To understand geoengineering better, concentrate not on what it isn’t, or what you don’t want it to be; look instead at what it is, and what it could become. Geoengineering is not an alternative, but it can be an addition. This neglected set of ways in which people can alter climate should be part of mainstream debate on climate change, studied and assessed as a part of the whole. And that is going to require a far greater level of research. Despite all the public discussion there are only a few dozen people in the world contributing to the scientific literature.
Much of the “otherness” of geoengineering stems from the fact that it seems too futuristic and unprecedented. Yet global warming is itself an increasingly deliberate activity. No one pumps oil from 5km below the seabed, refines it into gasoline and sells it through a retail network by accident. Selling—or buying—fossil fuels does not take place for the purpose of climate change, but that change can no longer be seen as an unintended consequence. What is more, other climate-changing processes already exist, and are under our explicit control. As a recent study chaired by David Lee of Manchester Metropolitan University confirmed, the world’s shipping industry provides fairly significant global cooling. Ships burn fuel high in sulphur, and so emit lots of sulphur dioxide. This forms tiny particles of sulphuric acid, that enrich the water-droplet content of low-lying clouds over the oceans. More droplets mean whiter clouds, and whiter clouds mean more sunlight reflected into space. The shipping industry thus works, in Lee’s words, as a form of “inadvertent geoengineering.”
This example illustrates the complexity of climate change. Far from being a unitary problem to be solved, it is a range of causes, effects, meanings and implications. Along with carbon dioxide, there are the greenhouse gases methane, ozone, nitrous oxide and more. Then there are the problems of deforestation, irrigation, urbanisation, nitrogen deposition, nitrogen run-off, chemical smogs, and so on. These items interact in forbiddingly complex ways, not only with each other but also with the economy, and with people’s values and ideological stances. It makes much more sense to create a home for geoengineering within this complexity than to keep it out. “The climate is complicated,” says Tim Lenton, a professor of Earth systems science at the University of East Anglia who works in this field. “Why would we try to control it using just the one knob?”
I also just received in the post a copy of This will change everything: ideas that will shape the future, the latest Jon Brockman anthology, which contains my squib on geoengineering from last year. It is a mark of consistency or lack of intellectual progress, depending, that the two don’t seem to contradict each other all that much…
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