This essay is adapted from The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, by Oliver Morton, published by Princeton University Press.
In March 2012, in a large-windowed conference hall on the snowy campus of the University of Calgary, I heard two simple questions. The man asking them was trying to help his audience get the most out of their day by giving them a clear understanding of where they, and others, stood when it came to action on climate change. To that end he asked them:
Do you believe the risks of climate change merit serious action aimed at lessening them?
Do you think that reducing an industrial economy’s carbon dioxide emissions to near zero is very hard?
The two questions posed that morning by Robert Socolow, a physicist from Princeton University, seem to me a particularly good way of defining your position on geoengineering. So take a moment to answer them, if you would.
Here’s a bit of context.
There is no serious doubt that the atmosphere’s greenhouse effect is a key determinant of the Earth’s temperature. Nor is there any serious doubt that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas or that humans have been adding to the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the past few centuries by burning fossil fuels. In 1750, before the Industrial Revolution, the carbon dioxide level was 280 parts per million. In 1950, when the great global boom of the second half of the 20th century was taking off, it was about 310 parts per million. Today it is 400 parts per million. The bulk of that change has been due to the burning of fossil fuels. If you disbelieve any of those statements, you have been misled. I am not going to take the time to try and disabuse you, and you should read on in expectation of frustration.
There is, however, a lot of room for doubt about the level of climate change the planet will see over the next decades and centuries. The best current estimate is that if fossil-fuel use continues on anything like current trends, the Earth is likely to end up at least 2 degrees Celsius warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution and possibly quite a lot warmer still. Change by 1 degree or 2 over a century or so may sound minimal, but it would be unprecedented in human history. Models of what happens to the climate in worlds in which fossil-fuel use is unconstrained point to severe, even cataclysmic, consequences in the form of damage to agriculture, greater harm done by extreme weather, the loss of biodiversity, and sea-level rise over timescales of decades to centuries.
That said, different models provide different possible climates at any given carbon dioxide level—some are more sensitive to the gas than others, in the language of modelers—and it is possible that the models on which warnings about climate change have mostly been based are, for some reason, skewed toward an unrealistically high sensitivity. It is also possible that humans and their natural world will be able to adapt to changed climates more easily and cheaply, and with less suffering, than most people concerned about climate change now believe. Thus it is possible that, even though carbon dioxide is unarguably a greenhouse gas and a lot of it is being added to the atmosphere, climate change due to human action will not in the end be a planet-changingly big deal.
The question, though, is not about the possibility of benign outcomes. It is about your willingness to do something about the risks of bad or even catastrophic ones. A catastrophe does not have to be certain for steps to avoid it to be worth taking.
Now here’s some context for the second question. The International Energy Agency, which compiles such statistics for governments, says that when the industrial nations committed themselves to cutting their carbon-dioxide emissions at the Kyoto, Japan, climate-change conference in 1997, 80 percent of the world’s energy demand was met with fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources furnished just 13 percent of the energy used; 10 of those 13 percentage points represented energy from biomass, including the wood burned on fires and in stoves by more than 1 billion people without other options. Wind, solar, and hydropower provided just three percentage points.
In 2012, after 15 years of post-Kyoto political action on climate, wind, solar, and hydro still provided 3 percent of the world’s energy needs; fossil fuels provided 81 percent. Industrial carbon dioxide emissions in 2013 were more than half as high again as they were at the time of Kyoto.
So how do you answer the two questions?
I answer them Yes and Yes. Yes, the risks posed by climate change are serious enough to warrant large-scale action. And Yes, moving from a fossil-fuel economy to one that hardly uses fossil fuels at all will be very hard.
To judge by what they say and what policies they support, most people in favor of action on climate change are in the Yes/No camp: They want to act on the risks; they don’t think that getting off fossil fuels is a terribly hard problem. Their way forward is to argue ever more strongly for emissions reductions; they believe these would be quite easily achieved were it not for a lack of political leadership willing to take on the vested interests of emitters.
Most of those against action on climate are in the No/Yes camp: They don’t think climate is very much of a worry; but they do think that getting off fossil fuels is difficult, even impossible. Their leaders tend to focus on the weaknesses they see in the science and politics underlying the case for action on emissions and on the drawbacks of renewable-energy systems.
Neither of these approaches works for people like me in the Yes/Yes camp. Yes/Yes people need different responses: responses that seek to lessen the risks of climate change without impractically rapid cuts in fossil-fuel use; or responses which seek to change society so deeply that such reductions become feasible. I think that deliberate modification of the climate—climate geoengineering—could offer a response of the first sort. It is to outline the promise and attendant perils of that idea and to appreciate its antecedents and its implications that I have written The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World.
Our world has already changed in all sorts of ways that are not spoken of as clearly as they should be. It is a world in which the impact of the human is far greater than it used to be: a world in which the global economy has become something akin to a force of nature, in which the legacies of past generations and the aspirations of generations to come dwarf the impacts of hurricanes and volcanoes. Some people reject or denounce the implications of this change; others blithely accept them in a way that underplays their magnitude. I think those implications need to be opened up, inspected from different angles, interrogated, analyzed, appreciated. Only then will it be possible to make the necessary judgments and choices.
Thinking about geoengineering is a worthwhile end in itself. But it is also an exercise in building up the imaginative capacity needed to take on board these deep changes the world is going through and which it will continue to go through whether or not anyone ever actually attempts to re-engineer the climate. The planet has been remade, is being remade, will be remade.
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:
- “What’s the Deal With Geoengineering?”
- “Your Geoengineering Cheat Sheet”
- “What Experiments to Block Out the Sun Can’t Tell Us”
- “Geoengineering’s Moral Hazard Problem”
- “Why We Should Research Geoengineering Now”
- “How Geoengineering Could Affect the Global Climate: An Interactive”
- “These Two Experts Answered Your Burning Geoengineering Questions”
- “Why Sci-Fi Writers Stay Away From Geoengineering”
- “The Good, Bad, and Ugly Approaches to Geoengineering”