Dreaming of the Designer Climate: Inside the Controversy Surrounding the Question of Climate Engineering

"One metric ton of carbon dioxide gas - high res still from 'CCS: a 2 degree solution' (film)" by Carbon Visuals, Flickr Commons

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Editor’s NoteThis is the ninth post in the Seeds 2: New Research in Environmental History” series co-sponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects, publicising the work of early-career environmental historians. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues.

In October, I am expected to submit my PhD Thesis: a sociological and historical assessment of climate engineering as a research field. The past three (fascinating) years of doing PhD research imprinted on me the solemn urgency of the Earth’s current climate predicament.

When I first started my PhD, most people that I ran into, especially in STS (Science and Technology Studies) and environmental humanities research communities, would react to my project by saying, ‘well, I assume you are going to argue climate engineering is a horrendous idea, right?’ Some, mostly among the environmental humanists, would even eye me with a mix of distrust and rueful concern for being willing to consider something as outlandish as climate engineering as a serious field of research. Climate engineering (or, as the Anglo-Americans call it, geoengineering) is, let’s just say, ‘not popular.’ And for good reason. Typically defined as ‘large-scale manipulation of the planetary systems in order to counteract anthropogenic global warming’ (such as by the Royal Society in 2009 [i]), climate engineering is often understood as a last-ditch effort, a ‘in case all else fails it might be nice to have an alternative to stave off climate catastrophe’ sort of thing.

Geoengineering Diagram. Source: Bewust Worden

Subdivided into two broad categories, climate engineering has become a synonym for large-scale (hubristic) technological solutions to climate change. It incorporates a wide-range of negative emissions technologies (NETs), such as afforestation, carbon capture and storage, and the direct air capture of carbon dioxide, all of which are concerned with reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Despite the fact that NETs are already comprehensively included in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) emission pathway scenarios (and no desirable scenario seems plausible without NETs), there is no real evidence that NETs will work on the scales that will be necessary. Moreover, all these technologies have significant drawbacks, leading to increased pressure on land-use, hydrological cycles, and other ecological justice concerns.[ii] On the other hand, a wide-range of technologies deals with direct intervention in the Earth’s energy balance. These proposals, typically referred to as solar radiation management (SRM), spark intense debate, because this direct manipulation of the Earth’s systems is rightly seen as highly dangerous and fundamentally unpredictable. Again, major concerns are not only to do with the technical feasibility of these technologies, but also with the political and ethical ramifications of intervening in unpredictable, interconnected systems on such a scale.[iii]

Some, such as Mike Hulme, fundamentally oppose even research into these technologies, because they feel climate engineering will be ‘undesirable, ungovernable, and unreliable,’[iv] expressing their skepticism both about the controllability of the Earth’s systems and the stability of human political systems. Many of them experience a visceral reaction of disgust and apprehension at the thought of trying to control the planetary climate. This combination of disgust and apprehension is widely shared, at least initially, by the growing ranks of scientists and scholars who maintain that, given the severity of the climate problem, dismissing or actively hindering this line of research is something that the world cannot afford. These people (myself included) feel that the time to dismiss suboptimal solutions for climate change out of hand has passed.

James Pollard Espy (1785-1860), weather scientist. He was appointed the first official Government meteorologist in 1842. Wikimedia Commons.

The dream to influence climate isn’t new. Most mythologies have seen in weather and climate a form of cosmic retribution, rewarding and punishing behavior accordingly. Praying to weather gods was a widely shared belief among different cultures. By the 1850s, however, some scientists, such as James Espy, “The Storm King”, started to believe that weather intervention on the basis of scientific theory and practice would be possible. Although Espy and his ilk weren’t very successful, in the decades that followed, many conmen and scientists alike tried to follow in his footsteps. By the time the first theories of climatic change arose in the latter half of the 19th century, scientists such as Svante Arrhenius (who had calculated the greenhouse effect) and Nils Ekholm speculated about the possibility of deliberately warming the global climate by emitting vast amounts of carbon dioxide.[v]

These trends culminated in an early hype of hubristic weather and climate control research in the USA and USSR after WWII. As a result of the war, meteorological observation had skyrocketed, as had computing. This rise in technology led many scientists to expect that accurate prediction might make effective weather control possible.[vi] When anthropogenic climate change first reared its head in politics in the 1960s, the natural response was to look at technological intervention, rather than greenhouse gas mitigation. By the end of the ’60s, however, large-scale intervention became controversial. Due to the Vietnam War, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and an increasingly holistic scientific understanding of the climate system, as well as the discovery of mathematical chaos in complex nonlinear systems, weather and climate control were slowly phased out of public and scientific consciousness. Only a few, typically military industrialist scientists with links to the Manhattan Project continued to champion weather and climate control.

When climate change hit public attention with full force in 1988, climate engineering as a solution was not considered viable (despite some initial research in the early 1990s). In fact, climate engineering remained a scientifically unattractive niche until 2006, when Paul Crutzen suggested that, due to climate inaction, it might be time to start research.[vii] This long history still manifests in the current debate on climate engineering. Many of the reasons for both the hopes and the fears of climate engineering tie in to ways of seeing the world, and ways of understanding nature, that were formed during these developments.

In my PhD, I have tried to understand the various motivations that influence the development of climate engineering research. In order to do so, I have found that it was necessary to understand both the historical scientific, political, and cultural developments that made it possible to view the climate as a mathematically modellable entity that can be known to a large degree, but will always hold uncertainties and secrets. From semi-structured interviews, ethnographic and participant observation, I have learned that how people see the climate, see power, politics and authority, and see the role of the human in the larger ecosystems profoundly influences how people view the desirability of climate engineering, the feasibility of conventional mitigation, and that these views deeply influence research questions and research design. These views do not make their research disingenuous, untrustworthy, or political per se, they just show that no decision can be made in lieu of understanding how people’s understandings of the world influence the research they design and do.

“Decisions made about climate engineering in the end will be, necessarily, a judgement call, not a science.”

We, whoever the ‘we’ the decisionmakers will be on this matter, cannot expect any form of clarity about climate engineering in the near future; no moral clarity about whether or not research or implementation will be the right thing to do; no political clarity about whether or not decision-making about will be conducted in equitable and reliable ways; no scientific and technological clarity about the effects and sustainability of climate engineering. Research can, and probably should, be done into all of these aspects, but expecting that research to bring answers rather than guiding principles would be naïve. Decisions made about climate engineering in the end will be, necessarily, a judgement call, not a science. This situation makes it all the more important that we realize on what basis we make these judgment calls. Not only by having the scientific facts and political insights that are needed to make an educated decision, but also by looking deeply into the ways the world is seen by climate engineering researchers, and how that influences the questions that are asked, the research that is designed, and the decisions that are made.


[i] Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty, The Royal Society, (September 2009).

[ii] For a further technical assessment of these technologies, see: National Research Council, Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration (Washington DC: The National Academies Press, 2015), 154.

[iii] For a further technical assessment of SRM, see: National Research Council, Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2015), 224.

[iv] Tagline of the book: Mike Hulme, Can Science Fix Climate Change? A Case Against Climate Engineering (Cambridge: Polity, 2014).

[v] Svante Arrhenius, 1906, as quoted in: James Rodger Fleming. Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 74.

[vi] Vladimir K. Zworykin, “Outline of a Weather Proposal,” (1945).

[vii] P. Crutzen, “Albedo Enhancement by stratospheric sulphur injections: A contribution to resolve a Policy Dilemma?” Climatic Change, Volume 77, Issue 3-4 (August 2006), 211-220.

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