Climate geoengineering and liberalism


Spraying seawater droplets into marine clouds from ships could make them reflect more sunlight. Photograph: NASA

There is a story in the New Yorker this week about geoengineering research that could help avert the worst effects of climate change. Scientists around the world are looking into ways to alter the composition of the atmosphere in order to reflect sunlight back into space, extract existing CO2 from the atmosphere, or other schemes to offset the expected rise in temperature through the rest of the century and beyond. Some of the schemes — such as pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to deflect the sun’s rays — are based on relatively well established science. Other ideas seem, well, more fanciful:

There have been proposals to send mirrors, sunshades, and parasols into space. Recently, the scientific entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold, whose company Intellectual Ventures has invested in several geoengineering ideas, said that we could cool the earth by stirring the seas. He has proposed deploying a million plastic tubes, each about a hundred metres long, to roil the water, which would help it trap more CO2.

. . .

The Harvard physicist Russell Seitz wants to create what amounts to a giant oceanic bubble bath: bubbles trap air, which brightens them enough to reflect sunlight away from the surface of the earth. Another tactic would require maintaining a fine spray of seawater—the world’s biggest fountain—which would mix with salt to help clouds block sunlight.

The part of me that always seeks to maximize my sources of amusement would LOVE to live in a planet surrounded by mirrors, shades and parasols, with giant bubble baths, fountains and drink-stirrers sprouting from the oceans. But my enthusiasm for these geoengineering schemes is tempered by the fact that, as Trinity College engineering professor Hugh Hunt says, “If we have to use these tools, it means something on this planet has gone seriously wrong.’’

But what really caught my attention about the article was the reaction in some quarters of climate activism to the mere consideration of geoengineering as a last-ditch effort to avert climate disasters:

Last fall, the SPICE team decided to conduct a brief and uncontroversial pilot study. At least they thought it would be uncontroversial. To demonstrate how they would disperse the sulfur dioxide, they had planned to float a balloon over Norfolk, at an altitude of a kilometre, and send a hundred and fifty litres of water into the air through a hose. After the date and time of the test was announced, in the middle of September, more than fifty organizations signed a petition objecting to the experiment, in part because they fear that even to consider engineering the climate would provide politicians with an excuse for avoiding tough decisions on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Opponents of the water test pointed out the many uncertainties in the research (which is precisely why the team wanted to do the experiment). The British government decided to put it off for at least six months.

This seems like an illiberal attitude, to say the least, from what I presume is a collection of liberal organizations. Liberals are supposed to be the “reality-based community” that listens to evidence-based arguments and the best science available to design and implement policy, especially when it comes to climate change. In fact, these climate activists who stopped the Norfolk experiment wouldn’t even be activists if it wasn’t for climate science. What’s behind their attitude toward this particular bit of science that seems so at odds with their usual attitude?

Perhaps motivated reasoning has something to do with it. Motivated reasoning has been used to explain climate and other types of conservative scientific denial, but we liberals are not immune to explaining away facts that contradict our ideology. Of course, the scientific evidence for the feasibility of geoengineering is nowhere near the threshold that has been crossed by climate science overall, but the research that the scientists profiled in the New Yorker are conducting is not junk science. Yet the attitude in some climate activism quarters seems to be to not only deny the feasibility of these solutions, but to stop research on them altogether. That’s about as illiberal as it gets.

There is an added ethical dimension to this refusal to even consider geoengineering as a tool to fight climate change. The article states that unabated climate change and geoengineering have something in common: they could both end up benefitting richer nations while further impoverishing poorer nations and communities. If things get bad enough, geoengineering may go forward regardless of how climate activists and other liberals feel about it. Rather than try to shut down debate about geoengineering, liberals should engage in it fully in order to ensure that those most vulnerable to climate fluctuations are treated fairly in any global geoengineering processes.

Given how spectacularly national and world leaders have failed at dealing with climate change, the ideological predisposition to see geoengineering as a possible excuse for further inaction is understandable. But the scale of the problem, as well as the likelihood that leaders will not be able to act, even if they wanted to, because of human reluctance to alter the structure of the world economy or slow the pace of economic development, demand that all scientifically serious options be put on the table and explored to the fullest. Who tries to tackle a crisis with no ‘plan B’? That attitude may work in the movies, but real life requires contingency plans. Climate activists and other assorted liberals should keep pushing for aggressive policies to reduce CO2 emissions, but they also need to acknowledge that their efforts may in the end fall short — and that we will need a backup plan if they do.

Luis Hestres

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