A Slippery Slope

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters, at least from what we’ve seen from a few selected chapters, illustrates the multifaceted issue surrounding the viability and ethics of geo-engineering as a way to reverse impacts from climate change. He displays a broad assortment of proposed geo-engineering technology ideas, showing the potential benefits and consequences of each of them. For instance, he describes carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation manipulation/management as the primary methods, and then goes on to list a few other lesser known proposals, such as the deforestation of Siberia and Canada in order to increase the albedo from the ground below. 

One of the core arguments in favor of implementing geo-engineering technology is that the amount of effort we would have to put in to persuade people in power to significantly reduce carbon emissions seems close to impossible, and therefore geo-engineering is a quick and economically efficient way to mitigate the issue. The primary argument against this is that geo-engineering does absolutely nothing to solve climate change (assuming there is such a thing as “solving” such a problem) because the fossil fuel industries are completely excused of responsibility for their actions, making it so they continue production like any other day. In some ways, this actually helps the industries, because the extraction techniques used to create energy out of fossil fuels is being utilized directly for geo-engineering technology, which has been demonstrated through the movement to begin usage of so-called “clean coal”. 

Another key argument is that many of the proposed geo-engineering technologies don’t even do anything about carbon emissions, but instead focus on re-engineering other parts of the earth, such as reflecting sunlight away from the earth in order to reduce heat radiation.

Geo-engineering, in my opinion, is quite possibly the worst available solution for mitigating climate change. It plays no part in addressing the reasons we got to this point in the first place, and is in fact a continuation of our anthropogenic impact. Also, many scientists who advocate for geo-engineering technology don’t seem to prioritize the safety of the people who would likely be affected by it, primarily in underdeveloped countries. Not only is it merely a band-aid for a systemic issue, but it could have dire impacts which are possibly worse than some effects of climate change itself. I’m not really sure what the best way forward is; there are a lot of ideas out in the open which seem equally viable and risky, and maybe even impractical. But I do know that geo-engineering technology is not the solution.

Geoengineering: Do the Pros Exceed the Cons?

To geoengineer, or to not geoengineer; that is the question. There are many pros and cons to possible solutions to climate change involving geoengineering. The real question is: do the pros outweigh the possible risks? I personally do not think that we should rely so heavily on the possibilities of geoengineering being successful.

I believe that the risks far exceed the possible success. The fact that the plans for fixing the environment could majorly backfire and cause even more damage than was already there originally is too big of a consequence to think about utilizing geoengineering techniques to prevent the destruction of our ecosystem. Geophysicist Raymond Pierrehumbert discloses that if, for example, sulfur aerosols were chosen to be the method of choice for reversing climate change, they “would cool the planet, but we’d risk calamity the moment we stopped pumping: the aerosols would rain down and years’ worth of accumulated carbon would make temperatures surge” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/07/re-engineering-the-earth/307552/) which would cause more harm than good and be worse for the planet than what it is currently suffering from today. 

Not to mention the fact that the nations would have to find a way to split the cost if the solution is to impact the entire planet, not just one country, or one continent. Although geoengineering solutions are cheap and affordable by a singular country, I feel that it is important that everyone share the cost if the method of choice is capable of affecting the whole world. This raises more questions: how should the cost be distributed? Should the region with the most blame for climate crisis pay for it? Should everyone pay the same amount? Should countries with a higher carbon footprint in relation to everyone else have to pay more than those with a smaller carbon footprint?

In all honesty, I feel as though geoengineering should be a last resort. The possible negative side effects should serve as motivation for people to find better solutions with the technology we have currently at our disposal. However, if awareness is not brought to those who support geoengineering as a primary method of fixing the destruction of the environment, then they will be less inspired to help the planet now and increase the risk for increased climate crisis.

The Risk of Innovation

In Graeme Wood’s article, “Re-Engineering the Earth” on the Atlantic, they discuss the possibilities of solving the climate crisis from a Geo-engineering prospective. The main argument for this, is that it it much more cost effective. Wood claims that “$100 billion could reverse anthropogenic climate change entirely, and some experts suspect that a hundredth of that sum would suffice.” Wood follows that up with “To stop global warming the old-fashioned way, by cutting carbon emissions, would cost on the order of $1 trillion yearly.”

Wood follows this claim by discussing many of the Geo-engineering ideas proposed to solve this problem. Some of them are quite out there, like shooting 840 trillion Frisbee-sized ceramic disks in-between us and the sun. While some are much more reasonable, like building ships that propel sea water in the air to create whiter and fluffier clouds, they still all raise a concern with me.

At some point in the future if we rely on Geo-engineering, we will have to make a very costly decision on what the best method to do so is. Funding any one of the projects discussed would take a very large sum of money and we would only be able to test them on small scales before deciding on one. This small amount of evidence would be what we rely on to solve a global issue and any number of factors could go wrong when scaling up the project.

To me, this is why it seems much smarter to take a route that we have proven works, and instead of geo-engineering a sort of “third state” of the world, we should do our best to revert it back to its first state. Sure the decision could be much more costly, but it is also a much more guaranteed way of solving the climate crisis and has much less possible ramifications on us as a species if something does go wrong when solving it with a geo-engineering solution.


The article Re-Engineering the Earth by Graeme Wood outlined several different options considered by scientists for “geoengineering” or artificially altering the earth’s climate system in an attempt to mitigate global warming. These solutions ranged from pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to planting genetically engineered forests to blocking sunlight by launching ceramic disks into the sky. Wood then gave her take on these options, describing their dangerous ramifications and the sad potential that they might someday become a realistic last resort, or worse, that wealthy individuals might take matters into their own hands without considering the repercussions. The article, in my opinion, was powerfully written and did a good job summarizing the topic of geoengineering. It left me with a stark awareness of the reality that what seems like science fiction now might not be for much longer.

For me, this awareness was more scary than hopeful. My personal take is that the only realistic solution to global warming is to reduce carbon emissions. Most of the options presented in the article seemed like an attempt to band-aid the issue. This tendance to ignore the root of problems and think they can be solved with superficial means is something that our culture has done too well throughout history, and one would think that we would have learned our lesson by now. Will the pros outweigh the cons? Is acid rain, species devastation, and “radical shifts in the global climate” a fair price to pay for some temporary cooling? To quote Pierrehumbert, “‘it’s like taking aspirin for cancer.’” The warming would still be there, only delayed until we could no longer pump sulfur dioxide fast enough to keep up. 

Furthermore, even if we do further research into solutions like this one, I think it’s unlikely that we will ever come to a thorough enough understanding of our climate system to predict all of their potential repercussions. We are talking about artificially altering a system that is in a delicate balance, a balance which happens to give us just the right conditions to support life. In thinking that we can alter this system for our own benefit with a simple, cheap fix, we take for granted the delicacy of this balance, the ephemeral nature of the universe, and the extreme luck that allows us to exist in the first place. It’s time we took a step back, found a little humility, and considered that maybe the only way out of this mess is to look at what got us here in the first place. 

The Few Speak For The Many


When Clive Hamilton considered geoengineering in his novel “Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering,” he seems to loose the geo aspect of the concept. To me, geo conveys a sense of wholeness, a sense that everyone on the Earth is considered equally. Though Hamilton considers multiple times throughout the work that geoengineering would affect the world as a whole, affecting the lives of the billions of people who live there unequally, he seems to attribute the decisions about climate engineering only to the few. However, the few do not speak for the many, even in the case of elected officials, there are always those who disagree with their leader’s actions and choose to speak out against them. If any one leader chose to initiate a geoengineering program, they would face drastic repercussions from both their constituents and the global community at large. 

As touched upon in chapter 7 of Hamilton’s book, those who are delaying or altering programs aimed at slowing climate change are typically those who have the most to lose financially from climate change. Typically, those in power have the most agendas, as they move to promote both themselves and their beliefs en mass. Though there are some in power with good agendas, such as those who wish to actually stop climate change, there are far more with negative agendas. Because of this political deadlock, and the potential disapproval of the masses, geoengineering may never take off. Even if someone wealthy decides to take the choice out of the hands of politicians, they will still face the outcry of the masses, aghast both at being left out of the decision and at the global level event the individual has set off. Not every solution can please everyone, and the issue of geoengineering is too complex to compel a firm majority to agree. No matter how it may be implemented, whether a government, group, or individual, it will be a decision more controversial than nuclear warfare.

How Logical is the Band-Aid?

I have misunderstood the concept of geo-engineering. In previous meetings of this class, I had a question at the back of my mind: if our climate is in crisis, why not do geo-engineering? A few of the articles we read previously had briefly touched on the topic of geo-engineering, enough to incite curiosity (and almost hope) about geo-engineering, yet not enough to disregard. After reading the two chapters of “Earthmasters,” by Clive Hamilton and “Re-Engineering the Earth,” by Graeme Wood, I have come to the conclusion that geo-engineering is absolutely absurd. I had this perception that geo-engineering was a way to clean up the planet, rather than to further pollute it (and mask all the problems we currently face).

“Re-engineering the Earth,” by Graeme Wood describes a variety of geo-engineering techniques including using ships to churn up water to be carried by the wind and shooting frisbee-sized ceramic disks in space to block the sun. The most popular technique is what Wood describes as the “gas-the-planet strategy”- sulfur-aerosol injection. “Earthmasters,” by Clive Hamilton further describes these gep-engineering techniques further mentioning CCS, carbon capture and storage. Now, at this point in the reading, I had understood that geo-engineering was nothing that I had preconceived, the conclusion of absurdity had yet to come. 

In “Earthmasters,” Wood mentions an article titled “Human Engineering and Climate Change.” This article was written by three bioethicists, with the same intentions as Johnathan Swift. “Human Engineering and Climate Change” suggests that in order to solve/ refute the effects of climate change we need to genetically select children that are smaller, engineer human eyes to be like that of cats, cognitively enhance women, pharmaceutically enhance altruism and empathy, and create pills to make people vomit when they eat beef. I do not think geo-engineering is absurd because of these suggestions being feasible, but to the satirical point that Liao, Sandberg, and Roache are trying to make: climate change is a serious issue, yet here we are researching and creating illogical, potentially detrimental, and absurd solutions. Many individuals, many of those in power, are ignoring the true solution: mitigate emissions. Wood responds to this article in a way that I did not expect. Wood doesn’t liken “Human Engineering and Climate Change” to “A Modest Proposal” by Johnathan Swift, instead criticizes it. Wood believes that more so instead of satirizing the climate crisis and highlighting the irresponsibility and ridiculousness of our actions, that Liao, Sandberg, and Roache are proposing off the mark solutions. Like actual (obviously dumb) solutions. If Wood likens their “potential solutions” to that of geo-engineering, either their “potential solutions” aren’t that far off, or that geo-engineering is on a whole new level of irrational. 

A quote that quite nicely sums this up was said by Gardner and mentioned by Woods, “if the problem is social and political, why isn’t the solution social and political as well [and] if, as the reports asserts, we already have adequate scientific and technological solutions, why assume that research on alternative solutions will help?”

Environmentalism: a moral crisis?

In Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters, the author seeks to provide a critique of the recent enthusiasms for geoengineering. Hamilton claims that there is a moral hazard involved in supporting geoengineering projects and research. For one, it distracts attention away from the more effective strategy of reducing emissions and gives politicians an easy way of pretending to solve the problem without doing anything too disruptive. Another concern is that by supporting geoengineering efforts, we are letting the people most responsible for the climate crisis off the hook. Hamilton concludes by suggesting that there are “God’s domains”, which include nature, that humans morally ought not interfere with. Doing so could be dangerous, or if not, at least hubristic and disrespectful to the will of nature. However, nature has no will. Nature itself is a social concept. It is us who have reflected upon the world around us and discovered its motions and properties. As such, nature doesn’t so much have a will as it was given one by us. To suggest that there are “God’s domains” that we should steer clear is to avoid our responsibility for shaping the world around us. This was the same justification that feudalism was built upon. It is God who made the world and our job is merely to obey his will. In other words, human freedom implies a reshaping of nature. In his obsession with morality, Hamilton forgets that the main problem with geoengineering is that it is nonsensical and absurd. It is no more realistic than Elon Musk’s plan to construct a Martian colony. Finally, Hamilton’s desire to hold oil executives to account is also problematic. The ecological crisis was caused not by oil executives, but the march of capital. It was the invisible hand of the market which has caused so much destruction, not the faults of isolated individuals. If oil executives have the power to destroy the world, it is because we have given it to them. What is needed is not moral project but a political one. One that can wrest control of society from capital and back to its rightful stewards: humankind. 

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should

Before reading “Re-Engineering the Earth” I didn’t know that there was a large body of science dedicated to Geo-engineering. After reading these two articles geoengineering feels like a “quick fix” so people can continue to live their lives in a way that harms the environment and increases the devastation that is climate change. At first glance many of the Geo-engineering solutions sounded promising but then when you took a second look and found out about the potentially dangerous drawbacks it takes a darker turn. The article highlights one geoengineering plan which is to pump sulfur into the atmosphere, while this plan would help 6 billion people, 1 billion people would suffer the drastic consequences. Specifically, people in Africa, and Asia. To me Geo-engineering seems to be a way for countries/people who have the means to “buy” their way out of the devastation that climate change will ultimately cause them. Like we have discussed in class, many times these countries are the ones that are making the most greenhouse gases, but they are ultimately not the ones who will feel the full weight of climate change. It almost feels like a cop out. 

The article also suggests that if people believe that in an emergency there is a way to cool the earth down in the future, people won’t be as interested in helping lower carbon emissions. It might make countries more hesitant to keep policies that limit the emission of carbon. Geo-engineering takes away the urgency and importance that should surround the climate crisis. As of right now I don’t think we should be thinking about methods to Geo-engineering our way out of the problem. We should be focusing on how to lower carbon emissions, living in ways that lower our personal carbon footprint and keeping the overall temperatures from rising. 

Image found on Pixabay

Geo-engineering Our Demise

The Manhattan skyline is seen Thursday, July 25, 2018, at 5:44 AM, in this photo by EarthCam
Orange skies in New York City from humidity and haze. Sulfur dioxide pumping would have a similar impact. Photo from EarthCam.

I refuse to believe that geo-engineering will solve our climate crisis. In his article, Re-engineering the Earth, Graeme Wood discusses different “quick fixes” to anthropogenic climate change, all of which take a geo-engineering approach. These ideas include ocean iron fertilization, pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, and creating a visor to block incoming solar radiation. However, all of these so called “solutions” are not, in fact, solutions, but rather a way for humans to continue with business as usual without being forced to rethink their lifestyle.

Geo-engineering is immoral. It is not fair for the current generation to decide the fate of future generations. It is already unfair that they will be living in a damaged world, and it would be even more unjust to force our fake solutions onto them because of our selfishness and inability to take action. Wood states in his article, “If a future generation discovered that a geo-engineering program had such a disastrous side effect, it couldn’t easily shut things down”. By choosing to use geo-engineered solutions we are taking away future generation’s freedom of choice.

Geo-engineering is dangerous. Further altering the earth and the atmosphere will lead to unknown consequences. If, and when, geo-engineered projects fail, the ramifications of the fallout will be detrimental. Even if geo-engineered projects are implemented properly, there will still be repercussions. In the article, Wood discusses how sulfur dioxide pumping would cause climate changes primarily affecting countries around the equator. These countries are already disproportionately harmed by our actions; there is no justification for amplifying the negative consequences borne by the least responsible. 

Lastly, geo-engineering takes attention away from the urgency of the climate crisis. The promise of a solution that will reverse climate change gives people too much hope. Governments will fail to act, treaties will fail,  global temperatures will rise, and people will continue to suffer. Wood argues that the publicization of geo-engineering, particularly its dangers, will encourage people to take action on their own. However, the risks and uncertainties are not publicizes as much as the benefits. With the promise of geo-engineering, people will not switch to driving a Prius, as Wood suggests, because there is no incentive for change if everything can be reversed with a sprinkle of iron or a puff of sulfur dioxide. 

The climate-trolley problem

Coming from a geology undergraduate study where I have been repeatedly exposed to artificial and natural carbon sequestration, the concepts of ocean and atmospheric circulation, and the intertwined nature of all earth systems, it does not seem far-fetched to ponder the plausibility of acting as God like figures and manipulating the dynamics of Earth systems. By no means do I intend to justify the use of geo engineering, however, I do not have the same surprise by its relevance as a new growing field of science.

As we have hit on repeatedly in this class, human nature seems to be inexplicably intertwined with this desire for dominion, while at the same time having a twisted view of how we define this relationship. We have a need to control, be it each other’s beliefs, actions, environment, each other as beings, and from this scientific perspective, to control our world. We have a newfound passion to pursue the supra Darwin an species.

In a way, geo engineering is a reaction to the inability to control others. We have proven unable to act with unity, and have remained politically divided when it comes to climate policy. Geo engineering is in many ways an attempt to place science in front of all beliefs, with the belief that science is a perfect art. We know this is not true. Geo engineering is a process we have theorized and practiced on the small scale. We do not truly know the impacts of attempting to control the large scale processes which have permitted life as long as life has persisted. We act like gods, when we are no where near that level of understanding.

Not only does geo engineering attempt to control the world around us, but also the fates of those distant from us. 1 in 6 people will be adversely effected by the processes involved in geo engineering. But this isn’t an unfamiliar problem. Any philosopher would say that it is not our responsibility to reverse the climate trend, just as it is not our job to pull the lever to kill 1 but save many. Philosophically it is not our responsibility to geo engineer, but we know the potential.

Given our history of playing God, it seems that geo engineering is the logical step for humanity, not necessarily the ethical step, but at least the logical progression given our track record. Maybe it could be in our benefit to learn from our habits and avoid playing God again before we make a discovery for which the severity of the implementation cannot be undone.

I will leave you all with one last metaphor that I learned about while reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” the concept of the black marble. In this book, a discovery is made of a crystal that can turn liquid water into ice. All water in contact with the crystal changes immediately. This powerful discovery intended to help soldiers travel across muddy fields has unexpected deadly implications when a crystal is dropped into the ocean. The analogy is as follows: you are reaching into a bag of marbles, you do not know what is inside, other than marbles. You have pulled white marbles from the bag for as long as you can remember, but who is to say there is not black marble. We have been making discoveries in the name of science for years. These discoveries are intended to help us understand and grow. But there may be a discovery along the way which may appear to be a blessing, but is truly a curse. When dealing with God like control, we must ask ourselves if we may have a black marble in our hands.

Questions Around Geo-Engineering and Our Future

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

Before this week’s readings, I had no idea that there was such a large body of discourse dedicated to the topic of geo-engineering, or even what geo-engineering was in general. The idea of using technology to intervene so forcefully with the Earth’s natural systems is an unnerving thought and prompts numerous questions. Is geo-engineering (or really any of our previous exploits of the Earth) moral? Is this going too far? Is it our last hope? Is this choosing between the lesser of two evils – geoengineering or doing nothing?

These questions and more interrupted my thoughts as I progressed through the readings. When thinking of the lesser of two evils, I came back to something we have discussed almost weekly in this class: how climate change disproportionately affects minorities. Wood’s article hits this on the head when he mentions that “6 billion people would benefit and 1 billion would be hurt;” that 1 billion composed mainly of those living in less developed countries. However, how does this compare to how many people would be affected if we stayed on our current path, with seemingly no intervention or meaningful reduction in emissions? I’m not sure if there is a consensus – or if there will ever be a consensus – on which option is “better.”

This brings to me to the question of whether geo-engineering is our last hope. As we become more pessimistic about the fight against climate change, the fall back of geo-engineering seems like a copout. So much work has been put into determining how to reduce our emissions, yet we see little large-scale political effort actually being done. If geo-engineering is feasible and as cheap as Wood states in his article, why wouldn’t our economic and political leaders choose it instead? This is a dangerous idea to consider as we grapple with the lack of action in response to protocols that state we are in our last decade to make necessary changes.

The last section of chapter seven of “Earthmasters” really gets to a key issue surrounding geo-engineering. The topic of playing God. In an earlier blog post, I referenced Dunlap’s World Views. The concept and practice of geo-engineering falls very clearly into the dominant western worldview and human exceptionalism paradigm – that humans are the masters of the own destiny and every problem can be solved through technological advancement. However, the natural and ecological laws in place cannot be broken. Attempting to circumvent the natural Earth feels far too risky and beyond the bounds of what humans should try and emulate. I fear that the feedback loops we have witnessed are only a handful of too many to count that we are unable to fathom. The idea of pursuing ideas that may have unintended consequences we cannot foresee seems far more dangerous than trying to mitigate the effects we have on the environment by changing our lifestyles.

Wood references “Blade Runner” many times in his discussion of geo-engineering. With all of these questions and the uncertainties surrounding geo-engineering, a dystopian future seems more and more certain.  

a global issue

Sustainability, from the series Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen By María García Maldonado, Rosario García Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr, the main point that I took away was that sustainability is a western concept developed by the people most responsible for climate change. The example the article gives of Marta shows that we push this concept on communities that have known and practiced it more effectively than us for generations. 

To truly tackle the issue of sustainability, I think it’s important that we look beyond western concepts and to “the various strategies of world-making that, for example, Indigenous and Latin American peoples have cultivated for generations.” After all, global warming is a global issue–although we may not be able to place the blame for its cause evenly on all humans, it is now an issue that is affecting all humans–and that means it requires global solutions. It requires nations and communities working together and striving for common understanding across language barriers. Simply pushing our western idea of sustainability on communities around the world is not going to solve anything, it will only do more harm.

Besides, the United States has the second-highest greenhouse gas emissions in the world, so we have no ground to stand on when it comes to defining “sustainability”. We should clean up our own mess before claiming to have a solution that can be applied around the world.