Big Ideas for Saving the Earth
By Bob Olson
Hacking the Earth: Understanding the Consequences of Geoengineering by Jamais Cascio. Self-published e-book, 118 pages, $7.50 PDF or $12.99 paperback, available at www.lulu.com.
Some of the most thoughtful work on the topic of climate change appears in Jamais Cascio’s new e-book, Hacking the Earth. Cascio is a Bay Area futurist who worked with Global Business Network during the 1990s and is currently a research affiliate at the Institute for the Future, a global futures strategist at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, and a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.
The actual pace of climate change seems likely to be faster than in even the gloomiest scenarios in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 Assessment Report, Cascio notes. Greenhouse gas emissions increased much more quickly than anticipated before they were trimmed back by the global recession. Higher temperatures are now expected to trigger self-amplifying feedback effects that were not taken into account in the 2007 report, such as melting permafrost in the Arctic releasing large amounts of methane, which is 20–25 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Recent research also suggests that the world’s oceans have less ability to moderate global warming by soaking up both carbon and heat than previously estimated.
Meanwhile, few political leaders understand the scale of effort needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Accelerating climate change and weak political responses are leading a growing number of people to conclude that we need to seriously consider the possibility of using geoengineering to offset and temporarily delay global warming. Major articles on geoengineering have recently appeared in publications ranging from New Scientist to Foreign Affairs.
While geoengineering technologies are the context for Cascio’s book, they are not the focus. For his purposes, all we really need to know is that geoengineering schemes to damp the greenhouse effect range from low-tech to sci-fi, and they all work by either reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface or by sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in the oceans, plants, soil, or geological formations.
On the lower-tech side are concepts such as reforesting on a massive scale (trees absorb CO2), fertilizing the ocean with iron to stimulate the growth of CO2-eating plankton, and putting ground limestone into the ocean to help it absorb more CO2 and counter ocean acidification. At the other extreme are proposals to put large mirrors in orbit to deflect the sun’s rays and to genetically engineer trees so they will absorb more carbon than normal trees. In between are ideas like creating clouds to block sunlight by pumping atomized seawater into the lower atmosphere or pumping sulphate particles into the stratosphere to make it more reflective.
Cascio assumes that these and other geoengineering technologies could be developed, and moves on quickly to the really hard questions, such as “Who should be responsible for making decisions about the use of such technologies?” (geopolitics) and “What ethical guidelines should shape the decisions?” (geoethics).
Cascio makes it very clear that he is not enthusiastic about climate geoengineering and completely rejects the idea that it might be a replacement for the economic, social, and technological changes needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Its only possible purpose, he asserts, is to give us more time to make those changes. It would be far better if geoengineering is never needed, because we still know too little about geophysical systems to be confident that we could engineer changes on a planetary scale without making an already-bad situation even worse. And the politics of geoengineering is a nightmare to be avoided if at all possible.
But, he argues, “we may be running out of alternatives.” If it comes down to a choice between a global climate catastrophe and using geoengineering to buy more time to reduce carbon emissions, would we really choose catastrophe?
Two lines of thought out of many in the book stand out as especially important: Cascio’s analysis of the climate problem from a futurist’s perspective and his discussion of the challenges involved in what might be called climate stability governance.
Climate change is arguably the toughest problem we face in terms of the demands it makes for sophisticated thinking about the future. Cascio stresses again and again the importance of lag in geophysical systems due to the Earth’s “thermal inertia.” Even if we could instantly end all human emissions of greenhouse gases, global temperatures would increase for at least the next 20–30 years. And if that temperature increase triggers feedback effects, like methane released from thawing tundra or dark open water absorbing more heat than highly reflective ice as the Arctic ice cap shrinks, then temperature increases could go on longer.
Of course, we can’t stop our emissions on a dime. Meeting the climate challenge will require an Energy Technology Revolution in which virtually all of our energy-using technologies are redesigned to be more efficient and new energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide are fast-tracked on a global scale to replace fossil fuels. This will be, by far, the greatest deliberate technological transformation in human history, and it will take many decades to accomplish. Behavioral changes in how we live, move around, and build our cities will take at least as long and probably longer. All the economic, political, and social changes required to mobilize on the needed scale will face stiff opposition that will take time to overcome. So the climate problem involves major response lags as well as geophysical lags.
Climate change, says Cascio, is the prime example of what he calls a “long-lag problem.” The combination of geophysical lags from thermal inertia and response lags from human inertia means that the solution window will close well before the problem fully hits. Only foresight can prevent a climate catastrophe.
Therefore, Cascio argues, more farsighted governance arrangements need to be developed to pursue climate stability over the generation ahead. He does not make proposals about what those arrangements should be like, but says they need to embody a new form of power based on superior information and analysis, better long-term thinking, and greater openness and accountability.
Governing the use of geoengineering will present special problems. Preferably, the United Nations would both authorize and provide oversight for any use of geoengineering, since both the benefits and the risks would be global in scope. But some geoengineering approaches are relatively inexpensive, not in absolute terms but in comparison to the enormous costs involved in creating a new global energy infrastructure. It’s entirely possible that a state that has the capacity to undertake geoengineering and is suffering particularly severe climate impacts might decide that it needs to act on its own without waiting for the approval of dithering international institutions. Such “rogue actors” need not be just states. Some geoengineering schemes are financially within the reach of the world’s multi-billionaires.
This possibility that geoengineering might be attempted without international approval is, for Cascio, a key reason why it needs to be studied now. The most important task is to identify approaches that may look workable but might actually have dreadful side effects. We need to know what approaches to avoid even if we’re desperate.
As a counter to unwise decision making, Cascio urges the development of geoethics: guidelines that researchers and policy makers dealing with geoengineering can use in making difficult decisions. He proposes a number of core principles for geoethics, the most important of them being reversibility. This means that any decision to employ geoengineering should be made with a strong bias toward the ability to step back and reverse the decision should harmful outcomes begin to appear or become more likely. Cascio develops this concept at some length and discusses other proposed principles, such as interconnectedness, diversity, foresight, integration, and expansion of options.
He uses the provocative term open-source terraforming to describe the level of openness he believes there should be in research on geoengineering. He argues that, the more people who examine and evaluate proposed geoengineering schemes, the better the chance of finding flaws or dangers and the greater the pool of knowledge from which to develop solutions. Critics of open-source approaches to anything typically argue that they can undermine the market and put knowledge into the hands of people who may use it in unwise or even hostile ways. Economic concerns make no sense in the case of geoengineering since there’s no market for it, but the security argument carries some weight. Nevertheless, Cascio believes a “many eyes, many minds” approach is ultimately safer than secrecy.
To some environmentalists who continue to argue that we should not even consider geoengineering options but should focus solely on reducing CO2 emissions, Cascio argues back that, yes, reducing emissions is the fundamental solution and the preferred strategy, but a resilient, farsighted, ethical approach must include preparing to deal with the failure of one’s preferred strategy before that failure occurs. If we do come to a point where geoengineering is the only alternative to climate catastrophe and we haven’t studied it, it will be far too late to develop the technological options and choose wisely among them.
Cascio is at least moderately optimistic about humanity’s ability to prevent a climate catastrophe and to make it through the coming era of global system breakdowns battered but ultimately successful. “The end result,” he believes, “may be far greater than we dare hope. Not only would we find ourselves in a world of sustainable wealth, abundance and efficiency, we’d be living in a civilization that, for the first time, had really started to think like a mature, adult society.”
About the Reviewer
Bob Olson is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Alternative Futures, 100 North Pitt Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314. Web site www.altfutures.com