If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to unite global warming “denialists” on both sides of the aisle, it’s geoengineering – the intentional planet-wide manipulation of the environment.  At least, you might be left with that impression after reading the comments following a thoughtful piece in Monday’s Wall Street Journal by Jamais Cascio.

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It’s Time to Cool the Planet. Wall Street Journal. Credit: Viktor Koen

Cascio describes himself as a “reluctant advocate” of geoengineering.

“Many of us who have been watching this subject closely have gone from being skeptics to advocates. Very reluctant advocates, to be sure, but advocates nonetheless.”

Fraught with uncertainty and risk as geoengineering is, he argues that cutting greenhouse gas emissions will not be sufficient in the short term to curb the impacts of global warming.  Rather, direct intervention is necessary to give us a bit of breathing space.

Interestingly, he does not advocate geoengineering as a technical fix to a manmade problem.  He goes to great pains to stress that he believes reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the only long-term solution to the impact of human activities on climate change.  But geoengineering could give us more time to come up with workable solutions to achieving this.

“What geoengineering can do is slow the increase in temperatures, delay potentially catastrophic “tipping point” events—such as a disastrous melting of the Arctic permafrost—and give us time to make the changes to our economies and our societies necessary to end the climate disaster.

“Geoengineering, in other words, is simply a temporary “stay of execution.” We will still have to work for a pardon.”

Cascio also does not shy away from the potential risks as well as the social and political challenges associated with such direct action.

“Any kind of geoengineering would also face other issues. Most prominent are the political concerns. Since geoengineering is global in its effects, who determines whether or not it’s used, which technologies to deploy, and what the target temperatures will be? Who decides which unexpected side effects are bad enough to warrant ending the process? Because the expense and expertise required would be low enough for a single country, what happens when a desperate “rogue nation” attempts geoengineering against the wishes of other states? And because the benefits and possible harm from geoengineering attempts would be unevenly distributed around the planet, would it be possible to use this technology for strategic or military purposes? That last one may sound a bit paranoid, but it’s clear that any technology with the potential for strategic use will be at the very least considered by any rational international actor.

“There are also more mundane questions of liability. If, for example, South Asia experiences an unusual drought during cyclone season after geoengineering begins, who gets blamed? Who gets sued? Would all “odd” weather patterns be ascribed to the geoengineering effort? If so, would the issue of what would have happened absent geoengineering be considered relevant?”

Yet at the end of the day, he believes that, despite the very real problems associated with taking direct action, the alternatives are worse.

This is a finely written piece, and well worth reading.  It lays out the pros and cons of geoengineering in a carefully reasoned way.  It doesn’t contain much science admittedly.  But then I wouldn’t expect it to – it’s an opinion piece, and the supporting science isn’t that hard to track down.

The article also spotlights what I suspect is going to be the biggest challenge to any effective use of geoengineering – getting a disparate bunch of people across social political and geographical boundaries to work together.  I fear that, while we now have the beginnings of technologies to tackle global problems, our mindset remains too parochial to implement them wisely.  Constrained by outmoded ways of thinking and acting, we are simply too immature as a species to make good decisions on a global scale.

The answer is deceptively simple – we need to grow up.  This won’t be easy.  I’m not even sure it is possible – which doesn’t bode well for humanity.  But if we don’t find ways of making wise decisions on technology uses that potentially affect everyone, things are going to get messy.

Perhaps climate change and the threat/lure of geoengineering are the jolt we need to find innovative ways of working toegther that transcend conventional boundaries and blinkered perspectives.  I don’t know.

I do know though that progress won’t happen without innovative thinking, open dialogue and a little humility on all sides.  Jamais Cascio’s piece offers the hope that these challenges, although complex, are not beyond our reach; if only we can tackle them with the maturity they demand.

Sadly, the comments on the Wall Street Journal piece suggest we still have a lot of growing up to do.

Andrew Maynard