[Yale University Press; 2013]

[Yale University Press; 2013]

“Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun. I will do the next best thing: block it out.”
— Mr. Burns

Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” But historian James Fleming insists, “No matter how great the scientific wizardry, the modern Archimedes still has no place to stand, no acceptable lever or fulcrum, and no way to predict where the Earth will roll if tipped.” One should read and appreciate Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering within the context of this fundamental contention.

What Is Geoengineering and Why Do We Need It?

Hamilton’s book takes climate engineering, also known as geoengineering, as its subject. Geoengineering is, according to the The Royal Society, the deliberate manipulation of the environment on a large scale. Although geoengineering has been gaining political ground in the past decade and the technology is comparatively cutting edge, the concept of geoengineering has been discussed since the early 1960s, mostly in military terms.

Hamilton begins by presenting the three justifications that are frequently used to defend the research and deployment of geoengineering projects: “it will allow us to buy time, it will allow us to respond to a climate emergency and it may be the best option economically.” The reason many environmentalists are discussing and debating geoengineering can be summed up by one of its strongest mainstream proponents, journalist Gwynne Dyer, who argues that geoengineering can create purposeful short-term interventions to avoid a climate disaster, in order to give us more time to get our emissions down.

There are three main methods of geoengineering: carbon dioxide removal (CDR) techniques that remove CO2 from the atmosphere, Solar Radiation Management (SRM) techniques that reflect a small percentage of the sun’s light and heat back into space, and weather modification. Each method is meant to either reduce the amount of CO2 already in the Earth’s environment, or to prevent any more CO2 from getting into the atmosphere. Some technologies and techniques proposed proposed to accomplish this include fertilizing the ocean with iron nanoparticles, launching 16 trillion space sunshades, storing compressed CO2 in abandoned mines, building artificial tree plantations, covering deserts with white plastic, and launching 30,000 ships with turbines to propel salt and whiten clouds, to name just a few.

It is worth emphasizing the uniqueness of SRM, as proponents of geoengineering seem to have coalesced around it due to its supposed inexpensiveness and feasibility. According to Harvard Magazine,

Solar geoengineering encompasses multiple proposals to adjust the planet’s thermostat, including deflecting sunlight away from the earth with massive space shields or with extra-bright low-altitude clouds over oceans. One suggestion, inspired by sulfur-spewing volcanoes, involves modifying a fleet of jets to spray sulfates into the stratosphere, where they would combine with water vapor to form aerosols. Dispersed by winds, these particles would cover the globe with a haze that would reflect roughly 1 percent of solar radiation away from Earth. (The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which shot some 10 million metric tons of sulfur into the air, reduced global temperatures about 1 degree F for at least a year.)

Hamilton claims that “Some of those environmentalists and scientists most acutely aware of the dangers of global warming support geoengineering,” and one is reminded of David Keith, an environmental scientist and Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School whose recent book, A Case for Climate Engineering, has received significant mainstream attention. “By endorsing geoengineering,” Hamilton says, “their objective is not to find a way of defending the political and economic systems from the threat of climate change, but simply to protect us from calamity.”

Hamilton fully acknowledges our current existential conundrum: international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have all failed, and before the end of the century Earth is projected to be warmer than it has been for 15 million years. The question “can the crisis be avoided?” has been overshadowed by a more frightening one — “what can be done to prevent the devastation of the living world?” So a proposed solution to our seemingly insurmountable eco-problems, especially one expressed in the language of cutting-edge science, is likely to spark the interests of people from all political walks of life.

Many proponents of geoengineering are well-meaning and honestly believe that the international community will not come together and take action fast enough to avoid climate disaster; hence we need these drastic interventions. According to Jeff Goodell, the strategy is usually seen as a short-term solution that is not meant to completely solve the problem of climate change. But no matter the rationale behind geoengineering, as Earthmasters vividly demonstrates, there is a host of issues surrounding the efficacy, economic implementation, and political operation of climate engineering.

Problems with Geoengineering

In 2005, Michael Behar wrote a comprehensive assessment of multiple geoengineering technologies for Popular Science. He assessed their positive or negative possibilities by focusing on three factors: feasibility, cost, and risk. I will briefly convey his analysis of the two most popular methods of climate engineering: ocean fertilization and cloud whitening. The former is a CDR technique. The latter is an SRM technique.

Ocean fertilization hypothesizes that adding tons of iron particles to specific patches of ocean water can cool the planet by generating blooms of CO2-consuming plankton. The cost of this project is relatively cheap, but the risk is high. The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity concluded, ocean fertilization “presents serious challenges for the law of the sea, a fundamental objective of which is to ensure that activities conducted on, in, or under the oceans do not create hazards to human health or the marine environment.” In addition, some scientists — such as biological oceanographer Sallie Chisholm — doubt the efficacy of ocean fertilization and argue that the strategy should be abandoned.

Cloud whitening, which sounds like something out of one of Mr. Burns’ evil schemes from The Simpsons, involves using thousands of ships to shoot saltwater air into the clouds located above the ocean in order to make them whiter and increase their reflectivity. “It would be like a mirror for incoming solar radiation,” says physicist John Latham. According to Latham, increasing reflectivity in just 3 percent of marine clouds would reflect enough sunlight to curb global warming. This plan has moderate levels of feasibility and cost, but a high risk due to the chance that these tiny particles could lead to the prevention of rain falling. Overall, Behar concludes that when it comes to the technological aspect of geoengineering, there has yet to be a plan that scores positively in feasibility, risk, and cost.

One reoccurring theme that continually supports various climate engineering projects is the notion that if we fix climate change using highly industrial technology, we can save the environment while continuing the growth of the global economy. This is a win-win situation, advocates argue, in which human ingenuity saves us via advanced technology: also known as the “silver bullet” hypothesis.

But Hamilton points out the flawed thinking:

[T]he popular but error-riddled book Superfreakonomics insists that the prospect of solar radiation management renders mitigation unnecessary: ‘For anyone who loves cheap and simple solutions, things don’t get much better.’ Instrumental thinking does not come much cruder, yet it is just this kind of Promethean wand-waving that prevails in the power centres of the world.

It is within this “instrumental thinking” regarding the use of techno-fixes that Hamiliton situates his primary critique of climate engineering. Hamilton’s main argument against geoengineering is that it will have unintended and most likely devastating consequences, and that climate engineering is part of a larger doomed project of human mastery. He argues,

Human interventions have had many successes, but it’s the disasters that we should heed when considering schemes as audacious as some of those proposed by geoengineerers.

Hamilton debunks — successfully, I believe — many of the basic arguments in favor of geoengineering, particularly from the abovementioned angle of environmental desperation.

The Military-Industrial-Geoengineering Complex

What if geoengineering works and these Faustian projects are successful? What then? Earthmasters makes clear that there are also political issues with climate engineering, concerning geopolitical power dynamics. Because geoengineering solutions can be undertaken on a top-down, privatized, command-and-control basis, they can be more readily implemented rather than going the democratic route through international treaties and consensus. In addition, Hamilton brings up some vital political questions: how will geoengineering schemes be assessed and managed if they help some and harm others? And who will pay for the consequences of failed geoengineering?

Daniel Schrag, the Director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, poignantly observes,

Suppose we could control hurricanes, but stopping one requires an incredibly hot day in Africa that would burn up all the crops. Let’s say you have a mirror in space. Think of two summers ago [2003] when we were having this awful cold summer and Europe was having an awful heat wave. Who gets to adjust the mirror?

Hamilton also brings to our attention the fact that the world’s strongest militaries are becoming increasingly interested in geoengineering. According to a 1996 report commissioned by the U.S. Airforce, “Weather modification can provide battlespace dominance to a degree never before imagined.” This might explain the rise of the “military-led geoengineering lobby,” which involves organizations like the Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C.-based think tank that lobbies for U.S. military supremacy. This puts many environmentalists who are in favor of climate engineering next to some rather unlikely bedfellows

Hamilton writes about the obvious contradiction here: many of these right-wing organizations have spent years repudiating climate science and attacking climate scientists. Yet the combination of supposed economic feasibility and potential for military advantage has resulted in support from many venture capitalists, corporations, and right-wing think tanks, including The Heartland Institute, The Cato Institute, and the Hudson Institute, which has stated that geoengineering “could obviate the majority of the need for carbon cuts and enable us to avoid lifestyle changes.” Or as Newt Gingrich has put it, “Geoengineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year . . . Bring on American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.”

Prometheans vs Soterians

In Earthmasters, Hamilton has compiled a massive amount of information and evidence to make a strong case that climate engineering is risky and that unintended consequences could be dire. But it is his larger ethical queries concerning human mastery, technological arrogance, and the limits of rationality — Hamilton is, after all, an ethical philosopher — that make this book a vital read.

Hamilton’s main philosophical argument rests upon his categorization of two major strands of Western thought. He states, “The divide is between Prometheans and Soterians, a technocratic rationalist worldview confident of humanity’s ability to control nature, against a more humble outlook suspicious of unnatural technological solutions and the hubris of mastery projects.” Ultimately, his case against technological thinking — the type of thinking embedded in the framework of systems analysis, risk assessment, and cost-benefit calculation — is the most thought provoking aspect of Earthmasters.

Hamilton argues,

There is a view that if you are clever enough to understand atmospheric physics then you are clever enough to grasp the nuances of politics, social change, and ethics. As in the nuclear arms race, the allocation of authority to those with scientific expertise reflects the continued privileged of the hyper-rationality of physical science over the kinds of reasoning and knowledge valid in other spheres where the weakness of humans and their institutions are recognized and the lessons of history absorbed.

This contention should sound all too familiar to those aware of the recent debates concerning scientism, the humanities, and the limits of quantitative methods. In a recent article for the journal Insurgent Notes, professor Michael Rectenwald makes the case against Ray Kurzweil and the Singularitarian worldview. His arguments are similar to the ones Hamilton levies against climate engineers. Rectenwald states,

Even leaving aside its cosmic pretentions, the Singulartarian worldview is in fact techno-determinist, scientistic, and mystified. The movement is a carrier of an ideology that would leave the social order in place as it ignores the antagonisms of class society to focus on technological management. It obscures the social basis of real-world crises by promising a panacea of technological fixes as opposed to social change.

Geoengineering has its technological and philosophical origins in a mode of thought that is based on human control and power. Hamilton is not the only thinker to critique geoengineering in this context. According to the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, geoengineering is “a philosophy and a world view that is heavily coloured by a Western, male-dominated, narrowly scientific paradigm that fails to recognize its own epistemic position of privilege.”

Hamilton’s distinction between Prometheans and Soterians is similar to Jeremy Rifkin’s description of a mechanical view of the world in his book Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World. Rifkin claims that the mechanical worldview that has dominated Western for the past two centuries can be credited to a few men: Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, with contributions from John Locke and Adam Smith. The first basic premise of the mechanical worldview is that there is an accurate mathematical order to the universe that can be deduced observing the motions of the heavenly bodies. Since the Earth seems to be chaotic, humans need to implement order. Rifkin observes,

The erratic behavior of people and the imperfect workings of government and the economy didn’t seem to square with the well-ordered mechanical explanation of the world that Bacon, Descartes, and Newton had put forth. The dilemma was quickly resolved: if society was misbehaving, then it could only be due to the fact that it was not adhering to the natural laws that govern the universe.

The second premise of the mechanical worldview is that there are limited ethical choices to be made in the political and economic sphere, rational judgments to be exercised by self-interested individuals. A third premise is that in order to facilitate that material self-interest, humans must use the scientific principles of mechanics to rearrange nature. Rifkin concludes, “Progress . . . is the amassing of greater and greater material abundance, which is assumed to result in an ever more ordered world. Science and technology are the tools for getting the job done.”

By legitimizing the “natural” right of humans to control and exploit the Earth, geoengineering carries on the logic of this mechanical worldview. As Hamilton notes in the anthology Climate Change Geoengineering, “Plans to engineer the Earth through the deployment of contrivances to manipulate the atmosphere represent the fulfillment of three-and-a-half centuries of objectification of nature.”

The Arrogance of Humanism

This attitude of domination of the natural world can be put into another context: “the arrogance of humanism,” as defined by biologist David Ehrenfeld. The arrogance of humanism is based on multiple assumptions: all problems are soluble by people, and most problems are soluble by technology. When the chips are down, we will apply ourselves and work together toward a solution, and human civilization will survive. Ehrenfeld argues that the assumptions of this humanist (or anthropocentric) view of the world are the principles of modern society. He states,

In this Age of Ironies this must be the great irony of all: humanism, which proclaims and celebrates the critical intelligence of humanity, has in the last analysis failed to invoke it where it is needed most, to test humanism’s own faith by appraising the success of our interactions with the environment . . . The most spectacular failures of human control and negations of human omniscience have been manifested in our dealings with the many human environments.

Ehrenfeld claims that the arrogance of humanism fails to observe and accept certain ecological constraints, such as entropy, biological succession, and irreversibility. Although during the writing of his book Ehrenfeld was most likely unaware of the modern plans for geoengineering, it seems that these sentiments would be his immediate response.

Hamilton states that “the separation of natural and human history and the dominance of a certain form of calculative rationality were each products of the same Enlightenment process.” Hence, I believe it is helpful to situate Hamilton’s book alongside Rifkin and Ehrenfeld’s critique of mechanical Western thinking, as well as Carolyn Merchant’s important body of thought and the recent work of Burns H. Weston and David Bollier.

Moral Hazard and the Limitations of Earthmasters

Earthmasters teases out the ethical anxieties concerning climate engineering, including moral corruption, but most of all moral hazard. Hamilton notes, “geoengineering research is virtually certain to reduce incentives to pursue emissions reductions . . . Already, representatives of the fossil fuel industry have begun to talk of geoengineering as a substitute for carbon abatement.” According to Hamilton, the kind of technocratic thinking of the climate engineers fits neatly beside the calculative reckoning of a certain kind of economics — namely free-market economists. He states,

[Climate engineers] are not reluctant to declare that the value of technofixes is that they can solve a problem that would otherwise require social change. Geoengineering is an essentially conservative technology, one whose political appeal risks obscuring its inherent faults. This is why the economists who lend support to it . . . are uniformly free market conservatives.

It is this moral hazard, the idea that by going along with climate engineering projects we will simply ignore the forces that created our climate catastrophe, that is perhaps Hamilton’s strongest argument against geoengineering. According to journalist Arun Gupta,

There are no engineering or economic barriers to reducing our thirst for oil, coal, and natural gas. It has to do with how our society and political economy are structured to enforce the transfer of wealth and resources from the many to the few. Relying on complex, untested, and dangerous means to address global warming will not make the crisis any easier to address because geoengineering will still intersect with the same social forces. The evidence against geoengineering is so overwhelming and the motivation of many proponents so self-serving that it should be stopped.

This brings me to the realm of political economy, and the limitations of Hamilton’s book. He writes,

There is something increasingly desperate about placing more faith in technological cleverness when it is the unrelenting desire to command the natural world that has brought us to this point. Unless we understand why a certain kind of rationality seems to have failed, appeals to more reason are quixotic. . . . Technological thinking understands the world as a collection of more or less useable resources. . . . modern technology reveals something essential to the nature of modern humans — the determination to shape the world around us to suit desires that seem to have no limit.

This is true, but we should be clear — it is not the “desires” of human nature that have no limit, it is the capitalist economy that is truly limitless. It is the structure of the capitalist system that causes our approach toward climate catastrophe. As John Bellamy Foster observes, the global capitalist economy is constantly producing major environmental problems, such as ocean acidification, species extinction, fresh water shortages, depletion of soil nutrients, and chemical pollution.

In The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey claims that “the survival of capitalism in the long run depends on the capacity to achieve 3 per cent compound growth.” However, this demand for infinite growth on a finite planet makes capitalism inherently unsustainable. One of Rectenwald’s arguments in his aforementioned case against the Singularitarian, techno-utopian worldview is particularly useful here: “[techno-utopianism] ignores the fact that the social relations of capitalist production are culpable for the environmental crises that beset us.”

One need not be a Marxist like Harvey or Foster to recognize the environmental limitations of the capitalist system. As liberal economist Amartya Sen stated nearly fifteen years ago, “The big challenges that capitalism now faces in the contemporary world include issues of inequality (especially that of grinding poverty in a world of unprecedented prosperity) and of ‘public goods’ (that is, goods that people share together, such as the environment).” Sen goes on to say, “The solutions to these problems will almost certainly call for institutions that take us beyond the capitalist market economy.”

Hamilton’s book misses this more radical, and necessary, analysis of the environmental crisis. Nonetheless, Earthmasters is an immeasurably important book that should be required reading for those who are interested in the current debate surrounding geoengineering.

Daniel LoPreto is Assistant Editor at Nation Books.


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  • So what’s the happy synthesis? Complete rejection of a mechanical approach to nature and “human control and power” seems impossible without reverting to a pre-agricultural society (and even then, the exercise of control and power seems like it would still be needed for survival). What I think we want is not to get rid of mechanical and instrumental thinking, but to temper it with humility and an understanding of biological realities and processes.

    It’s hard to imagine solutions to global climate change that don’t involve some degree of engineering. For instance, trying to replace cars with public transportation involves the planning and creation of large amounts of infrastructure. At what point does that become “hubris” vs healthy societal agency?

    It’s not clear why geoengineering in principle would fall on the wrong side of this line. Rather, it seems like the devil would be in the details… the risks and costs of specific technologies (which is something that changes the more the technology is developed and understood), the degree to which it supports vs detracts from other efforts to protect the environment, etc. It’s good to take a hard critical look at it, but rejecting it outright on ideological grounds seems wrong-headed to me.