Nature Has No Allegiances: An Argument for Geoengineering

The earth does not owe us anything. The earth has no allegiances, it has no cares, and it does not love us.The earth is a collection of inanimate matter which happens to have the lucky conditions necessary to favour the emergence of highly organized and highly complex groupings of self-replicating molecular patterns, collectively known as life.  

The earth is staggeringly beautiful and all of its glorious biodiversity is absolutely something worth protecting, but we should not forget how we came to have such a beautiful and diverse planet. The history of the earth is not one of constant harmonious balance, but one of perpetual life and death competition.

In a recent post I talked about the tension of chaos and order in the universe. Nowhere is the interplay of chaos and order more apparent then in the natural world where a constant evolutionary race is ongoing between all of the interconnected species of the planet. Through chaotic evolution, life has bumbled into the current balance that is necessary to support life as we know it today, but it is dangerously delusional to think that the natural system will stay just as it is today, forever.

In recent times, human activities have had an exponentially increasing effect on the natural systems of the planet. In a very real sense, the build-up of greenhouse gases is stacking the scales in favour of chaos over order. We are putting more energy into the system, and we can’t be sure exactly what that is going to do. Our current trajectory foreshadows a chaotic implosion of the balanced life-support systems which we rely on for survival. Yes, the natural world will eventually reach a new equilibrium, but whether that is one conducive to human life on this planet is unclear.

We must start to take responsibility for the long term impact of our actions on the environment. More importantly, we must give up on the idea that the natural world is designed for us, and if we simply somehow  “go back to nature”, then we can get back to a fairy tale state of harmonious balance with nature.

Aside – At this point, I am tempted to go off on a tangent about whether or not the Universe has an interest in your personal well-being, and the role that belief should have in politics – but this will have to be an argument for another post. Suffice it to say that faith should have no place in politics. Regardless of our personal beliefs, I think the majority of thoughtful individuals can agree that our mechanisms of collective decision making ought to be organized around rational principles.

Doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is going to have a drastic impact on the way the natural world functions. Scientists are now saying that the changes we are already seeing in global temperatures may be but a sign of things to come. Even if we were to stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere today, it’s thought that temperatures may continue to increase for hundreds of years. Given the speed of changes we are seeing already, I don’t think it is going to be possible for us to live through hundreds of years of this.

Amongst the overwhelming majority of scientists who accept the existence of climate change, the grave danger it poses is well accepted; yet still the only ‘solution’ that seems to be widely discussed is the cessation of activities that produce greenhouse gas as soon as possible.  I am becoming increasingly convinced that stopping fossil fuel use alone is not going to be able to reverse the effects of 200 years of greenhouse gas emissions.

To oversimplify a complex argument; I don’t think that the earth is going to “fix” itself. We are going to need other options, and it is time that we figure them out.

Geoengineering offers our only hope to reign in an unruly climate should some of the more dire predictions of climate scientists start to come true. Despite this, both from the environmental lobby and the wider media, I hear a conspicuous silence when it comes to the issue of geoengineering.

It would seem that the reason for this comes at least in part from a pseudo-spiritual belief that nature will somehow take care of us, if only we mend our mistaken industrial ways. This kind of philosophy is a dangerous bedfellow for climate scientists interested in  of populist support against climate change. Nature has no allegiance to us. It is in our hands to make wise decisions in the interest of our collective future. 

There is another argument sometimes put forward against geoengineering: That putting geoengineering on the table would take away the incentive to continue the fight against GHG emissions. This is a ridiculous argument, akin to suggesting that the existence of chemotherapy takes away the incentive to quit smoking.

Just like chemotherapy, geoengineering is an extreme and dangerous treatment for a disorder which we don’t fully understand. It is also a treatment which we would all rather avoid. Nonetheless, we know that doing nothing will allow an invisible disorder to become a visible disease, and one that might just kill the patient.

Unlike chemotherapy however, we still don’t have the scientific data to show what kind of geoengineering will work. It is time for this to change. The precautionary principle states that we cannot perform an intervention where we do not have confidence it will help more than it hurts. Several different geoengineering schemes have been proposed, but we are basically in the dark as to which ones might be effective, and which ones might be disastrous.The only way to know this is to do the science.

Let me be clear, I am not advocating that we go ahead and start on large scale geoengineering, but I do think that it is time that we start talking seriously about geoengineering, and it is time we give it serious funding to match. We need to decide what form of geoengineering we would use, and when it would be appropriate to use it – and we need to start working on these questions right now. Pretending that geoengineering doesn’t exist, or trying to outlaw its use is short-sighted, and potentially dangerous.

Geoengineering is not the cure we want, but it might be the one we need.

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11 thoughts on “Nature Has No Allegiances: An Argument for Geoengineering

  1. Great post as always,
    I am always interested when the ideas of evolution and natural selection come up in discussion. Isn’t interesting that over millions of years cellular compounds evolved into more complex life forms while the nature of constant entropy negates these changes?
    Thanks again!
    Best–Jim

  2. I think you are wrong to dismiss the argument that geoengineering will disincentivize GHG emissions reductions. “Sustainability” has entered the mainstream over the last few years but many people who will tell you they care about lowering emissions have, for example, CFL bulbs and a reusable water bottle, but have made few meaningful changes in their lives. This highlights the difficulty of communicating effectively about climate change even to a receptive audience; in addition, there is a real danger that people who have a interest in continuing to emit will seize upon geoengineering as a way to convince people that emissions reductions are no longer essential. Cancer, by contrast, is pretty cut and dry: people know what you mean when you say “you’re going to die”.

    This is not to say that people shouldn’t be talking about it. The entire phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change is proof that geoengineering is not just possible but very real, and as you mentioned there are some rather pressing questions on that front. But I think it’s important to stay sober about the risks of these types of experiments.

    Science recently published some discussion on the topic (behind a paywall, unfortunately).
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6125/1278

    • I think you are probably right about the importance of “keeping up the pressure” for people to think about the environment. Nonetheless, I also think it is imperative that we start to talk more about geoengineering as a real possibility if we need it. I think the chemotherapy analogy is a good one, and one which could be used to sell the idea nore widely if need be (ie Its not the cure we want, but it might be the one we need)

      When would we use it? What type would we use? What is a good temperature to aim for? How do we decide on and control local effects of geoengineering (ie what if china were to alter the climate to favor their own crops… etc). These are real and important questions that need to be discussed and decided on.

  3. Fantastic.

    What do you think of this?
    Our economic system is predicated upon fundamentally anti economic ideas. Sustainability, efficiency, and cheap universal access are all irrational to the ever increasing, compounding and consumption driven model of economics we have today. Planned obsolescence, inefficiency and waste are built into products of every kind.

    • I think that industry must be held to account for the products they create. The capitalist economy can service our needs and be good patrons of the environment, but they will only do it if we require it of them. See my last post for more on this one

  4. You write in your article that nature has no allegiance to us and you say you “don’t think that the earth is going to “fix” itself”. I agree with your first point but I don’t understand on what evidence you base the other. Geoengineering is an inherently anthropocentric concept, as it aims to solve an anthropogenic problem (climate change) by addressing an anthropogenic cause (continually rising CO2 emissions). What you fail to appreciate, in my view, is that the Earth is already fixing itself. Climate change – or rather global average temperature increase – is part of a self-regulating feedback mechanism of our planet. [As the concentration of CO2 emissions and other GHGs in the atmosphere rises, more long wave terrestrial radiation is reflected back to the Earth’s surface, inducing further warming. This warming momentum induces melting of sea ice and glaciers leading to higher sea levels globally and reducing the reflectivity of solar radiation (more warming). It is also projected to lead to reductions in permafrost cover, which subsequently releases methane, a more potent GHGs leading yet again to (more warming).] What the Earth is not doing, is regulating itself in our favour. It is not going to stabilise itself at temperatures conducive for human life, much less for other mammals and other species that will and already are suffering the impacts of poorly mitigated climate change. This is not about the planet. This is about human survival (and that of other species if you care – we’re not doing too well there either). Now I’m not one to predict where this trend is heading but it is likely that the famous hockey stick temperature anomaly curve will continue to rise unless significant mitigation measures are taken. Such measures address the causes of the problem, while geoengineering is an end-of-pipe clean up technology. It is suggested we are already failing to stabilise global average temperature increase at 2C, so it is likely that we’ll need both if we want to keep calling this planet home.

    I remember a well-done stand-up by Comedian George Carlin, reminding us that maybe we’re all a little too arrogant (I would say anthropocentric) in approaching this problem of global (human) concern.

    • There’s no reason to assume that the Earth is going to stabilize itself.

      Yes, several times in the past, the Earth has had wild climate swings and then stabilized itself at some tempature that allowed life to survive. But we can’t know how common that is until we have a lot more life-bearing planets to study.

      In fact, looking at some of the climate disasters the Earth has gone through in the past, we don’t know exactally why the Earth stabilized, and didn’t either turn into a snowball forever or spiral into an out of control greenhouse world. Perhaps most planets don’t survive that; perhaps that’s the solution to the whole Fermi paradox of why intelligent life seems to be far more rare in the galaxy then we might expect. Of course, just because we got so lucky in the past doesn’t mean we’ll continue to in the future.

  5. Pingback: Another Week of Anthropocene Antics, May 26, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  6. The first thing we need to establish is *why* humans should survive. Motivation is always at the core of any significant pursuit. The practical details follow. If we want humanity to persist out of sheer survival instinct, I think we are misguided. All things die and our inability to cope with this fact should not be our starting point in building our future. If we say that humanity is a worthwhile natural construct due to ability to appreciate and interact with the Universe, I think we have an ethos for the path ahead.

    At that point, human survival is largely an eggs-in-one-basket problem. Our particular basket is rather vulnerable. Sustainability is well-intended and important, but our cultural reaction time isn’t great. Geonengineering may very well be fully necessary to protect the viability of our basket. I’d even argue that genetic engineering has role to play in making us more resilient, possibly even increasing human biodiversity to a more desirable level. But most of all we need to be searching for (or building) new baskets.

  7. Just like chemotherapy is toxic (and VERY HARMFUL to your body) , the means used for geoengeneering are EVEN MORE TOXIC (And even more harmful to our planet)

    It will only be of little influence and only postpone the unavoidable outcome for a few years/ decades – IF we keep fighting against Nature instead of working WITH IT!!!

    People all around the world see this and start to wake up, to protest, because they see what and especially HOW geoengineering is being done – and they are not happy with it (which is the understatement of the century)

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