“Tomorrows that never come” and the false future of geoengineering

“Climate anguish”, generated from prompt by Midjourney
“Climate anguish”, generated from prompt by Midjourney

With the news being reported today that the American government is coordinating a five-year research plan into geoengineering as a solution to the climate crisis, it’s worth going over the topic of geoengineering in general and its most controversial application: solar radiation management (SRM).

Geoengineering is the practice of intentionally altering the environment, usually (but not always) discussed in the context of climate change mitigation strategies. Think of Mr. Burns’ ill-fated decision to block out the sun as a strategy for promoting nuclear energy and you’re halfway there.

Solar radiation management is the poster child of these efforts. Once the province of fringe academics and would-be profiteers of the climate crisis, it has now become much more mainstream as warming and extreme weather events intensify. In principle, it works by injecting an enormous amount of stratospheric aerosols in order to reflect sunlight away from the planet.

The appeals of SRM are easy to understand. In the above-referenced CNBC article, a figure of $10 billion a year is offered as the cost to maintain a worldwide cooling effect of 1 degree Celsius.

(For reference, a 2011 survey from the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimated that it would cost nearly $2 trillion a year worldwide for the next forty years in order to overcome climate catastrophe while eradicating hunger and poverty; considering that, eleven years later, the emissions problem has only increased, that number is likely higher.)

This $10 billion a year figure is by comparison a drop in the bucket. Or, in the words of UCLA’s professor of environmental law Edward A. Parson, “Cheap, it’s so cheap.”

Given that even with substantial policy gains like the U.S.’s Inflation Reduction Act positioning the country to reduce emissions by up to 40% from 2005 levels by the year 2030 we are likely to miss emissions targets aimed at limiting heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius as outlined in the Paris Agreement, a quick and cheap solution to the problem becomes ever more attractive to researchers and policy makers looking for a way out of the worst of it.

So what exactly is the problem?

The primary point of reference in support of the science behind SRM is the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, which shot volcanic ash into the air that was later determined to be responsible for a 1 degree Celsius drop in global temperatures (the 1816 explosion of Mt. Tambora caused a similar effect, creating the “Year Without a Summer” that writer Amitav Ghosh traces as indirectly responsible for the birth of science fiction in literature in his essay The Great Derangement).

The explosion of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in June 1991
The explosion of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in June 1991 (Source)

While no one doubts the science behind blocking out the sun with aerosol injections, it’s difficult to know what would come next. Rain patterns would shift, climates would be rewritten in this strange new world — often with no warning, likely leading to the collapse of agriculture across large swaths of the planet — and millions of people would likely have their lives disrupted as much, if not more, than climate change would have already caused.

But that’s not where it ends.

As David Wallace-Wells writes of it in The Uninhabitable Earth, the real horror of solar radiation management lies in the fact that:

Once we began such a program, we could never stop. Even a brief interruption, a temporary dispersal of our red sulfur umbrella, could send the planet plunging several degrees of warming forward into a climate abyss. Which would make whatever installations were sustaining that umbrella quite vulnerable to political gamesmanship and terrorism…

Despite its risk to accelerate global heating in the event of system failure, it’s also simply bad climate policy, as Naomi Klein writes in This Changes Everything:

…the biggest problem with [SRM] is that it does nothing to change the underlying cause of climate change, the buildup of heat-trapping gases, and instead treats only the most obvious symptom — warmer temperatures. That might help control something like glacial melt, but would do nothing about the increased atmospheric carbon that the ocean continues to soak up, causing rapid acidification that is already taking a heavy toll on [marine ecosystems].

She concludes that geoengineering is not a solution “the ecological crisis,” but rather “doubling down on exactly the kind of reckless, short-term thinking that tomorrow would never come” which led us into this position in the first place, likely incentivizing fossil fuel companies to keep extracting and people to keep burning while the most acute effects are temporarily masked.

Given the environmental shortcomings of SRM, the intention then of the White House to commission research into solar radiation management (among other forms of geoengineering) could not possibly be solely based on their ecological merit.

As Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright write in Climate Leviathan, there are other factors at play here. Ones that have less to do with saving the environment and more to do with the fact that “every field of science and technology is always already social, and the potential creation of [geoengineering] would be an effect of (and contribute to) political change.

In their estimate, the ensuing climate crisis leads to an expansion of the concept of sovereignty to a planetary scale and supercharge the logic of the existing global system international relations in order to enforce this new conception of sovereignty. Among the strains of logic pushing toward this conclusion, they identify:

…is the “logic” of ecological catastrophe and the ensuing imperative to save life on Earth through geoengineering, which finds its most advanced expression in SRM. These logics cohere in an emergent Climate Leviathan for which the political is constituted, therefore, in the necessities crisis and catastrophe demand: hegemonic military-political capacity at a scale adequate to “save the planet,” the production and protection of geoengineering or related socio-technological mechanisms to realize this goal, and finally, the sovereign power to name the emergency, initiate the institutional and technical responses deemed appropriate, and ensure (as far as possible) their legitimacy.

Essentially, the climate crisis presents an opportunity for a powerful entity (be it the State, as Mann & Wainwright figure, or a “rogue billionaire” with several billions at their disposal to finance the project, as Wallace-Wells warns) to reshape global economic and politic relations by launching the world irreversibly into an ecological direction climate with few very powerful people holding their finger on the button.

It’s not hard to wonder who benefits in this scenario. Those already economically or politically marginalized (on the individual level or on the level of nation-states) would have little say in how the temperature is controlled and how. In a scenario where the U.S. and its political allies are in control, irregular rain patterns that destroy agricultural yields in Germany might be met with global coordination of relief funds, but could the same be said if the victim were, say, Iran? India? Vietnam?

The Goldman Sachs building in the wake of Superstorm Sandy — the only such building to have its power maintained in the immediate aftermath of the storm… a perfect metaphor for the wealthy’s self-insulation from the effects of climate change largely driven by the consumption habits of the wealthy
The Goldman Sachs building in the wake of Superstorm Sandy — the only such building to have its power maintained in the immediate aftermath of the storm… a perfect metaphor for the wealthy’s self-insulation from the effects of climate change largely driven by the consumption habits of the wealthy (Source)

And what about the disparities of people within nations as well? As Mann and Wainwright write, “Wall Street cannot prevent the next Superstorm Sandy, but with enough concrete and generators, it can buffer itself from the worst effects, and with catastrophe bonds it can more than cover the increased cost of doing business in the storm surge.

The result would be a world transformed into an archipelago of privilege standing above the drowned billions.

This cannot be the future.

While much of this might seem beyond the purview of the UX Design community, it would be tragic for an industry that prides itself on anticipating and compensating for the needs of individual people to fall in love with the technological poptimism that is geoengineering as a whole and solar radiation management in specific.

These are solutions which prize privilege over populations and short-term profits over long-term sustainability. As I’ve written about before, designing solutions for the climate changed world is going to be difficult and rife with complexities, but that isn’t an excuse to give in to the logic of endless accumulation and limitless growth that positioned us here in the first place.

Uncritical belief in technological forces to save us from climate change are really uncritical beliefs in market forces — both of which engage in a kind of magical thinking that see profit as the motivation which will unlock solutions heretofore unknown to us in the nick of time.

Resisting these urges (and examining critically government-sponsored research into them) requires constant vigilance and a belief that the solutions to the problem can be designed with existing technologies but not with existing ideologies. The design solutions to climate change are found in community-centered design that utilizes existing resources like renewable energy, sustainable city planning and the creation and maintenance of social safety nets designed to leave no one behind while neutralizing the endless conquest for more that will soon exhaust the possibility for a tomorrow that actually comes.

Read the full article here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Cross-Functional Retrospectives

Cross-Functional Retrospectives

Table of Contents Hide A Simple Way to Manage Organisational

How to Instantly Motivate Your Design Team Out of a Creative Block — part 1

How to Instantly Motivate Your Design Team Out of a Creative Block — part 1

Table of Contents Hide DESIGN LEADERSHIP | CREATIVE BLOCKTried and tested —

You May Also Like