nobel laureate and a soft-spoken lover of opera records, argued that our collective failure to reduce emissions now required scientists to take geoengineering seriously, especially the most exotic SRM idea of all: injecting sulfur in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight. Conveniently, sulfur injection is relatively cheap—no more than $50 billion a year, Crutzen suggested—and it works quickly. We know this because when volcanoes spew sulfur the planet cools.
Scientists have begun researching CDR and SRM techniques. Congress and the House of Commons have both held hearings. And John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser, won’t rule out geoengineering “if we get desperate enough.” Later he backpedaled from this sentiment, but the word is out.
Desperation was in the air when some 200 scientists, policymakers, activists, students, and reporters gathered in California at Asilomar Park near Pacific Grove for a meeting that one of the organizers said “we all wished was not necessary.” Margaret Leinen, a researcher formerly with the National Science Foundation, opened the March 2010 conference with that statement and a tone of voice that meant it. At the woodsy Asilomar Conference Center, the Pacific Ocean just steps away, participants tried to get a sense of where geoengineering stands and what it could do for, and to, the planet. I was one of the attendees, a nature writer and science-fiction fan, someone sick of hopelessness but wary of blithe technophilia. I’d come to listen to very smart people consider the future of the planet.
Not only was the meeting’s subject controversial, but the meeting itself garnered criticism from Stanford’s Kenneth Caldeira, among others. Caldeira has done pioneering work on geoengineering climate modeling. He criticized Leinen and her nonprofit group, Climate Response Fund, for its ties to Climos, a company that Leinen and her son, Internet entrepreneur Dan Whaley, had founded to do ocean research with an eye toward making money in the carbon-offsets market. Caldeira boycotted the Asilomar conference. Some observers wondered if the event was a way to fundraise for the Climate Response Fund, and many were appalled that one of the meeting’s sponsors was the Australian state of Victoria, the world’s biggest producer of dirty coal.
As the conferees began to meet beneath the high ceiling of rustic Merrill Hall, these concerns faded before the hard work of understanding just how bad the climate crisis is and how geoengineering might help solve it. At times, it felt like we were in a kind of church, albeit one with laptops, bottled water, and yawning international travelers. Researchers set up posters with brightly colored images, graphs, and long lists of co-authors along one side of the wood-floored hall. Audience members lined up at a microphone to grill presenters. Slides loomed on a screen like stills from a disaster movie filmed with charts instead of actors.
During my week in California, I tried to become, in Leinen’s words, one of the “ardent pupils” needed to understand the ramifications of geoengineering. I learned about CDR and SRM, about the ethics and possible governance of geoengineering. And I tried to think about how geoengineering could change our relationship to what we still call nature.
I learned that one CDR technique is relatively uncontroversial: planting trees, as long as forests are managed not only for carbon but also for biodiversity. More controversial is sequestering CO2 from coal plants; the idea is to inject CO2 emissions into stable underground formations. Engineers acknowledge that this could be very expensive but remind us that coal isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. A report in the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering suggests that the method will require more underground capacity than previously thought and calls sequestration “profoundly non-feasible.” Some speculative ideas include the disposal of crop residues in deep-ocean sediments and the manufacture of cement that traps CO2. Meanwhile, the University of Calgary’s David Keith and Columbia University’s Klaus Lackner are working separately on artificial trees meant to suck CO2 out of the air, after which it can then be stored underground or bound to other chemicals to neutralize its greenhouse effect.
The geoengineering approach that’s gone the furthest is ocean fertilization—dumping iron particles into the sea to stimulate the growth of plankton. This has been done on a small scale for research mostly not related to geoengineering. The plankton chow down on the iron, grow, suck up more CO2, then when they die they and their waste—in which the CO2 has been fixed—sift down to the ocean bottom. There, presumably, they’ll stay. Oceanographer John Martin once said of this process, “Give me half a tanker of iron, and I’ll give you an ice age.” It’s more complicated than that, but research suggests that ocean fertilization can sequester enough CO2 to make it worth pursuing in concert with other methods. How long the CO2 remains on the ocean floor and other possible ecological consequences are unclear. Only large-scale tests can address those questions, but activists have opposed further iron-seeding.
The oceans play a role in another proposed CDR technique called “enhanced weathering,” which would speed up the chemical processes by which silicate rocks—the most abundant type on Earth—suck up CO2 to create carbonate rocks like limestone. Enhanced weathering is likely to be energy-intensive and expensive, which underscores the need to examine geoengineering projects for their own greenhouse gas footprints. Nonetheless, some scientists have also proposed heating limestone, sequestering its CO2 underground, and taking the other byproduct to “lime the oceans.” Liming the oceans would be another kind of fertilization, helping ocean life uptake more CO2. Because lime is alkaline, adding it to the sea would also reduce ocean acidification. The Royal Society says this approach is “expected to be reasonably effective, with costs and environmental impacts broadly comparable to those of conventional mineral mining. . . . The risk of unanticipated consequences should be low, since the processes . . . are similar to those occurring naturally.”
Although CDR methods have the advantage of tackling the essential problem of excess CO2, they’ll take years, even decades or more, to work, while solar radiation management can cool the planet very quickly. The planet reflects about a third of the sunlight that reaches it; the rest penetrates the atmosphere and warms things up. A slight increase in albedo—reflectivity—would give the climate system less heat to work with, which can lower the global average temperature. Mundane but eminently doable SRM ideas include painting roofs white and planting more reflective crops. The former is likely to have little significant effect, but the University of Bristol’s Andy Ridgwell believes that planting lighter-colored crops could cool North America and Europe by about 1°C during summer, with no diminishment of harvests. Stranger ideas include covering the Sahara in a giant shroud, an idea that perhaps only Christo could like, and launching trillions of tiny mirrors into space. Harvard physicist Russell Seitz proposes “bright water”—aerating lakes, reservoirs, and oceans with bubbles to make the water more reflective.
For many, though, the term geoengineering is synonymous with two other SRM techniques. The first would use seawater to brighten clouds above the oceans so they reflect more light back into space. The second would send sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere to do the same. Each would seek to reduce the amount of incoming sunlight by about 2 percent, which would cool the atmosphere by about 2º C, thus canceling out much global warming.
Marine cloud brightening would quite simply spray ocean water into the lower atmosphere, seeding the sky with droplets around which clouds could form. The operation would need a fleet of hundreds of “Flettner” ships, which use rotorsails housed in cylinders that look like smokestacks. The ships run on wind power and the Magnus effect (a propulsive force created by the spinning rotorsails). This method has several attractions: spraying seawater into the sky involves no pollutants, other than those emitted during the manufacture of the ships; the project can be demonstrated on a small scale; and if it was ever shown to have unhappy side effects, the fleet could be shut down quickly. Brightening clouds off West Africa and the American Pacific coast could negate 50 percent of the warming from higher levels of greenhouse gases, one model predicts. Which is, as we say, huge.
There are challenges. Jeff Goodell, the author of How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate, points out that the water particles have to be under a micron in size, which is half that of bacteria. Anything bigger and the droplets attract too much water, forcing rain and breaking up the clouds. Anything smaller and, poof, the droplets disappear into the air. There’s another problem, a big one. Though models show that this approach could increase albedo enough to significantly cool the planet overall, the regional effects on rainfall are hard to predict. This is an ongoing bugaboo in geoengineering climate models: If we do cool the planet on average, who gets drought, who gets flood, and who gets weather that’s just right, Goldilocks-fashion, and straight from the Theodore L. Thomas Weather Congress control room? Will storms grow more severe due to cooler ocean waters and warmer land? There isn’t enough sensitivity in regional climate models to answer these questions with much confidence.
Questions about the regional consequences of flood and drought also dog the most intimidating and perhaps most promising SRM technique: the spraying of reflective sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere. Soviet scientist Mikhail Budyko proposed this idea some 40 years ago, and the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines confirmed its potential by cooling the planet by a half degree Celsius in just a few months. Up high, sulfur isn’t the dangerous pollutant it is nearer our lungs, and models show that artificial aerosol injections would lower the global average temperature. But injections likely would lessen monsoons over Asia and Africa with potentially disastrous effects. Predicting regional consequences, let alone knowing how to mitigate them, is work yet to come, but a planet with sulfur aerosols injected in the stratosphere, even with increased CO2 emissions, looks more like the world we know now than a world ravaged by the greenhouse effect. The models tell us that. Delivery methods (probably for sulfuric acid, which then forms proper-sized particles) could involve balloons, airships, rockets, even artillery or, most likely, high-flying airplanes. Regular injection of sulfur—to keep the albedo from fading—would only cost tens of billions of dollars a year. It will also cost us blue skies, turning the air into a whitish veil.
We may know more, science writer Oliver Morton reports, when the cargo shipping industry comes under stricter emissions regulations in about 10 years. Oceangoing ships emit a lot of sulfur, which helps to brighten marine clouds. By reducing such emissions, the shipping industry “will inadvertently commit the world to significant extra warming,” he says.
Reporter Eli Kintisch points out that the Mt. Pinatubo eruption ate away at the ozone layer (bad) but also encouraged plant growth because sunlight became more diffuse (good). Diffuse light spurs photosynthesis and doesn’t dry out dirt as quickly as direct sunlight. How this would play out over all the years needed to keep the sulfur screen in place is unclear. It seems that acid rain would not increase, in part because it doesn’t take that much sulfur to reflect more sunlight back into space. No more than five megatons would be needed.
Global deployment of sulfur aerosols or cloud-brightening or both will “create an artificial, approximate, and potentially delicate balance between increased greenhouse gas concentrations and reduced solar radiation, which would have to be maintained, potentially for many centuries,” concludes the Royal Society report. “It is doubtful that such a balance would really be sustainable for such long periods of time, particularly if emissions . . . were allowed to continue or even increase.”
Rutgers climatologist Alan Robock, a vociferous critic of sulfur aerosol geoengineering, has a list of 20 reasons why SRM “may be a bad idea,” including ozone depletion, the consequences to regional climates, the psychological effects of a white sky—even though the aerosols will create spectacular dawns and dusks—and potential commercialization of SRM technologies. He does, however, favor continued use of computer models to study the field.
The greatest caveat concerning any significant deployment of either marine cloud brightening or stratospheric aerosols is the “termination problem.” Simply put, once you stop SRM, the climate returns sharply to the temperature that the SRM has been hiding. Unmask the sun, and the world bakes. In a world where CO2 has not been reduced, unmasking the sun will bring on an extremely rapid rise in heating. An SRM world with a lot more CO2 is thus a very bad idea.
Rather than deploying aerosols globally, scientists might limit distribution to above the Arctic, as physicist Gregory Benford first suggested. This could restore summer sea ice, cooling the region and reflecting more sunlight. He and others say we need limited trials to test particle size, verify the best altitude for dispersal, examine what happens when the particles reach the ground, and understand the effects on temperature at different locations. Benford calls the Arctic “our first focus” and says geoengineering should “attack . . . incoming sunlight now, carbon dioxide later.”
Not one person at the Asilomar conference hinted, at least out loud, that geoengineering is a substitute for reducing emissions. It’s seen either as a complement to current strategies to reduce CO2 or as an emergency measure. What is needed now, many argued, is not only more sensitive climate models but actual field research of the type Benford has suggested. In a Nature column, David Keith and his co-authors wrote, “it would be reckless to conduct the first large-scale SRM tests in an emergency.” (They also wrote that “it is a healthy sign that a common first response to geoengineering is revulsion.”) The day after their opinion appeared, Science published a piece by Alan Robock and his coauthors arguing that aerosol geoengineering “cannot be tested without full-scale implementation,” a prospect that “could disrupt food production on a large scale.”
Thus, the field is fraught with uncertainty, and public perceptions of geoengineering reflect this. Yale polling expert Anthony Leiserowitz told the Asilomar meeting that only one percent of the American public has even a basic understanding of “geoengineering,” a term, he added, that “stinks.” The word doesn’t even translate into Chinese, said the University of Maine’s Fei Chai. Eli Kintisch has gone so far as to invent a new term for it, planet hacking, which he uses in news articles for Science.
What about metaphor? Writer Graeme Wood says geoengineering is “like fighting obesity with a corset, and a diet of lard and doughnuts.” Jeff Goodell compares geoengineering to industrial agriculture, a kind of souped-up gardening of the air. One Asilomar presenter called geoengineering “painkiller for the planet,” which seemed too mild a metaphor for most. The late Stephen Schneider offered “planetary methadone.” Princeton’s Robert Socolow, co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative, suggested “epinephrine,” which connotes a single, life-saving shot, not a continuing treatment, as geoengineering surely will be. One scientist told me at dinner that he compares geoengineering to baby food spooned to the climate—“and then we get a lot of shit.”
I think of geoengineering as Prozac for the planet. The methadone metaphor implies that our addiction to fossil fuels requires a replacement for them. This is accurate, but the replacement isn’t geoengineering; it’s sustainable energy development. Epinephrine implies a life-or-death emergency, which humans and other animals are indeed confronting, but the planet itself will adjust to whatever course the climate takes. So if we are to use a pill or medical metaphor, let it be “Prozac for the planet.” Prozac is prescribed to patients who are manic-depressive or obsessive-compulsive or both. The contemporary symptoms of this are everywhere, and now the climate also betrays this clinical condition. The climate’s mania? More frequent storms—with the promise of worse to come—and the jumping back and forth between different kinds of weather extremes. The climate’s depression? The long and changeless droughts in Australia, the American Southwest, Africa. The climate’s OCD? The ceaseless shedding of ice. Prozac is also prescribed for panic, which would describe the state of many climatologists and the state of the climate itself: panicked cycling of heat and water in order to reach a happy place.
Who prescribes the right dose for our jittery-frantic-bleak atmosphere is another question, a matter of control and expertise, which is also raised by the metaphor that won’t go away: geoengineering as a thermostat. This metaphor raises the question: Whose hand is on the control? This is in its favor, but the thermostat metaphor also connotes that planetary engineering is a matter merely of comfort and convenience, and not sanity. In any case, writers, researchers, and activists have all started to use the comparison. To think of a thermostat, invented in 1883, is to think of the Industrial Revolution, the age in which human influence on the global climate most emphatically began.
At Asilomar, there was not only desperation in the air but a stunned sadness that it’s come to this. One session crystallized this feeling more than any other. Pablo Suarez, a climate scientist and humanitarian worker, spoke about the plight of local indigenous populations who are also “scientists.” His example was a Mozambique settlement where the villagers know floods will come if they see ants on the move. But now the floods come so fast that, by the time the ants move, the people don’t have time to evacuate. “We have screwed up their science,” he said.
Suarez criticized the meeting’s lack of discussion about real people in real places, calling the unwanted effects of geoengineering “an externality”—“a successfully transferred cost”—that will shift the price of success from the rich to the poor. Or, as he passionately and sarcastically put it, “Let them eat it—let them eat risk.” How, he asked, will the most vulnerable people help make geoengineering decisions? “It won’t happen.” Who will pay for the humanitarian work, the compensation for the afflicted, in a geoengineered world? “Nobody.” Suarez’s speech galvanized the crowd, which cheered and praised his warnings. “I hope,” he said, “we prove me wrong.”
One student at the conference objected to using acronyms like GCM—Global Climate Model—saying, “I beg you to realize that the acronyms are real things, not just screens on our computer.” Another invoked Aldo Leopold’s dictum that “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Again and again, in public and in private, people used the word humility. Robert Socolow said, gloomily, “We are doing something solemn.” Scientist David Keith agreed. “You want,” he said, “to engage in talking with nature,” even though he admitted “it’s not a natural world anymore.” Keith, a quoter of Edward Abbey and the nephew of legendary ornithologist Stuart Keith, agreed when I asked him if he thought geoengineering could be considered the ultimate form of restoration ecology. He’d made the same argument at a recent meeting of the Ecological Society of America. Restoration ecology is exactly what its name suggests, but those in the field struggle with the questions of what an ecosystem should be restored to and what the historical information tells, or doesn’t, about the prior condition of a place now sullied. Restoration ecology is time travel. Keith says that though most people “don’t care about nature,” those who do care must give voice to the animals and plants that could be saved or destroyed by geoengineering.
Leaving the talks behind, conferees sometimes took their breaks on the boardwalks set among the sand dunes. Gulls, wrens, and sparrows called, sang, and flew. In the swales grew the vivid yellow blossoms of Menzies’ wallflower, one of the most endangered plants on the planet. The flowers were caged in chicken wire so they wouldn’t be grazed or crushed. Above, the sky was usually milky overcast—an “SRM sky,” someone joked.
Where has evolution equipped us to locate our sense of wildness? With the animals that geoengineering might save or with the air above us? A geoengineered world would save many animals on the brink—the polar bears who lack ice from which to hunt, the lizards too hot to hunt—but it would turn the sky white and still leave us with the termination problem. A non-geoengineered world, one with continuing high emissions, would destroy many animals, both those on the brink and those that are coping for now, but we would not have gardened the sky. It would still be blue.
Some of the basic insights of Buddhism—that there is suffering, that the world is impermanent, that what we think of as “self” is a matrix of elements far beyond ego—offer ways of looking at the world that help me understand my own conflicted responses to geoengineering, responses that include disbelief, optimism, concern, and hope. Is it compassionate or is it selfish to try to extend the lifespan of the Holocene? Is it grasping? Is it an opening? Or some inevitably muddled combination of the two? Will we resort, as we typically do (and by “we” I mean the powerful and the wealthy) to Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number?
Rutgers philosopher Martin Bunzl says that we should worry about “people being worse off [with geoengineering] than they would be with climate change. . . . So what is the alternative to letting the numbers count? It is to treat fairness or justice as procedural . . . to echo Kant ‘to treat people as ends in themselves and not as means to an end’ . . . to treat them as having an equal chance to both benefits and burdens. That is why, when distributing a scarce resource, we draw straws.”
Asilomar also featured disagreement about such philosophical concepts as “moral hazard,” which postulates that a person recently insured is more, not less, likely to engage in dangerous behavior, and “the precautionary principle,” which suggests, in its various guises, that the entity proposing a potentially harmful action be able to prove or persuade that the action will not be harmful.
These questions of ethics and emotion become, in the realm of action, questions of norms and governance, and these questions loom large. Who governs an endeavor that by its nature would cross national boundaries? The United Nations? A coalition of the willing? What treaties are needed? How to enforce them? Who compensates the “losers” in a geoengineered world? There is no existing transparent international framework for moving ahead even with small-scale experiments. That will have to change, and Oxford University’s Steve Rayner reported that the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recently endorsed regulating geoengineering as a “public good,” by keeping data open and transparent, assessing independently the impacts of geoengineering research, developing “governance before deployment,” and forbidding the militarization of the field.
Calls for openness and fairness must also force attention on a range of nonscientific agendas. For example, the right-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute, which has received almost $3 million in funding from ExxonMobil from 1998 to 2009, had participants at Asilomar. Geoengineering brings together strange bedfellows, because the line of reasoning that says this endeavor gives us time to develop carbon-neutral technologies is one shared by liberals and conservatives alike. The role and enthusiasm of the wealthy and of corporations will need to be scrutinized carefully. Sir Richard Branson and the Superfreakonomics cult have embraced geoengineering as a way to put off CO2 reductions. Business often commodifies nature for its own purposes, from naming cars for wild places and creatures (Sierra, Mustang) to underwriting environmental projects (museums, land purchases) while we drill, baby, drill. Would we want brightened marine clouds in the form of a swoosh—today’s mild weather brought to you by Nike—or sulfur aerosols distributed by government subcontractors—this evening’s sunset courtesy of Halliburton? Many at Asilomar were wary of the military becoming involved in the deployment or defense of geoengineering, even while acknowledging that some nations and billionaire eco-rebels could launch geoengineering on their own pretty much right away. After all, Russia wants ice-free summer shipping lanes, and there are very wealthy people who might be, in David Victor’s phrase, “Greenfingers.”
Geoengineering in any form looks downright dangerous to Colby College historian James Fleming, whose latest book is Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control. Fleming does not mince words: “Geoengineering is in fact untested and dangerous. We don’t understand it, we can’t test it on smaller than planetary scales, and we don’t have the political capital, wisdom, or will to govern it. Planetary tinkering is not ‘cheap,’ as some economists claim, since the side effects are unknown. It poses a moral hazard by possibly reducing incentives to mitigate. It could be attempted unilaterally, or worse, proliferate among rogue states, and . . . learning from history, it would be militarized. Geoengineering could violate a number of existing treaties.”
The Sierra Club’s Josh Dorner told me that “we don’t have time to worry about pie-in-the-sky ‘solutions,’ because we have . . . solutions that are environmentally sound and economically feasible right now.” Nonetheless, Sierra Club leader Paul Craig was at Asilomar. So was Whole Earth Catalog visionary Stewart Brand, and representatives from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund.
Will the prospect of an overcast scrim, forests of artificial trees, and robot ships spraying seawater into the Pacific sky and dumping loads of lime into the oceans be enough to frighten us to change? Enough to force a sudden and massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? Or will the prospect of geoengineering allow us to continue our profligate ways?
“What will happen when we get an unambiguous signal of a climate emergency?” asked Socolow. Whatever the signal is, Socolow concluded, “We are not ready.”
One October afternoon I stood before a fossil display at the College of Eastern Utah’s Prehistoric Museum, in Price. Before me was a slab of fossilized mud labeled “Bird Trackways with Raindrop Impressions.” I’d seen fossil footprints and trackways many times before but never the turned-to-stone concave impressions of raindrops.
What was that day like, in the warm and wet Eocene, beside Lake Uinta, 57 million years ago? Near what is now Soldier Summit, dew speckled the earth and across the shore walked a Presbyornis, a long-necked water bird, rather like a whooping crane topped with the head of a freakishly billed duck. At that moment, rain fell. Soon, blowing sand filled in the three-toed tracks and the raindrop dimples, thus preserving their impressions. Once the sand eroded out, the tracks and little craters remained, recording, across the ages, the weather of that moment.
We’ve too long mistaken the present for some version of a human forever. We say we want to save the world. What we really want to save is the Holocene. We want to cast the world in amber, to preserve it as it has been, more or less, for the past century or two. We want to stay alive. More, to hold onto our economies, our life styles, our civilization. These impulses, if not always their consequences, are laudable, but let’s not delude ourselves: trying to extend the lifespan of the Holocene is selfish. We humans are not forever, nor is the time in which we find ourselves. Most of us would like for all of us, including wolves and tadpole shrimp and yellow-eyed penguins, to stick around for a while. Trying to extend the lifespan of the Holocene is also, in a way, compassionate.
Geoengineering may be the earthly pinnacle of our toolmaking ways and an expression of our animal will to live. Certainly it can be more than an attempt to control the future of the climate and civilization; it can be a way to understand our relationship to the nature of time and mortality, a way, perhaps, even to manufacture, or to finally recognize, kinships. But if we extend the lifespan of the Holocene by retooling the air yet fail to retool our own ways, our revels will end sooner than they needed to.
Geoengineering is often called plan B because plan A is emissions reductions. They’re no longer separate plans. They can’t be. We need research into geoengineering; we need emissions reductions; we need to adapt to the changing climate; we need to decide now about the regulatory framework that will govern large-scale deployment of geoengineering techniques, especially cloud-brightening and stratospheric aerosols. There is only one plan, all of the above. Of course we can’t permanently geoengineer the climate and expect good things from that. If geoengineering is Prozac for the planet, it could calm the climate just long enough for the rich to get addiction therapy and some help with their—with our—dysfunctional relationship with the poor.
Perhaps it comes down to this: In an era of scientific illiteracy, commodity fascism, political shortsightedness, minute attention spans, and hyperactive media, the only overarching narrative about climate change may be, ironically, the weather itself. We may have to wait for truly heinous and bizarre weather to capture public and political attention. The lived, daily experience of global weirding may be what leads to the fraught denouement of geoengineering, which itself will be the beginning of another narrative about who we are, what time is, what the climate means, how nature matters.
Some time ago I wrote down this quote from Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: “Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.” I suspect that we will say goodbye to the blue sky and live awhile beneath the pale aerosols. Stars we can see from the countryside will hide. Might an iron-addled ocean change color too? Will all of this alter the migrations of birds? Those we condemn to die from eating our risk will curse us. Some things may yet be saved. What claims our loyalty as we try to reclaim the Holocene?
I wish that the fossil footprints of the extinct Presbyornis could help me answer these questions. Right now, all I can do is close my eyes and see those little dimples that recorded rain, those tracks of a single bird, a single life, walking, a feather-wet body moving away from something and toward something else.
Christopher Cokinos is the author of Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds and The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars.
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