Geoengineering: More Political and Moral Than Scientific?


I spent yesterday evening at a rather interesting, and slightly peculiar, debate on geoengineering between David Keith of the University of Calgary and Paul Johnston on Greenpeace. The debate revolved around whether geoengineering could be useful as an approach to addressing climate change, and whether it is just too radical an idea to be even considered.

Geoengineering isn’t anything new, it’s an idea that has been around for fifty years – and there is plenty of evidence that it may work, for example there is a strong correlation between major volcanic eruptions and global cooling so we know what the effect of adding aerosols to the stratosphere is.  There is an argument that the planet is a large, complex and poorly understood system so we shouldn’t fiddle with it in case something goes wrong but David Keith argued that we have been geoengineering for most of the last hundred years, albeit unintentionally by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

What surprised me was the Greenpeace position on geoengineering – which was basically a flat ‘No!” The Greenpeace argument went along the lines that proponents of geoengineering think that they know what they are doing, that it is reversible and, horror of horrors, someone might make some money out of it. Most of the arguments were of the straw man variety in order to portray geoengineering as a dangerous idea, invoking the precautionary principle, health & safety legislation and global poverty – the usual tactics for kicking an issue into the long grass.

It’s worth considering that even if we cut emissions to zero next week, it wouldn’t change the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, and David Keith made the point that atmospheric carbon dioxide has a longer half life than nuclear waste which produced a few gasps.

I recently suggested that we need a New Green Agenda, one based on solving problems not just mitigating them, and drawing on everything that science and technology can offer to create a more sustainable future. Greenpeace, rather surprisingly from a scientific viewpoint but obviously from a political one refused to countenance any funding for geoengineering or any trials, even small scale local ones and put up the rather weak argument that it would take funding away from other areas of environmental science.  One of the attractions of geoengineering is that it is cheap and uses mainly existing technologies, so a few tens of millions of dollars spent evaluating options is hardly going to handicap the the rest of the research community. I tend to agree with David Keith and growing number of others that if we are serious about climate change then we should be trying to do something about it rather than delaying research.

Probing further it seems that geoengineering horrifies Greenpeace and other NGOs precisely because it does offer a solution. The real reason Greenpeace dislikes ideas such as this is that it may offer politicians an excuse to stop buying into the sustainable/renewable argument which they have been promoting for thirty years, or to put it their terms “may reduce the political and social impetus to reduce carbon emissions.”

Looking at the options available, geoengineering looks to be possible and, apart from ideas such as placing a solar shade at the Lagrange point, is relatively cheap compared with the economic impact of other ways of tackling climate change. However the major obstacles will be political and moral. Paul Johnston admitted that Greenpeace think that geoengineering is inevitable, but this raises the issue of control – one country seeding clouds to increase rainfall could deny water to neighbouring countries for example and provoke conflict, and this is covered by the 1977 Environmental Modification Convention.

It’s for that very reason that I think we’ll see geoengineering continue to attract attention. Any technology that allows a nation to get a technical, commercial or military edge over another – and these three elements are usually connected – is usually worth funding. It’s an area where international treaties will be required and, like most emerging technologies, we can use it to take the edge of climate change or as an economic weapon.  The debate over geoengineering is therefore more likely to be a political and moral one rather than a scientific one.

NGOs know this and have already begun the process of marshalling public opinion against ‘irresponsible scientists” who, in a blind panic about climate change are tinkering with things they don’t understand- this is from Doug Parr of Greenpeace last year:

While the real climate solutions are blocked by vested interests seeking big bucks from coal, runways and forest destruction, our government tells us that it is taking “tough decisions” by cosying up to them. The scientist’s focus on tinkering with our entire planetary system is not a dynamic new technological and scientific frontier, but an expression of political despair.

Just imagine a world where you could carry on as normal, but technology provides a way of cleaning up the mess so we don’t all have to live in teepees and ride bicycles? To NGOs that seems as appalling as farming whales or fox hunting, but to many people it sounds like a pretty good idea.  I wish that Greenpeace would get over this constant linking of capitalism being bad for the environment and then we could all move forward.

In the light of last nights discussion it seems more probable that it is the environmental groups that are panicking, which makes a rational debate on this unfortunately rather improbable.

Comments 5

  1. I believe there is a serious problem here. I had a similar epiphany about Greenpeace (of which I was a member) a few years ago when I asked Doug Parr about nanotechnology and his answers were very similar in spirit to those you quote about geoengineering. I’m a bit surprised you haven’t come across that.

    I think these issues are very much like creationism/intelligent design. There’s a need for people who do believe in technological progress as part of the solution to form groups and lobby hard. We need to make sure that the facts and our opinions are both heard.

    1. Post

      I always found Greenpeace to be a bit more rational than the other groups when it came to nanotech – at least they seemed to think about it and were aware of the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps that was just in private though?

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