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The precarious myth of geoengineering

Climate news - News and opinions about climate science

Published 20.04.2017

Can we reach the sun with pseudo-fixes such as pumping carbon underground or aerosols over ground? Or are climate change solutions such as solar radiation management and CCS examples of pure hubris, posing an immense risk for humanity?

The Greek myth goes like this: the father, Daedalus, constructed wings for himself and his son Icarus, in order to escape the labyrinth he himself designed. The use of wings, apparently the only immediate solution for the terrible predicament they both were confined to, resulted in tragedy for Daedalus’ offspring. Daedalus gave wings to Icarus presumably believing he will know how to use them, and Icarus receiving wings, in an act of inherent human hubris was struck with a belief he could reach the Sun, a belief so illusory that it had to end in death.

Millennia have passed since the ancient world tried to teach us that escaping circumstances of our own creation and unwisely applying innovative ideas, can end in tragedy, for us and for our offspring. Yet, here we are, trying once again to escape our predicament by reaching for the sun.

The techno-science of geoengineering

Geoengineering is a techno-scientific approach of altering the geological systems on earth as one of the responses to today’s challenges of warming of the atmosphere due to the emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Methods within geoengineering vary in their scope and inherent risks, but few if any seem to come without any noxious prospects for humanity.

The issue of liability seems to pose significant challenge to governments already in cases of less than planetary magnitude.

The solutions that geoengineering is proposing concern me already at the epistemic level, i.e. they originate from a particularly limited epistemologies within the field - the way that global warming and climate change are understood by geoengineering appear profoundly inadequate to capture the global challenge of climate change.

In addition, due to their superficial approach, these technological methods suggest solutions that fail to capture the complexity of the predicament, and thus act to deepen the crisis. The cases of carbon capture and storage and solar radiation management as climate change solutions are precisely examples of sad epistemological limitedness, if not pure hubris, and as such they pose an immense risk for humanity, if deployed.

In a recent article in KLIMA magazine, the main problem around geoengineering is described by the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative leader Janos Pazstor as the lack of governance. This is repeated on the Initiative's website to be the main issue while noting there is a need for global governance "regarding the research, possible testing and deployment decision-making process for CGE technologies that have significant, long-term and planetary-wide consequences for this and future generations."

It is however not possible to work out what is it that Pasztor and the Initiative sees as significant, long term planetary consequences nor what a viable principle of good governance regarding geoengineering may be in their view.

The trouble with technology

Many technological applications of present day as well as the past have not managed to deter us despite frequent Ovidian echoes surrounding the enterprise, suggesting possible tragic outcomes. In this case, as in many before it, geoengineering brings up a question of responsibility in case of failure.

The issue of liability seems to pose significant challenge to governments already in cases of less than planetary magnitude, like local environmental and health hazards from pesticide pollution or oil spills. What kind of national or international body is and would be responsible for failures in geoengineering? These applications could disturb other natural and social systems, cause collapse in other structures, create irreversible damage and loss of lives.

So, can the deployment be undone? What if we find out that the applications of geoengineering do not work in the ways it was intended – can we reverse it? Can we even quantify the probability of risks and outcomes, or are we dealing here with those "unknown unknowns"?

Questions of democratic deliberation arise as well. To which extent have the stakeholders, i.e. the citizens, been involved in a deliberation on the development and application of these technologies, and who is and will be going to be paying for implementation of these technologies? We cannot and must not bypass questions of uncertainty, reversibility, risk, polity and democratic governance, yet Initiative does not seem to suggest these considerations ought to be part of the governance.

Chasing carbon

In discussing the method of carbon capture and storage (CCS), Pazstor points out that although CCS is expensive, it “does solve the problem”. But what exactly are those "expensive" costs, who is expected to bear the expenses and which problem exactly is Pasztor referring to, that geoengineering solves?

CCS is a practice of extracting carbon from combustion of organic matter emissions, mainly fossil fuels, and storing it someplace, usually underground and often in rock formations. The method has already been in practice for a few decades despite highly concerning reasoning behind it, and significant health and safety risks.

Climate change is, within the CCS approach, understood as a problem of the composition of the organic matter, which contains carbon, a sort of a chemical problem solved by removing carbon. This epistemic limitedness obscures a much broader system of concerns.

How is CCS affecting and will in future affect the scale of fossil fuel extraction and consumption? We should expect the removal of carbon to be an incentive for a fossil fuel extraction scale up. What would then be the consequences on already alarming pollution levels in urban areas, continuing ocean acidification, on general environment and health of people in close proximity of extraction fields or oil pipes, or rights of indigenous communities already disproportionately exposed to pollution from fossil fuel enterprises? Will CCS be an incentive to expand the use of even dirtier sources and less safe methods of oil extraction, such as tar sands and fracking, highly polluting and resource intensive practices?

The ambiguous formulation of method being "expensive", even if only in economic terms seems to obfuscate the reality. Expensive for whom? Will the citizens continue to bear these expenses for further extraction, combustion and pollution, together with the costs of technology applications even though no one asked them whether they consent to these kinds of expenditures?

Reaching for the sun

Another geoengineering method that has been gaining momentum for a while is solar radiation management (SRM), an enterprise of truly mythical proportions. It employs human interference on a planetary scale with the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth. Releasing large amounts of aerosols into the atmosphere would partly block the light from accessing the earth.

The SRM is framing the climate change as a geological problem of temperature levels suggesting the solution which needs to work on reducing the temperature. The KLIMA article describes the technological method as a "cheap" way of achieving immediate drop in earth temperature, with only one shortcoming pointed out, namely the need for a long-term maintenance.

Assuming that long-term maintenance is possible, a closer look at the method reveals that not only is the method disturbingly costly, but in fact grotesque. Beside the very same questions of indirect promotion of fossil fuels and emissions with all their perilous consequences, a world of vital underlying concerns appears with opening for deployment of the SRM technology.

How much do we know about how life on earth would be affected by altering the solar radiation system? What would be the effects on the types, distributions and amount of vegetation – macro and microflora – and on wildlife in general, the changes in amounts and patterns of precipitation, effects of changed temperature or water availability or agriculture?

How would immediate drop in average temperature influence the patterns of heating demands, health issues, challenge the current heating infrastructures and health systems, and affect the consequences for regions and social groups already vulnerable to health and environmental hazards? How would the changes in solar radiation pattern affect generations to come?

But maybe the most relevant questions are: what form of governance has the ability to control the planetary radiation system in ways that are safe, predictable and desirable for everyone involved, who should have the power to decide how the climate should be altered and what kind of climate we should live in, but most importantly – who has the right to expose us to potentially egregious harms and infinite risks?

None of these concerns are obvious if the problem of climate change is framed as merely a chemical/geological matter, and a number of these concerns seem absent from Initiative’s conceptualization of governance.

Towards the principles of good governance

Although there are no alternatives to the Risikogesellschaft, a society of immanent and unmanageable risks and uncertainties, there must be alternatives to, and attempts to, escape the conditions on earth we created by deliberate launch of technologies with an evident pernicious potential.

The concerns raised above are, I believe, a case of cure being far worse than the disease, and thus sufficient to suspend geoengineering practices and perhaps even to call for an indefinite moratorium on some. It makes no sense to use resources to formulate a policy promoting and deploying practices with a possibly annihilating effects for humanity. We surely can come up with sound practices to spend resources on?

Does resistance to and suspension of geoengineering mean inevitable rising emissions and warming up of the atmosphere with all the possible negative the consequences that are expected follow? A political inertia cannot be a justification for deployment of a technology, which threatens the entire planet, in order to escape. There are indeed alternatives to geoengineering employing epistemic complexity reflecting a large spectrum of concerns and issues arising from the climate change, instead of escape. They do however demand profound changes in social and economic practices and institutions, promoting and protect the interests of citizens, infrastructures, natural resources and nature itself from unnecessary risks and avoidable harm.

An open and inclusive public participation and discussion, an actual, rather than a rhetorical political consensus and action on scaling down oil extraction towards decarbonization of economy, a just global distribution of the responsibilities and duties for costs of emission reduction, as well as redistribution of resources – a necessary measure in order to promote resilience of regions and groups more exposed to harm and less equipped to abate the climate change effects – are measures which can transform the society currently fueled and threatened by the fossil fuels.

Building a society of democratic deliberation, low consumption and low emission rates, more equal resource and cost distribution sounds far from escaping the predicament we brought about through epistemic poverty of pseudo-fixes as pumping carbon underground or aerosols over ground. Yet all-things-considered, this may be the only viable principle of what can be called good governance, humbly recognizing that we indeed, can never reach the sun.