Geoengineering

It’s funny how there’s no constituency for geoengineering (aka climate engineering) as a way to fight climate change. I first heard the term reading the Stephen Baxter novel Transcendent, which featured near-future political conflict over the issue. At the time, my naive 15 year old self didn’t see how anybody could be against it. Now that geoengineering has gone a bit more mainstream it turns out Baxter was absolutely right about the opposition, though I still agree with my past self that it’s something we should look into.

In particular, iron fertilization seems incredibly promising. Like, really spectacularly promising, almost to the same extent that solar power promises to solve our energy woes. The idea is that phytoplankton populations in many parts of the ocean are limited by a lack of iron, so by dumping iron sulfate into these areas there are huge booms in plankton populations. These plankton absorb huge amounts of carbon, just as land plants do. These booms also echo up the food chain, as creatures that eat the plankton multiply, followed by creatures that eat them, and so on.  This happens naturally all the time, mostly via nutrients being delivered to the oceans by rivers, and fuels many of the world’s great fisheries.

Perhaps the coolest group involved with this is the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation. Founded by the Haida Tribal Nation in British Columbia, they recently dumped 120 tons of iron into the northeast Pacific. The project has succeeded beyond all expectations, and preliminary estimates show salmon catches in the area more than quadrupling, from roughly 50 million to 226 million, within a year of beginning the experiment.

So here we have something that’s very cheap, fights global warming, and revitalizes ocean ecosystems. Why would anybody be against such a thing? Both the left and the right have their reasons, and both of them are bad.

First, on the right: it’s not essentially the official position of the Republican Party that climate change is a hoax, and thus that anything done to fight it must be a sinister liberal plot. What’s worse, because of how they’ve come to identify with this opposition, there is a constituency that’s actually anti-environment, not just indifferent to it, as a way to stick it to the dirty liberals. See the bizarre “Rolling Coal” phenomenon.

On the other hand, more intense environmentalists on the left are also strangely anti-geoengineering. Their reasoning is a bit more complex than the conservatives, but equally specious. The first argument is that any discussion or experimentation with geoengineering will reduce the urgency of taking action to reduce emissions. If people think we can dump a bunch of iron in the ocean and solve our CO2 problem, who is going to care about rising emissions? Of course if it works, that wouldn’t be an issue, but if it doesn’t, we would have delayed vital action and be left worse off than before. This isn’t a totally crazy argument, but it does seem far fetched to me. We already have gigantic societal forces pushing towards not taking action on climate change, letting some geoengineering experiments go forward isn’t going to change that much, but it could provide incredibly valuable information.

The second environmentalist argument against geoengineering is one I have less sympathy for, but which I also think is a bigger contributor to anti-geoengineering sentiment: elements of the environmental movement are motivated primarily by wanting to protect the ‘purity’ of the natural world, over and above promoting thriving ecosystems and human welfare. Take this Naomi Klein article on the subject. She describes how the Haida ocean fertilization project has created an ecological boom, but then puts this boom in a negative light, saying

“once we start deliberately interfering with the earth’s climate systems — whether by dimming the sun or fertilizing the seas — all natural events can begin to take on an unnatural tinge. An absence that might have seemed a cyclical change in migration patterns or a presence that felt like a miraculous gift suddenly feels sinister, as if all of nature were being manipulated behind the scenes.”

Now I don’t really accept this argument on general principles – there’s nothing necessarily superior about the natural order of the world over and changes we make to it (though of course we should be cautious about unintended consequences of our actions). Even for those who are worried about things being ‘unnatural’ the problem is that we left the era of ‘natural events’ a long time ago. Even if we accepted in principle that the ideal would be for the environment to return to a pristine, pre-human state, that is simply not a possibility. Human action has huge impacts on every ecosystem on Earth, and unless we go extinct this is never, ever going to change. The only difference with geoengineering is we’re doing it on purpose, rather than just spewing chemicals into land and sea with no regard for the consequences. The only long term solution to our environmental problems is not a return to nature, but a beginning to planetary stewardship, shaping the Earth into a garden where we and our fellow species can thrive side by side. 

So what’s the future for geoengineering? My secret wish is that if the Republicans ever stop being so batshit, they adopt geoengineering as their environmental platform. So long as they’re backed by the fossil fuels industry they’re never going to make it to actually condoning emissions limits, and promoting geoengineering would be a great way for them to keep opposing those limits while acknowledging that climate change is real and needs to be dealt with. Of course this is just the situation many environmentalists fear – using geoengineering to distract from emissions reductions, but it’s still a major step up from complete climate denialism.

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