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Geoengineering: Managing First

The case for geoengineering is rooted in a technozoic approach. Although he is currently advocating a moratorium on the practice, a leading researcher in geoengineering is Harvard University's David Keith, whose recent book, A Case for Climate Engineering, dismisses the idea that we should not manipulate the climate system on the grounds that we have been intervening technologically in the environment for years. For proponents of geoengineering, such as Stewart Brand, technical solutions are made necessary by governance failures on climate mitigation, the long-term expense of dealing with non-technical carbon removal (such as through biomass accumulation), the need for immediate political solutions to impending conflicts, and the costs of a low-carbon world. Brand claims that any of these provide necessary and sufficient warrant for disciplining the earth through what he calls “planet craft”—reconfiguring nature's climate system through technical means.

But these arguments are not convincing. Recall, for instance, that geoengineering is supposed to be something novel, yet when it comes to linking science to policy we see that it is only a variation on the technozoic mindset that legitimates interventions without questioning the worldview generating the very problems that technology is supposed to solve. In this way, it is a form of addiction. This creates three issues that the proponents of geoengineering fail to address.

First, there is the social inequity produced by climate change. Here we see that, because climate policy is also about broader democratic concerns, we must use something other than science to determine what sorts of risks

Monsoon rains in Lalitpur, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal.

we are willing to accept and to create systems of decision making that allow those bearing the risks to consent to them. This is a fundamental concept of environmental justice.

The second problem is that climate is the result of complex interactions among multiple subsystems, such as ocean cycles and land cover. So taking a single, onedimensional action, such as altering the earth's radiation balance, by no means guarantees enhanced climate control. For instance, a surprising effect of atmospheric aerosols, such as those emitted by coal-fired power plants, is that they reduced global warming's effects on the hydrologic cycle.

Precipitation was expected to intensify with warming in the twentieth century due to the increased amount of moisture that warm air can hold, but the aerosols reflected sunlight and thus curbed that effect to an extent. The intensity of the hydrologic cycle is now beginning to increase, however, as aerosol reduction policies enacted years ago take effect. The point here is that climate policies are not projected onto a natural, unperturbed backdrop but onto a complex set of systems that are already heavily influenced by human activity in ways that we do not fully understand.

Third, there is the problem of overconfidence. In Earthmasters, ethicist and philosopher Clive Hamilton argues that geoengineering wrongly “plays God” with the climate because “the grander schemes to regulate the climate trespass in a domain properly beyond the human.… [W]e want to supplant the gods in order to counter the mess we have made as faulty humans.” Hamilton's arguments expose the assumption that even if management could increase climate control—which is far from clear—this does not establish that we have the capacity to do the managing. Numerous studies show how “command and control” resource management fails to be either socially democratic or ecologically sound even at small scales, such as a watershed or forest.

So ramping up to a planetary scale through geoengineering is deeply misguided. Hamilton believes that this kind of faith in our ability to control complex systems is evidence of “epistemic hubris”—a false and dangerous belief in our own brilliance and power—that actually invites calamity. The plain fact is that we are not nearly smart enough to manage the complex and inherently indeterminant systems that make life on Earth possible. As Wes Jackson has pointed out, “ignorance is our strong suit.”

 
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