Messing with nature more won’t fix the messes we’ve already made
[JR: Geo-engineering is to mitigation as chemotherapy is to diet & exercise. You can find some more specific reasons geo-engineering is unlikely to make sense at these posts: “Geo-engineering remains a bad idea” and “Geo-engineering is not the answer.” I will be blogging again on this shortly. In the absence of strong mitigation efforts, geo-engineering will not stop catastrophic outcomes, like the end of most ocean life.]
Time magazine has declared geo-engineering one of “10 ideas that are changing the world.”
“Messing with nature caused global warming,” Time wrote. “Messing with it more might fix it.”
What are they thinking?
For the record, I have a lot of respect for engineers. They have taken us into space and landed us on the moon with incomprehensible precision. Every time we cross a bridge or speed down the freeway at 75 miles per hour, we trust our lives to engineers. Thanks to engineers, we keep our beer cold and our showers hot, and we wake up every morning with confidence that our coffee has been brewed. There’s virtually nothing in our material life that has not been touched by engineering.
I should also define the type of geo-engineering I’m about to address. It includes attempts to mitigate global warming by deploying mirrors in space, using high-altitude balloons to inject dust and soot into the atmosphere, using aircraft to spray aluminum particles into the troposphere, burning sulfur to increase cloud cover, and dumping iron oxide into the ocean to stimulate plankton growth.
Should we depend on measures such as these to reverse climate change? For ethical and practical reasons, the answer is no.
Ethically, we have an obligation to address the causes of climate change, not just its effects. In a letter to James Madison in 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and encumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation … no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.”
Jefferson was talking about financial debt, but the same ethic applies to ecological debt. Intergenerational ethics argue against us leaving massive, intractable problems for future generations, forcing them to deal in perpetuity with nuclear waste, carbon sequestration sites, and geo-engineering systems — all subject to human error and to failures that would be deadly.
The willingness to consider a solution to climate change that involves geo-engineering is a function of several dysfunctional factors.
- Geo-engineering is a concept born of desperation. As the realizations grow that climate change is not only a fact but also potentially disastrous to life as we know it, and that transforming how the world uses energy is a monumental undertaking, and that we don’t have much time, geo-engineering gains traction; similarly, some environmentalists now accept nuclear power as a necessary evil. But sound solutions are rarely born from desperation.
- If we accept the conclusion of scientists such as Jim Hansen that we have the tools and still have time to avoid the worst consequences of global warming, then geo-engineering is a cynical response; it’s based on the assumption that we do not have sufficient character, discipline, political will, or morality to solve the climate problem. There’s much in our history to support cynicism, but there’s also ample evidence that we are capable of conquering huge challenges.
- Geo-engineering is the coward’s way out of confronting climate change. It offers a convenient escape for leaders who don’t have the guts to defy the fossil-energy lobbies or to tax carbon or to ask their constituents to make tough choices. It wouldn’t be the first time that engineering was used to allow people to act in stupid ways and to escape the consequences. Think of dams and levees designed to control rivers so that people can live in natural floodplains — sometimes with disastrous results. Often engineering is used to force natural systems to conform to human behavior. Sometimes when people and nature come into conflict, however, the smartest solution is to require people to share the burden of change. Such is the case with global warming.
- Geo-engineering is born of the dangerous conceit that human engineering is superior to nature’s engineering. In reality, the first sonder of the world is the world itself, a system that has taken billions of years to evolve through endless trial and error — or, depending on your cosmology, that was created by God — and that performs immeasurable and largely unappreciated services to support life as we know it.
Lacking regard for natural systems, we have upset them — climate change is demonstrating that in a big way. Human engineering should be a blend of technology and humility. We are pretty good at technology, but we lack humility.
- Even if it were able to stabilize climate change — which is doubtful — geo-engineering would leave us with an array of other problems that result from our dependence on fossil fuels. We still would be addicted to imported oil, still would be subsidizing terrorism with our gas dollars, still would suffer the cost and supply traumas that are inevitable with finite resources, still would send our children off to die in resource wars, still would pollute the air and cause respiratory problems for our children, and still would wipe out species, many of them beneficial to us, as we invade their habitat.
Because finite resources are finite, we will have to abandon them for more sustainable resources someday. Geopolitics, energy markets, and the climate are telling us that time is now. The more we delay the transition, the more we will suffer.
- Geo-engineering would unleash the law of unintended consequences. The destruction of the wetlands that should have helped protect New Orleans from hurricanes is just one of many examples that prove we don’t understand ecosystems well enough to anticipate the consequences of changing them.
Harvard geochemist Dan Schrag puts it this way:
I think it’s fair to say that some of the people who have been advocates for climate engineering … have made claims that we can control it perfectly — that we can actually produce a climate that’s exactly what we want it to be. I think that flies in the face of all our understanding of the climate system … [Geo-engineering] is not something that will ever compensate either perfectly or even imperfectly for greenhouse gas emissions.
What the world needs now is not geo-engineering but eco-engineering — the study of natural systems, the ability to learn from and work in concert with them, and the practice of protecting ecological services.
One example of eco-engineering is the effort in parts of California to rely less on flood-control structures and instead restore the natural systems that allow rivers to regulate themselves with meander, wetlands, and watersheds rich with vegetation to absorb rainfall.
The impact of technology on ecosystems is illustrated by the equation credited to Paul Ehrlich: I = PAT, where I is impact, P is population, A is affluence and T is technology. Today, technology often multiplies the adverse environmental impacts of people and affluence. The proliferation of inefficient automobiles is one example.
Now, as architect Bill McDonough has noted, the equation that must guide engineering and science is I = PA/T, where technology reduces the impact of population and affluence.
If it’s new challenges that our engineering professions want, there are plenty on the workbench. We need plug-in hybrid vehicles, better batteries, and ways to store intermittent solar and wind power. We need to perfect cellulosic ethanol and dramatically improve vehicle efficiency. We need zero-carbon buildings. We need to bring down the price of solar electricity and develop wind turbines that work at lower wind speeds. We need to produce cost-effective energy from waves, river currents, and algae. We need countless breakthrough technologies that dramatically improve the resource efficiency of our economies. We need economical ways to recycle consumer products and to conserve water. We need technologies that will help us cope with the adverse climate changes that are underway and that are inevitable in the decades ahead. And we need them quickly.
Geo-engineering is indeed an idea that would change the world — but not in ways we will like. Fantasies that we can or should exert godlike control over Earth’s major environmental systems divert us from the real job at hand: building ecological economies and restoring the planet’s ability to regulate the carbon balance and to provide the countless other critical services that sustain species. Including ours.