Truth and Beauty – Jamais Cascio on Geoengineering

Or, Hacking the Planet Without Voiding the Warranty.

Ed. note—I keep these notes mostly because I’m an artist, and if I don’t have a tool in my hands then I can’t apply half my brain. But it would be a shame not to post them now they exist. I don’t make any claims about comprehensiveness or perfect accuracy. As always, italics indicate my own thoughts; everything else is Cascio’s.

“I don’t like ‘futurist’ as a job description, but I haven’t come up with a better one. I ask questions, I don’t tell you what the future will be like.”

We’re in an age where, effectively, there is no more nature – the Anthropocene, where human activities have a noticeable effect on the climate.

There are two ways that we can potentially remedy global warming: either we can manage the incoming solar radiation, or we can remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Launch capacity rules out flying a classic solar mirror – we just can’t get that much mass up there quickly enough to do any good.

We could fill the air with crap (seawater or sulphur compounds) but that has been shown to alter rainfall. (There’s actually been quite a few large-scale tests on that – volcanic eruptions do precisely the same thing, and so did the oil-field fires Iraqi forces set after the invasion of Kuwait that began the first Gulf War. This is also what we used to call nuclear winter.)

As for carbon dioxide sequestration, there aren’t many ways to embed it reliably. Planting enough trees to embody that much CO2 would leave no room for arable land, and thus no food. Just pumping the stuff underground will leak, or cause earthquakes in the way that fracking does.

There’s a new company called Calera who say they can sequester carbon dioxide “in the built environment”.

The sequestration/ocean-albedo-changing idea, using iron filings in the ocean to encourage algal bloom, has been shown not to work.

“Rule No. 1: Desperate People Do Desperate Things.” We are, at some point, going to see amateur geo-engineers; rogue states starting geoengineering projects; and climate terrorist groups trying to stop them. States are already seriously considering these techniques as warfare, and evaluating ways to deploy them or defend against them.

One of the things that’s stopping people-or-organizations doing geoengineering is liability. If something goes wrong (and it will), and if you’ve been doing something that could potentially have had an effect on the climate or the weather, then you will be blamed. And sued.

This is not a choice between hubris and humility.

Five steps to doing it right:

  1. Transparency. Everyone should know what you’re doing and how.
  2. Internationality.
  3. Bottom-up thinking: “Ecoscientists Without Borders”.
  4. Global dispute resolution mechanisms. We already have models for those, after the CFC row and in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  5. An absolute, and thoroughly enforced, ban on non-state projects.

Not economies of scale, but economies of scope: solutions that deal with several problems at once.

The problems we face in tackling ecological breakage aren’t technological, generally; they’re political and cultural.

Breaking The Powers? Dreams of a Council of Scientists. We should have a Power Jubilee. Are we condemned to incrementalism?

The moral hazard of technological fixes.

Geoengineering as a phantom tiger – “if the scientists are willing to do THAT, the problem must be worse than we thought.” Asking people their opinions of geoengineering projects has been shown to increase their acceptance of global warming as a problem.

To sum up: Things are going horribly wrong. A solution may emerge, if it’s given time and room. There is, currently, nothing we as individuals can safely do.


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