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Geo-Engineering = Futurological Greenwashing
Amanda Reed, 12 Aug 10

Today, Alex Steffen tweeted "Dale Carrico writes one of the smartest things I've ever read on geoengineering" and linked to this article: "Geo-Engineering" As Futurological Greenwashing. Alex is currently on vacation, so this must be good to have brought him back to his laptop!

Please click the link above to read the whole piece, or read on for a few highlights.

Carrico on what's wrong with the term "geo-engineering" and the discourse that surrounds it:

I personally believe that the reason so many people are unaware of "geo-engineering" is probably because there is no such thing as "geo-engineering" for them to be aware of, and that a very good reason that so few people can say "what geo-engineering even is" is because there is no such thing as "geo-engineering" that actually is anything in particular to say something about.


... the futurological discourse of "geo-engineering" actually functions to create the appearance of a phenomenon where there is none, it functions as futurological frames tend to do as a derangement of sense, a distraction from substance onto non-substance, a substitute of frivolous over-generalities and hyperbolic promises for deliberation about actually complex, actually contingent technodevelopmental problems with a diversity of stakeholders.

Later in the article Carrico critiques the practice of lumping together various approaches to geo-engineering:

The example Mooney does provide of what "geo-engineering" actually would consist of is "injecting sulfur particles into the stratosphere that would reflect sunlight away from the Earth, thereby causing a global cooling." What I would draw your attention to is that this proposal is actually only one of a ramifying suite of mega-engineering wet-dreams that futurologists start handwaving about when talk turns to "geo-engineering." A New York Times article already four years old (futurologists tend to pretend their pet formulations are startling and new even after they grow whiskers, as witness the dead-enders who still crow breathlessly about the imminence of superintelligent AI) provided a nice summary of the sorts of proposals would-be "geo-engineers" bandy about in its first paragraph: "Build sunshades in orbit to cool the planet. Tinker with clouds to make them reflect more sunlight back into space. Trick oceans into soaking up more heat-trapping greenhouse gases."

Now, why on earth would it make sense to corral all these interventions together with Mooney's own example and then say of them, as Mooney does, that together they constitute a single "technology," or as the New York Times article does that together they constitute a single "emerging field"? I submit that everything that matters most about each of these proposals in terms of deliberation about their plausible effects, their costs, their risks, their benefits, their stakeholders differ from one another in absolutely indispensable ways. And it is hard to see why, given these differences, anything much about the relative success of one of these efforts would necessarily justify confidence that any of the others would have comparable success.


Not to put too fine a point on it, the notion of "geo-engineering" seems to me to subsume far too many actually substantially different techniques in the service of far too many actually substantially different outcomes to be of much practical use in any of the deliberations into which it is being injected so enthusiastically by futurologists.

Further, Carrico argues that the vast and confused collection of geo-engineering techniques that gain momentum in the geo-engineering discourse are those that serve industrial and authoritarian interests (and depress the success of proposals for combating climate change that are less technical and more "human-scaled, democratically-accountable, p2p-distributed lifeway formations"):

Even if the actual definitions and analyses of the "geo-engineering" "concept" never manage to provide a coherent and compelling case as to why they include such a disparate constellation of proposals under the same heading while always interestingly excluding mainstream regulatory and educational proposals from consideration under that heading, one can immediately make sense of the grouping if one simply makes expedient recourse to considerations of who profits from what proposals and who loses control over society from what proposals.

The mega-scale engineering proposals that are inevitably championed by futurological prophets-for-hire would without exception be undertaken by vast industrial concerns, helmed by military contractors and multinational corporations under the control of incumbent-elite actors. The legislative and educational approaches of mainstream environmentalism would either directly lower the profitability of such concerns by taxing and regulating them or indirectly do the same by changing the wasteful and destructive hysteria of consumer lifestyle capitalism as such. Furthermore, many mainstream green proposals for the subsidization of edible ecosystem appropriate landscaping and roof-top solar panels yield relocalization and decentralization of production in ways that are less susceptible to authoritarian hierarchical capture and exploitation than are the vast capital-intensive industrial formations like the nuclear plants or orbiting solar sails suave techno-boosters seem to prefer.

The discourse of geo-engineering is dangerous because, as Carrico argues, it inhibits real democratic action and appropriate solutions to climate change in favor of supporting the status quo and providing profits for the few:

From the reactionary denial that human agency could possibly impact the whole vast and resourceful planet on which we all depend for survival and flourishing, we find ourselves confronted by a reactionary denial that the collective democratic agency of everyday people can preserve this vast and resourceful planet on which we all depend for survival and flourishing.

Far from a startlingly new or radical idea, "geo-engineering" seems to me little more than a very familiar, very old-fashioned insistence on the part of corporate-military incumbent-elites that nothing from which they cannot profit and prosper themselves should ever count as real or as possible or as important. All the substance and consistency of "geo-engineering" as an analytic category, as a set of imaginary or actual techniques, or as a program of proposals derives from the preferential benefit it confers to incumbent interests in the midst of a burgeoning planetary awareness and activism that otherwise threatens those interests with the loss of their unearned privileges and status in the world we are making, peer to peer, in the name of sustainability and fairness.

Again, it is worth reading Carrico's full article.

Alex has similarly argued that geo-engineering is a form of greenwashing in this post.

Jamais Cascio has written a response to Carrico's piece over at Open the Future:

But here's the ugly truth: nature doesn't care about democracy, or who's right, or what's fair. And because of the slow-change aspect of climate, we can't wait until the worst effects are upon us to make a decision -- by then, it would be far, far too late. The scenario we may be faced with is one where doing something for the wrong reasons, run by the wrong people, may still save more lives than holding out for a more appealing option.

It looks like a lively debate has begun!

UPDATE 8/18/2010: Dale Carrico has posted a response to Jamais Cascio's response, and included a full list of links to everyone who's chimed in. Click here for more.

Image courtesy of Flickr photographer FreeBirD under a Creative Commons License.

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"Geo-Engineering" Is A Declaration of War That Doesn't Care About Democracy - is an assertion without foundation.

As a geo-engineer myself, I find it not only insulting, but also seriously misleading for those who've yet to consider our jeopardy in detail and to evaluate our options. Quite why Steffan is so impressed by the article is unclear.

Scenario Sans Geo-E

“The year is 2045 and much has changed. After the loss of Miami and Obama's pathetic retirement in 2012, the global ratification of the Treaty of the Atmospheric Commons led to the rapid decline of fossil fuel dependence and the cutting of global GHG outputs by 98% by 2040.

With the natural carbon sinks taking about half our annual GHG output, this would have meant we stopped adding to airborne stocks around 2025, but, due to forest wildfire and the oceans' warming and acidification eroding the sinks' capacity, that didn't happen until 2035. The remaining sinks are now only taking just over 0.5ppmv of anthro-CO2 per year.

The upshot for airborne CO2 concentration would have been around 424ppmv by this year:-
390 (2010) + 40 (during phase-out) – 6 (to sinks since 2035) = 424ppmv.

Sadly it ain't so. The interactive positive feedback loops (first observed in '62 and that were surging by 2010) have added a further 27 ppmv of CO2 and continue to accelerate, making the present concentration 451ppmv, and rising.

Of the two great failings that lead to this jeopardy the first is still not widely understood:- it was the lack of explanation of the ~35 yr timelag on GHG outputs' warming effect (due to the oceans’ temporary effect as a heat-sink) which meant that in 2010 we saw the warming effects of ~330ppmv of CO2 (+ other GHGs) from the mid-‘70s; now in 2045 we’re seeing the warming off ~390ppmv in 2010; in 2080 we’ll see the warming off ~451ppmv in 2045.

The second failure was of not acknowledging the existential hazard posed by the interactive feedbacks, where the advance of one advances all. With the warming that drives them accelerating over the last 35 years, and doing so for the next 35 years as the timelag plays out, and unavoidably doing so from there onwards due to rising feedback emissions, the chance of avoiding society’s total collapse due to loss of food-production is now remote. The many tens of millions lost to the serial famines thus far are just a foretaste for the billions for whom there is no longer any prospect of sufficient rations in the coming decades.”

This scenario for 2045 is not at all far-fetched scientifically: the addition of 27ppmv of CO2 by feedback emissions in the next 35 years is a modest projection given their rates of acceleration in the last decade. Some may see the treaty’s effectiveness in ending anthro emissions by 2040 as far-fetched – personally I think we should aim to do better than that, given the urgency of the threat.

What the scenario is intended to show is that even with these conditions, without the timely and effective deployment of Geo-E, we no longer have any prospect of a sustainable society.

Like sex, voting and cooking dinner, Geo-E could of course be done really badly. In fact it could be done far worse than its detractors have so far imagined. E.g.: too many irretrievable ‘space-mirrors’ could slowly shift us to a snowball Earth, on which there is no survival.

Yet Geo-E could also be done really well, with real care and attention, with the best democratic oversight available in the form of the UN, to steer an entirely different course than the scenario above.

There are two Geo-E priorities alongside the necessary rapid phasing out of anthro-GHG outputs:

The first is the recovery of airborne carbon to restore the pre-industrial level of < 280ppmv. Owing to massive anthro carbon stocks in solution in the oceans, the volume to be recovered will far more than the 110ppmv difference from the present 390ppmv. –

With even the most determined efforts via sustainable afforestation and wastes for local scale biochar & fuels, we’d do very well to remove and manage over 4ppmv per year, or around 8.4 gigatonnes /yr of carbon, after perhaps 20 years of a development phase. (Notably, no techno option has yet shown even a tenth of that potential, nor its self-funding capacity, nor its socially and ecologically constructive outcomes).

Within that time frame, the best we could hope for by 2045 would be perhaps 10yrs part-capacity and 15 yrs full capacity, implying around 80ppmv recovered by then. Off the scenario’s projection of 451ppmv, that would get us back to 371ppmv by 2045. But, we’d still have the timelagged warming off 2010’s 390ppmv, with much more warming still in the pipeline. The feedbacks would still be accelerating and we’d still be facing terminal famines.

The second priority is thus the deployment, during the many decades necessary for carbon recovery, of the most sustainable means for albido restoration, by which to halt the warming and rapidly decelerate the feedbacks, and to restore the natural temperature basis of the global climate.

I’ve yet to see any other proposal than Albido Enhancement during Carbon Recovery by which the predictable unprecedented serial famines could be avoided.

The denialists of Geo-E pretend, or perhaps believe, that all such Albido Enhancement technologies are equally bad, which is patent nonsense. My own (far-fetched) favourite concept is of orbiting space facilities emitting robotically grown sterile thistledown by the tonne, to provide maximum stratospheric albido for minimal side-effects.

The most promising option I’ve seen is undoubtedly Professor Salter’s 150ft ‘cloud-brightening vessels, which are wind-powered and pump very fine sea-spray aloft in carefully chosen sea areas. As the water evaporates, miniscule particles of sea salt are left to generate unusually reflective clouds, which then rain out over the oceans within a few days.

This elegant option has serious advantages.
· Between one and two thousand such vessels are projected as being capable of restoring the pre-industrial temperature, making it eminently affordable.
· It cycles only sea salt very temporarily through the winds over small parts of the oceans, and so causes no pollution effects.
· Once the vessels are built, there is negligible carbon cost to their operation.
· In the event of unwanted effects occurring, the vessels responsible can be switched off with a single signal, with their influence ending a few days later.

As yet this option has still to reach the prototype stage and, given both R&D time and the denialists’ shrill reactionary opposition to Geo-E overall, there may well be another decade spent before they, or some unknown demonstrably preferable alternative, gain full scale deployment.

In that event, with warming halted by them in say 2020 and the feedbacks thereafter decelerating, under the 2045 scenario with carbon recovery, we should avoid say 20ppmv of feedback emissions, and have got airborne CO2 down to around 351 ppmv, with no further warming in the pipeline, and ongoing carbon recovery proceeding apace.

Crucially, we should have controlled the prospect of catastrophic serial famines as declining weather instability allows improved farms yields off soils enhanced with biochar.

This post has tried to lay out the imperative need for appropriate Geo-E that our predicament imposes, and to describe the format and function of the two best options I’ve seen to date. By contrast, the denialists of Geo-E have yet to show a clear understanding of the basic science of the threat we face, or any interest in discriminating between the many Geo-E options now being advanced.
If they are actually interested in preventing the worst options being imposed in future as a panic reaction by the state-corporate entities, they’d do well to start addressing some of the challenges to their position posted above.

Meanwhile, I’ll carry on extending the coppices on the un-farmable parts of the land I run, with a view to supplying over 100 tonnes/yr of biochar, in perpetuity, while enjoying the birdsong. As my old ecology professor was fond of stating: “in-cycle native coppice holds the highest biodiversity of any European ecosystem.”



Posted by: Lewis Cleverdon on 18 Aug 10

A current example of the warming feedbacks' acceleration seems worth considering.

From Nasa’s Modis program:

“According to the Sukachev Institute of Forest, as of August 13, the Moscow Region had lost 43,718 hectares (189 square miles) to fire, 94,950 hectares (367 square miles) in the Vladimir Region, and 300,047 hectares (1,158 square miles) in the Nizhny Novgorod Region. They also report the total acreage burned in the Russian Federation up to this date is 15,688,855 hectares (60,575 square miles).”

That official account of 15.69 MHa.s of Russian forests burned up to August 13 deserves to be worldwide news. The implications just as a feedback in its own right are stark, let alone its material contribution to arctic albido loss through soot deposition on vulnerable snow & ice.

Allowing a moderate 100 Ts C per hectare, x 3.67 for CO2, would imply a feedback emission from Russia in the first eight months of 2010 of:
15.69 MHa.s x 367Ts CO2 = 5.758 GTs of CO2.
Added to which are the related output volumes of CO, CH4, VHCs, etc.

Would anyone care to put that feedback emission of 5.76 gigatonnes of CO2 into context – say as a percentage of US anthro emissions, or of the Russian output, or by naming the nation whose annual output is nearest to that figure ?



Posted by: Lewis Cleverdon on 19 Aug 10

I do not pre-emptively disapprove of every proposal that somebody, somewhere might presently describe as "geo-engineering." Given the disagreements among even its enthusiasts as to just what sorts of interventions should be included in the category -- disagreements that seem to become especially heated when their discourse is subjected to actual scrutiny and critique -- it wouldn’t be very sensible to disapprove of anything and everything any odd futurologist might get a hankering to slap a “geo-engineering” label on.

In the longer follow-up post of mine “Geo-Engineering” Is A Declaration of War That Does Not Care About Democracy to which Mr. Cleverdon is presumably responding he might recall a sprawling paragraph illustrating a host of “geo-engineering-esque” proposals, some of which I ridicule as science-fictional wet dreams (vast orbital space-mirror archipelagos), others of which I disapprove on the merits according to my sense of the present scientific consensus (tons of iron filings in the sea), others of which I actively approve (public subsidized reforestation and biochar projects), and in others of which I don’t weigh in, having insufficient grounds to do so (spraying clouds with seawater – the elegant proposal on which Cleverdon seems to dote in his jeremiad against my denialism is indeed just such an example, mentioned right there in my piece, paragraph seven for those keeping score at home).

What I strongly disapprove is “geo-engineering” discourses that yoke all these disparate interventions together, as it were willy-nilly, ascending to a level of generality at which all their salient differences vanish, and then provoke a series of abstract debates on the feasibility of this unwieldy incoherent jumble which distracts our attention from the many – to me more urgent -- debates of problems at hand, including debates about the practical politics of either getting sixty senators to vote the right way -- or reform the filibuster so that majorities with mandates can act accordingly, to be rewarded or punished in the aftermath by the voters -- to regulate carbon emissions, or mandate renewable energy standards, or introduce real environmental costs into pricing conventions, or subsidize sustainable lifeways, or bootstrap a domestic wind-turbine industry in Detroit, or invest in public works projects like millions of solar-roofs, off-shore wind-farms, transcontinental high-speed rail, but also including debates of the sorts of technical proposals that preoccupy the attention of “bio-engineering” enthusiasts, but at a relevant level of specificity and in the context of all the more conventional sorts of proposals that define the actual field of environmentalist effort.

Cleverdon bemoans that “the denialists of Geo-E have yet to show a clear understanding of the basic science of the threat we face, or any interest in discriminating between the many Geo-E options now being advanced.” To this I have to say, first, I am certainly not a denialist about catastrophic anthropogenic climate change because it clearly exists, second, I suppose I am a denialist about at least the popular conceptions of “geo-engineering” because just as clearly these futurological mega-engineering projects do not exist (is this claim even under contest?) and, third, that we would seem to agree that it is unhelpful to jumble all these proposals indiscriminately together, a consequence I attribute to the discourse itself, which is presumably central to the debate we are presently having.

I also grant that I do, as a generic matter (“geo-engineering” is a discursive genre within environmentalist theory), disapprove the primacy of engineering assumptions, competitive and profit-taking guiding aspirations, the hyperbolic promotional conceits, the superlative futurological frames, and the elite-incumbent corporate-military industrial-authoritarian politics that tend to be facilitated by so much "geo-engineering" discourse, at any rate as it seems to be playing out in the actual world (good intentions of various proponents notwithstanding).

One of my chief interlocutors in this debate, Jamais Cascio, with whom everybody here should be familiar surely, has stressed to me that “geo-engineering” proposals are meant to be treated as supplements to the educational, regulative, legislative emphases of so much mainstream and radical environmentalist theory and practice hitherto. While I take great comfort in that re-assurance -- especially since Cascio is one of the more public proponents of the discourse -- the fact remains that quite a lot of “geo-engineering” discourse is framed instead as the “Plan B” we must reluctantly accept if or when or since already all these conventional approaches have failed, as it seems to me certainly they have not, even if we can all agree that our public institutions are as yet woefully unequal to the environmental problems that beset us. Like it or not, an enormous amount of “geo-engineering” discourse functions to dismiss, denigrate, or distract attention away from democratically-responsive modes of environmentalist lifeway change, regulation, legislation, and public works.

I don’t think it makes much sense to take umbrage at my noticing these things about so much “geo-engineering” discourse. Rather, I think if you disapprove yourself of anti-democratic, elite-incumbent, corporate-militarist, reductivist, brute-force, reckless, hyperbolic, delusively science-fictional variations or mis-appropriations of your own “geo-engineering” advocacy, you should join with me in exposing and critiquing them and inquire with me as to their likely causes and consequences. It is true that I am not likely to be won over to club of “geo-engineering” enthusiasts -- who seem to me at their best to introduce nothing particularly new to the conversation and at their worst to derange the conversation despite its urgency -- but even I see the good sense of a prevailing “geo-engineering” discourse that is more sensible, not to mention more reliably devoted to equity, diversity, and democracy, than the present form seems to be. Surely that is something we can build on.

Posted by: Dale Carrico on 19 Aug 10

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