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.