If the answer is “no”, then “good night and good luck.” If the answer is “yes”, then “see you tomorrow (and good luck).”
Whatever decision humanity takes on the next step forward, whether it be to do nothing and allow industrial human civilisation to continue, or to cease emissions and hope that is enough to see us through, or to start actively sequestering carbon whilst attempting to reduce solar radiation hitting the Earth’s surface, each path is in itself a course of climate intervention.
Put simply, doing nothing is a course of climate intervention, as is doing something. If we continue to emit greenhouse gases as we are, we will likely see a collapse of human civilisation far sooner than if we do not. But even if we stop, it is very unlikely that human civilisation will survive the warming from past emissions, possibly due after a couple of decades (this timeframe is optimistic to some and pessimistic to others). The third way is to try and wilfully influence the climate, the “Promethean” way.
Whatever decision we take now is largely based on how we feel subjectively and philosophically as opposed to scientifically because much of the science as to whether it will actually would work or not hasn’t been done. This point is critical. If we say climate engineering is a fools game and should not be researched in the public domain in a controlled manner (if it is going on behind closed doors then it is out of our control anyway), then we are saying “good night and good luck”, not just to our children but also to many other species of life on Earth. So the question remains: Is it ethical to make a decision based on our opinions and philosophies, rather than on solid science?
The challenge is social
In a recent interview I conducted with Professor David Keith from Harvard University, he made the case very strongly that climate engineering is not, compared to the cost of climate change impacts, an expensive science. Even if the cost runs into billions of dollars, it will be far less than the bill we will accrue from lost coastal cities, devastated agriculture, water shortages, collapsed economies etc. Keith dismissed my concerns over the difficulty of delivering aerosols to the lower stratosphere, as solvable, probably using adapted airplanes. He insists that the real challenge is not technical, it is “social”.
It is clear in my mind from speaking to so many climate scientists that the risk is real and needs to be addressed. I cannot contemplate looking future generations in the eye and saying, “we chose not to do the research because we felt it could do more harm than good”. In a decimated world with far amplified suffering in every region, greater diseases, starvation, displacement, refugees, conflict etc. it simply does not bare thinking about. Who are we to prescribe such a path of locked in destruction?
Education and awareness of the gargantuan issues we face is imperative. The more people that can discuss these issues in an informed way, the better. That is our route to survival and change. It is the route out of the despair of anticipation of very dire outcomes from climate change.
With this in mind I was surprised at how seemingly frustrated Keith became when I suggested what he was saying was a “proposal”. “Proposal to who?” he retorted. The industrial civilisation has been cooking the planet on a steadily rising heat for over a century now. He and his colleagues are proposing ways to cool it down and sustain life. There are huge inherent risks. The proposal is to me and my neighbours, my community and the wider global community of humanity, nestled within a global ecology, who will all be effected, for better for worse, by the outcomes of your work if implemented. To throw the point back, the biggest problem is “social”.
David Keith interview with Nick Breeze, March 2015, Cambridge SRMS Conference
So where do we go from here (outside the Holocene)?
It is clear that much more research has to be funded appropriately. The potential risk of doing nothing is as great or greater than the risk of not knowing whether we can intentionally alter climate and get the result we want. We know that adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere increases climate impacts by warming. Decreasing those gases will cause cooling impacts. We need to try and move back towards the concentration of gases that have demonstrated that they can support diverse life forms. Humanity along with other life cannot exist outside the Holocene. The loss of climate stability has begun and will accelerate in its destructive path. It is a message from the Earth to change our ways.
The global “thermostat”
Keith says the “thermostat” analogy is not a good one because there maybe several thermostats to maintaining a stable climate on Earth. One might be by the amount of biomass (living matter) on land and in the oceans. Another has to be from ceasing the emissions of carbon from burning coal, oil and gas. Another might be reducing the amount of the sun’s energy that reaches the Earth’s surface (known as ‘solar radiation management, or SRM).
They have an added dimension of interrelated effects. For example, deploying SRM to cool the Earth is likely to slow down the degradation of carbon sinks such as forests and oceans. Even small shifts in temperatures of 1ºC can cause these vital life support systems (i.e. oxygen factories) to die off, so that oceans and forests become lifeless deserts. If we can keep them a degree or two cooler then we can keep them alive.
“Prometheus Bound" or “evolving species”?
The philosophical debate regarding whether humanity should try and play (or defy) God by taking control of the climate is worth considering. Clive Hamilton discusses it in detail in his book ‘Earthmasters’ (also in this clip below from our interview in 2013). Hamilton’s concerns are valid but ultimately he does make the same claim that climate engineering “is not political enough”. We need more open discussion about what is at stake regarding the existential threat to life on this planet.
Dr. Clive Hamilton, Author of 'Earthmasters', interview with Nick Breeze, July 2013
To say that we are attempting to defy the God's as Prometheus did in the Greek legend, is to me a choice that has been taken from us. We made the decision to play God when we cultivated land, subjugated other species and built economic, corporate and political systems that are self-determining and use fossilised matter in the form oil to consume the living world in closed cycle.
Perhaps the only path that does exist for us is to invest more heavily in our intelligence and evolve away from being hunting and gathering tribal animals. The future for humanity involves generations of reparation to our home here on Earth. As an evolving species, we must now become the custodians of the planet and learn ways to keep her alive. We have no other choice.
by Nick Breeze