Climate: Controlled

Geoengineering Threatens to Save the Planet from Global Warming

The sky would look white, but the sunsets would be an out-of-this world explosion of reds and oranges. The clouds would have a chrome sheen to them. Giant dirigibles might dot the horizon in a kind of Blade Runner set piece – but at least they’d keep the temperatures in check.

Such scenes are what we could expect to see if, as some of the world’s top climatologists are warning, we have to resort to what’s called “geoengineering”: large-scale manipulation of Earth to counteract global warming. Worried that global political systems aren’t responding to changes in the planet’s physical systems, some scientists and environmentalists say that we might need to artificially reduce the amount of sunlight striking the globe and/or manipulate plants or the oceans to absorb huge amounts of CO2. Having unintentionally warmed the planet, we may have little choice but to intentionally cool it back down.

Since they sometimes sound like science fiction (a space-based mirror umbrella?), geoengineering schemes were, until recently, relegated to the imaginations of the tinfoil hat crowd. But at least two geoengineering approaches are now generating serious discussion. In a planetary version of pulling down the shades, Stanford climatologist Ken Caldeira has proposed sowing the stratosphere with sulfur dioxide to catalyze water condensation that would reflect sunlight away from the planet. This idea enjoys the advantage of a real-world experiment – the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinutabo in the Philippines, which blew 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere and cooled global temperatures by half a degree Celsius. Caldeira and others envision using massive artillery or a fleet of high altitude blimps to inject the sulfur aerosol into the sky.

Another geoengineering strategy – called cloud bleaching – imagines an armada of robotic ships sailing the oceans, equipped with giant fans to kick seawater into the clouds to make them more reflective. This idea has big money behind it. The Times of London reported earlier this month that Bill Gates has invested $300,000 in a firm investigating cloud whitening.

The Gates investment is fueling fears of what’s been dubbed a “greenfinger scenario”: that is, a maverick, if well-meaning, billionaire who decides to do an end-run around paralyzed governments and start manipulating the globe’s climate without the consent of the rest of us. That prospect has scientists, NGOs, and governments scrambling to work out a system for governing geoengineering. In March, scientific ethicists met at Asilomar in California to lay out rules for experimenting with the atmosphere. United Nations officials working under the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nairobi in mid-May discussed protocols for global climate control. The British Parliament and the US Congress are looking into the issue.

As with any new technology, the tensions surrounding geoengineering come down to the issue of power. Who would decide how, whether, and when to start modifying the entire planet? Or, as Alan Robock, a Rutgers University philosopher with a National Science Foundation grant to investigate geoengineering, put it to me, “Whose hand will be on the thermostat? What if Russia and Canada decide they want it warmer and India wants it cooler? How do you decide those things?”

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Geopolitical complications aside, there’s no question that geoengineering is tempting. With scientists warning that we are on the edge of serious ecosystem disruptions – and our politicians unwilling to respond to the threat – who doesn’t want some kind of deus ex machina to swoop in and save us?

But this is a temptation we should resist, because, in the final analysis, geoengineering isn’t any solution to the problem of global climate change. It’s merely a perpetuation of the same mindset that has led us to this emergency situation. If mitigation (reducing emissions) is the hope of the idealist, and adaptation (preparing for rising waters) is the consolation of the realist, then geo-engineering (call it circumvention) has become the refuge of the cynic. Geoengineering assumes that although we may be able to alter how the planet works, we are incapable of changing the way we run the world.

Geoengineering is a great example of the old Albert Einstein aphorism, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Geoengineering takes a problem, simplifies its cause, and then exaggerates its solution. It’s like a Rube Goldberg machine, employing eight or nine steps when one or two would do. Instead of pursuing the elegant solutions – trading in our cars for buses, turning off the coal and turning on the wind – we are going to build a contraption to make the clouds shinier.

This makes geoengineering (the ambivalence of its supporters notwithstanding) human hubris compounded. It’s like doubling down on self-regard, a bet that we can save ourselves by divorcing our species from the rest of the planet. Bill McKibben warned about just such a fate in his seminal book The End of Nature when he cautioned that global warming would turn us into a “bubble species.”

As soon as we put our hand on the lever controlling the weather, we will be in charge in a way we never have been before, knowing that if for any reason we were to cease overseeing the sunlight, global temperatures would shoot upward again, leading to even worse trouble. The new role will force on us an existential anxiety much like the Cold War “strategy” of mutually assured destruction. If we take control of the sky, we will always be fearful of letting our grip slip from the machines that keep the planet in a semblance of balance.

Even were geoengineering to succeed, it would nonetheless mark a failure of humanity. Resorting to geoengineering would prove that we can’t act in concert to address collective problems. Worse, it would transform Earth, our home for all of history, into a trap, a place where we are held captive by our own technology.