Is Geoengineering Now Inevitable? Or, Is the Only Solution to a Technological Problem More Technology?

Scaling the Heights of the Scala Naturae (Wikipedia)

Once a year I teach a course at Santa Clara University called “Energy, Climate Change, and Social Justice.” I love teaching it. The premise is to help engineering graduate students learn how to think ethically about the problems generated by global warming, with an eye towards coming up with innovative solutions. We look at conventional and renewable energy sources, vulnerabilities that different areas and people’s of the world face due to global warming, and potential policy solutions to help get the world on track towards carbon neutrality or negativity.

But this year a strange thought continually crossed my mind as I was teaching the course. Is active human control over the climate now inevitable?  A few months ago a friend of mine at another university had expressed to me the wish that humans would not be responsible for the Earth’s environment – not responsible for the climate, not responsible for the weather, not responsible for the deaths and destruction and rising oceans. To him it seemed much better that such events were not blameworthy, that things could just happen and they would not be anyone’s fault. The idea of filing a lawsuit over climate change just seemed very wrong. Shouldn’t there just be some things that no-one is responsible and guilty for? Would that not be a better world?

I was unsure how to respond, but the question remained on my mind. I agree that a world where humans were not responsible for the climate might be a better world, but I’m not sure we can ever go back. Here is my thinking.

Technology has caused climate change to become a problem. Science empowered us over nature, ethics said do it to alleviate human suffering, and politics and economics made it unstoppable as military, industrial and commercial might coalesced into the contemporary system. Overall the trade – contemporary technological life for environmental destruction and human chaos – has been deemed (by somebody…) to be worth it.

Now, the solutions we are seeing to these problems generated by technology are further technological solutions. Wind power, solar power,geothermal, and so on. Repowering the electricity grid. Energy efficiency. Smart and integrated control technologies. More than that, now geoengineering ideas are becoming mainstream – talks of filling the upper atmosphere with SO2 and raising the Earth’s albedo via various means to reflect more sunlight and cool the planet.

Our inadvertent foray into geoengineering – what we have done by pumping billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and thereby raising the Earth’s temperature – now seems to beg that we intentionally take over this process in order to correct the mess we’ve made. We’ve discovered that we have more power than we thought we had, and now, finding that we have such power, the logical path – it seems – is to learn how to wield this power with wisdom rather than ignorance. But to do that is to intentionally try to seize control of the functioning of the entire planet’s atmosphere. And that seems crazy.

Indeed it might be, but consider the alternatives. In one scenario, we can ignore the power we have and just keep on polluting, thus ensuring global catastrophe. I think that is a bad alternative.

In another, we can choose to relinquish our capacities to effect the environment. We could shut down our CO2 emissions, but not seek to undo the damage done. The Earth would still warm significantly (IPCC expects 2 degrees C minimum), perhaps enough to cause serious disasters, even catastrophic sea level rise and a mass extinction. We could take that risk.

In a third scenario we could briefly take control of the atmosphere just to undo the damage, then relinquish control and hope everything turns out all right.

Each scenario is far-fetched. Once empowered to effect climactic change we are not going to let it go. Only rarely in history have technologies ever been intentionally relinquished (Tokugawa Japan’s control – but not elimination – of firearms in order to protect its heritage of swordsmanship is an exception that lasted only a few centuries). And there is a deeper logic in play here too.

In his book The Long Summer, anthropologist Brian Fagan remarks that humans have a funny quirk – we always are willing to trade frequent small disasters for less frequent but larger ones. Taking control of the climate is now the logical next step.  We will be morally forced to take it because the alternatives seem unconscionable – allowing world-wide disaster when we could avert it.

But think of the choice… Trying to control Earth’s climate is perhaps one of the ultimate acts of hubris.  What if we made a mistake?! If, say, a miscalculation occurred and warming or cooling went out of control, millions could die – AND – it wouldn’t just be an accident of nature, an “act of God,” it would be somebody’s fault.

We do have an alternative choice – a horrible ethical choice and one I cannot say that I recommend – and that is to not seize control of the climate. But even this will be blameworthy if disaster then strikes, blameworthy because we chose not to accept the power to stop the disaster.

We are then, stuck in a catch 22. We have begun to inadvertently change the planetary environment. If we choose to seize this new power, any error could cause immense damage. But if we choose not to control this power we are still responsible for the damage done because we chose not to gain the power to prevent the disaster.

Which do we choose?

Given the choice to be powerful or powerless humans will always choose the power. We hate being at the mercy of externalities. Perhaps a less neurotic species could do it, but not us. It is one of the reasons we are jealous of God – we are subject to the world’s whims; we are at God’s mercy, and we hate it. We don’t want to be at the mercy of anything. And this excludes us from grace as well. The trade is very asymmetrical. If we control everything, then not only are we no longer unblameworthy, but we are also ungraceworthy. There will no longer be blessing or good luck, just good engineering. (Or perhaps we must learn to see good engineering as grace.)

So while in theory we could solve climate change and/or just let the Earth run its course happily ever after, there is no chance that we will intentionally choose this path. (We might have civilization collapse or extinction solve the problem for us but that is a whole other problem.) We are locked in to this trajectory, we are already in flight, and have been since… forever. Since we have been humans. Since we ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, where we chose to trust ourselves and not God (and tapping that story, for right or wrong (and I hope its a wrong connection because if it’s right then not only is my analysis wrongheaded but we are all in big trouble [1]), makes the gravity of the case potentially much higher – it’s just more of the Fall, a neurotic grasping at straws to rebuild a lost Eden and make the Snake’s lie true).

In philosophy of technology there is an idea that technology is autonomous from human control, and while this may not be the case in principle, it is the case in practice. Collectively we are forced into it, even if theoretically we could resist. Tokugawa Japan restricted firearms for two centuries. Then Commodore Perry steamed in with cannons aimed and the matter was settled. But the Sorcerer’s apprentice is not the one in charge.

For every technological problem, a further technological solution. Don’t get me wrong, morality is still involved here, but the logic of the morality is towards survival, and survival always dictates that we seize yet more power [2]. And power is not evil. But it is dangerous. And we humans are not known for using it well.

So after several months of pondering that is what I have arrived at. It’s climate control or bust. We have unwittingly gained a power that we will now never willingly release. We are going to have the weight of the world’s climate on us, a terrible burden. All will be blame and there will be no more grace. Just like everything that is apart from God. We are climbing the scala naturae away from animals and towards deity, and that’s the deal, one we made a long time ago.

I don’t like it. But it’s what we’ve got; what we’re going to get. And given a forced choice, we better try to make the best of it – which still might not turn out too good.  What do you think?

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[1] I am of course not presenting Genesis literally, but the meanings embedded in the story are still deeply psychologically and spiritually valid. My analysis is that we will seize control of the climate because that is, apparently, the morally better of the alternatives, but if Genesis 3 is a correct connection then this seizure will backfire. We will have been tricked.

[2] This is physical survival and not spiritual survival. Perhaps if we were less concerned for our lives we would not lose them, as Jesus notes in Luke 17: 33 (and in other places) “Whosoever shall seek to save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose it, shall preserve it.”


5 responses to “Is Geoengineering Now Inevitable? Or, Is the Only Solution to a Technological Problem More Technology?

  • Rick Searle

    Great post!

    One area you might have expanded upon is that there might be international conflict around this issue. What if one of the big powers- I am thinking of China, but it could be any, decide that the consequences for their country are just too large. In the absence of international consensus they may decide to attempt to re-engineer the climate unilaterally- by pumping sulfur into the upper atmosphere or some such thing. How would the world react? Could such a scenario lead to war?

    And that raises an issue. Who has the right to decide whether we take the plunge and engage in what will indeed be another great experiment on the planet? How will that decision be made, and by who? No matter who makes it such an attempt will be a great leap in the dark. We have not proven up to the task of truly understanding and managing complex systems such as the global economy. What chance that we will make the right decisions in managing a system like the world’s climate? Even if you are right, and we are ultimately forced to do so.

  • Brian Green

    Hi Rick,

    Thanks for your comment and sorry for the long delay in reply. You are absolutely right about the potential for international conflict around this issue. Some nations will be highly motivated to act, especially but not only low-lying coastal ones, while other nations will have no desire to do so.

    So far climate policy has gone through the UN with a few problems of enforcement (mainly with the USA). It is highly likely that this pattern of problematic enforcement will continue. I would not be surprised if part of the world decides to act while some other nations do not, or even act to actively oppose the others (spitting out even more CO2 perhaps?), and thus climate will become an “interesting” new instrument for humans to tug and push at.

    However, because we are basically already in this situation (with some nations following the Kyoto accords and others not) I doubt disagreement would lead to war unless other dire influences were involved as well. Nevertheless, the experiments with the atmosphere will be dangerous.

    The moral may be that humans do not have the knowledge to be able to handle the climate and therefore we do not have the authority to be doing any of this – but we are anyway. Our institutions are malfunctioning (still working, but solving one set of problems while generating others), and we little cogs are not to keen on how to fix the problem. No knowledge, no authority, we do it anyway. But most of life is like this – let’s hope we manage to stumble upon something that works before we get in a really serious trouble.

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