Posted March 12, 2020
The generic term “geoengineering” has come to denote a battery of hypothetical technological interventions to mitigate climate change. It is coming into vogue as the increasingly dire predictions of climate disaster make us desperate for a solution. Yet it is precisely in these moments of desperation and panic that we cannot lose our capacity for clear thinking and become susceptible to the specious promises of a miracle cure.
There is broad consensus that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced drastically in order to avert an even greater climate disaster than what we are on target to hit. Yet GHG production has not gone down and, despite the righteous rhetoric of the supposedly enlightened members of the political class, nothing of any significance is being done.
Even the simplest strategies of GHG reduction are not pursued. Public transportation remains utterly inadequate and unaffordable for many.
In New York City, for instance, Mayor de Blasio has presided over MTA fare hikes and simultaneous degradation of services. In the meantime, he has pursued a villainous policy of employing the notorious NYPD to aggressively crack down on MTA fare evaders and electric bike food-delivery workers towards whom he holds a peculiar animus.
At the national level, rail service remains at a laughably primitive level incapable of competing with other more carbon-intensive means of travel.
It is in the context of a complete failure to act in any meaningful way to bring GHG production down that we are presented with technological cures that require no change in the current way of life.
I want to also note the cultural context in which geoengineering is offered as a solution. For decades climate change denialism, conceived as a form of anti-science and illogic, has been taxing the slender resources and energies of environmentalists. Instead of a rich discussion capable of weighing strategies to address the undeniable climate catastrophe that we face, countering denialism has become one of the central preoccupations of the environmental movement and has kept the discourse at a very low level.
Even the drabbest proposals to mitigate the climate catastrophe appear attractive if they simply acknowledge the reality of the crisis and employ the legitimizing idiom of science.
Geoengineering is one such set of proposals. At the moment it is neither a science nor a practical scheme. It is an ideological intervention predicated on the world continuing on its current path of growth and increasing consumption, and could rightfully be described as eco-neoliberalism. Indeed, it views the climate disaster as a business opportunity.
As discussed below, it is based on a peculiarly narrow conception of the ecological disaster as a circumscribable problem, incidental to and addressable within the framework of market fundamentalism.
But geoengineering fails, even within its own self-defined framework. It offers a scientifically naïve and anti-democratic vision that is a distraction from the real work that needs to be done.
A False Framework
First, I want to elaborate on the framework that defines the problem in such a way that geoengineering seems like a solution.
Discussions of climate change are often formulated in the neat terms of a textbook physics problem. The problem, in this view, is balancing the earth’s energy budget. The earth absorbs heat radiated by the sun and, in turn, radiates a large portion of this absorbed energy back out. On average, the absorbed and emitted energy have to be roughly equal if the earth is not to heat or cool.
At the current moment the balance is tilted towards net absorption of heat, resulting in increasing average temperatures. The mechanism for this net absorption of heat is the greenhouse effect, which traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere due to the presence of certain gases which are opaque to the low frequencies of the earth’s radiation preventing heat from escaping.
This widely accepted mechanism is remarkably successful in explaining the rough pattern of warming observed by scientists. If anything, the models are too conservative in their predictions, and reality is more dire than previously thought, as documented for instance by the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report.
Despite the successes of viewing climate change in this framework, there are some serious limitations. This conception leaves out two essential points. First, it assigns causal priority to the universal laws of physics, rather than the circumstances in which these laws are operating — the social arrangement that is late capitalism, with its rapacious logic of unceasing profitmaking through ever-increasing production and consumption, that lies at the heart of producing the conditions of ecological disaster.
Second, the ecological crisis should be conceived as much more than global warming alone, which leaves out equally important problems that are neither separable from greenhouse gas production nor reducible to it.
Briefly, elements left out of this narrative include wide-ranging practices including certain methods of industrialized agriculture, mining and waste disposal leading to the horrific poisoning and destruction of our ecosystems, wholesale extinction of species, increasing rates of cancer, developmental problems among children, and many other issues.
Returning to global warming, the geoengineering perspective follows the disembodied physics-based narrative to identify the causes of climate change in the narrowest possible terms, as a consequence of a lethal mix of something called the sun and another thing called greenhouse gases that conspire to create the problem of global warming.
Thus, geoengineering solutions come in two varieties aimed at each of the two monsters — the Scylla of the Sun and the Charybdis of greenhouse gases.
Dimming the Sun
Solar radiation management, or SRM, is based on the idea that if we could dial the amount of solar energy delivered to the earth we could adjust the average temperature of our planet at will. This dialing would be achieved by blocking solar radiation so that is not absorbed by the earth.
Thus, if sun rays were somehow partially prevented from penetrating the atmosphere and being absorbed by the earth, the planet would not warm as much. Central SRM proposals include the injection of aerosols in the form of sulfates or other particulate matter into the stratosphere, as well as cloud and ocean brightening schemes to reflect sunlight back out of the atmosphere.
These strategies are not a way to reverse or even to slow down the greenhouse effect; rather they begin with accepting defeat against it. Even on the limited terrain set by SRM, the problems with the proposed strategies are many, but a few stand out.
Let me begin by noting the obscurantist terminology employed to describe what is being proposed. “Aerosols,” a term from physics, describes particulate matter suspended in a gas. In more easily understandable terms, SRM amounts to polluting the atmosphere with a fine dust. Similarly, cloud and ocean “brightening” seem benign enough until we ask what brightening entails.
The increase of aerosols in the upper atmosphere would very likely result in both unpredictable weather patterns as well as climatic consequences. Nevertheless, some consequences can be gleaned from historical climate data and from modeling.
In the past, potent volcanic activity has resulted in the natural production of aerosols that get lodged in the stratosphere. In the aftermath of these events, net cooling of the earth was observed.
The volcanic dust is of the kind proposed by many SRM enthusiasts. Indeed, it’s exactly this historical record that provides evidence of the efficacy of the methods of aerosol injection that SRM experts use in arguing their case. But these incidents are also correlated with severe droughts and the disruption of key climatic patterns such as the monsoons, consequences also confirmed by climate modeling experts.
Historic data from volcanoes and independent modeling show that many of the most drastic weather-pattern disrupting consequences of aerosols will be for the global South. It is also important to keep in mind that many of the consequences of aerosol injection are inherently and irreducibly unpredictable.
If all one wanted to achieve was to cool the earth, SRM could seem like a strategy worth pursuing. But the reason we are concerned with global warming is not out of a capricious desire to maintain a certain average temperature on our planet, but rather because warming threatens our ecosystem with collapse and poses the real possibility of human extinction.
That’s why it would be appropriate to abandon the language of physics in favor of that of ecology, to better focus on the consequences of SRM. In addition to those already-mentioned likely disruptions of weather and climate, there will be other ecological consequences. As a means of dimming the sun, SRM will affect plant life not only through the disruption of patterns of rainfall but also because bright sunlight is essential to the lifecycle of many plants.
Similarly, ocean brightening will have consequences for marine ecology. Moreover, ocean and cloud brightening are expected to have unpredictable consequences for weather as these interventions will result in cooler air over oceans, which will be conducive to the development of severe weather patterns of the La Niña variety.
What’s most troubling and irrational about SRM is that by bypassing greenhouse gas reduction, it can only achieve its goal of temperature reduction by constantly ramping up SRM interventions to counter the increasing effects of global warming.
The SRM perspective is based on the conception of the sun solely as a deliverer of unwanted heat. The effects on ecosystems and the experience of living in a world with SRM appear to be of little or no concern. Yet the injection of aerosols and cloud brightening will fundamentally affect our daily lives as we will no longer be able to experience the sun as we do now.
Instead of the bright sun, we will be left with a less defined object through the haze of aerosols. We have to ask: Is our view of the sun so instrumental that we can dispense with our experience of it to maintain the dystopia of late capitalism?
Finally, the deployment of SRM will be a fundamentally undemocratic measure. We lack a world government that could be held accountable by the population and have the legitimacy and right to make decisions with major consequences for the entire globe.
Any implementation of SRM will be decided, no doubt, by the ruling classes of powerful nations but will affect the entire world and, if history is a guide, disproportionately the global South.
Atmospheric Carbon Capture
The second variety of geoengineering is based on capturing carbon and storing it. No one has yet come up with a viable strategy of capturing atmospheric carbon at a scale relevant to the climate, yet these strategies continue to excite the imaginations of venture-capital hungry entrepreneurs.
Just as with SRM, these technological strategies are not premised on changing the way that the world currently functions. On the contrary, they’re modeled for a world where economic growth and increased consumption are assumed.
Several strategies in this category are worth pointing out to give a flavor of what is being suggested. One proposed strategy is to cultivate phytoplankton and other photosynthesizing species on ocean surfaces. These species would capture carbon for photosynthesis.
There are many issues associated with this strategy, but the biggest one is the uncontrolled disruption of ocean ecology. A second crucial issue is whether the absorbed carbon will actually be sequestered or rereleased into the environment.
Afforestation is another strategy which requires planting forests for the explicit purpose of carbon capture. This strategy seems benign at first, but requires the repurposing of vast tracts of land to make a real difference as a climate mitigation strategy.
The displacement of people or the disruption of natural ecologies is a virtual certainty. Any land taken over for afforestation will no doubt belong to those who are already marginalized. Thanks to the resistance at Standing Rock in North Dakota by the Water Protectors, the whole world was made aware of the routine violations of treaty rights of Native people by the state whenever their land is needed for some purpose.
In addition, we are seeing the decimation of wild ecologies. With land shortage already a problem, the remaining unmarred wild ecologies will face the threat of instrumentalized conversion of rich ecosystems to forests, for the purpose of maintaining an untenable system of exploitation of the natural world.
A third strategy that has received a lot of attention is BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and sequestration). BECCS proceeds on a very simple if abstract and unworkable idea: Cultivate plants that can be combusted for the purpose of energy production in such a way that all the carbon byproducts from combustion are captured and sequestered.
Such a scheme would theoretically result in negative emissions because, during their growth phase, the plants would absorb carbon from the atmosphere for photosynthesis while no carbon will be released when they are combusted as fuel. Not surprisingly, no viable practical implementation of this idea exists.
Even if one grants the fantasy, scientists have shown that its implementation will result in net atmospheric carbon production. Moreover, BECCS suffers from the same problems as afforestation in that it requires the repurposing of land and its concomitant destruction of ecologies and displacement of people. Sequestration of captured carbon from combustion at the required scale is another problem that has not been solved.
Agents and Solutions
I want to now examine the logic that lies behind geoengineering as a whole. First, let us agree that capitalism is an ecological disaster. The insatiable drive for profit is its life force and requires the constant and ruthless exploitation of resources, whether of nature or humanity.
The destruction of habitat and decimation of the diversity of flora and fauna are noticeable to anyone who can recall life from even a decade ago. Greenhouse gases and climate change are just one facet of this disaster. What distinguishes the greenhouse effect is the simplicity of the mechanism behind it and the clear identification of the agents — so called greenhouse gases that prevent heat from escaping the earth.
In ecology, as in the study of anything with a degree of complexity (evolutionary biology, history and sociology, say), billiard-ball-like causality where causal agents and their effects are unique and identifiable is rare. We inevitably have multiple forces at play, none of which is singly determining.
Even when we do have an effect with a single agent, one might ask how to counter the effects of this agent. One answer, and this is the answer of geoengineering, is to remove the agent. However, this is not necessarily viable nor even a real solution.
Allow me to develop an analogy that I first began to explore in a piece I co-authored with Erik Wallenberg for the geoengineering collection published by Science for the People.
In epidemiology, diseases with a clear bacterial, viral or parasitic agent are often best addressed from a public health perspective that is focused not on the microbial agent but rather on the conditions under which the disease spreads and develops. An example that illustrates my point very well is one that the biologist Richard Lewontin has used multiple times to illustrate a key difference between a “cause” and an “agent.”
Lewontin points to studies that show the precipitous decline in the occurrence of tuberculosis from the late 19th to the mid-20th century cannot be traced to medical or antibacterial interventions. Rather, no simple explanation is known but what did occur in this period is the rapid increase in access to better quality nutrition, housing, sanitation and education.
The subsequent recurrence of TB in times of austerity — such as in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites — illustrates vividly a different mode of causality in operation than the one that is focused on microbial agents.
Similar illustrations abound: epidemics of cholera, typhoid and dysentery occur almost exclusively under conditions of war or natural disaster in large parts of the world. Looking further back, plagues were often contemporaneous with crop failure and other causes of hunger and malnutrition.
How helpful is it then to view the causal agent as bacteria or other microorganisms when it comes to eradicating these illnesses? Not very, in my opinion. Clearly, in every sensible definition, the causes of these epidemics are war, austerity and primitive accumulation. Thus the focus on the agents of illness, while often needed and helpful when treating individual patients, is not so helpful when dealing with the eradication of certain diseases.
Quite often the focus has to lie elsewhere entirely. For instance, in the case of malaria, the draining of standing water where mosquitos, the vectors of the disease, breed is often more effective than interventions that target the microbial parasitic agent of the disease. Thus, some illnesses require an entirely different focus.
In the case of epidemiology, the over focus on agents can have the opposite effect of addressing the problem, as is illustrated by the over-prescription of antibiotics resulting in antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
I believe that a similar perspective is needed in the case of climate change. The production of greenhouse gases has to be drastically reduced, but the focus on removing them from the atmosphere or turning off the sun is to miss the real cause of the disaster, which is clearly capitalism and its helpless drive for profit at any expense including the destruction of our ecosystem.
One might think that the promise of geoengineering belongs to the mythos of optimism in technology. I find it hard to believe that technology can excite anything like optimism in us anymore.
We live in a world where technology produces neither joy nor excitement. Our latest cellphone acquisition is not a moment of joy but the melancholic start of the countdown to its impending obsolescence.
When we encounter the Soviet Constructivist poster in museums, the optimism of their time is no longer legible to us. The placement of these posters in museums as relics seems apt. I believe that the mythos that geoengineering belongs to is an unmistakably contemporary one, and steeped in pessimism. It is rooted in the belief in the immutability of the present neoliberal moment.
Frederic Jameson has famously said that in these times, it is easier to conceive the end of the world than to conceive an end to capitalism. In this radically truncated contemporary view that grew out of the defeats from the 1970s to the present, we cannot imagine a possible world that is not driven by the nihilistic pursuit of profit.
As I have argued, geoengineering technology will not get us out of this mess but will further entrench us in a deeply eco-destructive mode of life, and guarantee a future that may not be a future at all. We have to develop an ecosocialist critique and practice that begins with conceiving the possibility of the end of capitalism.
Further reading: For readers interested in exploring geoengineering further from a left perspective, Science for the People has a special issue on geoengineering available at the URL https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/geoengineering-special-issue/. Naomi Klein’s chapters on geoengineering in This Changes Everything are also excellent.\
March/April 2020, ATC 205