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Why Geoengineering: Critically Analyzing the Rationale for Climate Modification

4229 words (17 pages) Essay in Geography

08/02/20 Geography Reference this

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 We live in the era of the Anthropocene. Climate change is the issue of the 21st century, and with it, a whole host of philosophical and political questions are raised about the viability of the status quo and it’s ability to preserve the environment (Moore 1-3). Within the past 20 years, geoengineering has emerged as a solution for this ultimate commons problem. Scientists promise to mimic natural processes like oceans sequestration of carbon, volcanic eruptions and other “proven” climate coolers in order to resolve our current crisis in the climate. (Corry 2). While the debate about the scientific viability of the practice remains to be seen, the idea has generated momentum in much of the First World as a viable solution to global warming. It is clear why this is the case: these countries have a clear incentive to maintain the energy viability of fossil fuels that has facilitated their unprecedented economic growth and development (Gunderson et al 1). At the same time, it is impossible to deny the potential benefits of resolving climate change outright. The Third World is already experiencing the brunt of a warming planet, and a real one shot fix would certainly help save and improve thousands of lives. However, this appeal to morality exposes a long history of environmentalism and weaponization of science which has continually reinforced the free market and caused slow violence against bodies on the periphery. In this paper, I will attempt explain the historical origins of geoengineering and attempt to place today’s push for geoengineering it in a narrative of Western epistemology that reinforces a humanist ethic that results in the endless accumulation of capital and environmental destruction.

 In order to understand the growing appeal in the status quo regarding geoengineering, work must first begin with it’s historical background. It is impossible to trace the term or idea to a single person, as the manipulation of the natural world by humans on a larger scale has been a constant trope with the evolution of modern capitalism. Ever since the creation of distinct categories of mind and body, society and nature, technology has been a means for a, “calculable order… underpinned by a “technological rationality,” a “pure” instrumentality incapable of formulating substantive end goals” (Gunderson et. al 5). Rocks become fuel to be burned, a river becomes a dam and nature becomes an object for Enlightenment rationality to exploit. Geoengineering as a concept was touched upon in the pre-WWII period briefly, as intellectuals including Svante Arrhenius and James Pollard Espy speculated on possibility that humans could control weather and use it for their own ends (McCormick 1). For example, Epsy speculated on the effect that volcanoes and large fires played on the environment, and how an increased level of CO2 could potentially be beneficial for farmers (McCormick 1, Keith 249). However, little attention was given to these ideas as the Industrial Revolution and the concurrent revolution in energy practices (ironically laying the necessity for geoengineering) took focus in a rapidly developing world. Only during WWII and the subsequent Cold War played as a backdrop for the introduction of geoengineering to many policymakers and the public.

 The use of weather modification as a geopolitical tool was something that interested both the United States and Soviet Union. For the Soviet Union, the prospect of warming the polar ice caps in order to warm the entirety of Russia was a prospect that saw serious investigation. Soviet scientists made strides in developing aerosols that “would supply heat and light to northern Russia or would shadow equatorial regions to provide their inhabitants with the supposed benefits of a temperate climate” (Keith 251). Even in a communist society, the influence of modernity and the logics of rationalism described above were clearly seen: scientists described that they were, “on the threshold of the conquest of nature” in a book titled Man Versus Climate (Keith 251). Keep in mind that this descriptor occurred decades before the real “war” against climate change that we are currently grappling with. In the United States, the focus was less on large scale climate change, but modification of weather in specific localities. This was operationalized in Vietnam, as cloud-seeding was used as way to induce rain and inhibit North Vietnamese troop movements (McCormick 2). Although quickly banned by United Nations, the ability for the natural environment and weather to be modified for military ends was something new that shocked the world and American public. The weaponization of the weather was deemed inappropriate, but scientists were intrigued; when debate about climate change began to start, the concept of geoengineering had new life breathed into it. Before diving into the debate about global warming and geoengineering, an important discussion must be had first. In the backdrop of the dubbed “Atomic Era,” the similarities between geoengineering and the mythic nuclear bomb are hard to ignore.

 Many similarities can be drawn between the two: their influence on the global order, their danger as a unilateral technology and their awesome potential as a dual use technology to name a few (Lederer and Kreuter 478-479). The similarities are well noted within the American tradition. James Fleming, a professor at Colby College, wrote in Operation: Argus to quite literally use nuclear weapons in the upper atmosphere in order to disrupt Soviet satellites and radar (NASA 1). Although rightly dismissed as a bad idea, it is important to note that Fleming also wrote that “geoengineering will alter fundamental human relationships to nature” (NASA 1). Again, the same tropes emerge. The very biosphere is framed as a means to an end for geopolitical goals and reflects a distinctly Western subjectivity where scientists are lured into ultimate control over the natural world. The link between the two is demonstrated again with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Founded by Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller to help test nuclear weapons, the lab became the catch all for scientific military developments (Hamilton 22-23). Note that Edward Teller is the Teller in Oppenheimer and Teller, the original heads of the Manhattan Project. The lab was involved intimately with all kinds of projects like nuclear testing and the infamous “Star Wars” project, but one thing shines through. The culture at the lab reflects a scientific arrogance, the thought that technological expertise is the ultimate form of knowledge that allows them to make all sorts of ethical and political decisions (Hamilton 23). Weapon tests were, “powerful rituals celebrating human command over the secrets of life and death” (Hamilton 23). The ultimate goal was not the obliteration of the Soviet Union, but rather the proof that humans were indeed immune and superior to certain biological facts. As the Cold War ended, the lab found itself in a conundrum. Which national security threat could be resolved by technology next? The answer was climate change. In 1997, Teller and his colleagues released one of the first papers in support of geoengineering as a means to resolve climate change. This helps us understand the present day debate, as, “a disproportionate number of scientists today working on geoengineering have either worked at, or collaborated with, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory” (Hamilton 21). Now that we have established a brief history on the history of geoengineering, it is time to begin to analyze its justifications and public debate that exists in a world rapidly warming.

 We can clearly see the influence of Western humanism in the historical development of geoengineering. Briefly mentioned above, the issue holds great importance and helps frame the actions of many a scientist and engineer. There is a long tradition outside of climate modification or even climate change that turns our natural environment into a passive process rather than beings with agency (Frazier 44). This tendency for humanity to be separated from nature can be seen in our everyday lives. What makes a “natural park” more “natural” than a city? The artificial divisions that we have been taught are inevitable make up the types of humanism that lets us separate nature and life into neat little boxes (Moore 15). The scientific process is taken to be truth and clear lines can be drawn for each outcome. This sort of thinking is indicative of the limited public perception of climate change, as the media has dumbed down the conversation with metaphors that grossly oversimplified the situation: “the earth is a machine or cybernetic system (car, heating system, computer) that is broken but can be fix” (Gunderson et. al 3). The Earth is much more complex than a machine and geoengineering isn’t an oil change. Science historian James Fleming sums it up succinctly: “I think [geoengineering] may be infinitely more dangerous than climate change, largely due to the suspicion and social disruption it would trigger by changing humanity’s relationship to nature” (Fleming 3). It is almost easy to root for any geoengineering plot to fail, as a successful endeavour will only signal our continual domination over nature and continue the same sort of Enlightenment rationality that led us down this path. The conversation about humanism cannot proceed fully without an analysis of why we exploit resources and maximize value in the first place.

The absent reference up to this point is a discussion of capitalism. We cannot conceive of humanism without capitalism. Technological rationality combined with the endless expansion of capitalist accumulation has resulted in economic growth and global warming. “In other words, capital’s drive to self-accumulate may undermine its ability to do so by destabilizing a massive condition of production (i.e., the climate system)” (Gunderson et. al 5). The obvious solution, the cutting back of fossil fuel emissions, is taken as a failure from the start. It is in fundamental contradiction with the basic economic premise of our society: growth.  Geoengineering comes into play not as a first solution, but as a type of plan B, as a potential bridge (Anshelm and Hansson 112). It serves to mask the contradiction, conceal the root of the problem through a grand narrative that tells us that human ingenuity will resolve any environmental backlash. We can see this through economists vehement support of geoengineering (Gunderson et. al 10). To them, modifying the environment is the most cost effective solution. Why even pursue mitigation policies when there’s a clear solution that provides a solid return on investment? Why can’t we maximize profit on global warming too? Any STEM student can tell you that this isn’t the way the world works. Ecosystems are very complex and incredibly delicate and small actions send ripple effects. Doing something extreme as modifying the entire globe’s climate is a recipe for disaster. The fact that capitalism cannot account for basic biology displays it’s insufficiency in controlling nature and providing constructive solutions for basic problems. Here, both technological rationality and capitalism are put on full blast. Nature isn’t a passive agent to be controlled, but rather a complicated web of life that is backlashing against decades of abuse (Moore 31). Similarly, the rigidity of capitalism’s emphasis on profit has entirely failed in resolving a non-monetary problem. We all know the solution, but capitalism is simply incompatible with it. In response — geoengineering.

 It is easy to see why geoengineering is offered up so readily as a solution. It not only neatly resolves the problem, but also uses the ingenuity of the market in order to effectively deploy the solution. Billionaires like Bill Gates have already begun to invest in research and patents, clinging to a knowledge economy that has done so well for them (Gunderson et al. 9). Much like healthcare and pharmaceutical industries that promise to do social good while also providing a profit for shareholders, geoengineering offers much of the same allure. However, we can only see the failures in these companies as a fair warning. Insanely high drug (see: insulin) prices and hospital bills have become the norm in modern America, with GoFundMe becoming a serious “healthcare provider” in late capitalism (Sable-Smith 2). The media already has used the medical analogy, describing geoengineering as the “cure” or “chemotherapy” for the planet, oversimplifying an extraordinarily complex situation but also giving us a reference point for comparison (Gunderson et al 12). Critics have already forwarded the risks of an industry centered around climate modifications — companies have a vested interest to suppress negative information and de-emphasize risk in an attempt to get their product to “sell” (Long and Scott 2-3). Given the choice, a company interested in making money will always choose to take the riskier, more profitable geoengineering technology. That spells bad news for the ecosystem as a whole, but would create value for the shareholder. We can see the “techno-finance” fix here — it no longer becomes just about our domination over nature but also the blind faith in the idea that the technology that the profit motive selects as the best will be the one that works (Morgan 9). The reason why Bill Gates spurns solar energy isn’t because he doesn’t believe in the overall viability of the technology and its ability to offset emissions (Gunderson et al 10-11). The reason why he casts renewable energy to the side is because he’s a good businessman who knows there isn’t any money in the development of a more expensive fuel source to the one we have now. The appeal of geoengineering becomes apparent in this light, exposing the perverse tendencies of capitalism and its relationship to the environment.

 We again return to the comparison between nuclear weapons and geoengineering in order to understand how capital implements and justifies geoengineering in the face of warming. The logic of crisis features prominently in justifying both atomic development and geoengineering. A unique justification must come about in order to justify the creation of a technology so powerful, and America raced against Nazi Germany in order to develop the nuclear bomb first (Lederer and Kreuter 479). The debate was framed in terms of survival and necessity over all else. When dealing with climate change, the framing shifts slightly. There is no common enemy to fight with and no clear winner or a loser of an arms race. Rather, the climate is turned into the abstract enemy that humans must defeat or die. The created, “climate emergency rests on the logic of preemption: anticipation of potential emergencies in the future” (Asayama 90). Preliminary research finds that, “[geoengineering] is predominantly discussed in terms of ‘crisis’, ‘emergency’ and ‘catastrophe” (Lederer and Kreuter 476). When framed as a problem which will always materialize in the future, anything and everything is justified. As Brian Massumi says, preemption isn’t just a doctrine or policy but an ontology (Massumi 2). Our lives are overdetermined by living in fear of the threat of terrorism, German nuclear weapons and climate change. This dynamic is exemplified with regards to the Lawrence Livermore lab, as the end of the Cold War spelled a crisis for these scientists. Their very being was called into question, as the lack of an enemy to conquer caused a crisis within the lab and necessitated their solution to a problem that wasn’t even here yet. This ontology only serves to shut down dialogue; serious conversation and criticism never occurs and democracy is put on hold in the name of security (Swyngedouw 223). When, “it is claimed as an ‘emergency’ in which the conventional approach (mitigation) is not enough, a radical approach (geoengineering) is needed” (Asayama 92). The issue here is not geoengineering itself. Rather, the politics of fear that lead us to the conclusion that geoengineering is the last hope is necessarily apolitical. Geoengineering is always framed as the last resort of an ever escalating problem, the last savior of modernity. There is no world after geoengineering, thus guaranteeing the current world, the world that caused warming in the first place. The Anthropocene offers a unique opportunity to analyze the shortcomings of the status quo and envision a world “beyond the apocalypse to find new horizons of common goods” (Asayama 92). Absent a rhetorical shift, negative externalities are bound to result.

As we begin our conversation on how to go about geoengineering in a more equitable manner, we again come back to the atomic bomb for analysis and reference. A point of comparison revolves around the scientific uncertainty that surrounds (or surrounded) both technologies (Lederer and Kreuter 479). With the nuclear bomb, it’s extraordinary power brought about skeptics about its basis in actual science. Although we know the realities and effectiveness of the bomb today, extensive research and field testing was done (Lederer and Kreuter 479). This is often overlooked, as the first thoughts that come to mind involve Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both spectacular acts of unprecedented violence. However, quietly, “viewed as a whole, nuclear war, albeit undeclared, has been waged against the Fourth World and Indigenous Nations…the main perpetrators of nuclear warfare are the United States (936 times) ” (Kato 347). It is easy to get caught up, but the amount of slow violence that occurs as a result of nuclear technology is unprecedented. Although the Cold War never resulted in global nuclear war, a quiet nuclear war has waged as a result of testing and refinement of technology. This has important implications for geoengineering, as little work has been done to bring the most vulnerable into the conversation (Suarez and Aalst 188).

The case of Russ George and his rogue geoengineering displays how the poor bear the brunt of negative impacts during research and testing. George, a self declared scientist, worked as an entrepreneur soliciting donations and funding to create a company that would scale up and do large scale iron fertilization (a type of geoengineering designed to increase phytoplankton and the ocean’s capacity to hold CO2) (Castaldo 2). His path, however, was not easy. One meeting with a Canadian scientist named Victor Smetacek doing preliminary research on iron fertilization ended up with George listing Smetacek as a scientific advisor; Smetacek was disgusted that George could turn his science into business via carbon credits and cut off contact with George (Castaldo 3). After failing to woo investors in the US, George turned to Old Masset, a Haida Nation village stricken with poverty and desperate to return to old ways of living and plentiful fishing (iron fertilizations hypothesized benefits include increased fish populations) (Tollefson 2). In all, the village obtained 2.5 million in loans that was committed to funding the operation. After the dust settled and the iron was dumped into the ocean, the international community and Canadian government denounced the rogue act of geoengineering and raided George’s office (Castaldo 4). None of the money was ever recovered as no carbon was reportedly sequestered and no carbon credits were handed out to Old Masset (Tollefson 3).

The story shows the vicious nature of capitalism combined with environmental implications of geoengineering. Russ George isn’t unique, but indicative of a larger political ontology that teaches us to pursue business in combination with the environment. If the goal is to sequester a lot of carbon for credits, it makes sense to take the risk in trying to go big with riskier technologies. He saw an opportunity and took it. It just so happened that the crossfire was a $2.5 million loan to an village that George neglected after the experiment (Castaldo 5). Although George was a rogue actor acting on his own whims, his actions are indicative of a broader distinctly American ethic of taking opportunities and seizing the moment. Even today, as solar management technologies are gaining more traction, many of the advocates from UK say they are doing it for the most vulnerable without directly engaging them in the conversation (Flegel and Gupta 50). This is especially pertinent as weather conditions around the world vary widely and research is needed — for example, it was recently discovered that Indian monsoons would be drastically reduced with solar geoengineering (Flegel and Gupta 48). The need for representation and localized research is clear to avoid any negative consequences. This is especially pertinent for tackling global warming; the First World is responsible for the vast majority of emissions and the Third World will bear the brunt of the impact (Gunderson et al 2). Although geoengineering technology and experimentation may not have the same sorts of negative impacts that nuclear testing did, the need for transparency is clear. The poorest are always the most affected and care must be taken. For example, a recent study also found that doing solar radiation management for a couple years and then stopping (a semi-likely outcome given the unpredictable nature of the economy and our political situation) would cause rapid 4°C warming (Gunderson et al 8). This would have absolutely catastrophic implications for the entire globe, especially in the Third World where lack of infrastructure and formal economies are already being battered by increased droughts and famine. The need for collaboration and discussion before proceeding is necessary, and the discussion cannot be framed in terms of profit but instead, start with and within the Third World.

The discussion of geoengineering is largely theoretical, but will become more and more pertinent as time goes on. It is no coincidence that the Trump administration has been particularly receptive to climate engineering research (Zundel 1). I’m confident we will see more Russ George’s as time goes on and the crisis in the climate reaches new heights. What is clear is the need for a shift from the status quo justifications and framing of geoengineering that reveal a combination of humanist and capitalist ethic that have caused the problem in the first place. The picture is not all grim; as a collective, climate change can represent an opportunity. It forces the question, shakes our fundamental values to its core and makes us think critically. The hope is that collaboration and a fundamental rethinking of the world rather than the domination of nature to maintain a capitalist society. Only then will we be able to have a genuine conversation about geoengineering and the promise it holds in helping us all survive the Anthropocene.

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