Features | Geo-engineering and its discontents

It’s the late 2030s. Countries near the equator are suffering severely from storms and collapsing agriculture, but the West is unable to initiate significant mitigation efforts because of its own political divide. Indonesia and the Philippines, funded by China (its water supply crippled and crops failing), start firing sulphur into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. By the late 2040s it’s confirmed that this is having a cooling effect on the climate: the global temperature drops one or two degrees. But a sudden volcano eruption causes temperatures to fluctuate wildly. Crops, by now adapted to a warmer environment, fail globally. This causes mass starvation, migration, and crumbling governments worldwide. The West’s defense forces are completely occupied with fending off masses of refugees. Millions die from hunger: even more die from conflict. This is one of the possible scenarios described by Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer in his book, Climate Wars. Having sourced his material from scenarios drawn up by the U.S. and U.K. militaries, Dyer’s book paints a desperate picture of the near future. A general consensus is emerging that more ambitious and large-scale action is needed to address climate change. “Geo-engineering is a bad idea whose time has come,” Eli Kintisch told Wired last March, “It is something that you have to study and hope to never use.” Kintisch is the author of Hack the Planet, in which he describes geo-engineering as a life-or-death situation best compared with the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. If the enemy points nuclear weapons at you, you have no choice but to develop your own.
The contemporary equivalent of the nuclear weapon is an ever-approaching climate catastrophe. The Gulf Stream may slow down or reverse, causing drastic changes in the global climate. The South Asian monsoons could stop, leading to massive crop failure and droughts. The Greenland ice sheet may soon slide into the ocean, causing sea levels to rise seven metres.
Any number of these events may push the climate beyond its tipping point, from which it could not return. To prevent this we could resort to geo-engineering. The two dominant approaches involve either trying to capture carbon in the atmosphere or reflecting sunlight back to space. Both would require large-scale technologies and a significant change in the way we interact with the Earth.

“We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil,” said Adlai Stevenson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, in 1965.
Spaceship Earth means that we are self-contained – everything we need is right here, and we’re here to stay. But it also means that we live in a simple system – the sun gives us light, plants give us air, and we eat the plants. All we need to do is control the variables, inputs, and outputs. In this case, we don’t have a choice – we need to make do with what we’ve got.

In Aliens, the 1986 science-fiction film directed by James Cameron, “planet engineers” colonize space with funds from “The Company.” One executive says, “It’s what we call a shake ‘n’ bake colony. They set up atmosphere processors to make the air breathable. Takes decades.”
In the film, Earth has lost contact with one of these colonies. Something must be wrong. A squadron of soldiers is sent to investigate, and Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, is sent with them. “What exactly are we dealing with here?” asks one soldier.
“I’ll tell you what I know…” begins Ripley.
“Look man,” says another soldier, “I only need to know one thing. Where. They. Are.” She pulls a fearless scowl and takes aim with her make-believe gun. Bang.
Seeing the atmosphere processor towers in Aliens, I couldn’t help but think about a geo-engineering project proposed in 2007, when John Latham and Stephen Salter suggested a fleet of wind-powered yachts to roam the oceans, pumping sea-foam clouds into the atmosphere from billowing chimneys.

But terraforming isn’t only relegated to the world of science fiction. One year after Aliens hit the box office, a U.S. company called Space Biosphere Ventures decided to model the earth’s climate in a tightly sealed 12,000 square metre structure called Biosphere 2. By controlling the inputs of air and building simulated environments – a coral reef, a savannah, and a jungle, for example – the research group wanted to explore the interactions between different species and atmospheric conditions. This was the embodiment of “spaceship earth;” the network of plants, animals, and biomes was specifically designed to examine the potential for space colonization. But it was an inversion of Stevenson’s metaphor: an ideal earth was viewed as a model for space travel, rather than space travel being the model of an ideal earth.
By 1993 the experiment was doomed. To quote one New York Times article, “The would-be Eden became a nightmare, its atmosphere gone sour, its sea acidic, its crops failing, and many of its species dying off. Among the survivors are crazy ants, millions of them.” The hordes of ants started eating the silicon of which the structure’s geodesic dome was made. The fabricated environment was literally eating itself from the inside out. With a lack of oxygen in the sealed structure, the human subjects started hallucinating and suffered from drowsiness. A feud emerged between those trapped in Biosphere 2. Should they open vents to allow in more oxygen or trust the artificial ecosystem to correct itself?
In 1995 the pavillion was bought by Columbia University to become a research facility for an entirely different scenario: climate change. A micro-model of the earth in space became a micro-model of the earth under the yoke of geo-engineering. Spaceship Earth, embodied by Biosphere 2, exemplified the difficulties of trying to engineer the environment.

Climate change is almost inevitably associated with disaster, and geo-engineering is seen by many as a “necessary evil” to mitigate the worst of it. In the article “Hacking the Sky,” Jason Mark, an environmental journalist, considers geo-engineering as a solution to the oncoming disasters. “[I]f we shy away from manipulating the whole globe and continue on our present course, we could be left with a burnt Earth unlike anything ever seen. The scientists who are encouraging government-funded research into geo-engineering are driven by a powerful motive: fear.” Mark, like most, describes geo-engineering as a “double bind.” He says, “Either we keep our hands off the sky, and hope we act in time … Or we try our luck at playing Zeus.”
As David Keith, a well-known Canadian scientist who advocates the study of geo-engineering, said in an interview, “There would be consequences and side effects. I’m not saying this is a perfect solution. But as far as I can see, it’s the only tool we have.”
Some governments are also expressing enthusiasm. In 2009 Germany – in defiance of a U.N. moratorium – decided to fund a geo-engineering project to dump iron sulfate particles into the ocean to encourage algal blooms in an experiment with carbon-capture technologies.
Geo-engineering is most often either championed as “the only way out” or demonized as “hubris.” But it’s this kind of dialogue, driven by fear, which obscures the whole picture. When you shoot the enemy point-blank, all you see is the barrel of your gun.

James Ford, a McGill Geography professor specializing in the analysis of the vulnerability of communities to climate change, is skeptical of the current drive behind geo-engineering.
When I sat down with Ford two weeks ago, he recalled a 2009 conference on geo-engineering where the airconditioning system in one of the lecture halls broke down, much to the organizers’ embarrassment. “That metaphor relates the difficulties of controlling the climate. If we can’t control the climate in a single room, what are our chances of controlling the climate on a global scale? One of the myths is that there is this techno-fix out there, it’s just a case of developing the technology.”
The myth stems from the long-standing belief that technology can be fully integrated with our environment and can always solve our problems. During the Biosphere 2 project, millions of dollars were spent and increasingly complex systems of control were developed to fix its atmosphere, only to fail when the ecosystem proved too difficult to maintain and started destroying itself from the inside.

Beyond the question of viability, Biosphere 2 also demonstrated that environmental control, even when affecting a small group of people, quickly becomes politically heated. One 2008 review, “Ranking Geo-Engineering Schemes,” attempts to provide some basis for weighing the costs and benefits of the different geo-engineering plans available. “It is time,” say the authors, “to select and assess the most promising ideas according to efficacy, cost, all aspects of risk, and – importantly – their rate of mitigation.” Yet, as quickly becomes apparent, there is scarcely any data available to assess these ideas with. Hidden deep in the article, they mention that “other important but very uncertain aspects of risk, such as geopolitical and economic changes, require further research.”
Ford, who also specializes in the “human dimensions” of climate change, thinks it’s not quite as simple as a cost-benefit analysis: “I don’t think it’s cost, I don’t think it’s technology, I think it’s politics,” he said. The wider view that looks beyond the gun is often lacking, says Ford. “Geo-engineering debates tend to be dominated, at an international scale and in policy circles, by climate change modelists: people who have not given too much consideration to the kind of social consequences or the politics that geo-engineering might have.”
And when disasters – like the volcano eruption described by Dyer in his scenario – do strike, we won’t know who to blame. China now spends an estimated $114 million a year on its weather-manipulation program to irrigate its farmlands. But when Beijing was hit by major out-of-season snowstorms, China Daily blamed the government’s weather control.
As Richard Alley, a paleoclimatologist, said in an interview with journalist Jeff Goodell, “We spend a lot of time arguing about the weather now … Imagine what it will be like if I can blame somebody every time my tomatoes don’t ripen on schedule.”

As a response to the fear that geo-engineering itself will become unmitigated in its spread, many scientists and politicians are now suggesting that treaties should be put in place to prevent solutions from getting out of hand. As Keith said, “I think there are questions about whether we should start thinking about what the norms of international control are. Whether we need some kind of international treaty process perhaps.” Commenting on this trend, Goodell remarked, “Unlike nuclear or biological weapons, geo-engineering is not about annihilation. It is about dominance and control.”
All the main proponents of the geo-engineering debate are male and white, all claiming to be “reasonable” and sincere. Geo-engineering will become another issue of dominance, where the West should, according to Keith, once again  control the recalcitrant East, which is portrayed to be easily swayed by its emotions. As Dyer told me when he visited McGill last year, “people can be quite unreasonable when they’re starving.” Systems have to be put in place, so the argument goes, to ensure that nobody acts out of line, nobody acts irrationally. The duality of West versus East is another instance of the reason versus emotion, man versus nature, and male versus female duality – ways of thinking that, many argue, lie at the root of environmental degradation.
Fear of a catastrophic future drives this argument, but geo-engineering is also driven by the same interests as climate denialism in the West.

These interests don’t always come down to the preservation of the climate. When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce finally stopped denying global warming it remained nonchalant: “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioural, physiological, and technological adaptations,” they said in a press release. Similarly, the Harper Government’s refusal to cooperate last May on drafting a geo-engineering ban is indicative of its main interests: business. The lack of meaningful action at Copenhagen and Cancun is reflective of the interests of those in power: to stay in power and preserve their stakes in the market. Few governments have actually had the nerve to take on the fossil-fuel industry. In this way, the myth that technology can predictably control the mechanisms of the Earth will result in different, yet no less detrimental, systems of control.

Geo-engineering, it appears, won’t mean the end of the world, but it’s not the solution to climate change either. As more money gets invested in research, we might find more practical solutions and possible technologies to mitigate the “worst-case scenario.” But the discussion is part of a wider movement that will entail shifts of power, just as nuclear technologies meant changes in international policy and power struggles.
Like Ripley in Aliens, we are often tempted to combat threats with a point-and-shoot mindset. Just give us a target, and we’ll shoot. As new treaties are drafted, the security of borders, fear of the unknown enemy, and the blaming of others won’t cease to direct dominant political dialogue. Corporations will have a fair bit to say in this game: as the carbon-trade grows and billionaires get richer, even “philanthropists” may become main players. In a world where the temperature is controlled and engineered, someone’s hand will have to be on the thermostat and someone else’s hands will be tied. You know there will be civilian casualties whenever there’s a hero with a gun.

Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.