Perhaps a month ago Paul Athanasiou of EcoEquity, a radical climate group, made the very smart point to me that geoengineering is a viable possibility only if coupled with intensive, actual reductions in global carbon emissions as a sort of emergency intervention. Otherwise climate engineering proposals remain extremely dangerous because emissions continue unabated while temperatures are kept artificially low. If the geoengineering intervention is curtailed, temperatures would skyrocket precipitously like a dam bursting.

But the issue of climate engineering seems to be coming to a head. John Tierney wrote today, here in the NY Times, about an upsurge in interest in geoengineering or climate engineering proposals. These include things like installing sunscreens in space to block radiation over the Arctic, making the oceans or clouds more reflective using aerosols or reflective particles, directly removing CO2 from the atmosphere, or even launching a small artificial planet into space that would orbit at a constant rate between the Earth and Sun, blocking a percentage of radiation. Tierney mentions some important risks, for instance the potential effects of aerosols on rainfall.

One thing that’s fascinating is the tendency toward grandiose thinking among scientists whose inclinations run toward large-scale experimentation with global systems. An issue that comes up again and again is who – or what political body – could reasonably authorize such an intervention into what is patently (but not legally) a human domain of the highest political order, the climatic stability of Earth’s biosphere. Does this require UN authorization? Could the UN prevent some ambitious entrepreneur from trying to intervene to save the world?

But this is the attractiveness of geoengineering proposals for most proponents, namely that they don’t require much talking, negotiation or coordination. “[H]ow much hope is there of permanently enforcing tough restrictions in the United States, much less in poor countries like India and China?” Tierney asks. “If even a few nations demur or cheat, the whole system can break down.” This is conversely apparent in how proponents talk about the physical side of things. He quotes Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution of Science discussing the need for and difficulty with short term climate experiments: “With short testing periods, you would need to hit the [climate] system with a hammer.”

Can you guys be a little more delicate with my atmosphere please?

Tierney writes that “climate engineering does not require unanimous agreement or steadfast enforcement throughout the world. Instead of relying on politicians’ promises, we might find it simpler to deal directly with Mother Earth’s hot air.” This puts us squarely in the domain of the science studies insight that things have politics – why talk to Indians or the Chinese when you can negotiate directly with Mother Earth? The issue is not what Andrew Barry calls ‘antipolitics’ but rather the politics per se of technology. Geoengineering is held up as an alternative to multilateral negotiations or even to world government, if you like.

Pay attention, too, to the language of promise, hope, agreement and cheeting that runs through the geoengineering discourse. Mike Fortun helps us think about such things in discussing the ethics of promising in biotech, in which technological promises help secure investment futures. Here the operation is opposite and symmetrical: cheating is a threat because ultimately promises are insubstantial. Tierney marks himself as a ‘realist’ sharing symmetrical epistemological underpinnings with the ‘idealists’ he imagines will just talk about the weather instead of acting.

By setting up the debate as one between the ease of a realist proposal and the implausibility of the idealists’ approach, Tierney outright ignores the real, fine-grained intimate work that many, many people will need to engage in to make climate mitigation happen. That work will indeed require a lot of talking, and talking with people with expectations that will be hard to meet or manage.

Most importantly, Tierney completely neglects by far the biggest risk of geoengineering: cooling the atmosphere without reducing CO2 concentrations requires a permanent commitment to continue deployment of the technology indefinitely into the future. He alludes to but elides this fact when he writes that the “effects [of loading the statosphere with aerosols] would wane as the particles fell back to Earth.” In the meantime people and governments will have forgotten about the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. They will have forgotten the need to actually reduce emissions because so long as geoengineerging is in force the climate will remain cool even while CO2 concentrations skyrocket.

What happens when no one wants to keep paying the $10-30 billion (annual?) Teirney estimates is the cost of such a proposal? Temperatures meanwhile will have been kept artificially low – to cease the engineering intervention global temperatures would spike catastrophically. The one exception Tierney mentions is the possibility of active, direct removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which pretty much everyone agrees would be a good thing.

Geoengineering may not require global agreement to implement, but if one considers who could make such a promise the only plausible answer is a global political institution with a mandate and wherewithal to vitally protect the well being of humanity indefinitely into the future.

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