On “taking control” of the climate

Q. Did your feelings about geoengineering change over the course of writing the book? Where did you come out?

A. They did change. My initial thought was that it was just a completely crazy idea, that we were nuts to consider it. It’s the reaction anybody has when you say we’re going to start messing with the climate. It seems like a very hubristic undertaking. That’s the easy way to think about it. But after meeting some of these scientists and thinking hard about this, I came to take the idea seriously. We’re not talking about the climate equivalent of putting a housing development in virgin redwood forests. We’re already messing with the planet in profound ways, and as Stewart Brand and others have said, we might as well get good at it. It’s not crazy that we could learn how to control the levers of this system better.

In a certain way, we’re already doing this. Even by setting climate targets — 350 parts per million, or 80 percent reductions by 2050, or whatever — we’re making implicit judgments about what kind of world we want to live in. One of the interesting things about geoengineering is that it makes that conversation explicit. That’s an important idea: we are in charge of the climate whether we like it or not. It’s not a question of do we want to try to take control — we’re already in control. We’re already fucking with this system in a profound way.

Q. There are two things run together there. It’s one thing to say we’re screwing with things in a profound way; it’s something else entirely to say we’re in control of that. Control seems to imply intentionality, knowledge, and the ability to undo what we’ve done. You can’t skip past that.

A. Right. I don’t mean that we’re in control of the outcomes, but after, what, 20, 30 years of understanding that we’re running profound risks of destabilizing the climate by continuing to dump CO2 into the atmosphere, we’re still doing it. We’re not cutting emissions at all. We’re not trying to manipulate the weather right now, but we are, by our disregard, exerting a kind of control. Not setting any limits — that’s a kind of decision.

One of the things I like about the geoengineering discussion, for all its risks and craziness, is that it does make this explicit. That’s a good conversation to have.

Q. Even before climate change, before the industrial age, the earth’s climate clearly advantaged some people over others; there were massive inequalities. If you accept that we are in control, don’t you problematize the notion that the pre-industrial climate has any kind of claim on us? Why should we think that’s the preferable climate?

A. Absolutely. That opens the door to all the political complexities. Where do we want to set the thermostat? If, on some crude measure, we have the ability to decide what kind of climate we want, how do we decide? Who makes the decision? In Copenhagen, the developing world and some of the island nations are holding the West accountable for this. You can see the tension escalating as we move into this new world.

What happens if we get into some sort of climate emergency — something really goes wrong, not necessarily in the United States, but in China or wherever — and people demand some kind of political action? What do we do? We’re not going mandate that everyone sell their SUVs. Not only does that not work for social reasons, but because of the inertia of the climate, reducing CO2 isn’t going to have much effect in the short-term.

There’s a lot of worry that someone, China or India or some combination of the developing world countries, would try some of this [geoengineering] stuff out of desperation. You can imagine the island nations getting together and saying, “You guys have been fucking around for 30 years, and we don’t want to drown, so we’ve got a couple of billionaires that are helping us with some airplanes. We are going to do this.” How would the West respond? How would anyone respond? There are all kinds of big implications, from the environmental part of it to the military and nation-state aspects. These kinds of things are percolating in the background because, while we don’t know that we can do it right, or do it without catastrophic consequences, we know that it’s doable.

Q. One of the fascinating things about this, especially in this early stage of things, is how much history is being shaped by this relatively small set of idiosyncratic personalities. Individual people can have a relatively huge effect on how it unfolds. I don’t know if that’s scary or not.

A. One of the reasons I wanted to focus on some of these scientists is that I was fascinated by this sort of hubris they must have to even be thinking about this kind of a thing. Do they have integrity? Are they nuts?

But that’s not where I came down. As you know from reading the book, the people I focus on, especially Ken Caldeira and David Keith, I came to deeply respect their reasons for doing this. That was encouraging. But there’s this worry that all these ethical scientists are working on it now, but as soon as it gets a little more perfected, it’s going to get taken up by the guys who want to blow up New York City. This will soon get taken out of their hands. I was struck, reading Oppenheimer’s biography, thinking about how he worked on this for what seemed like all the right reason, and then what happened so quickly to his dream. There are a lot of parallels.