Is This The Right Room for a Geoengineering Argument?

By Chris Mooney | August 9, 2010 10:34 am

geoengineering

Over at a blog called Amor Mundi, there is a truculent critique of my recent Techonomy blog post about geoengineering–there dubbed “futurological greenwashing” (!).

Much of the lengthy post seems devoted to highly rhetorical nitpicking, but it is fun to read:

No, I am saying that the futurological discourse of “geo-engineering” actually functions to create the appearance of a phenomenon where there is none, it functions as futurological frames tend to do as a derangement of sense, a distraction from substance onto non-substance, a substitute of frivolous over-generalities and hyperbolic promises for deliberation about actually complex, actually contingent technodevelopmental problems with a diversity of stakeholders.

I agree with Amor Mundi that the definition of geoengineering that I gave in my post (“engaging in some type of deliberate intervention to alter the planet and thereby counteract global warming”) was probably too broad. Chalk it up to blogspeed; but of course, we both know what we’re talking about. And if you change “deliberate intervention” to “large-scale, deliberate, and immediate technological intervention” then we’re probably fine.

But even this definition is not as good as Amor Mundi’s version contribution: “a ramifying suite of mega-engineering wet-dreams.” Now that is a definition.

There is a good point here–all “geoengineering” is not the same:

Not to put too fine a point on it, the notion of “geo-engineering” seems to me to subsume far too many actually substantially different techniques in the service of far too many actually substantially different outcomes to be of much practical use in any of the deliberations into which it is being injected so enthusiastically by futurologists.

Yes, and similarly, the term “New Atheists” is often used to describe a group of people who aren’t necessarily homogeneous. Still, the concepts are not meaningless; and they are useful.

I really object to this, though:

To the extent that the glossy mega-engineering fantasies of “geo-engineering” futurologists distract our attention from the efforts of more mainstream-legible educational, agitational, organizational, and regulatory environmentalist efforts — or take for granted the failure of these — they should be seen as a second wave of denialism. This time the denialism is not about the fact or human causation of climate catastrophe itself (since “geo-engineering” contains an implicit admission of both of these), but a denialism about the possibility or effectiveness of any democratic response to that crisis.

But what if it is completely accurate and realistic to question whether we seem capable of an adequate response to climate change? To doubt this capacity makes us–us here includes many top scientists–into denialists?

That’s just weird.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: geoengineering

Comments (20)

  1. GM

    Uh, geongineering is indeed desperate greenwash. And it completely sidesteps the real problem, which is global ecological overshoot, not just AGW. Let’s assume we can geoengineer our way out of AGW, we are still going to be facing Peak Oil, Peak Phosphorus, depletion of a laundry list of critical minerals, depletion of fossil aquifers, topsoil loss, general ecosystem collapse (particularly the oceans), etc. Geongineering takes the focus away from that reality so giving people the impression that is a solution does a lot more harm than good. It would be a lot more productive if you were talking about overshoot instead of geongineering

  2. JMW

    To me, the point about geo-engineering is to buy us time. If we can use some kind of technology to counteract the effects of the Earth becoming a giant heat sink, then we can take the time to replace our fossil fuel burning technologies which seem to be causing or contributing to the effect in the first place.

  3. Meme Mine

    SYSTEM CHANGE, not CLIMATE CHANGE
    POPULATION CONTROL, not CLIMATE CONTROL

  4. Martin

    “But even this definition is not as good as Amor Mundi’s version contribution: “a ramifying suite of mega-engineering wet-dreams.” Now that is a definition.”

    LOL, it appears you have discovered the colorful prose of Dale Carrico. You should browse his site. There’s a longstanding feud between him and futurists / futurologists / transhumanists.

  5. Thank you for taking the time to respond, I found it clarifying. Further comments are here.

  6. Eric

    To think the point of geo-engineering is a stop-gap until we can do it right is, to me, dangerously naive. Does anyone seriously believe that once such large-scale projects to reduce rising temperatures are in swing the line won’t become something like “well since we can control it now, there is no need to do anything that will threaten the incumbent system”?

    No, the real point of so-called ‘geo-engineering’ seems to be to make sure corporate CEOs profit from both ends…by first denying climate change, then denying the causes and now by denying anything but their own profitable solutions are viable.

    At the very least, when the same incumbent elites who work to block any meaningful changes to how we generate and use energy then tell us we need to turn control over to their massively expensive, centrally controlled, status-quo enforcing and possibly quite dangerous projects, one should be awfully suspicious.

  7. Nullius in Verba

    I agree. It is weird.

    Assuming there’s a problem, and assuming geo-engineering works, then geo-engineering is an adequate response to climate change.

    You have a problem to which there are two solutions proposed, one incredibly expensive but which fixes it properly, and the other very cheap but which does have a number of significant drawbacks. The difference in price is judged to be a bigger issue than the drawbacks, so geo-engineering is the preferable response. The result is ‘adequate’, in the sense of preventing most of the problem materialising.

    The big problem with geoengineering is that climate change was never the real reason for the emissions control proposals, and so it doesn’t achieve any of the actual aims of the people behind carbon markets, REDD, carbon taxes, emission licences, regulatory trade barriers, price controls, taxes, and so on. In fact, it totally short-circuits the entire strategy.

    It’s a bit like nuclear. If CO2 really meant the end of the world, then the safest and most sensible and practical thing to do would be to go nuclear as fast as we could, and all the deep Greens would be dropping their opposition to it. However bad you think nuclear is, it doesn’t compare to the plagues, droughts, tempests, famines, and drowning of entire nations beneath the rising waves that they seem to think will have us all turning to cannibalism by 2040. Given a choice of nuclear power on the one hand, or an invasion of vampire moths and the Earth’s core exploding on the other, I know which I’d pick.

    So the fact that generally speaking they’re not is interesting. Are they saying that global warming is less dangerous than nuclear power? Are they saying that it’s actually less dangerous than geo-engineering?

    Because if so, then I don’t see any need to worry.

  8. Robert E

    I think of geongineering not as denialism, but as having a “Plan B” just in case “Plan A” doesn’t work.

  9. Brian Too

    There’s a kind of rosy-eyed optimism in geoengineering. Personally, I think that many people overstated (and continue to overstate) the example of the Green Revolution (new varietals and more fertilizer/pesticides/herbicides in growing food crops 30-40 years ago).

    Since the Green Revolution made a mockery of the Club of Rome predictions, that became the poster child for technology and an endless vista of growth, achievements, and profits. Technology can cure any ill! Anyone who says there are limits to growth is a Doubting Thomas who can be shouted down or simply ignored.

    One triumph does not make for a universal law. The GR was good for sure but it didn’t rewrite the carrying capacity of the Earth. History is full of civilizations who faced environmental challenges they could not meet. Just take a look at the Norse in Greenland, the Maya, and the city-state of Angkor Wat. All were decimated and never recovered.

    Let’s hope we don’t face the same fate.

  10. GM

    7. Nullius in Verba Says:
    August 9th, 2010 at 2:18 pm
    You have a problem to which there are two solutions proposed, one incredibly expensive but which fixes it properly, and the other very cheap but which does have a number of significant drawbacks. The difference in price is judged to be a bigger issue than the drawbacks, so geo-engineering is the preferable response. The result is ‘adequate’, in the sense of preventing most of the problem materialising.

    As I pointed out in the first post, the problem is much bigger than what you think, and you only have one solution to it.

    The big problem with geoengineering is that climate change was never the real reason for the emissions control proposals, and so it doesn’t achieve any of the actual aims of the people behind carbon markets, REDD, carbon taxes, emission licences, regulatory trade barriers, price controls, taxes, and so on. In fact, it totally short-circuits the entire strategy.

    Any evidence to back up this claim? In fact, most serious voices in the debate have pointed out that the majority of the things you listed are greenwash. So I see no reason for you to attach hidden agenda to people who warn about the dangers of climate change. And again, climate change is not even the most pressing issue right now.

    It’s a bit like nuclear. If CO2 really meant the end of the world, then the safest and most sensible and practical thing to do would be to go nuclear as fast as we could, and all the deep Greens would be dropping their opposition to it. However bad you think nuclear is, it doesn’t compare to the plagues, droughts, tempests, famines, and drowning of entire nations beneath the rising waves that they seem to think will have us all turning to cannibalism by 2040. Given a choice of nuclear power on the one hand, or an invasion of vampire moths and the Earth’s core exploding on the other, I know which I’d pick.

    Nuclear is not a solution, because:

    1. There isn’t enough uranium left for conventional reactors
    2. There isn’t enough human (and financial) capital available to build and operate neither conventional nor breeder type reactors
    3. There isn’t enough time to make up for the energy shortfall due to Peak Oil with nuclear plants
    4. You can’t drive trucks, constriction and agricultural equipment, ships and airplanes on electricity anyway

    So the fact that generally speaking they’re not is interesting. Are they saying that global warming is less dangerous than nuclear power? Are they saying that it’s actually less dangerous than geo-engineering?
    Because if so, then I don’t see any need to worry.

    What I said above does not mean that there aren’t a lot of “greens” who are completely clueless about the real situation. In fact most of them belong to that group. From which, however, it does not follow that the real situation is not as serious as it is

  11. JMW

    @6 Eric:

    Yes, there is a danger of “we’ve got it under control now, we don’t have to do anything else” if geo-engineering succeeds. I realize that. However, in reply to your comment (and @8 Robert E), check out:
    http://www.straight.com/article-335913/vancouver/gwynne-dyer-we-are-passing-climate-change-point-no-return

  12. J. J. Ramsey

    Nullius in Verba: “You have a problem to which there are two solutions proposed, one incredibly expensive but which fixes it properly, and the other very cheap but which does have a number of significant drawbacks.”

    I don’t think that’s quite right. Cutting carbon emissions is certainly expensive, but it may not solve the problem on its own because the carbon already emitted will likely have permanent warming effects. It’s like quitting drinking after imbibing heavily for several years. Sure, kicking the habit is a good thing, but it won’t bring back brain cells lost to liquor or necessarily heal the liver scars.

  13. My concern is that, first, people can’t exactly explain the standards which govern inclusion in or exclusion from “Plan B” in a way that makes a lot of sense (calling into question, for me at least, the “Plan-likeness” of this “Plan”) and that, second, the vast unpredictably complex endlessly maintained for-profit-or-for-pork mega-scale projects that happen to get included in “Plan B” in practice, as it were willy-nilly, by the culture of “Plan B enthusiasts” — whether they can explain their inclusion in “Plan B” coherently or not — look to benefit precisely the people who have profited from the extractive-industrial practices which caused so much of the problem at hand as well as the people whose denialism and misinformation about that problem has facilitated the failure of the advocacy of “Plan A” (which, it would appear, is, you know, “Environmentalism”), the very failure prompting, presumably, their oh-so-reluctant advocacy of these oh-so-profitable boondoggles in the first place. I welcome recommendations as to better phrases than “denialism” to describe these concerns. Faith-based futurological initiatives? The Plan that sold the world? The technofix is in? Bubble dome paradise for Me, moonscape for Thee? By all means, help a guy out.

  14. Wake Up

    Futorology? They are openly admitting to testing this right now, in the air, over our cities and countrysides. Holdren isn’t talking about this as some ‘far off’ solution. He’s saying it exists, is a tool at their disposal now, and they are already “testing it.” Climate change is rubbish, so you really need to ask yourself what it is they are REALLY doing.

    Oh, I know, I know – this is the first time in human history that we have all sane, altruists running a global spanning military with dominion over the world’s finances and economy. There is NO WAY they are megalomaniacs like every single man before them, since the beginning of time – and absolutely no motivation or room to abuse the ability to block out the sun.

  15. Chloride

    @GM, the paucity of uranium is actually not a major problem. Firstly, the newer Gen 4 reactors are much better at utilizing uranium (typically only 0.5% of uranium is utilized in current ones). The new reactors will have double or triple the efficiency of current ones. Now, the average concentration of uranium in the Earth’s crust is around 2.7 parts per million, and soils associated with phosphate minerals can contain around 50 – 500 ppm of uranium. Some shales and phosphate rocks contain 10-20 ppm of uranium, and given their abundance, are estimated to contain a total quantity of uranium perhaps 8,000 times that of the rocks currently being explored. Even mining these very low-grade ores would allow the recovery of energy with an EROEI of 15-30. Plus, the major problem with our use of nuclear fuel is the lack of reprocessing and extraction which could give us much more than we have now. Plus, uranium is not the be all of everything. Thorium technology promises much more efficiency, especially when using the molten salt reactors and pebble bed reactors. There are large reserves of thorium (about 1.2 million tonnes) known in minerals containing around 12% thorium; the mean abundance of thorium in the Earth’s crust (around 8 ppm) is three times that of uranium, and since all the thorium can (must) be “bred” into uranium 233 as the fissile fuel, with many safety advantages over the uranium-238 to plutonium-239 breeder route, this could also be supplied in abundant amounts. As of now, no other technology including solar and wind promises such a quick and large scale source of energy. The technology largely exists, what is necessary is political and social initiative, and we can be glad that Obama seems to understand this.

    -There isn’t enough human (and financial) capital available to build and operate neither conventional nor breeder type reactors
    Source? The higher price tag is deceptive. Large nuclear power plants require larger capital investments than comparable coal or gas plants only because nuclear utilities are required to build and maintain costly systems to keep their radioactivity from the environment. If fossil fuel plants were similarly required to sequester the pollutants they generate, they would cost significantly more than nuclear power plants do. The European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have determined that for equivalent amounts of energy generation, coal and oil plants, … owing to their large emissions and huge fuel and transport requirements, have the highest externality costs as well as equivalent lives lost.

  16. GM

    Chloride @ 15:

    What you describe is generally correct. What you didn’t comment is issue #3 and issue #4 on my list. Yes, you can build those things, but it will take many decades for them to replace what we get from fossil fuels, let alone the projected doubling in tripling of demand due to population growth and development. Given that we have hit or are about to hit Peak Oil, we don’t have that time. Not that a large numbers of nuclear plants will do much good to solve the problem if Peak Oil – we can definitely stop driving cars (although even this might be enough to bring down the system depending on how people react to it, I am not an optimist), it is the large equipment, which, very importantly, includes agricultural machinery, ships and delivery trucks that you can’t drive on batteries.

    And yes, there is a shortage of trained people – or you are trying to tell me that the nuclear engineers and experts on nuclear plants design and construction exist for us to start building 10 times the current number of reactors tomorrow and then operate them when they’re ready, even if the capital was there? Those people simply don’t exist; it will take decades to train them, which again, we don’t have

    We should be building thorium reactors as fast as possible, no doubt about it, but it will not solve the problem unless it is combined with organized contraction of the economy and population control to bring us safely within carrying capacity. And electricity/AGW is hardly our only civilization-threatening sustainability issue

  17. Nullius in Verba

    #9,

    “Since the Green Revolution made a mockery of the Club of Rome predictions,…”

    That’s not the only example. There are thousands of others of how technology has completely changed the game. It’s just our favourite because it’s so appropriate to the current debate.

    “History is full of civilizations who faced environmental challenges they could not meet.”

    It is is full of challenges they did not meet. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t, had they been flexible and ingenious enough. Mostly they tried sacrificing their wealth to the Gods of climate instead of getting on and solving the problem.

    #10,

    GM, the agenda is not ‘hidden’. It’s perfectly obvious.

    Regarding your points against nuclear power…
    1. Yes there is. There is lots of untapped geological potential, and even what we have would last 50 times longer if we used breeders.
    2. Yes there is. Nuclear reactors are not significantly harder to build than anything else. France managed to raise the capital in a couple of decades, and it was doing a lot of other things at the same time.
    3. Yes there is. It takes about 3-5 years to build a reactor, and you can build lots in parallel. France managed it in a couple of decades, and they could probably have done it faster if they had devoted more of their resources to it.
    4. The (affordable) technology isn’t there yet on this one, true. (For stuff like trucks at least. There are actually nuclear powered ships.) But even if it were so, that isn’t an argument against building nuclear.

    #12,

    You’re quite right. Cutting emissions isn’t a solution either.

    #15,

    Chloride, Bravo! I quite agree.

    But judging from past experience, you’ll have a lot of fun trying to persuade GM.

  18. sw

    We are well beyond the point where emissions reduction alone will make a difference. We need something to buy us time. And geoengineering would certainly require a democratic response.

  19. GM

    9. Brian Too Says:
    August 9th, 2010 at 7:47 pm
    One triumph does not make for a universal law. The GR was good for sure but it didn’t rewrite the carrying capacity of the Earth. History is full of civilizations who faced environmental challenges they could not meet. Just take a look at the Norse in Greenland, the Maya, and the city-state of Angkor Wat. All were decimated and never recovered.
    Let’s hope we don’t face the same fate.

    Correct. But there is one very big difference – when civilizations collapsed back in the days, it was always a local collapse, there were plenty of unaffected regions where life carried on as usual, and the time without intensive human habitation allowed the land to recover. Angkor was a jungle when rediscovered centuries later, same with the Mayan cities, etc.

    While we are playing a global experiment with the planet now, so there won’t be any unaffected regions where civilization will be preserved from the chaos, and on top of that we have weapons powerful enough to blow the whole place up so it is not at all certain whether we will even survive.

    That’s another reason why Easter Island is such a good analogy for our situation. It has yet to recover to this day – it is still completely treeless several centuries later.

    17. Nullius in Verba Says:
    August 10th, 2010 at 2:39 pm
    #9,
    “Since the Green Revolution made a mockery of the Club of Rome predictions,…”
    That’s not the only example. There are thousands of others of how technology has completely changed the game. It’s just our favourite because it’s so appropriate to the current debate.

    There aren’t thousands of examples of technologies changing the carrying capacity for humans of the planet. It’s really just a handful of those – agriculture, fossil fuels, Green Revolution (which is hardly separable from fossil fuels, but for the sake of the argument)., and that’s pretty much it. And it doesn’t change the general argument that just because technology has bailed us out several times before, it will keep doing it indefinitely. In contrast to movies, in the real world there are impossible things

    “History is full of civilizations who faced environmental challenges they could not meet.”
    It is is full of challenges they did not meet. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t, had they been flexible and ingenious enough. Mostly they tried sacrificing their wealth to the Gods of climate instead of getting on and solving the problem.

    You simply have no serious argument against this. The point is that historically technology didn’t bail out all civilizations except ours, while you claim that it will always do it. Yes, the behavior of those civilizations wasn’t the wisest. But is ours? A very big part of the argument for inevitable and catastrophic collapse is that whatever technology and resources we have available to mitigate the disaster will not be used wisely because of people’s ignorance, stupidity and selfishness. Because those are the defining characteristics of people’s behavior today and there is no reason to think this will change when the shortages come.

    Regarding your points against nuclear power…
    1. Yes there is. There is lots of untapped geological potential, and even what we have would last 50 times longer if we used breeders.

    Where exactly? The people who study these things list figures of only a few decades at CURRENT consumption of proven reserves (and you want to expand 10-fold?). The rest is unproven reserves and very low grade ores. Unproven reserves are vaporware until shown otherwise, and even with them, the picture is hardly rosy. Yes, there is plenty of uranium in granite rocks, but the entropic cost of getting it out of them is huge.

    The problem with breeders is that they don’t exists as commercial technology, so it will be again several decades because they can be brought online in sufficient numbers. We should have started using them a long time ago, but as I pointed out, wisdom isn’t our defining characteristic as species, and because people were more concerned with war than with sustainability, it never took off. Now it’s too late. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be building them as fast as possible, we should, but it won’t make a difference. And we aren’t going to build them anyway

    2. Yes there is. Nuclear reactors are not significantly harder to build than anything else. France managed to raise the capital in a couple of decades, and it was doing a lot of other things at the same time.

    France is a small country, which had the opportunity to do this in peace time. We are talking about the whole world here, against the background of the downslope of the Hubbert curve. Big difference. If the will is there and the needed sacrifices are made, it can be done, yes. But your point is that we can essentially carry on BAU, not make any sacrifices and just let the market forces take us to the heaven of cheap energy. That’s batshit crazy.

    3. Yes there is. It takes about 3-5 years to build a reactor, and you can build lots in parallel. France managed it in a couple of decades, and they could probably have done it faster if they had devoted more of their resources to it.

    It actually takes at least a decade from taking the decision to build a nuclear plant, through planning it, building it and bringing it online. I don’t know where you got the 3-5 years number from. And you can not be building them in parallel because there are only so much people who actually know how to build these things, and they can not exist at 50 places at the same time.

    4. The (affordable) technology isn’t there yet on this one, true. (For stuff like trucks at least. There are actually nuclear powered ships.) But even if it were so, that isn’t an argument against building nuclear.

    What about nuclear powered airplanes? Those technologies were actually seriously considered in the 50s and 60s, but they were simply impractical. I am not sure why you think I am against building nuclear. I am all for it, we should be building them as fast as possible and as many of them as possible, and of the breeder and thorium type, not the conventional ones. The point I am trying to make is that it is a pipe dream to think that this a solution to the sustainability crisis. It is not. It is not even a solution to the energy crisis. There is no solution that will allow growth to continue, which means that how we organize our society will have to be completely reconsidered, sooner or later. So it happens that we are actually about 50 years late at this point, so it is not going to happen

  20. lgcarey

    If the issue is “buying us time”, why isn’t the recent journal article from Mark Jacobson of Stanford getting more traction — the one about how simply concentrating on aggressively reducing black carbon could buy us an extra decade or two to get our act together to control GHG emissions? THAT would seem a lot more sensible than pursuing pie-in-the-sky, “we don’t have a clue what the results will be but let’s try it and see what happens” geo-engineering solutions.
    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/07/soot-control/

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »