Might technology that allowed us to regulate earth’s climate be the answer to global warming? Or are such ‘geoengineering’ schemes just an alluring distraction from the thorny problems raised by climate change?
Professor Clive Hamilton explored the issues geoengineering raises in a talk last week at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), posing the question: are we masters of the earth, or merely stewards?
‘Geoengineering’ is the generally accepted label for deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system. It’s a catch-all term for a suite of prospective techniques and technologies that deliberately seek to adjust some aspect of the earth’s climate, and which are frequently touted as a way to help slow or even stop man-made climate change.
To quickly recap, a Royal Society report on the subject released in 2009 identified two main categories of geoengineering – ‘solar radiation management’ techniques and ‘carbon capture’.
Solar-radiation management (SRM)
SRM techniques attempt to offset the impacts of increased greenhouse gas concentrations by reflecting the sun’s energy back into space. By reducing the amount of the sun’s energy that the earth captures, the aim of SRM techniques would be to offset the warming effect of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
There are various speculative methods – one of the more discussed ideas is to release tiny particles of sulphate into the stratosphere. The StratoShield project, for example, suggests using a “hose to the sky”, a very long pipe held aloft by helium balloons which can inject a mist of sulphate aerosols up to 18 miles up into the stratosphere.
The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project is a UK research project that aims to be the world’s first major geoengineering field test. It was planning a field trial, where water would be pumped into the stratosphere from a hose nozzle suspended 20km off the ground. However, that part of the SPICE field trial has been cancelled following a patent row, and concerns over the level of public consultation that had been carried out.
Cutting the amount of the sun’s energy that hits earth has an intuitive appeal. On the other hand, it’s probably fair to say that at the moment nobody really knows what effect such schemes would have on the climate, beyond very broad predictions.
Carbon capture technologies aim to remove carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Once it’s been captured, the gas can then be stored. That’s the theory, and one particular type of carbon capture and storage (CCS) – where carbon dioxide is captured from power stations which burn fossil fuels before it can make it into the atmosphere – has seen particular interest.
For all the talk, commercial scale CCS at power plants is still elusive. There’s a lot of research, though. Norway has recently opened the ‘world’s largest and most advanced laboratory for testing carbon capture technologies’ while another experiment in Scotland funded by the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK is testing what effect a carbon capture leak may have on a marine ecosystem .
More ambitiously, it has been suggested that carbon capture could be used to grab carbon dioxide directly out of the air – so-called ‘direct capture’. This is perhaps the holy grail of geoengineering, but at the moment is just a distant dream at anything other than the very small (and very expensive) scale.
Promethean or Soterian?
Perhaps because geoengineering is currently only a potential field of human technological endeavour, there’s a broad range of wildly different views on how much of a good thing it might be.
Hamilton’s assessment is that there are broadly two camps, and he’s got Greek words to label them. The ‘promethean’ take on geoengineering holds the view that we, as the dominant species on the planet, are able to create and use technology to shape our surroundings, and that regulating our environment is just the next logical step for our species.
The name is taken from Greek mythology, in which Prometheus was punished by the gods for stealing their knowledge and passing it on to mortals. Lowell Wood’s quote below, used by Professor Hamilton in his presentation at the RSA , perfectly sums up the reasoning behind the promethean perspective:
“We’ve engineered every other environment we live in – why not the planet?”
Hamilton describes that alternative view as ‘soterian’, after Soteria, the Greek goddess of safety and caution. This perspective urges caution with the use of technology to shape the planet.
“The question is, what kind of relationship are we to have with technology? Are we to be controlled by it, so that it determines our destiny, or can we find what might be called a ‘free relation to it’.
So far so philosophical. What bearing does this have on the current debates on the topic? These have focused on the role of geoengineering in the context of reducing carbon emissions – The Royal Society report on geoengineering concluded, for example:
“None of the geoengineering methods evaluated offers an immediate solution to the problem of climate change, or reduces the need for continued emissions reductions.”
More recently, the former chair of the Royal Society Working Group on Geoengineering reiterated :
“….geoengineering research – and I emphasise the term research – is, sadly, necessary… current emissions cuts are not enough and political aspirations are not yet leading to effective global action. The possible impacts of climate change could be disastrous for vulnerable people, and failing to explore ways to mitigate climate change, in addition to emission cuts, would be irresponsible.”
This is essentially what Hamilton describes as the soterian perspective, and the one he sympathises with – urging caution. Geoengineering should probably be explored, on this view, but not as an alternative to stopping doing the things – in this case, burning fossil fuels – that are causing the problem.
“For all of their celebration of human mastery, prometheans have subjugated themselves to technology, which entraps them in a way of thinking. If we can free ourselves from the grip of technological thinking then we can approach the climate system crisis and earth system engineering with a sensibility that doesn’t reject the power of earth system science or technology but recognises their limits and confines them to their proper place”.
“Perhaps instead of a well defined system, the earth itself is more like a wild beast, a beast that’s now been disturbed from its long slumber and will shrug off our attempts to tame it with our puny technology”.
So. Are you a promethean, mastering the earth system for future generations? Or are you a soterian, preferring a cautious approach lest the wild nature of the planet rebels against our attempted mastery? Either way, we’ve given you an excuse to talk about geoengineering the next time you go to the cinema.
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