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The Next Economy
Geoengineering:
Are You Feeling Lucky?

“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness,
the good he seeks.”

— Mary Wollstonecraft

I’ve got a bad feeling about this…

There has been increasing discussion of late, in the context of the IPCC's latest report on the dangers of climate change, about geoengineering — deliberate intervention in the functioning of planetary systems intended to arrest trends we don’t like or encourage ones that we do.

Geoengineering solutions (which might be termed mechanical geoengineering) fall into two categories:

1. Solar Radiation Management (SRM) or Solar Geoengineering — techniques designed to increase the Earth’s albedo (increasing the amount of the Sun’s energy reflected into space) and;

2. Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) or Carbon Geoengineering — approaches designed to capture and store atmospheric carbon.

Proposed mechanical geoengineering approaches include the introduction of iron filings into the sea to stimulate plankton growth and therefore carbon fixing, the release of stratospheric aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space and the construction of space mirrors — to block sunlight before it hits the planet.

An overview of approaches and principles for their use, is available from the University of Oxford’s Oxford Geoengineering Programme.

I don’t know about you, but these ideas seem a little less like surgical interventions and more like indiscriminate, last gasp desperation.

At an event I attended last year at the Oxford Geoengineering Programme, one of the planet’s foremost geoengineering experts described the actual use of these approaches as a last throw of the dice, when anything more sensible and predictable had been tried and had failed. He likened it to a terminally ill patient with weeks to live trying an untested drug, because they were certain that nothing else would work…

Is this an approach we should seriously consider in preference to reducing the dependence our economy and way of life has upon carbon dispersal? Does it make more sense to reject the development and scaling of provably safe technologies and instead put our trust in what might be a reckless, irreversible gamble?

The fundamentals of risk management

Whilst it’s a complex art, risk management essentially comes down to two basic questions:

  • What is the chance (probability of occurrence) of the worst happening? And;
  • If it did, could we cope with it (impact of risk)?

When these questions are applied to most proposed geoengineering planetary hacks, the answer to both of these questions is: “Er…..not sure….”.

It’s not just me saying this, actual experts freely acknowledge that the effects of many geoengineering approaches will be highly uncertain. For a quick overview of the potential flaws and benefits of differing approaches, see the graphic from New Scientist on the Oxford Geoengineering Programme website.

Given this, aren’t there other tactics that it might be better to try, that are innately safer and more certain in their outcomes? There are alternative interventionist approaches with an entirely different risk profile, innate safety and benefits, they fall under the heading of “regreening.”

Why does regreening make more sense than mechanical geoengineering?

Regreening is about working with the planet’s natural processes to increase the scale and health of life on the planet. It includes re-forestation, ecosystem restoration, watershed management and the creation of fertile productive places (such as this work in the Sahel). Unlike seeding the skies with aerosols with effects we would struggle to predict regreening doesn’t need crossed fingers, just support, time and scale.

The problems of mechanical geoengineering and regreening

Geoengineering is stymied twice over before it starts (I hope) by the twin facts that we neither have the understanding of complexity that would allow us to use it safely nor yet the need to use it. We have plenty of proven, safe ways of helping the planet to become better at climate and water regulation, carbon capture and storage, not to mention food production. The planet’s life must be encouraged to thrive through regreening of all kinds.

Conversely, the problem with regreening is that it requires a myriad of individual acts, whereas mechanical geoengineering is more monumental in nature. Given this, it is of course geoengineering which we seem to leap at, seeing it as a simple answer to a complex problem. We humans are perhaps too easily swayed by oversimplification, blinded to the fact that the planet is too complicated to truly know.

Geoengineering will have consequences beyond uncertain effects on the climate which will impact upon the functioning of life and cause change piled upon the strain imposed by existing pressures.

Reality on this planet is beyond our conceptions of complexity

“Human judges can show mercy. But against the laws of nature, there is no appeal.”
— Arthur C. Clarke

Our current time on this planet is characterised by relative safety and predictability. The planet’s systems provide self-replicating and sustaining conditions for life in general and modern human societies in particular. The planet has not always been as hospitable to life, and there are no guarantees that it will be always so in future.

Set against this is the fact that our understandings about the limits of stability and certainty are hazy, whilst we know something about how physical and ecological systems function and interact we do not really know much about where their thresholds of change lie.

While concepts such as Planetary Boundaries articulate clear ‘red lines’ that we should not cross without significant changes in the planet’s function, much remains fundamentally uncertain. Even the best understandings of how our planet’s systems intertwine really only allow us to make crude guesses as to the extent and implications of deploying almost any kind of geoengineering.

Geoengineering requires us to rely upon luck, that’s not a good thing.

We don’t know where the current thresholds of our stability really lie, though we have some ideas — but the interactions of change at the thresholds is, quite simply, beyond us.

Our environmental stability, the ‘predictability’ that has allowed life to thrive over the millennia, is actually merely a metastability (a “temporary” state defined by dependencies and circumstances), one of many across the course of the earth’s history.

We don’t know where the tipping points are, so why rock the boat further? Especially when we don’t need to.

Life is (ahem) good for us, why turn away from it when we need it so?

Regreening is a form of geoengineering — conscious intervention designed to create planetary scale impact. However, it is one that concentrates not on the introduction of atmospheric aerosols, or dumping iron filings but in spreading life, actively and with intent.

We need the earth to be capable of producing life. It does this now, and though in decline, it still provides wonder in abundance. Regreening only requires us to do what we already know how to do but don’t do enough of. To revitalise, to re-green, to spread plants and creatures in multitudinous shapes and sizes which inherently fix carbon, clean water, provide raw materials for building, clothing, sugars, chemicals and all the essentials for a human life well lived. They can do this as a matter of course and charge very little for their services.

When this is our possible future why would we instead choose approaches whose impacts are merely guessed at and whose consequences geological in timescale?

Regreening, you know it makes sense. The planet still fairly throbs with life — let’s go with that flow, not change the course of the river even further.

If you want to read more on these issues, see also our suggested regreening pledges: a Manifesto for Rejuvenative Technology, and a discussion about the Planetary Boundaries concept — Which straw broke the camel’s back?

This post first appeared on the Terrafiniti blog on November 25, 2014.

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