China could move first to geoengineer the climate

As geoengineering advocates talk up the “technofix” approach to climate change, governments may start intervening unilaterally in earth’s systems, says Clive Hamilton

Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at Australia’s Charles Sturt University and a prominent critic of geoengineering. Here he discusses his latest book Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering.

Olivia Boyd: You describe geoengineering as a “profound dilemma” in your book. Why?

Clive Hamilton: The dilemma is that as long as the world responds in a feeble way to the warnings of the scientists, we’re likely to end up in a situation where we will be casting around for desperate solutions and I think that’s when the world will turn seriously to geoengineering interventions to get us out of the impossible fix.

People who are deeply concerned about the climate crisis, and naturally sceptical about major technological interventions, are nonetheless saying this is something we’re going to have to pursue. I’m thinking in particular of [atmospheric chemist] Paul Crutzen who has been vital in this whole debate – someone who with a very heavy heart has concluded that the world has been so derelict in responding to the scientific warnings that we’re going to have to pursue this deeply unpalatable alternative, this Plan B.

: What’s the problem with Plan B?

CH: There’s a whole string of problems with Plan B. One of the foremost is of course that it’s likely to cause political leaders to weaken even further their commitment to Plan A. And it was for that reason that pretty much all climate scientists would not talk publicly about geoengineering until Paul Crutzen broke the taboo in 2006. It was felt to be dangerous to talk about geoengineering because of the disincentive it might have on global negotiations to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

In a way, the problem that makes me most anxious is the tendency among some of the more influential geoengineering scientists to have an unwarranted faith in technological interventions in the biggest ecosystem of them all, and the extremely high likelihood of serious miscalculation, of something going very badly wrong.

I think in a way the greatest risk is human hubris, our penchant for persuading ourselves that we know the answers and we have all the necessary information, we can intervene and take control of the earth.

: What sort of miscalculations are you talking about?

CH: One nightmare scenario could be where the world or a major power decides to engage in sulphate aerosol spraying – in other words to install a solar shield between the earth and the sun to turn down the sunlight reaching the earth – and to discover that it causes a massive hole in the ozone layer which has all sorts of catastrophic effects on human and other forms of life.

Another nightmare scenario might be one where an attempt by one major power to engineer the globe’s climate system attracts a hostile response from another major power, who doesn’t take kindly to competing for control over their weather and it escalates into a military confrontation.

OB: You’ve suggested China might be one of the most likely candidates to go it alone with something like aerosol spraying. Why China?

CH: We already see in China a great deal of social unrest due to natural disasters and pressures in particular provinces of making life work in an increasingly difficult physical environment. So it doesn’t take much to imagine a situation where some of the serious warnings of the world’s climate scientists come to pass and China, for example, faces a massive drought in the north of the country, caused or exacerbated by human-induced climate change.

So you have crop failures, severe water shortages, mass migration to cities already straining under pressure, and you have to ask yourself how the government in China would respond to that, bearing in mind too that most of the senior leaders in China have engineering backgrounds and, for many of them, geoengineering the climate will have a natural appeal.

Now is the time for civil society in China to get actively involved in the debate over geoengineering because the government has not adopted a strong position one way or another. So there’s a substantial degree of openness which allows many voices to be heard. Once the Chinese government takes its own stance on geoengineering it will be more difficult for civil society to have an influence.

I would hope that the nascent environmental movement in China would take an interest in geoengineering because I think it’s going to be a dominant political question in China in several years time.

OB: If China did take a leading role in geoengineering, how might this affect its relationship with the rest of the world?

CH: I’m sure if China did go down the geoengineering path it would try to present its actions as motivated by the need to protect the interests of vulnerable people across the developing world. The critical question is how divergent would be the effects of any major geoengineering scheme on different regions of the world. And if sulphate aerosol spraying for example did destabilise the Indian monsoon, then I think it could lead to serious conflict between China and India.

On the other hand, China might be able to secure the backing of the small island states. They aren’t advocating geoengineering now, but if we see a strong surge in warming – which we may well do at some point in the next 10 years or so – the level of desperation in small island states may reach a point where they say some kind of radical intervention is necessary to ensure our survival and they might welcome China intervening.

One of the nightmare scenarios would be if China launched a geoengineering scheme and the US, for example, decided to retaliate to counter the effects of China’s actions. That would be disastrous. You can imagine the extraordinary risks we would be taking when we turn the global climate system into a theatre of war, but that’s one of the scenarios being mooted by strategic experts.

: You talk about the connections between the military and geoengineering – what are the implications?

CH: It’s the military organisations of major powers that have the equipment and the wherewithal to engage in a programme of, for example, sulphate aerosol spraying. So I think with that kind of geoengineering it’s almost inevitable that the military will be involved to some level.

Or, if a single nation decides to lime the oceans [adding lime to seawater is said to be able to boost its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide], bearing in mind they would be setting out to transform the chemical composition of all of the oceans, then you’ve got ships from one nation sailing the seas, spreading the lime. You have a major marine operation going on and you would expect the navy to have a watching brief over that. This is all speculative, but these are possibilities.

OB: You cite scientist Ken Caldeira as asking: “Is it better to let the Greenland ice sheet collapse or to spray some sulphur particles in the stratosphere?” How do you answer that?

CH: By posing that question, by projecting us forward 30 years and saying there are only two choices, he leaps over all sorts of intermediate questions that have to be tackled.

It’s impossible to answer that question now except in a way that actually provides a justification for geoengineering. So when he asks that, you’ve got to say that sulphate aerosol spraying might be preferable. But is he saying we do it no matter what? Do we do it if we’ve got evidence showing there’s a huge risk involved? Do we allow ExxonMobil to have the patent on that aerosol spraying so that they’re the only ones who can do it? Is it done by Iran unilaterally? Or by a UN group of countries?

Until you can answer those questions, I think it’s irresponsible to say, well, we’ve got this situation, we’re just going to have to live with it.