Stop shaming geo-engineering researchers!

By Craig Morris

Environmentalists are often critical of technological fixes to problems caused by technology. But when it comes to geo-engineering, a clear distinction needs to be made between the message and the messenger.

Let’s say you don’t exercise enough, eat too much snack food, and get drunk too often. Then your doctor tells you he’s putting you on medication for high blood pressure. Would you accuse your doctor of being part of an evil conspiracy? It’s not a perfect analogy, but a comparison between medicine and geo-engineering helps us understand geo-engineering researchers better. In this comparison, our fossil fuel consumption is our unhealthy lifestyle; climate change is the disease.

For those not familiar with the term, geo-engineering entails changing the Earth intentionally (we are already changing it somewhat unintentionally) to mitigate climate change. Some proposals are scarier than others. Substances could be poured into the ocean (allowing water to absorb more CO2) or sprayed into the atmosphere (reflecting more sunlight back into space). But we don’t really know what the side effects might be. Other proposals sound less sinister, such as covering melting glaciers with white tarp to keep them from melting.

Don’t shoot the messenger!

A recent article in the Guardian depicted geo-engineering as a hyper-capitalist scheme to prevent the worst effects of global warming without forcing civilization to change its bad habits. Indeed, some proponents of geo-engineering quoted in the article fit that description, but none of them are the researchers themselves. Rather, some fossil fuel supporters see geo-engineering as an opportunity to protect the industry. Judging from my Facebook feed, lots of people in the environmental community (even high-ranking people) took the article at face value, for it confirmed their notions about geo-engineering being a technological fix to a technological problem – something they (and I) generally oppose.

Unfortunately, the article was a bit misleading and seems to have been cobbled from an NGO’s press release. The researchers criticized have since responded with a long list of corrections worth reading. But what really got my attention was their jujitsu defense: instead of arguing that geo-engineering isn’t nuts, they say the fear of it is justified. It’s just that the choice we have isn’t between a healthy planet and a geo-engineered monstrosity, but between a much warmer (and scary) one and one not quite so warm thanks to geo-engineering, but possibly with some side effects.

We don’t know what those side effects will be, so we don’t know what’s scarier: climate change alone or less climate change with some side effects of geo-engineering.

Research means knowledge, not commitment

The best geo-engineering researchers (most of them, from what I can tell) are more like good doctors telling us to live right or we’ll have to take our medicine – or perhaps I should say they are more like medical researchers a century ago. As a scientific field, geo-engineering is in its infancy, not highly advanced like healthcare. These researchers should therefore be thought of as scientists trying to give us options we don’t have today. The only thing we know for sure is that the planet is sick. Geo-engineering researchers would like to talk with us about whether we want a research field of “planetary medicine.”

It’s important to understand that these researchers are not all committed geo-engineers. With probably only a few exceptions, they are not completely convinced that the outcome of their research will be more desirable than unmitigated climate change. But we won’t know unless we look into the matter. Importantly, they don’t want to do this research without input from society. Geo-engineering could be an awful technocratic scheme – or it could be scientific input for a debate held democratically. The informed public can reject the solutions arrived at if it wants.

I should admit that I hate the idea of geo-engineering. I also hate the idea of chemotherapy, so I try to get some exercise and eat well (though I have been known to enjoy three or four beers, etc.). My vision of saving the planet is that we go renewable, largely with wind and solar, stop eating so much meat, ride bikes, and take public transportation. For me, walking trumps electric cars, and we need to stop flying. But it’s not an idea with a large following. If I fail to convince others to change their lifestyles, it might be nice to know what the technological fixes – the medicine – might look like, including side effects. And that requires research.

Expect to find me on the precautionary-principle side of the geo-engineering debate in the future as well. But it’s wrong to represent such researchers as capitalist tools working to undermine democracy. Almost all of them say that geo-engineering must not be an excuse for inaction elsewhere (the moral hazard). If these researchers were doctors, they’d be the ones telling us to get exercise and eat healthy food, but they’d like to investigate some technical fixes – within bounds society sets – for our potato-chip-and-beer addiction we can’t kick. They’re trying to do us a favor. We should support their research and eventually thank them for their efforts even if we ultimately choose not to take their medicine.

Header image: istock/erhui1979

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