On messing with nature and being transparent
Q. At times in the book you seem to characterize environmentalists as ideologically or almost religiously opposed to any mucking about with nature. I felt like they were almost being used as straw men at some points. Did you run across people like that, who categorically oppose intervention?
A. It’s hard to characterize. There’s not broad knowledge out there [about geoengineering], in general. But when I would talk about this with environmental groups, it’s not so much the fear that we’re going to screw this up, though that’s part of it, but more the fear that we’re still trying to get a cap on CO2 and this is just seen as a kind of a political nightmare. It becomes an alternative, a quick fix, an easy sell. Why do we have to go through all the pain and hassle of political coalitions to cut emissions if we can just spray some particles in the atmosphere?
Q. This is obviously an incredibly consequential question: What effect will the knowledge itself have? Will knowledge of how to undertake geoengineering sap the will for carbon cuts?
A. Let me say two things about that. One, it’s not like there’s a tremendous amount of momentum and progress to derail. It looks to me like business as usual as far as the eye can see. And second, it may be that geoengineering plays the role of the sort of drunken crash film they show you in drivers ed. Like, oh fuck, this is the sort of thing we don’t want to do! If we don’t get our act together, we’re heading for this freako world of geoengineers and climate control! Nobody knows how this will play out. That’s one reason we need real research.
I went to Pompeii once a few years ago. They had all the porn in a separate room at the museum. It used to be that only men could go in there. It was seen as dangerous for women to go look at giant phalluses, because they’d get corrupted morally.
It’s a bad idea for geoengineering to be the equivalent of the Pompeii sex room.
Q. There’s my headline. I would like to think it’s going to serve the crash-film role. The geoengineers themselves, [Carnegie Institution atmospheric scientist] Ken Caldeira and those guys, say explicitly this is a back-up plan, that it would be a bad thing if we were forced into a corner and had to use it. They are saying the right things. But to the extent it leaks out into popular media, you get the SuperFreakonomics guys saying, “Oh, I guess Al Gore’s a big dummy.” When it hits pop culture it loses the nuance, the sense of caution. I cringe to imagine the story Politico would write about this, you know? How do you keep the cautionary note attached?
A. I have to say, that was my biggest concern about doing the book. Do I want to be part of that? I’m already getting people who are pissed off at me for writing it. It’s going to be controversial. It came down to the fact that I don’t believe in secrecy. I don’t think you can control these ideas. We learned from the way science operated during the Cold War that we want openness, we want transparency. We don’t want this as some black ops project. There is a kind of inevitability about this, so we may as well start having a frank talk about it. I think it’s good that I can talk about it in the context of the dangers, help try to frame this in a relatively balanced and intelligent way.