Here’s a tip, for anyone seriously interested in the big issues that will dominate discussion in the next 5-10 years. You should become familiar (if you’re not already) with the work of Jamais Cascio. Jamais is someone who consistently has deep, interesting, and challenging things to say about the large changes that are likely to sweep over the planet in the decades ahead.
In 2003, Jamais co-founded WorldChanging.com, a website dedicated to finding and calling attention to models, tools and ideas for building a “bright green” future. In March, 2006, he started Open the Future.
One topic that Jamais has often addressed is geoengineering – sometimes also called “climate engineering”, “planetary engineering”, or “terraforming”. Geoengineering covers a range of large-scale projects that could, conceivably, be deployed to head-off the effects of runaway global warming. Examples include launching large mirrors into space to reflect sunlight away from the earth, injecting sulphate particles into the stratosphere, brightening clouds or deserts to increase their reflectivity, and extracting greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. It’s a thoroughly controversial topic. But Jamais treads skilfully and thoughtfully through the controversies.
A collection of essays by Jamais on the topic of geoengineering is available in book format, under the title “Hacking the earth: understanding the consequences of geoengineering“. It’s a slim volume, with just over 100 pages, but it packs lots of big thoughts. While reading, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the book.
At present, this book is only available from Lulu.com. As Jamais says, the book is, for him:
an experiment in self-publishing…
… in recent weeks various friends have tried out – and given high marks to – web-based self-publishing outfits like Lulu.com… I thought I’d give this method a shot.
The material in the book is derived from articles published online at Open the Future and elsewhere. Some of the big themes are as follows (the following bullet points are all excerpts from Jamais’ writing):
- Feedback effects ranging from methane released from melting permafrost to carbon emissions from decaying remnants of forests devoured by pine beetles risk boosting greenhouse gases faster than natural compensation mechanisms can handle. The accumulation of non-linear drivers can lead to “tipping point” events causing functionally irreversible changes to geophysical systems (such as massive sea-level increases). Some of these can have feedback effects of their own, such as the elimination of ice caps reducing global albedo, thereby accelerating heating.
- None of the bright green solutions — ultra-efficient buildings and vehicles, top-to-bottom urban redesigns, local foods, renewable energy systems, and the like — will do anything to reduce the anthropogenic greenhouse gases that have already been emitted. The best result we get is stabilizing at an already high greenhouse gas level. And because of ocean thermal inertia and other big, slow climate effects, the Earth will continue to warm for a couple of decades even after we stop all greenhouse gas emissions. Transforming our civilization into a bright green wonderland won’t be easy, and under even the most optimistic estimates will take at least a decade; by the time we finally stop putting out additional greenhouse gases, we could well have gone past a point where globally disastrous results are inevitable. In fact, given the complexity of climate feedback systems, we may already have passed such a tipping point, even if we stopped all emissions today.
- Geoengineering, should it be tried, would not be a replacement for making the economic, social, and technological changes needed to eliminate anthropogenic greenhouse gases. It would only be a way of giving us more time to make those changes. It’s not an either-or situation; geo is a last-ditch prop for making sure that we can do what needs to be done.
- We don’t know enough about how the various geoengineering proposals would play out to make a persuasive case for trying any of them. There needs to be far more study before making any even moderate-scale experimental effort. This is not something to try today. The most important task for current geoengineering research is to identify the approaches that might look attractive at first, but have devastating results — we need to know what we should avoid even if desperate.
- Like it or not, we’ve entered the era of intentional geoengineering. The people who believe that (re)terraforming is a bad idea need to be part of the discussion about specific proposals, not simply sources of blanket condemnations. We need their insights and intelligence. The best way to make that happen, the best way to make sure that any terraforming effort leads to a global benefit, not harm, is to open the process of studying and developing geotechnological tools.
- Geoengineering presents more than just an environmental question. It also presents a geopolitical dilemma. With processes of this magnitude and degree of uncertainty, countries would inevitably argue over control, costs, and liability for mistakes. More troubling, however, is the possibility that states may decide to use geoengineering efforts and technologies as weapons. Two factors make this a danger we dismiss at our peril: the unequal impact of climate changes, and the ability of small states and even nonstate actors to attempt geoengineering.
- It is possible that, should the international community refrain from geoengineering strategies, one or more smaller, non-hegemonic, actors could undertake geoengineering projects of their own. This could be out of a legitimate fear that prevention and mitigation strategies would be insufficient, out of a disagreement with the consensus over geoengineering safety or results, or—most troublingly—out of a desire to use geoengineering tools to achieve a relative increase in competitive power over adversaries.
I particularly liked Jamais’ suggestion of a “Reversibility Principle” as an alternative to the “Precautionary Principle” and “Proactionary Principle” that have previously been suggested as guidelines for deciding which actions to take, regarding the application of technology.
Geoengineering is, by its nature, a huge topic. The “Technology Review” magazine contains a substantial analysis entitled “The Geoengineering Gambit” in its Jan-Feb 2010 edition. And the authors of Freakonomics, Stephen J Dubner and Steven Levitt, included a chapter on geoengineering in their follow-up book, “Superfreakonomics“. As it happens, there seems to be wide consensus that the freakonomics team were considerably too hasty in their analysis – see for example the Guardian article “Why Superfreakonomics’ authors are wrong on geo-engineering“. But the fact that there were mistakes in that analysis doesn’t mean the topic itself should fade from view.
Far from it: I’m sure we’re going to be hearing more and more about geoengineering. It deserves our attention!