Who Gets to Decide Whether to Hack the Climate
It is the opening day of the 24th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. As officials gather in Katowice, a center of Poland’s coal and steel industries, to review progress toward the Paris Agreement, five developing states, calling themselves the “Geoengineering Justice Coalition,” circulate an ultimatum. By 2020, rich countries must fulfill all pledges made in the Paris Agreement, including promises of $US 100 billion in annual assistance to the developing world. If they fail, the coalition will commence solar geoengineering. Through interventions that reflect a tiny proportion of the sun’s energy back into space, these developing states promise to artificially halt global warming.
A spokesperson for the Geoengineering Justice Coalition addresses the press: “It is now three decades since, at a meeting in Toronto in 1988, developed countries first promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2005. Today, we have reached a point where, even if all Paris Agreement pledges are fulfilled, warming this century is likely to exceed 3°C. As the climate has warmed, we have learned how heat waves, crop failures, rising seas, and extreme weather visit their worst harms on those who are already vulnerable. These harms to the world’s poorest people are caused — albeit indirectly and unintentionally — by the activities of the richest.
“Thus when our scientists tell us that the poorest people can be the greatest beneficiaries of solar geoengineering, we cannot dismiss them lightly. Today I invite all countries to join in designing a pro-poor plan of implementation. For developed countries, there is an admission price: they must first contribute their proportionate share of adaptation assistance to the Green Climate Fund. Geoengineering will commence only if the rich world does not fulfill its promises, and only with the approval of a majority of participating states.”
Admittedly, the idea of a Geoengineering Justice Coalition is fanciful. There is no significant constituency for either third-world radicalism or hubristic technological interventions. However, thinking about solar geoengineering from a developing-world perspective serves another purpose: it disrupts the idea that in the Anthropocene all share a common fate.
In the case of geoengineering, that idea has been codified conceptually in the Oxford Principles, the most widely recognized ethical standards governing the research and implementation of geoengineering. The principles suggest that geoengineering must be regulated as a public good, with prior informed consent of all affected communities and, consequently, a universal governance arrangement to oversee implementation.
Measured against the Oxford Principles, the Geoengineering Justice Coalition’s actions would be unethical, because they would not be predicated upon a global democratic consensus. Most scholars agree. Some go further. Cambridge geographer Mike Hulme, for instance, has argued that any solar geoengineering would be “undesirable, ungovernable, and unreliable.” Not only would it be impossible to achieve global agreement, but deployment would create international tension. Once geoengineering commences, suspicious minds might see the hand of foreign saboteurs in any unfavorable weather pattern.
The universal language of the Oxford Principles, however, conceals a sleight of hand. The principles require that the rules governing intentional actions, through which developing countries might protect their people from climate harms, should be very different from the rules governing the unintentional actions that create those harms. It is the rich world that has benefited most from those unintentional actions, not least from the myriad ways in which fossil-fueled development has made citizens of those nations much more resilient to climate extremes than their counterparts in poor nations. For this reason, it is also the poor world that stands to benefit most from intentional actions to mitigate climate change, including geoengineering. Because the near-term threats of climate change primarily afflict developing-world people, the rich and poor worlds may ultimately reach quite divergent conclusions about a flawed but functional techno-fix. In that eventuality, the universal ethical standards articulated by the Oxford Principles, well intentioned as they may be, might compound global injustice.
Radical scholars often draw on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to explain how laws and norms expressed in universal terms can advance the interests of a dominant class. The same insight is captured by Anatole France’s quip that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”
The Oxford Principles would make perfect sense if they governed only the West. Of course rich countries and rogue billionaires should gain global consent before intentionally interfering with the earth system. Even if we turn to climate intervention only as part “of a symphony of actions harmonized for managing the global environment,” Western-led geoengineering will only be ethical if it has wide international support.
But should the Oxford Principles dictate developing-world responses to climate change? One of the most common tropes in the anti-geoengineering literature is the assertion that “the world’s most vulnerable people would likely be most affected” and that those who “bear little or no responsibility for the problem of anthropogenic climate change” may be harmed. This is a rather curious distortion.
What the evidence actually suggests is that solar geoengineering would — as a rule of thumb — bring poor communities and equatorial regions the greatest benefits. People in the developing world are the primary victims of climate change, both because poverty creates vulnerability and because equatorial regions are already close to the limits of thermal comfort. Since many poor countries are located in the tropics, they already experience roughly twice as many hot days as the rich world does, and that number of hot days is increasing twice as fast. It is true that solar geoengineering would impact equatorial regions disproportionately. But that effect would be beneficial: equatorial regions would cool much more than the poles. Solar geoengineering would therefore “most affect” the poor much like public health insurance “most affects” the sick.
It is the poor world that stands to benefit most from intentional actions to mitigate climate change, including geoengineering.
Our knowledge of already existing climate harms is highly imperfect. Media attention focuses on dramatic cases, like Tuvalu and Kiribati, where entire nations are threatened by rising seas. Yet crop failure, vector-borne illness, heat waves, floods, and extreme weather events are already inflicting hardship on millions. In most cases the connection with climate change isn’t apparent, even to the victims. Complex statistical analysis is needed to discern, probabilistically, what quantum of harm should be attributed to the changing climate amid incremental shifts in the everyday atrocities of global inequality.
Enter solar geoengineering. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that what it terms solar radiation management (SRM) “would generally reduce climate differences compared to a world with elevated [greenhouse gas concentrations] and no SRM.” Sea-level rise would be slowed but not halted. The IPCC also emphasizes that geoengineering is no panacea. It carries considerable risks, and its impacts on different regions will vary. Thus, it is entirely possible that some vulnerable people could be harmed — indeed, one early study found that a strategy designed to maximize global benefits might have adverse consequences for the Sahel region of West Africa. However, the same study also identified an alternative deployment strategy that would bring every region closer to preindustrial rainfall and temperature patterns. This finding has been confirmed by subsequent research.
Given this evidence, if a majority of developing-world people and governments decide that solar geoengineering can advance their interests, should they wait for the rich world’s permission? The Oxford Principles insist that they must — that powerful, polluting states should be able to veto an imperfect response. The principles are written in reasonable, impartial language and speak in abstract terms about the global public good. Those of us who speak in this privileged, universalist cadence should keep in mind that, despite our best intentions, we invariably project our own values and interests onto our image of the universal.
Solar geoengineering conforms to the widely accepted public health principle of harm minimization, which accepts that some activities (like drug use or greenhouse gas emissions) will not be eliminated immediately and instead seeks to reduce their negative impacts — its implementation might be motivated by a desire to protect both human populations and ecosystems from climate harms. It may thus come as a surprise that the ecological benefits of geoengineering are so rarely discussed — Oliver Morton’s wonderful book The Planet Remade is a rare exception. Perhaps the prohibition on intentional interference in nature — a defining norm of modern environmentalism — deters discussion of solar geoengineering’s potential benefits.
In his expansive history The Progressive Environmental Prometheans, William Meyer traces the roots of this prohibition. For centuries, the Promethean belief in humans’ ability to enhance their biophysical environment was primarily associated with the political left. With the advent of modern environmentalism in the 1960s, this progressive Prometheanism was reversed. Greens now emphasized the “danger of undesirable consequences produced by meddling in the complex system of nature.” As a result, Prometheanism came to be associated with the environmental movement’s conservative opponents. Naomi Klein reflects the taken-for-granted nature of this prohibition when she warns that if we try “to fix the crud in our lower atmosphere by pumping a different kind of crud into the stratosphere,” our geoengineering “may cause the earth to go wild in ways we cannot imagine.” Here, Klein casually dismisses the predictions of climate scientists and instead asserts that “self-organizing, complex, adaptive systems” such as the troposphere “have emergent properties that simply cannot be predicted.”
Curiously, though, the critique of hubris is itself a conservative position. As Meyer writes, apprehension concerning unintended consequences is “exactly the argument conservatives so often make with respect to the complex system of society.” It was conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott who warned, “Whenever there is innovation there is the certainty that the change will be greater than was intended.” However, it is Hayekian “neoliberalism,” rather than social conservatism, that is the green movement’s closest parallel. Both promote an attitude of human “submission” or “humility” before complex (market or ecological) systems, both seek to prohibit intentional interventions, and both have consolidated their political influence in the same (post-1970s) historical moment. Of course, greens typically reject neoliberal economic policies and resist Hayek’s celebration of the spontaneous order of the market. Yet the green prohibition on progressive intervention, just like its neoliberal peer, risks inculcating submission to the deep inequalities of market-governed order.
Curiously, the critique of hubris is itself a conservative position.
Some green theorists acknowledge these conservative associations. Andrew Dobson, for instance, carefully identifies a set of green commitments that distinguish his “ecologism” from conservatism — respect for the intrinsic worth of nonhuman natures, concern for future generations (rather than with preserving the past), and belief in motivations other than self-interest. Tellingly, however, hostility to solar geoengineering is not justified by any of these distinctly green commitments.
To label green advocacy of “humility before nature” as conservative is not to denigrate it. Green prudence provides an important corrective to the excesses of unreflective development. Its methodology of environmental impact assessment seeks to incorporate environmental values into decision-making about development. In the United States, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 institutionalized “environmental review.” By publishing a report on a project’s possible environmental impacts and seeking public feedback, this approach has made a significant contribution to public policy. However, if respect for the complexity of nature (or the market, or society) becomes an inviolable principle, it can quickly collapse into reactionary conservatism.
Such conservatism is usually linked to deeply held commitments, the acceptance or rejection of which can render political perspectives mutually unintelligible. Consider anxiety over nuclear power in Merkel’s Germany, or over GMOs in the European Union. In both cases, a concern for purity has been mobilized by political elites to nurture anxieties that motivate cruel and irrational policies. The resulting harms (via increased greenhouse gas emissions and restrictions on agricultural imports, most especially from sub-Saharan Africa) primarily afflict people who are excluded from the national community.
This process, wherein national elites stoke fears to mobilize and control public support for a certain policy position, is sometimes termed “securitization.” If a threat is chosen wisely, securitization may be beneficial. The Indonesian government’s public burning of illegal foreign fishing vessels has usefully raised the profile of marine conservation. More commonly, though, securitization promotes harmful self/other distinctions. If developing countries were to commence solar geoengineering, it is likely that they would confront resistance from first-world greens, and perhaps nationalists as well.
For many environmentalists, however, harm minimization is precisely the wrong approach. Climate change, in the view of some, has a redemptive purpose: like a planetary fever, warming will destroy the shallow materialist culture that is its cause. Clive Hamilton writes wistfully of the possibility that “fresh values will emerge in the era of the hot Earth — values of moderation, humility, and respect, even reverence, for the natural world. And in place of self-pity and instant gratification, we could see a resurgence of resourcefulness and selflessness.” Adherents of this view will likely oppose geoengineering because, by masking symptoms, it allows the disease to spread.
In the belief that consumption harms both people and their environments, many traditional environmentalists argue that it would be a mistake for the developing world to emulate Western modernity. Thus, Mark Jacobson’s plans for an all-renewable future anticipate that in 2050 global energy use will still be radically unequal (Jacobson proposes, for instance, that each American will consume more electricity than five Indians).
It would be unfair to conflate contemporary critiques of materialist cultures with the most racist examples of environmental thought. Nevertheless, concern about developing-world consumption is a theme that connects contemporary environmentalism with Garrett Hardin’s infamous call for the third world’s population to be “periodically checked by crop failures and famines,” and with Paul Ehrlich’s promotion of programs through which US aid and World Bank loans were made conditional upon achievement of mass sterilization targets. In the 1970s and 1980s tens of millions of people were sterilized through such programs, frequently involuntarily.
Modern environmentalism emerged at the height of postwar decolonization and has always existed in a dialectical relationship with third-world developmentalism. In many ways, debates between ecomodernists and traditional environmentalists today rehash 1970s disputes over industrial development. On the one side, environmentalists promoted “limits to growth” and insisted that newly decolonized states not repeat the mistakes of Western development. Meanwhile, the newly decolonized world demanded a “new international economic order” and observed that their environmental problems were “predominantly problems that reflect . . . poverty and very lack of development.”
Because the near-term threats of climate change primarily afflict developing-world people, the rich and poor worlds may ultimately reach quite divergent conclusions about a flawed but functional techno-fix.
Seeking a way through the acrimony, the UN General Assembly appointed a special commission to investigate North-South environmental cooperation. The resulting 1987 Brundtland Report is best remembered for popularizing “sustainable development.” Brundtland might equally be viewed as a statement of proto-ecomodernism. The report argues that there are no “absolute limits” to growth, that progress in “technology and social organization” can make continuing growth sustainable, that states’ “capacity for technological innovation needs to be greatly enhanced,” and that “technologies are needed that produce ‘social goods’” and that address problems “such as the external costs of pollution.”
In the ecomodernist imagination there is no inherent tension between development and climate mitigation, as ecomodernists promote global deployment of climate-friendly nuclear power. And yet, although a high-energy, low-carbon planet may be technically plausible, it does not seem politically feasible. As climate harms increase, talk of a “good Anthropocene” can seem tone-deaf to the reality of continuing deep global inequality.
Nearly five decades after the UN-sponsored Founex Report articulated the third world’s position in preparation for the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the conundrum is more intense than ever: vulnerable people’s quest for development and adaptation will compound environmental harms and risks. Achievement of a universally good Anthropocene thus turns upon our capacity to recalibrate human impacts.
Ideally, decisions about both climate change mitigation and solar geoengineering would be made democratically. In a global democracy, developing-world people would, by weight of numbers, dominate decision-making. However, despite promising green shoots of democratic practices, our capacity for reflective, democratically guided collective action remains limited. In this context, solar geoengineering is attractive precisely because it can be implemented without necessitating deep transformations within every community globally.
“Termination shock” is one of the most commonly raised concerns about solar geoengineering. According to this argument, once initiated, geoengineering must continue indefinitely, as termination would produce intolerably rapid climatic change. It is true: climate models do predict that temperatures would rebound — in just a few years — to roughly where they would have been if solar geoengineering had never commenced. Any termination of solar geoengineering, therefore, would need to be gradual.
Since climate impacts are tightly correlated with the rate of climatic change, the temperature bounce associated with unplanned termination would be much more damaging than would unmediated climate change. Given enough time, most species can migrate to new habitats or adapt to changing conditions. The same rule generally applies to humans — while our agricultural techniques and built infrastructure can be adapted in response to gradual climatic changes, they may be overwhelmed by more dramatic shifts.
Of course, “termination shock” would only remain a problem for so long as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases remain elevated. Ideally, geoengineering would be accompanied by aggressive mitigation measures so that intervention would only be necessary over the brief period in which atmospheric concentrations “overshoot” safe levels. Unfortunately, this narrative is implausibly benign. Instead, current trends suggest that limiting warming to 1.5°C (a level of warming that would occur eventually even if all emissions ceased tomorrow) is more likely to require centuries of solar geoengineering.
Few cooperative human projects continue over centuries. It seems hopelessly naive to believe that states could maintain a carefully modulated and cooperative solar geoengineering plan. At minimum, it would require that war and conflict among major powers were permanently banished.
Solar geoengineering would not, in itself, spell the end of the sovereign state. But it would presumably add something to the will to achieve a more orderly and democratic world.
So does the possibility of termination shock mean that solar geoengineering is too dangerous to contemplate? No doubt some will take this view. On the other hand, termination risks surround many human projects. A century after Fritz Haber’s invention of a catalytic, high-pressure process to synthesize ammonia, about 40 percent of global agricultural production depends on synthesized nitrogen fertilizer. Sudden termination of synthetic fertilizer use — as is advocated by some of the fiercest critics of solar geoengineering — would cause food production to plummet and might lead to famine.
Others argue that geoengineering would necessitate an intolerable global social order. Sociologist Bronislaw Szerszynski worries it would require a “centralized, autocratic, command-and-control world-governing structure” that sits “in tension with the current, broadly Westphalian, international system based on national self-determination.” By contrast, others speculate that a coalition of powerful states might seize control and impose a global planetary environment favorable to their interests.
In a famous paper, Langdon Winner distinguished between “two ways that technologies can contain political properties.” In the first, a technology is deliberately designed, or unconsciously selected, in order to produce a particular set of political consequences — to weaken the power of organized labor, for example, or to exclude certain people from public places. In the second, certain technologies can be seen as inherently political, in that they promote or even necessitate certain social relations. What social relations would solar geoengineering promote? Most obviously, it would require an international organization with sufficient authority and power to maintain a global geoengineering effort. Doubtless, democratic control over this organization would be imperfect.
But any global geoengineering body would also quickly become a focus of political mobilization. While terminating geoengineering would be complicated, its implementation could be constantly refined. Democratic pressure might shift the goal of climate intervention toward assisting the most vulnerable countries, preserving preindustrial climate patterns, maximizing agricultural production, or even executing a gradual phase-out. Debates over geoengineering might also promote better climate policies. Currently, the long delay between emission of greenhouse gases and their full climate impact undermines effective policy-making. Solar geoengineering could transform the way this time lag is perceived; the real possibility of “termination shock” might make catastrophic climate impacts appear as a near-term risk, rather than as something associated with the far future. More-immediate climate risks might create a much clearer connection between mitigation and its benefits.
In 1950, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote an essay on the hydrogen bomb which notes a potential silver lining of the technology: “It increases the general horror of war and thereby presumably adds something to the power of the will of nations to achieve an orderly world.” Niebuhr adds, “Each age of mankind brings forth new perils and new possibilities. Yet they are always related to what we have known before.” Although it is likely that nuclear weapons have played a role in inhibiting great power conflict, the price has been the permanent threat of thermonuclear homicide. Were climate change and geoengineering to bring an equivalent cooperative benefit, the risks would be similarly vast.
Nevertheless, the flip side of Szerszynski’s argument is that once implemented, solar geoengineering might potentially promote both international cooperation and democratization. For those who believe that democratic governance is only compatible with national politics, the “inherently globalizing” aspect of solar geoengineering is necessarily problematic. For people who aspire to a global, social-democratic order, however, a more hopeful view might be in order. Solar geoengineering would not, in itself, spell the end of the sovereign state. But it would presumably add something to the will to achieve a more orderly and democratic world.
Conventional wisdom has it that global democratic consensus is a precondition for any plausibly just and responsible geoengineering. But what if that formula has it exactly backwards? What if, in fact, developing-world-led geoengineering might be the precondition for a just, responsible, and democratic response to climate change — a way out of the seemingly irresolvable collective action problems that have stymied effective climate action for a generation? It is possible to visualize a future in which the acute challenges associated with geoengineering motivate a serious global climate effort, including shared and equitable investments in clean energy innovation, infrastructure, and adaptation aid. In the end, self-determination by the world’s most affected nations might be the key not only to just geoengineering, but also to forcing the kind of coordinated global response necessary for an effective, democratic, and just effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Acknowledgements: I thank Ted Nordhaus and Emma Brush for their substantial contributions, as well as Rasmus Karlsson, Maryam Khalid, and Jess Whyte for their comments on earlier drafts.
Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 8
Featuring pieces by Charles Mann, Steven Pinker,
Varun Sivaram, Tisha Schuller, Jenny Splitter,
and Ted Nordhaus.
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