In a recent article for Grist, meteorologist Eric Holthaus claims that we are already locked into a devil’s bargain on climate change. The bargain asks us to weigh a trade-off between two things that pollution in the atmosphere does for us. On the one hand, it causes serious health and respiratory problems that kill over 6 million people per year. On the other, it has the side-effect of keeping global temperatures down by reflecting a small portion of the incoming solar heat back out into space.
Pollution….it’s like that very annoying friend. Gotta love it, gotta hate it.
Holthaus, once described affectionately by Rolling Stone as “the rebel nerd of meteorology,” is driving home a point about just how woven into the climate problem humans have become at so many levels. It’s not just that we heat the climate up with those villainous greenhouse gases. We also cool it down with the reflective particles we put into the atmosphere. The phenomenon that atmospheric scientists call “anthropogenic forcing” is a complicated concoction. As the bar charts produced by the IPCC show, there are a number of human factors at work simultaneously both warming and cooling the climate.
This complicated balance was the topic of a recent blog post of mine about maritime ship emissions. These emissions force temperatures up in at least two different ways. They also force temperatures down in at least two additional ways. Cutting sulphur from the fuel ships burn will certainly reduce deaths from respiratory illnesses. But at the same time it will equally certainly increase deaths by raising global temperatures. It is, as Holthaus points out, a devil’s bargain. As our knowledge of the different agents of temperature forcing gets better, the bargain becomes increasingly painful to contemplate.
Where Holthaus makes a grave error in his otherwise powerful essay is by tying this bargain into the discussion of climate geoengineering. After pointing out how no less a climate expert than Newt Gingrich has embraced geoengineering, Holthaus claims that the impacts of pollution on temperatures have already cut short the debate about whether or not to geoengineer. As he starts to move the discussion onto the need to take climate engineering seriously, Holthaus claims provocatively “Turns out we have been unwittingly geoengineering for decades.”
Wrong, in fact, by definition. It is here that the philosopher has to pull the meteorologist aside for a quick chat.
“Unwittingly geoengineering” is an oxymoron. You can’t do geoengineering unwittingly. Geoengineering is defined as intentional action to push back against warming temperatures. A standard account is the one put forward by the UK’s venerable scientific body, the Royal Society, in a 2009 report. Geoengineering, the Royal Society says, is “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change.”
You might think that insisting on the word “deliberate” is quibbling too much about relatively inconsequential terms. With pollution and geoengineering, the climate is changing because of something that humans do, right? What is the big difference?
It does matter how you use words. By leaving out the idea of intentional action, Holthaus inadvertently normalizes geoengineering. He makes it sound like something we regularly do as part of a daily routine, like brushing your teeth or eating breakfast. If we have been cooling the climate accidentally for a century and a half with particles from pollution, then why not start doing it deliberately from airplanes or tethered balloons? Using such reasoning, this would not represent any break from current practices.
The suggestion that there is no difference between doing something inadvertently and doing it deliberately runs counter to almost all moral intuitions. Tripping someone over accidentally because you have big feet is not as serious as sticking your leg out to bring them down. Sliding on ice into your neighbor’s car is not as blameworthy as deliberately ramming your vehicle into theirs. Clearly having intention behind an action makes a huge difference. (I have discussed this in depth in relation to climate engineering in a journal article here).
Where Holthaus is not wrong is in his suggestion that life in a polluted and warming world is a much more complicated business that we might hope it to be. A century and a half ago we did not realize the implications of putting pollution into the atmosphere. Now we do and we also have a real sense of the consequences of taking it out. Like the tragedy that unfolds in Sophie’s Choice, there may be no good way out of the situation.
Holthaus suggests that “the only choice” might be to create artificial, and potentially less harmful, pollution high in the stratosphere at the same time as nations clean up their act by removing similar pollution from the air closer to the ground. We would do this, he admits, hoping against hope that “nothing (else) goes seriously awry.” Whether or not this is a viable option, it certainly makes sense to try to be informed in advance about what could go awry.
Wherever you stand on testing climate engineering, the “big picture” consideration here should not get lost. To geoengineer the climate deliberately using aerosols deposited into the stratosphere would be a big step. It would be to consciously design Earth’s atmosphere, for the first time in Earth’s history creating an intentionally artificial climate. It would be a case of wittingly terraforming the home planet.
This is territory our species has not entered before. Such action heralds what you might call a synthetic age, an age in which some of the fundamental processes that have given shape to the planet become matters of human engineering and purpose.
This may or may not give you the chills. Reasonable minds can differ. But to pretend this is business as usual is simply false.
First image by Veeterzy on Unsplash
Second image by Mariana Montes de Oca on Unsplash