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Assessing geoengineering: a technical fix too far?

Is it getting too hot in here? OK, turn up the air-conditioning. Is it too hot on this planet? We have a technical fix for that, too.

At least, we have a bundle of ideas that could be tried – from various types of planetary sunshade to schemes for removing carbon dioxide faster than it is being dumped into the atmosphere.

If any of them actually turned out to work, debates about future climate change – and perhaps even future climate – would be transformed. And while describing this as a “technical fix” is enough to rule out the idea for some, technical fixes can be unequivocally good. That nerve-numbing injection before the dentist fires up their drill is a technical fix.

The collection of putative climate fixes that sit under the banner of geoengineering are very unusual ones, though. None of them exist yet, however detailed the scenarios may be. They are being studied and debated extensively, but the debate is more about principles and procedures than any specific proposal. And while there are technical issues, the whole area of geoengineering is raising more issues for the social sciences than the physical sciences. That is reflected in the programme of the major conference on climate engineering being held in Berlin this week, and was also apparent in the questions raised at a discussion at the European Geosciences Union meeting in May.

As Phil Macnaghten and Bronislaw Szerszynski pointed out last year in a paper in Global Environmental Change, this is partly because geo-engineering schemes do not exactly involve cutting edge technology. That seems true whether they are about carbon dioxide capture or solar radiation management. Both, they write, “typically involve mundane technologies such as mirrors, iron dust, sulphate particles or crumbled rock”, just deployed on extremely large scales.

But mundane or not, they stretch the capabilities of established ideas about trying to weigh the consequences of scientific and technological projects, from technology assessment to the currently fashionable (in the EU at any rate) idea of instituting “Responsible Research and Innovation”. That is partly because their importance has been recognised at an unusually early stage in development given that geoengineering remains a largely imaginary set of technologies – or at least ones whose feasibility is in question. But there are other reasons. As Macnaghten and Szerszynski also point out, they have a different relation with uncertainty from most technologies. Usually, it is the side effects that are difficult to predict or to attribute. With solar radiation management, especially, even the intended effects are probabilistic, and spatially distributed as far is it is possible to be.

That means, as they also say, that if there is genuine geoengineering, international agreements “will be involved in constituting the very technology from the outset.” It is, in other words, a quintessential technology of Earth system governance. It may even itself be inherently a form of governance, as Jack Stilgoe of University College London proposes in a forthcoming book on the subject. As the goal is planetary, we can only get hints about feasibility on a less than planetary scale. Lacking a spare planet, we cannot test geo-engineering on Earth without doing it.

These uncertainties around large scale deployment make almost everyone wary. If one seeks unequivocal advocates of geoengineering, they are hard to find. Rather, there are those who insist we should not rule it out, and that it is sensible to do more research,and small scale trials. David Keith of Harvard, for example, resists being typed as a gung-ho techno-optimist, even though he is the author of a small book from MIT Press titled A Case for Geo-engineering. He suggests that the possibility of geoengineering providing a way to reduce climate risk at low cost could be hard to resist, but it is not something to rush into.

The main arguments are about solar radiation management – a term originally coined with ironic intent but now widely adopted. It is widely agreed that while it might achieve planetary scale goals there would be losers as well as winners. For example, modelling indicates that it would probably affect tropical rainfall and the monsoon season. There are fears about crop yields in regions where solar radiation is attenuated, disturbance of other weather patterns and, inevitably, “unknown unknowns”.

The disquiet that this evokes has led to an assumption by some that objections to geoengineering would be overcome only in the face of dire emergency. Ken Caldeira suggested at the EGU debate that, “if there were massive famines with hundreds of millions of people dying and the global political system was too screwed up to deal with it through more reasonable ways of doing it. If, by emulating a volcano, we could save hundreds of millions of lives, I think I could be in favor of it at that time”. Futurist Jamais Cascio, author of one of the first books on climate engineering agrees, suggesting that ultimately “Global delays in reducing carbon emissions will likely force the human race to embark upon a set of geoengineering-based responses, not as the complete solution, but simply as a disaster-avoidance measure”.

And at the higher levels of global discussion, the IPCC appears to endorse the deployment-after-disasters scenario, with the latest Working Group III report this year referring to geoengineering as a “possible emergency response”.

However, a recent commentary in Nature Climate Change casts doubt on the possibility of an emergency response and on the suggestion that geoengineering could be a stop-gap while other measures to mitigate climate change are put in place. And in line with the idea that current arguments about geoengineering are mostly sociological, the reasons given by the authors – led by Scott Barrett of Columbia University – are mainly social, political or economic. For example, they suggest that the main reason current climate negotiations are unproductive is the “free-rider” problem, that any party can benefit from a communal good without contributing to its maintenance, and gain advantage over those that do. There is no reason to think this difficulty would go away just because geo-engineering had been implemented to buy time, they say.

At the same time, they judge that proposed geoengineering schemes would not work fast enough to be effective in emergency. If geoengineering technologies are restricted to last-ditch deployment by political contraints, as seems likely, Barrett et al. suggest that they are caught in a double bind: “Our main conclusion is that, when the use of geoengineering is politically feasible, the intervention may not be effective; and that, when the use of geoengineering might be effective, its deployment may not be politically feasible”.

The arguments will continue, and it is important for social scientists to get involved in research and debate. As that happens they may need to be mindful of a warning from Oxford University’s Clare Heyward and Steve Rayner that social sciences’ responses to geoengineering proposals so far have had a singular asymmetry. In a working paper for the Climate Geoengineering Governance Project last year they suggested that social scientists tend to accept proposals for climate change mitigation relatively uncritically, and work toward implementing them. When it comes to geoengineering on the other hand, they see some social scientists who regard the technology as incompatible with democracy, even though “Many of the concerns about authoritarianism and social engineering directed at [stratospheric aerosols] apply equally well to conventional climate policy interventions”. That is, global climate mitigation strategies require global governance, whatever means they adopt to realise their goals.

They suggest that the social scientists who they think are inconsistent in this regard, (among whom they mention Macnaghten and Szersynski), proceed from a world view characterised – in a version of cultural theory that derives from the work of the celebrated anthropologist Mary Douglas – as “egalitarian”. Specifically, they say this gives rise to a definition of democracy as residing in small, autonomous communities in which citizens are active participants, governed by consent. It may be hard to reconcile that vision with a technology that requires global decisions from which no-one can opt out. The same objection could apply to other proposals for climate mitigation, but they generally prescribe less, rather than more intervention in natural systems, which is also in line with the egalitarian world view, in this classification.

That interpretation looks more plausible when we find opponents of geoengineering such as Clive Hamilton invoking Heidegger to suggest that grand technical fixes for climate are an example of the philosopher’s view that ‘The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control.’ But also striking is that we already have one bunch of social scientists applying a particular social theory to account for another group of sociologists’ approach to geoengineering. That is the kind of intra-disciplinary commentary which is always going to go on in a case like this. But perhaps the social sciences, working with other disciplines, can also find some new ways of helping us understand what is novel about geoengineering as a possible human project, and how to think about it?

Further reading

Phil Macnaghten, Bronislaw Szerszynski, Living the global social experiment: An analysis of public discourse on solar radiation management and its implications for governance Global Environmental Change, 23 (2013) 465-474
DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2012.12.008

Scott Barrett et al, Climate engineering reconsidered, Nature Climate Change, 4, 2014, 527

Clare Heyward and Steve Rayner, A Curious Asymmetry: Social Science Expertise and Geoengineering, Climate Geoengineering Governance Working Paper Series: 007

Clive Hamilton, What would Heidegger Say About Geoengineering? September 2013