Books

07.19.13

The Big Idea: Can We Outsmart Climate Change?

Politicians reluctant to cut emissions are tempted by an easy fix, but Clive Hamilton, author of the new book Earthmaster, says what we actually need is not less politics in the geoengineering debate—but more.

What is your big idea?

President Obama’s long-awaited plan to cut U.S. carbon emissions was met with a sigh of relief by those who get climate change. But the truth is the planned cuts, along with those promised by other major polluting nations, will not limit warming to 2ºC, the agreed safe limit.

On the contrary, we are heading for warming of 4 to 5 degrees Celsius, perhaps as soon as the 2060s, which will be catastrophic by any measure. After all, at the peak of the last ice age, when New York was a mile under ice, the globe was on average only 5 degrees Celsius cooler than in the 20th century. Already with human-induced warming of only 0.8 degrees Celsius, we have turbocharged the climate system. A 4-degree world doesn’t bear thinking about.

So what are we to do? For years climate scientists would not talk about “Plan B,” but some have become so anxious about the future they think we have no choice but to prepare for the worst.

“Geoengineering” encompasses a range of schemes aimed at deliberate, large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system to counter the effects of global warming—in short, technologies to stop us crossing a point of no return. They are now the subject of research around the world, notably in the U.S., Germany, Britain, and China.

Plan B includes schemes such as fertilizing the oceans so they soak up more carbon dioxide, brightening marine clouds so they reflect more sunlight, and coating the planet with a shield of sulfate particles to turn down the amount of solar radiation falling on the Earth. Schemes like these involve attempts to regulate the great natural processes that govern the Earth system.

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Last month during a big climate change address, President Obama said we need to act before it's too late.

How is politics overshadowing and muddling the debate on geoengineering?

The problem is that the debate on geoengineering is not political enough. For the most part, it is being carried on in the pages of scientific journals. There, it is presented mostly as a technical problem, and the handful of scientists who have been most prominent in the news media naturally frame it in scientific terms.

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“Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering” by Clive Hamilton. 264 pages. Yale University Press; $28. ()

Yet when we think about what is at stake—taking control of the world’s weather—any attempt to engineer the climate must be an intensely political act. Some geoengineering schemes will have different impacts in various nations, so conflict is built in to them.

Some scientists argue that we should keep politics out of it, at least for the time being, and let them get on with their research. Any regulatory controls should kick in only if experiments could cause significant damage to the environment.

But experiments that do not change the physical environment can certainly change the social environment. In other words, they can change the politics of climate change. After all, which government, reluctant to reduce emissions sharply, would not be tempted by a Plan B that promises to allow it to cut through the “super wicked problem” of climate change?

Characters like Newt Gingrich have praised geoengineering as a cheaper alternative to cutting emissions.

And in these early days we are seeing some distinctly political characters jump on the bandwagon. Characters like Newt Gingrich have praised geoengineering as a cheaper alternative to cutting emissions. Characters like Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson have said climate change is “an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions.”

And characters like the authors of Superfreakonomics believe that “the task of reversing global warming boils down to a straightforward engineering problem: how to get 34 gallons per minute of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere?” The politics of engineering do not get any cruder than that.

Do you think the issue will be resolved, and if so, when—or will there come a time when it is too late?

No wonder right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute and even the Heartland Foundation—organizations that have for years spread disinformation about climate science and attacked policies aimed at cutting emissions—have come out in support of geoengineering.

There is a danger that geoengineering may become the preferred solution of conservatives, because it seems to protect the political-economic system from change. It’s time more progressive opinions, and scientists with a less Promethean view of the world, became involved. There are some of the latter, like Alan Robock, but more need to be heard.

One thing is clear: American citizens need to learn about geoengineering and become engaged in the debate because at present less than 5 percent know what it is. It’s not going to go away. In fact, as I see it, geoengineering as a response to global warming is destined to be the dominant question of the 21st century.