We need to talk about geoengineering

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Last weekend I went to a gathering in the Norfolk countryside, to talk about the climate crisis. Trains were disrupted both to and from the event, by people throwing themselves on the line. ‘We’ve had four suicides in five days’, said the platform manager in Norfolk, shaking his head. ‘Is it Boris, is it Christmas?’ Is it the climate?

When I finally got to the gathering, I noticed the atmosphere was a little heavy. There were 20 people there, including leading figures from Extinction Rebellion, Transition Towns and the Dark Mountain project. They calmly discussed the collapse of civilization and the death of most — if not all — of the human race, as if it was a given.

One participant said: ‘Most humans will probably die in the next decade because of collapsing food systems. I am prepared for that. I hope’, he said nobly, ‘I have the courage to give my food to someone younger.’


I felt very alienated from this discussion. As it happened, I was in the middle of reading Oliver Morton’s 2015 book on geoengineering, The Planet Remade. I downloaded it partly in despair at the failure last week of COP25 (the latest global climate summit). I felt: ‘OK, emission reduction is not happening. Give me all the options.’

Morton makes the point that the debate over the climate crisis is divided over two propositions: 1) the climate crisis is very serious and 2) transforming the fossil fuel economy quickly is very hard. Environmentalists tend to be Yes / No, while politicians tend to be No / Yes. Morton suggests that geoengineering — deliberate interventions in the earth system to mitigate global warming — could be a Yes / Yes response to the crisis.

It could give us a little more time to transform our economic system to carbon zero. Because otherwise, to my mind, the future is very bleak. We already have one degree warming, and extreme weather events are becoming more and more common — Australian cities are shrouded in smog from huge forest fires, as the country breaks temperature records every week, while the UK is hit by flooding again.

We’re already probably set for another degree of warming, if not more. If every country follows the UK’s lead and becomes carbon zero by 2050, that gives us at best a 50% chance of avoiding more than two degree warming. And that prediction doesn’t take into account unexpected downside risks like the huge release of methane from the warming climate (methane is 80 times more warming than CO2) and other feedback loops.

There’s a time lag in the effect of our emission reductions — it may already be too late now to stop runaway warming, never mind 2050. And we’re nowhere near global agreement on emission reduction, partly because of denialist western governments like the US and Australia, and partly because developing countries, quite fairly, want to catch up with the West in living standards.

It is not all bleak by any means — the transformation to a different living-system has begun. But we need a bit more time. Morton suggests geoengineering interventions could give us the breathing space for this transition.

What sort of interventions? There are two main types. The first is solar radiation management. The earth-system is warming because greenhouse gases are trapping the heat from the sun. There are various proposed ways to increase the ‘albedo’, which is the amount of solar energy reflected back.

SRM interventions could be very local — painting houses white, for example. They could be quite local — Sir David King, the former chief scientist for the UK government is studying attempts to increase the reflectivity of clouds over the Arctic, to let it refreeze, thereby increasing the polar albedo. Or they could be global — high-altitude planes could release sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, creating a ‘solar veil’ similar to that created after major volcano eruptions. This, some scientists suggest, could lower the temperature of the entire Earth by two degrees, for a few billion dollars. Or you could try and reflect solar rays from space, through a giant satellite mirror (this was recently proposed by US presidential candidate Andrew Yang).

The other main form of geoengineering is to try and remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, either by carbon sequestering technology; or by releasing iron in to the sea to encourage phytoplankton and algae, which absorb CO2; or by planting a lot of trees, or some other method.

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Why is there so little discussion of these technologies, seeing as they could save millions or even billions of lives?

One reason is, they are difficult to test, particularly methods like creating a global aerosol veil. And there are fears of terrible side-effects, like accidentally stopping the monsoon and causing a famine. There are some attempts to test the veil method — Bill Gates is funding a project at Harvard called Scopex, which launched last year.

But the main reason there is very little public discussion of geoengineering is that environmentalist efforts to cope with the climate crisis have been almost totally focused on CO2 emission reduction. And environmentalists on the whole hate geoengineering.

At the seminar last weekend, for example, as I watched people blandly accepting the death of billions, I would occasionally suggest we should explore geoengineering. I might as well have suggested eating babies. ‘It’s the spawn of the devil’, one environmentalist responded.

Rupert Read, philosopher and spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, has written that geoengineering is just another example of the arrogance and technophiliac hubris that got us in this crisis in the first place. It creates, he says, a huge moral hazard — we believe in some hypothetical and as-yet-untested technological rescue in the future, so we carry on with ‘business-as-usual’.

For Read and others, the climate crisis is a moral and spiritual crisis. We have grown ‘too big for our boots’, we have arrogantly forgotten our dependence on nature. Now nature is giving us a kicking, and we deserve it. We need to submit, atone for our sins, learn a new humility and a new interconnected model of the self.

That’s what one hears in the spiritual ecology of thinkers like Charles Eisenstein and Joanna Macy, and it’s pretty much the ‘Deep Adaptation’ theory put forward by Jem Bendell, former advisor to Jeremy Corbyn, in a much-downloaded 2018 paper. We must accept the coming mega-death, he says, and find transcendence in Vipassana, ayahuasca and Authentic Relating practices.

There can be a hatred of industrial civilization in this view, a hatred of mass consumerism — one environmentalist said to me we can’t protect an economic model where people ‘consume out-of-season vegetables’, as if this was a sin that warranted the death of billions. Perhaps there is a hatred of mass democracy too — those stupid masses who keep voting wrong.

The good guys, in this worldview, are often indigenous hunter-gatherers, because they have the smallest carbon footprint. They are good natives. China and India, by contrast, are bad, uppity natives, because they want the living standards that the West has. ‘They need to realize that capitalism doesn’t make you happy’, one environmentalist told me. ‘They should embrace Gandhi’s philosophy.’

As Morton writes, apocalyptic environmentalists are ‘prepared to accept the death of billions for the moral lesson’. Like a Vipassana retreat, the crisis will hurt a lot, but we need to stay still and accept it.

I am all for finding transcendence and a more interconnected model of the self, personally, but we should be wary of imposing our spiritual ideals onto wretched humanity. If we have a commitment to prevent suffering, then we should consider all options in this crisis, including geoengineering.

Life under late capitalism may not always be very fulfilling — life is dukka, as the Buddha said — but it has massively reduced infant mortality and lifted most of the world’s population out of poverty in the last 30 years. Yet that’s a bad thing, in some environmentalists’ view. Now we are too many.

Apocalyptic environmentalism can be very Malthusian — it follows 18th century economist Thomas Malthus in thinking the human population has grown to the point where the Earth system cannot support us all, so we are set for a dramatic reduction in numbers. This will be unpleasant, but it will leave a better Earth, cleansed of the mistake of mass industrial civilization.

The Malthusian prediction has often been proven wrong. It was proved wrong in 1750, wrong in 1900, wrong in 1960. Each time, humans developed new forms of technology that avoided the predicted (longed-for?) correction, such as the massive creation of nitrous fertilizers in the early 1900s. Is it possible the Malthusian prediction will be wrong this time as well, and that nine billion of us can live on this planet sustainably?

Apocalyptic environmentalism tends to give up on the idea of ‘saving humanity’. One environmentalist said to me last weekend: ‘Any talk of ‘humanity’ now is for the birds. The response needs to be national and local.’

Extinction Rebellion’s Rupert Read said this week: ‘We need to shift away from globalised supply lines and towards locally producing goods if we want to be more robust to and prepared for impending ecological breakdown.’

That means testing what some environmentalists call ‘Lifeboat Britain’ to see how many people it can support with food and water. Close your ears to the screams from the South, and wait for the cleansed post-crisis world, where we will have more space for our permaculture and yoga.

Or perhaps even give up on the nation-state and build sustainable local collectives, like ‘Transition Towns’ suggests. Does that mean local militias as well? Just imagine, for a second, the Totnes local defence league, all those hairy wizards defending their allotments with spells.

Still, perhaps the main problem with geoengineering is also the main problem with emissions reduction: we need to agree on it. And that is very difficult, because the global conversation about everything is so polarized at the moment.

For that reason, there is no point at all in me slagging off the prophets of environmental apocalypticism. They are right, after all — we are in a species-threatening crisis, and it is caused by human actions and a lack of care for the environment. We do need to learn and change. But we may need a small essay extension if we are to learn this lesson.

We need all the options, and many different responses — both protests in the street, and research in the laboratory. We need to cultivate open minds, rather than getting stuck in a fixed, self-righteous, ego-inflated mind-set where our way is the only way.

It is not either emissions reductions or other forms of geoengineering. It has to be both. It is right to be wary of new technologies — they should be tested and discussed now, not in 20 years when climate chaos is really upon us. We should consider the full range of options. No one is against all forms of geoengineering — rewilding, say, or reforestation, or encouraging the growth of certain species which absorb a lot of CO2. Let’s try and have this discussion now.

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open www.philosophyforlife.org

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