Back in 2013 I wrote about how we are approaching a tipping point, where public opinion on geoengineering suddenly starts to shift:
Many express the fear that merely researching geoengineering schemes will automatically legitimate them, however hare-brained they are. There’s some merit to that fear. But I suspect that public opinion on geoengineering will suddenly tip from “unthinkable!” to “let’s do it now!” as soon as global warming becomes perceived as a real and present threat. This is especially true because oil, coal and gas companies have a big interest in finding solutions to global warming that don’t make them stop digging.
I argued that because of this, we need to start thinking hard about the issues now.
I think we should start serious research on geoengineering schemes, including actual experiments, not just calculations and simulations. I think we should do this with an open mind about whether we’ll decide that these schemes are good ideas or bad. Either way, we need to learn more about them. Simultaneously, we need an intelligent, well-informed debate about the many ethical, legal and political aspects.
I think this tipping point is getting very close now: close enough to be discussed in popular media. Like this:
• Ezra Klein, Should we dim the Sun? Will we even have a choice?, New York Times, 9 February 2021.
This is Ezra Klein interviewing Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction. She just wrote a book Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.. It’s about how we’ve altered nature so much, and are so trapped in relying on this, that there’s no way to go back to the good old days. At this point, any attempt to ‘go back’ amounts to going forward in another direction.
I’ll quote a bit:
Ezra Klein: Your book reads as an argument that we are past the point when we have the luxury of saying that things like geoengineering are off limits because we shouldn’t change the world that much. We’ve already changed it so much that the unthinkable now has to be thought.
Elizabeth Kolbert: I think that’s a reasonable interpretation. I think you could read it as, we are past the point of having that luxury. You could also read it as a species that has managed to muck up the atmosphere one way thinking about mucking up the atmosphere another way — what could possibly go wrong? I think those are both very valid readings.
Ezra Klein: You have a wonderful quote in the geoengineering chapter of your book from Andy Parker, who is a project director for the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative. He says, “We live in a world where deliberately dimming the [expletive] sun might be less risky than not doing it.” That feels like quite an indictment of the human race and where we’ve gotten ourselves to with all our knowledge and all our power.
Elizabeth Kolbert: I think that does sort of sum things up. We are in this very deep — there are only wrong answers, only hard choices at this point. Nothing easy from here on in.
Ezra Klein: What do you think of geoengineering?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I very consciously avoided coming down very clearly on that. But some very, very smart people are thinking about it and are very worried that it may be our best option at a certain point. And I think they may, unfortunately, be right — but wow, it’s dimming the [expletive] sun, you know?
Ezra Klein: I think how people feel about geoengineering depends on how they feel about the traditional political pathway. Do you think there is a significant chance that traditional politics are going to do enough to keep us under 2 degrees of warming?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Many, many scientists and many nations — especially the low-lying island nations that could disappear between here and 2 degrees — would say that’s really too high. So there’s a stretch goal, if you want, in the Paris accord of 1.5 degrees.
If you’re going to be honest about it, I think you have to say we’re basically at 1.5 degrees now. So that is not just a hard goal to reach; it’s getting to be almost geophysically impossible. Now, 2 degrees — presumably, it is still physically possible to do it.
Then that gets to the point you’re making: Is the world set up to do this? And the problem is not just that in the U.S. we are legislatively gridlocked — that, so far at least, we have been really incapable of taking significant action. And I do want to add, the U.S. is still the biggest single source of greenhouse gases that are up there in the atmosphere right now.
But then you have to look all around the world at all of the major players in this drama — China, which is now the single biggest emitter on an annual basis; the E.U., which is a very big emitter; India, which is increasingly a large emitter. So you have to ask, are we all going to get our act together?
Ezra Klein: One of the questions that I struggle with most in my own work right now is, what do you do if you believe that it is no longer politically plausible that normal politics will get to a reasonable outcome here? Sometimes I think about technological solutions — huge amounts of money being spent on not just renewables, but potentially studying things like geoengineering. Sometimes I wonder about things that are somewhere between political activism and extra-political. Where are you on this?
Elizabeth Kolbert: When we get into the “what could happen now owing to our failures,” that’s certainly where geoengineering comes in. A lot of very smart people are saying, look at the political system. It’s just not capable of moving fast enough. And the last 30 years are a pretty depressing proof of that.
And, as you say, you’re led either to a technofix or you’re led to a carbon dictatorship. I don’t know what you’re led to if you say, we just are incapable of moving fast enough under politics as they are. And the point, I think, that’s really important is on some level, it’s unknowable. How people will react all around the world, this is going to affect everyone. It’s going to affect some people much more brutally than others.