The Dangerous Belief That Extreme Technology Will Fix Climate Change
It boils down to a failure to question capitalism, civilization, and the notion of progress.
MAYA MALACHOWSKI BAJAK
Wake Smith imagines a fleet of experimental airplanes, not much larger than Boeing 757s, that could climb to 60,000 feet, high enough for people aboard to see the curvature of the earth, and release gas into the lower stratosphere.
In order to ensure global coverage of their payload, the planes, looking more like firefighting tanker aircraft than commercial airliners, would take off from four different latitudes ― say runways in Houston, Manila, Brasilia and Johannesburg. On five-hour missions, they would seed the skies with blankets of clear, stinky, aerosolized sulfur dioxide gas. Dispersing 100,000 tons of SO2 annually over several years would begin to approximate levels of the gas that follow a major volcanic eruption, blocking out the sun and lowering the temperature of the earth.
Scientists have proposed solar radiation management, as it’s called, for decades as a form of global-scale geoengineering that could combat global warming. But few have done what Smith, a partner at a private equity firm and former airline executive, has done ― turned pie-in-the-sky, back-of-the-envelope calculations into a full-fledged feasibility study, complete with a development and operating budget for his fleet of planes.
Encouraged by the attention he has been getting from researchers at institutions like Harvard, where he was recently invited to present his work, Smith has worked out a 10-year operating plan for planes that would begin spraying SO2 in 2023.
The whole endeavor, Smith said, is far cheaper and simpler than he initially imagined. There are no real barriers, he said. The total cost of the project? A measly $3.5 billion, he estimated.
“I think it’s bad news how cheap this is,” Smith told a small group last month in a conference room at Harvard’s Center for the Environment. For that kind of money, Smith argued, it’s possible that any rogue nation, organization or individual could start experimenting with the climate.
The impacts of geoengineering on the global scale are unknown, in part because no massive geoengineering project has been undertaken ― apart from human-induced climate change. But models are potentially troubling. Some suggest geoengineering will disrupt rainfall worldwide and damage the earth’s protective ozone layer. A Rutgers University study published in January suggested that suddenly stopping a large geoengineering project, once it has started, could lead to rapid warming, pushing species into extinction and accelerating climate change.
As global temperatures continue to rise, however, some researchers say geoengineering shouldn’t be dismissed. Helene Muri, a researcher at the University of Oslo geosciences department, said it shows promise as a way to reduce harm from climate change, but it is not ready. “We need to know more about the risks involved before we, if we can ever, deem it safe to use,” she said. “Solar geoengineering is in any case not a substitute for cutting CO2 emissions.”
Yet, with every year and climate conference that passes, a global-scale geoengineering project becomes more and more feasible. There’s virtually no regulation stopping a country or individual from trying this, Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told me. In fact, from a legal perspective, it’s easier to seed the stratosphere than get a permit to remodel your home, he added.
“I think there is such a large chance that someone will try geoengineering that it really needs to be governed,“ said Gerrard. That’s why, together with Tracy Hester at the University of Houston Law Center, he just published a book, Climate Engineering and the Law, intended to help policymakers, technologists and lawyers better understand current regulations and science underlying big-scale geoengineering projects.
The question is when such a project might be attempted, and by who? Gerrard imagines a scenario in which some country, in the wake of a ruinous climate disaster, sees no other choice.
“One could imagine that if some catastrophic [climate] event were to occur in India, and they had a real concern that another one could happen, they would want to, on their own, launch a geoengineering effort to protect themselves against the next one. That’s an entirely plausible scenario,” said Gerrard. That’s why global agreement on governance is needed, he said, followed by country-by-country laws on geoengineering. Failing to legislate, he warned, could result in war because of the harmful climatic consequences of one country’s hasty project.
However imminent a large-scale geoengineering project may be, what’s complicating serious debate on the matter is the narrative perpetuated, in the media and online, that geoengineering is a way to “solve,” “fix” or “stop” climate change.
Readers are as likely to find headlines like, “Scientists suggest a giant sunshade in the sky could solve global warming,” and “Far-fetched fixes for climate change, from solar shields to air-scrubbing” on mainstream news sites like CNN and The Guardian as they are to find them on the usual-suspect, environmentally conscious blogs like Inhabitat (“5 crazy ways to stop climate change with geoengineering”). Press releases like “Could “cocktail geoengineering” save the climate?” are fond of these terms of salvation, too.
This trend has persisted for over a decade. For a 2014 paper published in Environmental Humanities, researchers in Sweden analyzed hundreds of news articles and found that one of the most prevalent storylines around geoengineering was “the notion that pure technology is the only possible solution and that it is an adequate substitute for politics.”
This may be partly because of the way scientists angle their research. “In these days of click-baits and social media likes, it is perhaps tempting to pitch the extreme case scenarios,” said Muri. “I think it is our responsibility as scientists to present our findings in a careful and nuanced way.”
In a recent op-ed for conservative news outlet The Daily Caller, House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas), an avowed global warming skeptic, called out geoengineering as an “area of research that has been overlooked for too long.” Instead of “broad, burdensome, ineffective government regulations” or pledging to meet an “arbitrary climate goal,” Smith wrote, we should use technology to find solutions. “As in the past, by letting technology lead the way, Americans will reap the benefits and enjoy a better quality of life,” he wrote.
It’s no surprise that geoengineering is such an easy sell. Relying on a technological fix that’s just over the horizon avoids the mountain moving required to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, bring hundreds of countries into agreement on how to limit and clean up emissions, and alter the consumption habits of an entire civilization. Those are systemic complexities ingrained in our economies and cultures. Propping up glaciers to limit sea level rise, sprinkling iron dust into the oceans to encourage plankton growth to absorb carbon, or spraying the skies to reflect the sun’s heat just seems simpler. And, as Wake Smith shows, increasingly feasible.
But the problem with the way geoengineering is discussed today, lamented John Ehrenfeld, former director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment, is that it doesn’t address the societal issues that got us in this mess in the first place
“It’s a failure to accept complexity of the system, and the system includes people,” Ehrenfeld told me recently over coffee. For decades, Ehrenfeld, who is now retired, researched and promoted the concept of sustainability. But to Ehrenfeld, after all the climate conferences, all the stakeholder roundtables, all the debates on market-driven solutions, the questions and answers being debated never questioned capitalism, civilization, and the notion of progress.
Tackling a problem as deeply ingrained as global warming, Ehrenfeld said, will require humanity to face an existential question that geoengineering alone cannot address: Are we willing to sacrifice growth to ensure the survival of our species?
“Absent decoupling growth from progress,” Ehrenfeld said, “we won’t address the core of the problem.”