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.