We Can No Longer Ignore Geoengineering
As you might suspect, my friends and I talk politics a lot. Because I am a green activist and an Environmental Humanities major, I can’t resist bringing up climate change frequently; because a lot of them are hard science majors, they can’t resist offering technological as opposed to social solutions. I’ve found this divide to be rather sharp. Some people believe that the answer to a warming planet is to put our finest minds on the case and determine a way to prevent dire consequences—this is known as geoengineering. Others are diametrically opposed to this, and in some cases even scared of it.
I’ve always considered myself in the latter camp, but if there’s one thing we can know for certain about the science of climate change, it’s that it’s going to keep getting hotter without much regard for our values or principles. Therefore, though my trepidation remains, I believe the time has come to embrace geoengineering. It’s not the answer, but it is the first part of one.
My initial objections to the technological fix were both philosophical and sociological. On the philosophical front, I am skeptical of technology. It is an amoral entity among civilizations that is too often held up as the ultimate good; this causes people to ignore its drawbacks and eternally pursue its expansion, leaving future generations to clean up what mess may come. In particular, using technology to remedy the problems caused by the previous technological revolution is the very definition of a vicious cycle.
Sociologically, I know humans too well to be convinced geoengineering is without consequences. Economics has taught me that people respond to incentives; as I’ve written previously, a limit on the amount a plant can pollute only convinces the plant’s managers to pollute right up to that limit. A geoengineering fix without a social component would teach people that it’s fine to befoul the Earth, because the scientists will fix it sooner or later. It’s an incentive towards the wrong kind of behavior.
So, in the face of these objections, why am I now advocating for geoengineering? The answer is easy: social change is only so powerful, and the problem with the climate has gone beyond its grasp. The consensus of climatologists is that global average temperatures would rise by 0.6 degrees Celsius even if 100% of emissions stopped today. We can’t stop runaway temparatures now, particularly not with emissions still booming; political action to curb carbon is no longer capable of keeping us below the critical 2 degrees.
If we want a hope of maintaining Earth as the Earth we understand, something more is needed. Specifically, what we need is what has been called a Manhattan Project for the environment. What I mean by this is that we need a gathering of the world’s greatest experts, all focused on the common goal of how to get greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere before they become unmanagable. Unlike the previous Manhattan project, this would be international—for peace and the future, not for war.
This is not all we need to do, though. Geoengineering, as I said, is the first half of an answer: it is a stopgap measure to buy us time. It may in fact buy us a lot of time, but in the end, we would once again begin to bump up against global deadlines. The reason we need a technological solution is so that we have the freedom to effect social change without a direct threat hanging over our heads. We can stop global warming, or we can convince Earth’s nations to give up the toxic economies that interfere with the climate, but we cannot do one of each with both hands.
So let the scientists do what they do best. It’s our responsibility—as thinkers and as Earthlings—to ensure their work is not in vain.
Filed under: A Moving Forest with Sam Chapman