Geoengineering: No Choice but Damocles?



Image: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

The planet continues to warm unabated.

The level of CO2 in the atmosphere surpassed the 410 ppm (parts per million) threshold in April last year (Kahn, 2017), a level not reached in millions of years in the history of Earth (and certainly not in the history of humankind). Keeping global warming to below 2°C, the goal of the UNFCCC in 2015, is now extremely unlikely (Raftery et al., 2017), and we may already be committed to a rise in temperatures of 1.5°C (King & Henley, 2016; Mauritsen & Pincus, 2017). This means more extreme precipitation events, droughts, the drowning of island communities, agricultural areas rendered useless, and mass migration (Shankman, 2016; Shurma & Oriwg, 2017; Lederman, 2018; Goodell, 2018).

We may even be faced with an increase of 3°C or 4°C. Millions of people live in areas that would be irreversibly flooded in such a world (Holder et al., 2017), food production would “significantly drop” (Lewis, 2015), and in some cases “developed human society would no longer be sustainable” (Lynas, 2008; Lelieveld et al., 2016).

The victory of the “carbon-industrial machine” is clear, according to Stephenson (2017), and we are approaching “geophysical and social tipping points unimagined by previous generations”. 77% of global warming since the 1980s is the responsibility of only a hundred corporations, largely in the business of extracting and marketing fossil fuels, and these corporations are inextricably tied to a warming future (Aronoff, 2017).

The governments and capitalists of the world are aware of the danger approaching, and they are making preparations to maintain the current status quo of inequality. From enforcing borders and restricting the movement of migrants to establishing private militias and hideouts, preparations for climate change “are based upon and aim to reinforce a systemic logic of competition and scarcity” (Buckland, 2017).

Geoengineering, thus, is a method for capitalism to maintain its extractivist, ecocidal nature and continue business-as-usual without the need for social, political, or economic change (Preston, 2013; Hamilton, 2013). A capitalist geoengineering would slow, manage, or maybe stop climate change, but would not be able to stop itself from the “totalising biocrisis” that capitalism represents for non-human nature (Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009). But what of a geoengineering that was not aligned with capitalist interests?

Solar Radiation Management

A draft United Nations report on the feasibility of Solar Radiation Management (SRM) geoengineering via aerosols identified several problems despite its attractiveness as a “cheap fix” [for more on the fallacy of seeking simple techno-solutions to complex problems see Weinberg (1967) and Harvey (2003)]. SRM in the report was described as “economically, socially and institutionally infeasible” based on issues of testing, responsibility, and the lack of scientific study (Doyle, 2018a). This is corroborated by the revised position of the American Geophysical Union, who stressed that the scientific understanding of geoengineering and its impacts “remains poor” (Landau, 2018; see also Dunne, 2018).

The report also warns of the danger of the “termination effect”. This is one of the greatest dangers of SRM:

“All the models suggest that if, say, you were geoengineering from now into 2100, and then suddenly stopped in 2100 … you would get all of the global warming accumulated in the business as usual model, in about five years,” Haywood says. This rebound, known as the “termination effect,” means that if humans want to use any geoengineering scheme based on reflection (those that use aerosols or reflective surfaces), we would also have to dramatically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the amount of emissions we produce.” (Geib, 2018)

Essentially, if the world governments together initiated a program of SRM to reduce global temperatures, it might be too dangerous to stop – we’d effectively be locked into a program of anthropogenic temperature regulation (Trisos et al., 2018). If anything interrupted this regular injection of aerosols into the atmosphere, such as a war or natural disaster, it would produce what the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute call a “double catastrophe scenario”, where

“it could precipitate a runaway greenhouse effect that turns Earth into an uninhabitable hellish cauldron like our planetary neighbor Venus … once a stratospheric geoengineering program has been established by anyone, anywhere, it must not be interrupted for any reason, especially not abruptly. But one or more interruptions cannot be ruled out, hence the existential danger.” (Torres, 2017)

There is however scientific literature that claims concerns regarding the termination have been “significantly overestimated” and that the idea of a being locked into geoengineering “is not accurate” (Parker & Irvine, 2018). This proves the point of the AGU that the science and impacts behind SRM are incomplete.

Other studies have found that SRM, combined with cloud modification, could recover “average” levels of temperature and precipitation, but regional differences would persist (Cao et al., 2017; Irvine et al., 2017). Who has the authority to decide which countries or populations win or lose in such a scenario? Such decision making would fall to the de-facto rulers, the wealthiest of the global North, where such authority would be used to entrench the interests of capital over people.

Other methods of SRM by altering the albedo of the earth via cloud modification or orbital sunshades produce mixed results. “Sunshade geoengineering” would improve global crop yields compared to a world of global warming according to Pongratz et al. (2012) but they admit there are unknown side effects and risks, and that “the most certain way to reduce climate risks to global food security is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.” Likewise Parkes et al. (2015) find that “marine sky brightening” could improve agricultural yields and reduce crop failures in areas of the world, but “further work is required” regarding other agricultural impacts. Such geoengineering methods do nothing to prevent other environmental catastrophes such as ocean acidification (Williamson & Turley, 2012), nor does it address the global economy’s disastrous reliance on fossil fuels (Lim, 2018; Klein, 2016).

However, in a perverse state of affairs, our limited “geoengineering” of unintentional aerosol release due to industrial activity has been masking the true warming associated with rising greenhouse gas emissions for some time. Removing these aerosols from the atmosphere as part of efforts to reduce pollution and clean the air (especially in urban centres) would

“induce a global mean surface heating of 0.5–1.1°C, and precipitation increase of 2.0–4.6%. Extreme weather indices also increase.” (Samset et al., 2018)

Cleaning up our air would therefore produce a miniature termination effect, triggering increased temperature, rain, and extreme weather events as the cooling effect of aerosol pollution diminishes and our suppressed climate impacts rush up to meet us. Do we have no choice but to maintain an aerosol shield lest dangerous warming already occur? Or are there alternative geoengineering options?

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR)

The direct removal of carbon dioxide, the most abundant of greenhouse gases emitted by industrial and agricultural activity, is the other geoengineering option.

The simplest and most obvious method is afforestation, or “carbon farming” (Biggers, 2015; Velasquez-Manoff, 2018). Plantations of fast-growing woody plants at the world’s dry coastal areas (Becker et al., 2013) and sequestering carbon as “biochar” (Lehmann, 2007; Matovic, 2011; Smith, 2016) are both proven methods of removing carbon dioxide that do not require fundamental scientific advancements, only scaling-up. This is a promising opportunity, especially with its agricultural benefits that could do much to reverse the desolation of the world’s soils (Laird, 2008; Tan et al., 2017), as well as to mitigate the troubling decline of forest carbon sinks globally (McSweeney, 2015; Nave et al., 2018).

However, there are limits. To be effective, land-based CDR would have to be scaled-up to a massive level. The “land requirements could be immense, affecting global food prices and food security” (Pasztor et al., 2017), and the water and other resource requirements would also be unsustainable (Heck et al., 2018). In saving one planetary boundary (Rockström et al. 2009), we could threaten others in the process (Harvey, 2018). In such a case “global mean temperature would no longer be a reasonable measure of the level of danger posed by climate change” (Irvine et al., 2017).

The “Atlas for the End of the World” is more direct:

“In short, as this century unfolds there will not be enough land to utilize forestry as the single mechanism for carbon sequestration.” (Weller et al., 2017)

carbon forest

Carbon Forest. Credit: Weller et al., 2017

As a result, it’s important to remember that “any sort of geo-engineering is not a substitute for emissions reductions” (Meyer, 2018).

One form of CDR that does not compete for land use involves stimulating blooms of phytoplankton in the ocean, often with iron nutrients (hence the term “iron fertilisation”) in order to increase photosynthesis rates and thus increase carbon dioxide drawdown (probablyasocialecologist, 2016). While promising, and potentially less problematic and more predictable then pumping aerosols in the atmosphere, there are still unknowns. Phytoplankton fertilisation on a large scale can release large quantities of dimethyl sulfide, increasing albedo and further cooling the earth alongside removing carbon dioxide, but at the cost of precipitation decreases across Europe, Africa, and parts of the Middle East (Grandey & Wang, 2015), or potential oceanic deadzones once the phytoplankton die (Geib, 2018). The use of algae plantations, which do not cause competition for agricultural land or freshwater resources, is another promising form of oceanic carbon capture that seems to avoid these issues (Sayre, 2010; Beal et al., 2018).

What of replacing the biologies of chlorophyll with machines? Already start-up businesses exist that are attempting to “decarbonise” the capitalist economy by extracting carbon dioxide from the air and subsequently utilising the gas for agriculture (Marshall, 2017) or hydrocarbon production (Vidal, 2018). Although promising these methods are in their early infancy – scaling them up will cost trillions (Temple, 2017). It’s no wonder that plutocrats like Bill Gates support such geoengineering approaches given their technocratic nature and the relative ease such technics can integrate into the world economy with minimum disruption (Malm, 2015).

An (Un)Natural Climate

In his latest work the philosopher Timothy Morton warns of the irreversibility of geoengineering, reminding us that it “affects the whole of the biosphere” and that there is no way to completely undo its unpredictable effects (Morton, 2018).

But what is climate change if not an (unintentional) geoengineering experiment let loose upon the biosphere? The trouble is not that we have modified nature – something that we cannot help but do as part of our existence on Earth (Li, 2009; Millar & Mitchell, 2015) – but that nature has been modified as part of a class project in pursuit of wealth, resource extraction, and cheap nature (Moore, 2016).

Anthropogenically-induced climate change is virtually indistinguishable from geoengineering – the only difference is intention, and speed. For over 10,000 years (Boivin et al, 2016) we have lived on a “cyborg planet” with “cyborg weather” (Wark, 2016). Popular conceptions of “pristine” nature and a human/nature dichotomy have attempted to mask this (Bookchin, 1995; Denevan, 2011), but we cannot “abandon” nature now – we have, as Frase (2016) explains,

“no choice but to become ever more involved in consciously changing nature. We have no choice but to love the monster we have made, lest it turn on us and destroy us.”

If geoengineering is unnatural, then so is climate change. The question is not whether we should intervene in biosphere (a moot point, since we already are) but to what extent, and what motivates us to do so, and how careful we are.

The problem of resolving the biocrisis in its climatic form is Herculean and cannot be underestimated. As Collings (2014) said:

“If we do manage to rise to this challenge, we will have accomplished a feat virtually unique in human history. If we do not, our failure will be understandable, even if it will make us uniquely horrific. Either way, our generation will be the only of its kind in the history of the species. No wonder this moment feels so strange.”

We will have to sacrifice the childish notions of a pristine, natural Earth despoiled by a homogenous humanity (Bookchin, 2005) if we have a hope of preventing the biocrisis.

No Choice?

Geoengineering our climate has been likened to the Sword of Damocles hanging over the collective head of humanity (Appell, 2012), and this analogy is far from imperfect. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to “net zero” by 2090 at the latest according to the IPCC (Vidal, 2018).

UN simulations are themselves predicated upon negative emissions technology to reach emission reduction targets:

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its Fifth Assessment Report, presented more than 100 modeled scenarios that it said had a high likelihood of keeping global temperatures within 2 degrees Celsius of preindustrial levels. Nearly all of them assumed that negative emissions technology would be viable and widely used” (Harvey, 2018)

But what if we – a hypothetical, united, sustainable humanity – needed to geoengineer?

Not all geoengineering technics are made equal – as described above there is a world of difference between the technocratic, centralising propensities of SRM and the decentralised, “natural” methods of CDR.

Some climate simulations in fact suggest global biodiversity would suffer more from unchecked climate change than from a purposefully geoengineered climate (Trisos et al., 2018). A climate scientist from Stanford University emphasised that geoengineering is “the only known way to cause the planet to start cooling off within socially-relevant timescales” (Geib, 2018). The fossil fuels emitted by previous generations “weighs like a nightmare” on the lives of the living, to paraphrase Marx (Marx, 1852) – and time is running out (Malm, 2016). At the rate at which the capitalist economy is despoiling the biosphere (Carr & Gilblom, 2018) geoengineering may be the only method of preventing runaway climate change (Keith et al., 2017). As Bookchin (2005) warned,

“If we do not intervene in the world today for purposes of ecological restoration…neither we nor the wildlife we wish to conserve is likely to have any future at all. We have gone beyond a so-called “primeval” world, to a point where the possibility of returning to it is simply excluded.”

Although we may be forced to use intentional geoengineering it has to be noted that geoengineering is not an alternative to emissions reductions (Doyle, 2018a; Meyer, 2018; McSweeney, 2018; Keith et al., 2017). Kim Stanley Robinson sums it up well: “The most powerful geoengineering technology for reducing our carbon burn would be a rapid shift to social justice and an end to capitalism” (Canavan et al., 2010). What we need is a new, anti-capitalist economic model that allows us to pursue and implement energy and climate policies that benefit us all, not the needs of the wealthy few (Evans, 2018; Doyle, 2018b).

We have always intervened with non-human nature for our benefit. If we have to intentionally geoengineer, let it be as part of an anti-capitalist praxis that recognises the social construction of nature, the necessity of intervention to protect non-human nature from the previous ravages of capitalism, and that climate modification is but one tool in a plethora of mitigation and adaptation options in pursuit of a free, just, sustainable future.


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