on 21 May 2013
There are some dastardly power-mad people who want to take control of our weather, says Clive Hamilton in his excellent book Earthmasters. The Australian Professor of Public Ethics then names these wannabe 'Earthmasters' and offers an expert review of their weapon of choice: climate geoengineering technologies.
There are two categories of geoengineering. One is less risky and less potent - and therefore of less interesting to these people motivated as they are by technical control of the Earth. This is negative emissions, or sucking carbon out of the air. The other is very risky and potent - solar radiation management, or managing the sun - and therefore attractive to their 'Earthmaster' ambitions
Sucking carbon out of the air is a massive and costly activity says Hamilton. Hamilton calculates that sucking carbon out of the air equivalent to a standard 1000-megawatt coal-fired power station would take 30 kilometres of air-sucking machinery and six chemical plants covering six kilometres of land, neatly demonstrating the stupidity of our continuing fossil fuel use. After outlining some other carbon-sucking options he concludes: "the essential difficulty with all carbon dioxide removal approaches is that they want to push a reluctant genie back into the bottle".
Sadly we'll need to get the genie back into the bottle because in my view very rapid cuts in carbon emissions alone won't keep greenhouse gas concentrations below danger level.
Managing the sun - but Hamilton concentrates his fire on those who actively promote much riskier, but much cheaper, technologies to regulate the amount of energy we get from the sun. The main ideas for achieving this are modifying clouds and mimicking the cooling effect of volcanoes through injecting aerosols into the stratosphere.
Hamilton delivers a devastating critique of the technologies and the agendas of those promoting their use. Bill Gates, Bjorn Lomborg and a number of influential and well-funded think-tanks, such as the Exxon-Mobil-funded Heartland Institute, attract his fire. Ironically, many of these think-tanks deny the existence of man-made climate change but are eager to manipulate the weather. Others are eager to manipulate the weather in order to avoid action to cut carbon emissions. Just how bad can you get?
Hamilton also explores the ethical dilemmas involved in the difficult territory of geoengineering.
He has sympathy with the many well-motivated scientists alarmed by the lack of progress on cutting carbon pollution who are now regard investigating geoengineering options as a lesser evil than unchecked climate change. Yet he points out that even talking about and researching options may in itself lead to reduced action to cut emissions.
He suggests the lure of the technofix is powerful to some mindsets. Mindsets which fail to understand the fragility of natural systems and the inherent risks of experimenting on our only home.
He concludes by saying that "if the meek are ever to inherit the Earth then they had better be quick".
Earthmasters is an important and accessible read. I'd recommend it to anyone concerned with climate change and the politics of climate change.
What's clear is that humankind - or probably more accurately mankind - has created one hell of a mess by ignoring warnings about greenhouse gases and climate change for decades. We must cut carbon emissions, and fast, in addition to sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. And we must also reject the agendas of these would-be masters of the Earth.
Mike Childs, Head of Science, Policy & Research at Friends of the Earth
on 13 May 2013
Clive Hamilton's previous book, Requiem for a Species, was a depressing insight into the pervasiveness of climate change denial, fuelled, he suggested, by an unwillingness to contemplate social changes that would involve having to adopt lower-carbon lifestyles. Earthmasters follows on from this. Here, Hamilton focusses on advocates of geoengineering, who propose techno-fixes that would, they promise, stabilise the climate while avoiding the need for social change.
The author is a helpful guide to the brave new world of climate control. He explains how some of the more realistic geoengineering schemes might work, whether by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or by blocking some of the sun's rays from entering it (or 'Solar Radiation Management' in the suitably Orwellian official terminology). He is not taken in by the hype, and is careful to draw attention to possible unintended consequences of each scheme. One of the most revealing features of the book is what it uncovers about the unlikely coalition of forces promoting geoengineering - from, at one extreme, climate scientists who despair at humanity's apparent inability to adopt necessary emissions controls, to, at the other, conservative think tanks which manage to combine strenuous denial of the reality of human-caused climate change with spirited advocacy of technological interventions to control the climate.
Hamilton draws an interesting distinction between what he calls Promethean and Soterian attitudes to social and technological change. Prometheans, followers of the Greek god of technological mastery, are, he suggests, always seeking technological solutions to problems, to avoid the need for social change. Soterians, in contrast, follow the Greek goddess of security and preservation, and prefer to make the changes which render problems less acute and minimise risks. Clearly it is Prometheans who created the problem of climate instability, and are now the most vocal advocates of geoengineering solutions which, they insist, would allow us to continue on our growth path without jeopardising the climate.
There is a dilemma at the heart of Earthmasters, which Hamilton never manages to completely resolve. Do we accept that we may have left it too late to protect the climate stability on which we rely by cutting emissions, and start exploring the geoengineering alternatives, with all the risks they entail? Or would the very act of considering these alternatives bring a form of moral hazard into play - would we be drawn to geoengineering as an easy option, and give up any attempt to cut emissions?
If some form of geoengineering is adopted, Hamilton suggests that he would prefer it to be managed by Sotarians, who would reluctantly accept it as a regrettable measure to protect deeper values based on respect for nature, than by Promethians, who would embrace it as a way of enhancing human domination of nature and enabling economic growth to continue unrestrained. Promethean rule, Hamilton concludes, must be overthrown, and time is running out - "if the meek are ever to inherit the Earth then they had better be quick." How this might be brought about, Hamilton does not say. Clearly there is a sexual politics dimension here, hinted at, but never developed. Earthmasters is an important book, but it is a great pity, in my view, that Hamilton does not take the opportunity to explore this aspect further. Without this further exploration, and any clear call to action, we are left with a sense of hopelessness, which is ultimately disempowering.