The Climate Hackers

The Climate Hackers

David Keith (right) speaks at a Fortune magazine event, April 16, 2012 (Fortune Live Media / Flickr)

In February the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released its first report on geoengineering, or, as it’s sometimes called in the Silicon Valley-inflected parlance of our day, “climate hacking.” The report assessed the idea of using technology to interrupt the planet’s climate system—on purpose this time—to offset the effects of global warming. Different forms have been proposed: spraying sulfates into the upper atmosphere to block a portion of sunlight, fertilizing the ocean with iron to spark carbon-gobbling algal blooms, or covering sea ice with bags of silicon beads to slow its melting. The idea is controversial, to say the least, but the report’s publication shows that geoengineering is edging away from the margins and toward the center of discussions about climate change. The polarized debate surrounding geoengineering exemplifies the difficulties of talking about, much less solving, the problem of climate change, an issue where ethical, scientific, and political questions overlap, blend together, and sometimes obscure one another.

The report is split into two parts, as “geoengineering” (or climate engineering) covers two broad categories of intervention: carbon removal and solar management. The NAS deemed these two ideas different enough to warrant completely different discussions and conclusions. The report on carbon removal urges research immediately. “It is increasingly likely . . . that we will need to deploy some forms of carbon dioxide removal to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” it reads, “but without research investment now, such attempts at climate mitigation are likely to fall well short of needed targets.” The report urges caution on solar management, or “albedo modification” (albedo is the fraction of radiation reflected back from the earth’s surface into space), which would change the way the earth reflects sunlight. Such schemes are deemed risky and in need of further study. Further, the NAS warns that solar radiation geoengineering does not actually change the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, but simply masks one of its effects. It could introduce new risks, whereas carbon removal could not. Carbon removal would work well, the NAS concluded, but would be slow and costly; solar geoengineering is risky but could be implemented quickly, and it’s cheap.

After the publication of the NAS report, the web was thick with critiques. Geoengineering has been called many names, from megalomaniacal to a moral hazard. University of Chicago climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert called the report “howlingly barking mad.” It was difficult to tell whether such critiques were prompted by reasonable caution or kneejerk technophobia, especially since the report’s findings were filtered through the opinions of those who covered it in the popular press. The Washington Post took it to mean that climate engineering would be “unattractive—but potentially necessary”; the New York Times said the panel “called for more research”; the Nation said that scientists warned we “cannot geoengineer our way out of the climate crisis.” All of these conclusions are accurate: the report uses the neutral tone of scientific writing to urge both research and caution, and to warn that any climate engineering scheme should only be viewed as a supplement to emissions reduction. Perhaps the clearest response to the NAS report’s influence focused not on what it says, but what, by its very existence, it does. Clive Hamilton, Australian philosopher and author of the 2013 book Earthmasters: Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, wrote in the New York Times, “the report is balanced in its assessment of the science. Yet by bringing geoengineering from the fringes of the climate debate into the mainstream, it legitimizes a dangerous approach.” As the waters rise in Texas and California crackles through a seemingly endless drought, it’s worth trying to understand: why does geoengineering appeal?

While the idea of geoengineering sounds technologically novel, the argument for it is philosophically familiar. We are used to solving problems with more science, more technology. As Naomi Klein puts it in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, “geoengineering . . . slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative . . . the one that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved. And since our secular religion is technology, it won’t be god that saves us, but Bill Gates and his gang of super geniuses . . . We are, after all, the super-species, the chosen ones, the God Species.”

Though geoengineering sounds futuristic, it is not actually a new idea. In 1965, a report to President Johnson discussed planetary warming caused by carbon emissions and suggested as a solution not emissions reduction but geoengineering. Johnson’s science advisers proposed dispersing reflective particles over the ocean, to reflect back a small percentage of solar radiation. That project was never taken up, of course. And between 1965 and today, geoengineering never came into fashion. Instead, as our understanding of climate change deepened and the stakes got higher, the discourse focused on mitigation (decreasing carbon emissions) and, more recently, on adaptation (making human and natural systems less vulnerable to the climate changes already in effect). These efforts are actually far more radical than geoengineering. They reflect the difficult truth that, as Klein puts it, “the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves.”

Two years ago, the prominent climate activist and environmental historian Bill McKibben gave a video statement about what irritated him so much about the idea of geoengineering, particularly the sort focusing on solar radiation management. The first was technical: solar geoengineering would not address ocean acidification, but only temperature, and the effects of ocean acidification are just as ecologically devastating as the planet’s rising temperature. The second was practical: other solutions, like switching to non-carbon renewable energy sources, are well within our reach. The final and most impassioned of his reasons, though, was moral: there is something “psychologically dubious” about the desire to pursue geoengineering. It reflects the desire to live in “a fantasist’s world” and get out of doing the hard political work of giving up fossil fuels. We’re addicted to fossil fuels, and the solutions of geoengineering enthusiasts, he says, “are the answers of junkies.”

Unlike the arguments against it, arguments for geoengineering are often presented in dispassionate, temperate, scientific language. In his 2013 book A Case for Climate Engineering environmental scientist David Keith argues in favor of solar geoengineering, calling for spraying sulfates into the upper atmosphere to make the Earth more reflective and to produce a “shading” effect. What’s shocking about the book is how unshocking it is to read. Keith is neither mad scientist nor megalomaniac. His sentences are mild-mannered, his claims nestled between layers of qualifying clauses. In the very first paragraph of his book he says of solar radiation management: “If combined with serious efforts to cut emissions, this is—in my opinion—a plausible scenario for managing the human and ecological risks of climate change. . . .” He argues for geoengineering as a complement to emissions reductions, frequently mentions his own biases, and warns against group-think among the very small cadre of scientists who study geoengineering. He specifically warns about the blurring of technical knowledge and “ethical” decision-making. “Don’t trust my ethical judgment on geoengineering just because I happen to know a lot of facts,” he writes, “and likewise, don’t trust assertions about facts from someone just because you share their ethical stance.” He explains that he himself was opposed to the idea of geoengineering in the 1980s and 1990s. But as carbon emissions surpassed what used to be worst-case-scenario models, and the resulting droughts, crop losses, floods, and heat waves began to make life harder and more dangerous, especially for the world’s poorest, he decided that some action was better than none. For a book that advocates the environmental benefits of spraying sulphur into the sky, it sounds startlingly reasonable.

Keith also says geoengineering became “politically incorrect” sometime between that first report to President Johnson and today, but recently the idea has acquired mainstream appeal. Keith may have started making his case within the “geo-clique,” the small group of scientists whose work focuses on climate engineering, but since the mid-2000s he has taken his argument on the road to mainstream culture with a TED Talk and an appearance on the Colbert Report.

The final—and most dangerous—characteristic of the pro-geoengineering argument is that it imagines that this technology could operate in a political void. Keith’s inviting opening sentence about solar radiation being a plausible scenario for reducing climate risk finishes with a crucial qualifier: “in a world without politics.”

But the world does have politics, and just as global warming has winners and losers, so would the results of any geoengineering program. Naomi Klein writes that, according to models, the location of a solar radiation management project could change the distribution of rain and weather. If sulfur injections were done in the northern hemisphere, for instance, the African Sahel could be devastated by drought; if injections were performed in the southern hemisphere, this region could see increased rain, but hurricane frequency in the United States and the Caribbean would increase. Klein asks, “does anyone actually believe that geoengineering will be used to help Africa if that help could come only by putting North America at greater risk of extreme weather?”

Alas, the idea that even a very successful “climate hack” could get us out of making tough political choices is an illusion. It’s a pipe dream—or rather, a pipeline dream, a bit of magical thinking born not in the euphoria of the opium den but in the denial of the Anthropocene. Allow me a confession? For a moment, these ideas swept me right up. It’s delicious to imagine circumventing the gridlock of Copenhagen or the ineffectiveness of Kyoto. There is a long tradition of technocrats arguing that some new scientific or technological development will get us out of making difficult political choices. And like other ideas in this vein, geoengineering has deep psychological appeal. It transforms the responsibility for the climate from a shared burden involving consumption and political change, to a technical one to be addressed by a small group of people who know, for instance, the difference between the mesosphere and the stratosphere.

But try to actually imagine the international agreement that would allow one nation to spray sulfur into the clouds or iron into the ocean. Which clouds? Which ocean? Jamie Henn, who cofounded with Bill McKibben and shares McKibben’s stance on geoengineering, puts it clearly: “If we think changing our energy system causes conflict and disagreement, I can’t imagine what changing the chemical composition of the ocean or atmosphere would cause. Who would you trust to do that?”

The NAS report seems at first glance not to be explicitly political; its stated goal is to provide the “clear scientific foundation that informs ethical, legal, and political discussions.” The reports are dedicated mostly to scientific explanations, but look closely and you’ll find the politics. Sometimes it emerges in subtle ways, like in the committee’s preference for the term “climate intervention” over “climate engineering,” because the term engineering implies too great a degree of control and predictability. Occasionally the politics is more overt; for example, the committee recommends that carbon dioxide removal research be shaped by several federal agencies using “a coordinated approach,” and suggests coordinating with the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which already works with thirteen agencies to integrate research. The report and the responses to it make one thing perfectly clear: the science and politics of geoengineering prove impossible to responsibly separate.

Ultimately the NAS report (and every expert I’ve read, including all of those mentioned here) says what we already know but struggle to act on: there is no substitute for reducing carbon emissions. Solar radiation management, carbon capture, none of it will work without drastic reductions in emissions. “We should be under no illusion,” says Henn, “we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground.” Neither type of geoengineering is a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. Just the hard work of changing our economy.

​Keith’s book addresses only solar management radiation strategies, but he is also a partner in Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company that focuses on the less hotly contested form of geoengineering, carbon removal. The carbon cycle naturally removes atmospheric carbon as it is pulled into vegetation or the surface of the ocean, cycles through the food chain, and eventually winds up dissolving in the ocean or buried deep in the earth. These buried carbon sources are, of course, fossil fuels, and one can see our extraction and burning of them as a giant acceleration of one half of the carbon cycle. Carbon-removal geoengineering would seek to similarly speed up the other half. This could take the form of direct-from-air removal, a technology that doesn’t yet exist, but which companies like Carbon Engineering are working on developing. Or it could take the form of land-use changes: planting trees, changing agricultural practices in ways that aid the earth’s natural ability to absorb carbon. Jamie Henn says these kinds of efforts “deserve a different word than ‘engineering’—maybe ‘geo-restoration.’ These initiatives are really restoring the other side of the carbon cycle, and they should be celebrated.”

The precautionary principle dictates not that we eschew new technologies, but that we only deploy those whose consequences we fully understand. Geoengineering is not one of them. It is hard to be against research, and perhaps scientific research into climate engineering should continue. Perhaps it should not: Klein points out that “once serious field tests begin, deployment is rarely far behind,” and that bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a month after the first successful nuclear test.

There is another technical solution, one that not long ago sounded like mad science itself. “Twenty years ago, it felt like renewables were in the place where geoengineering is today, that they were really far out there,” Henn says. “That’s not the case today. There’s something about geoengineering that feels like an ‘out,’ where renewable energy doesn’t, and I’m not sure why—people should really see this as a solution and embrace it.” McKibben says something similar in his statement on geoengineering: other solutions are “easily within our grasp,” and renewable energy is now a “serious reality” that ought to be getting the lion’s share of our attention and energy. The best argument against geoengineering is that we don’t have to do it; we can embrace the once far-out solutions offered by renewables. What’s a more radical technological advance than leaving behind the energy system that carried us through the industrial revolution and, instead, making something lasting and new?

Rachel Riederer is an associate editor at Creative Time Reports.