Future Tense

One Way Geoengineering Might Get Started

In this excerpt from The Planet Remade, Oliver Morton imagines that a group of countries threatened by climate change go rogue.

Beach in Papua New Guinea.
Some small nations, such as Papua New Guinea (above), are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Maybe a group of such countries might band together to start geoengineering.

Kahunapule Michael Johnson/Flickr

This essay is adapted from The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, by Oliver Morton, published by Princeton University Press.

Imagine this scenario.

It is not a large nation that does it—indeed, it is not a single

nation’s action at all. Sometime in the 2020s, there is a small group of them, two of which are in a position to host the runways. They call themselves the Concert; once they go public, others call them the Affront. None of them is a rich nation, but nor are they among the least developed. All of them already have low carbon-dioxide emissions, and all of them are on pathways to no emissions at all. In climate terms, they look like the good guys. But their low emissions and the esteem of the environmentally conscious part of the international community are doing nothing to reduce the climate-related risks their citizens face.

The only bits of the planes’ design that are really new are the wings needed to get them up above 20 kilometers and the spraying kit—the engines and the fuselage are adapted from other craft. The tanker planes that extend their lifting capacity and their range are utterly standard. The aircraft’s development had been overseen and paid for by one of the world’s increasingly numerous billionaires, who had made her money from high-density data-storage systems. Her cover story was the development of a space-tourism follow-on to Virgin Galactic; that project’s name was Espedair, a name that stuck even when the cover was blown. The project cost more than the most extravagant of her peers had ever spent on a yacht—but not all that much more.

The Concert has two sites for operations, one in Central America, one in the South Pacific. With a few flights a day from each site, they deliver tens of thousands of tons of aerosol to the stratosphere over the first year. Sprayed out comfortably above the tropical and subtropical tropopause in both hemispheres, this forms a tolerably even, remarkably tenuous veil. There had at one time been a satellite devoted to measuring stratospheric aerosol density that might have allowed researchers to notice the veil’s creation, but after that satellite’s life was over no one replaced it.

After 18 months of operations, the Concert announces what it has been up to at a U.N. climate summit.

The Concert presents its program as an act of civil disobedience. Not, the countries say, that they are actually breaking international law. But they are happy to admit that they are breaking the norms of international relations in a way that might inconvenience, discomfort, even shock. Civil disobedience does that. When there is a just cause to be fought for, the Concert argues, and when there is no forum in which the fight for that cause shows any sign of making progress, then something like civil disobedience is called for.

The practical aim of its action, the Concert explains, is straightforward and limited. It does not intend to stop or reverse warming; it intends only to slow it. It plans to thicken the veil at a pace that its climate modelers think will keep the rate of warming at or below 0.1 degree Celsius a decade. The Concert’s target, if achieved, would mean that over the rest of the century the temperature would rise about as much as it did over the 20th century. Cumulative change by the end of the century would remain below the 2 degrees Celsius limit; the cooling veil would remain a good bit thinner than those created by large volcanic eruptions.

The Concert is happy to welcome to its ranks nations that make commitments to steep cuts in emissions, especially if they also commit to the development of technologies for carbon-dioxide removal. As new members of the Concert, those acceding nations get a say in revisions to the veil-making plan in view of new monitoring data and new understanding of the Earth system. Other nations do not.

The discussion moves with more than deliberate haste from the climate summit to the U.N. Security Council, as the Concert had known it would. The Concert’s reckless attempt to seize power over the climate—to mount “a coup against the planet,” as the elderly Al Gore put it—is decried by various nations, including some of the council’s permanent members. A resolution that authorizes the use of military force to shut down the veil-making facilities is put forward under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter, which deals with threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression. It is vetoed by one of the permanent members. A separate resolution calling on the secretary-general to convene a conference with the aim of drafting a U.N. Convention on Climate Engineering and Protection passes, as the leaders of the Concert had hoped it would.

Just as there is uproar in the U.N., so there is uproar in the nations of the Concert. Their citizens had not been told what was going on, and many are shocked, both by what their leaders had done and by the clandestine way in which they had done it. Two governments fall, including that of one of the nations hosting the Espedair airfields. In the second key nation, though, a national referendum backs the plan. It is the first democratic vote ever taken on the Earth’s radiative forcing. It is not a remotely representative vote—the electorate is 0.04 percent of the population affected by the decision, which is to say the population of the whole world—but nor is it the last.

Within a couple of years a number of other countries, including some well outside the tropics, have started negotiations to join the Concert, and the number of facilities from which the veil-makers can fly has grown. The Concert makes it clear, though not explicit, that at this stage it does not want any of the world’s large economies to join, and it fixes the mitigation “price” required for accession in such a way as to dissuade them. The negotiations toward a convention, meanwhile, move slowly. It is not easy to craft an agreement that suits the Concert, its passionate detractors, the growing number of countries tacitly supporting the Espedair aircraft, and the uncertain majority.

A couple of years on, one of the world’s largest economies announces that it will increase the speed of its emissions reductions beyond that which it had previously agreed to at U.N. climate negotiations; slowing the build-up of greenhouse gases has always been a good idea,  its leadership says, and if doing so faster means that the Concert sprays less aerosol, then that is an added attraction. It urges others to follow its lead. Another large economy, though, relaxes its previous plans; it no longer feels able to say to its fossil-fuel and heavy-industry lobbies that reducing emissions is as pressing as had previously been claimed. Would the same governments have tightened policy or loosened it under other circumstances? There is no real way to say.

Though the Chapter VII debate at the U.N. had felt genuinely tense, the possibility of the new arrangement provoking military conflict seems to recede over the years. If the Concert had been one of the great powers, its veil-making would feel like an intolerable imposition of geopolitical will. But it isn’t. Its founding members were countries of middling- to more-or-less-no consequence. They laid no claim to a world agenda other than having decided that it would be good to limit climate harm and wanting a way to act toward that end. They enjoyed a version of what in the 1980s Václav Havel called “the power of the powerless”—what can be done about them, when they are basically of little other account?

Public reactions are all over the place. Chemtrailers shout from the rooftops that they have been right all along. As people in geoengineering research had long feared, some in America and elsewhere perform the “superfreak pivot,” turning overnight from the position that global warming requires no emissions reduction because it isn’t a real problem to the argument that the Concert has it all covered. Green politicians and activists mostly condemn the Concert’s climate vigilantism outright . A direct-action group called the Sky Shepherds blockades two of the more accessible Espedair airfields on and off for years with a succession of balloons and microlight aircraft flown over the runway approaches. In the long run, though, it cannot get new aircraft to the area as fast as the authorities can impound the ones already there.

Most people who take an interest are worried, or at least disconcerted; some are relieved; a few genuinely welcome the development. People scrutinize sunsets with a new attention, comparing them in their imaginations with those they remember from their youth, or from just a few years ago. Though many convince themselves they are seeing a difference, at this stage they really aren’t.

* * *

This stringing together of speculations is obviously intended to make solar geoengineering look like a somewhat attractive possibility. What, though, of the beads on this string? Considered in isolation, independent of the way that they are strung together, are they plausible? To a large extent, I think they are.

Would it be feasible for a few small states with airfields in the tropics and a tech-billionaire benefactor to try and put together a small aerosol geoengineering effort? Yes. One study argues that a much larger effort could be undertaken for about $2 billion a year. A first-generation system could be a lot cheaper.

The question of whether such a thing could be carried out in secret is harder to gauge. It would require a high level of security, a compartmentalization of information, and some convincing cover stories. A good cover story makes it possible to do quite important things in secret even when they are visible to other people’s satellites: witness the fact that the American government did not know that the Saudi government was fielding a force of non-nuclear ballistic missiles purchased from China in the 1980s until after the first squadrons were operational. At the same time, the two reports on climate geoengineering produced by America’s National Research Council in 2015 were commissioned and paid for in large part by the CIA; that suggests that someone there has some interest in the possible development of the field.

Not that being spotted by other governments would necessarily impede the Concert in its work. The purpose of its activities might be inferred by analysts at an intelligence agency but not taken seriously by their overseers. The idea could be taken seriously but nothing done in response because no agreement on how to respond could be reached. There could be a response in the form of some sort of below-the-radar threat or promise that yields no results. Or there could be a nonresponse that is a tacit encouragement to continue.

What of the Concert itself, a group of small states trying to change the world? Climate negotiations, like trade negotiations, routinely throw up common interests among diverse parties. Thus, for example, the presence at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change of the Alliance of Small Island States, which was put together in the early 1990s to give a collective voice to a set of countries that saw an existential threat in rising sea levels. No one who follows climate change negotiations can easily forget the moment at a UNFCCC meeting in Bali when Kevin Conrad of Papua New Guinea  told the United States: “We ask for your leadership, we seek your leadership, but if for some reason you are not willing to lead … please get out of the way,” and America promptly caved.

What is more, the system that the Concert would bring into being is one that might prove very well suited to climate negotiations in general. David Victor and others have argued that a “club” approach to climate could yield significant benefits. The clubs in question would be groups of nations comparatively tightly bound together by agreements on mitigation, adaptation, and other action in ways that suited their particular interest. Large emitters making multilateral or even bilateral agreements in such clubs—arrangements that might involve quid pro quos beyond the scope of U.N. climate diplomacy—might be able to offer each other inducements to deeper cuts than can be arranged through U.N. processes, which have to come up with agreements equally acceptable to everyone from Saudi Arabia and Bolivia.

The Concert’s approach seeks to build on the general benefits such clubs can provide by making it possible to link climate geoengineering to pledges on mitigation, and possibly to other things, too. The link between geoengineering and mitigation is normally taken to be an either/or—the existence of geoengineering is taken to mean a lowered likelihood of mitigation. But, as the legal scholar Edward Parson has argued, some forms of linkage with climate geoengineering could make mitigation easier to coordinate, and thus mean that the world sees greater reductions in emissions.

This is not true for all geoengineering scenarios. As Parson points out, if geoengineering is seen only as a response to an emergency at some unspecified time in the future, attempts to link it to mitigation actions in the present—for example, by saying that if people mitigate strongly today they will be allowed to geoengineer if it becomes really necessary, or that if they don’t they won’t—look entirely impractical.

But if geoengineering is actually on the table, or already happening, Parson argues, linkage becomes much more feasible. It would require impressive diplomatic achievements. But every scenario that imagines strong climate action has to imagine international agreements put together through intelligent and subtle diplomacy. If you are willing to imagine such negotiations in the absence of climate geoengineering, it seems unfair to rule them out in its presence. If you are not willing to imagine such negotiations at all, you are ruling out any large diplomatic contribution to emissions reduction.

Climate geoengineering is often, and correctly, said to raise new challenges in international governance, and an absolute need for those challenges to be addressed prior to its deployment is frequently asserted. Many see the lack of a good model for that process as a reason for avoiding research that might get anywhere close to the technologies of deployment. Their worry stems from the intuitively obvious (though not provable) belief that society might have been much better served in the past if a wide range of technologies had received more anticipatory consideration. In the absence of such forethought it is more likely that the technology will be deployed in ways that predominantly serve the interests of already powerful groups, which will often mean that it does not serve the common good as well as it might. The damage done may be greater than the benefits achieved, and the two will both be unevenly distributed.

Against that, though, one should weigh the certainty that governance-in-advance will never be perfect. There are obvious problems in trying to develop governance structures after the genie is out of the bottle. But excessive precaution may lead to things that could in fact have been governed in safe, just, equitable ways not developing far enough for those possibilities to be realized. It may also make people feel more justified in rejecting the governance framework altogether, and pressing on regardless.

The Concert did not ignore governance; it imposed norms of its own. Would that be enough? Not necessarily; there are ways in which this scenario could go on to play out very badly. But would it necessarily have to? No.

This article is part of the geoengineering installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through May 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on geoengineering:

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