New Internationalist

Technofixes: climate solution or corporate scam?

Issue 414

Can science save the planet or should we avoid putting our faith in high-tech fixes to deliver us from the ecological mess we‘ve made? Jim Thomas and Paul Fitzgerald push each other’s buttons.

ILLUSTRATION BY MILES COLE
ILLUSTRATION BY MILES COLE

The Technofix Debate

Dear Paul

Let‘s start with an agreement: we have to deal with humanmade climate change. The ridiculous fight over whether it is real is long over. What society faces now is a more serious conflict over how to deal with the problem. Behind wonkish debates over ‘adaptation’ and ‘mitigation’, the new battle-lines are being drawn around whose interests get trampled in the name of saving the planet. Trillion-dollar industries, exploiting the climate crisis, are manœuvring to get that fight resolved in their favour. From biofuels to nuclear power to ‘clean coal’, the idea of deploying technology as a silver bullet has become a shiny talisman in the corporate response to climate change.

Nowhere is that talisman more apparent than in the new strategies emerging from the US right wing. Newt Gingrich, a prominent Republican strategist and former climate sceptic, is now a ‘believer’ in climate change but is choosing an election year to fight against carbon dioxide emission reductions. He claims he has a better proposal: namely ‘geo-engineering’, the large-scale intentional manipulation of the atmosphere, oceans and soils to ‘fix’ climate change. Gingrich’s think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, appears to favour a scheme of polluting the upper atmosphere with tiny sulphur particles in order to reflect heat, cooling the climate in the process. Such a scheme would likely also damage the ozone layer, increase respiratory problems, reduce rainfall and spread drought. The oceans would continue to acidify because it won’t curb CO2 emissions – but that’s not the point. The point is to give industry a free pass to continue polluting and to shift political will away from challenging industrial consumption.

Another crazy geo-engineering scheme, ocean fertilization – dumping iron and urea into the oceans to grow plankton, is being pursued by at least three companies. They claim the plankton will gobble up CO2 and hope to make big bucks on carbon credit markets. In May 2008, 191 nations at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity agreed a de facto moratorium on ocean fertilization because it seriously threatens marine life, human health and coastal livelihoods.

That moratorium is a sane beginning in the emerging battle over geo-engineering. On the one side, Newt Gingrich is offering technofixes to defend business-as-usual; and on the other, global environmental conventions are defending life on earth. These battle-lines look eerily familiar. Which side do you stand on?

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Dear Jim

I’m on the side of the direct action, no war for oil, buy nothing day, pro-democracy, anti-corporate rule radicals. (Being one myself, I’ve kind of got to be…)

We‘re opening a huge moral can of worms here, dominated by one simple question – what will we do if our campaigning fails to bring about an urgent and massive reduction in CO2 emissions? Or if those emissions have already gone past the point of no return, leaving the next generations nothing but violent social collapse to look forward to (some climate change models predict the damage we’ve already done will produce a runaway ‘feedback loop’)?

Yes, this kind of capitalist political system will always behave in a bizarre, exploitative, short-term manner, for the benefit of its self-appointed oligarchy. Yes, it’s easy to find villains like Gingrich who support the concept of geo-engineering, and being in the same world – let alone political bed – as him gives me a shudder down my spine. But that doesn’t help answer the question: if all else fails, do we want to deprive future generations of the only solution left available to them, by refusing even to contemplate a large-scale technological solution to the problem?

Believe me, if it turns out we can escape this trap without resorting to ‘technofix’ methods, I’ll be partying in the street right next to you. But if not, what then? Are we saying we want to punish the next generation for our sins? ‘Sorry, kids! We set the house on fire, but you can’t use a fire extinguisher, because that’s industrial technology, which is bad, just like those matches we dropped in the first place. Tough luck, eh?’

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Dear Paul

Alarm bells always go off for me when I hear that something is ‘the only solution left available’. Really? Has our imaginative capacity collapsed along with the iceshelves? Somewhere in my unconscious I hear the jackboots of ‘the final solution’ or Margaret Thatcher spelling out TINA (‘There Is No Alternative’). Of course that is how geo-engineering will be sold to us – as inevitable. After a barrage of doomsday hysteria we’ll gratefully pay the geo-engineering companies to pollute our atmosphere, ruin the seas and then grant them immunity from any liability because policymakers will have been convinced they are our saviours – after all: TINA.

Nor do I accept the narrowness of your ‘one simple question’ on CO2 emissions. Let’s put the coming climate emergency in some perspective. Climate change is not the root cause of our global problems or social collapse. Billions of people were already living in a state of emergency before climate change, Kyoto or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Simply solving the problem of gases in the atmosphere may reduce pressure on the poorest and let some of us off the hook but it doesn’t get us to a fairer world. Even ‘before’ climate change there were over 800 million people hungry in the world, a billion without adequate access to water, a species extinction that surpasses anything in history and an insane economic system creating what the United Nations calls ‘grotesque inequalities’. That’s an ‘inconvenient truth’ that neoliberal enviromentalists such as Al Gore would rather gloss over, yet he and his buddies are framing the debate.

Unless we are radical in our analysis and conscious in our strategies, that deeper global emergency could be much worsened by the geo-engineers, even if they ‘fix’ climate change. ‘Contemplating’ geo-engineering isn’t enough. We need to analyze intelligently the power relations that are built into all our technological ‘solutions’ whether geo-scale or nano-scale. Unless those ‘solutions’ genuinely address both crises – the Johnny-come-lately problem of climate change and the deeper entrenched problem of global injustice –we may end up further kicking the powerless in the teeth.

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Dear Jim

The question is one that needs a better answer than ‘You sound like Thatcher, you do!’ We may well fail to reduce (rich world) CO2 emissions fast enough, and then have to respond by any means we can – in a way that doesn’t make the situation worse.

After a barrage of doomsday hysteria we’ll gratefully pay the geo-engineering companies to pollute our atmosphere, ruin the seas and then grant them immunity from any liability because policymakers will have been convinced they are our saviours

Yes, we need a radical global perspective here, otherwise we end up saying political problems only become serious when they impact upon rich white Westerners. Yes, the global majority are already suffering because of our dysfunctional, exploitative economic system – I didn’t say climate change has somehow ‘caused’ that. But if rising sea levels flood the world’s coastal cities and desertification runs riot, what we’ll get is a whole lot more poverty and agony. And I’m not gonna sit here and say ‘Let them suffer! That’ll show the neoliberals we’re not fooled by their devious geo-engineering schemes!’

Yes, some technology does have a kind of inbuilt political agenda – such as guns and nuclear power. But not all does – trains, turbines, industrial looms, hypodermic syringes, power tools… Having printing presses does not inevitably lead to Rupert Murdoch. Computers do not inevitably lead to Bill Gates. Syringes don’t inevitably lead to mainlining heroin. Access to and democratic control of technology is a political issue – one we solve by political means, not by rejecting the technology itself.

I’m not saying let’s accept any form of geo-engineering that’s suggested. Some aren’t feasible soon enough, some will be impossible to control once initiated, and some do have an inbuilt political agenda, such as GMO-based solutions, or those requiring a huge amount of energy to construct and operate, thereby perpetuating emissions. As you say, we need to be very shrewd about this. What I strongly disagree with is your ‘all or nothing’ assumptions that a) we don’t want or need geo-engineering under any circumstances, ever; and b) considering it as a last resort will inevitably mean we ignore our CO2 emissions and further entrench exploitation and corporate political power. That just isn’t a logical argument. In fact, isn’t it kind of ‘TINA’ itself?

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Dear Paul

I think we have a really different perception of the politics of technology. Industrial looms did have a powerful inbuilt political function – they put large swathes of artisans out of work in the early 19th century and moved hundreds of thousands of people into an exploitative factory system that ruined communities and damaged workers to fatten the wealth of an emerging class of industrialists. That’s why thousands of so-called ‘Luddites’ acted to destroy power looms under threat of being hanged, and the British state had to deploy more soldiers to quell their direct action than had been sent to fight Napoleon. Today industrial looms are the enabling technology for large sweatshops in poorer communities. Likewise, trains are the archetypal technology of industrial conquest that once opened up indigenous lands for rapid theft, exploitation and movement of raw materials back to the captains of commerce. In some parts of the world trains still steal minerals, metals and lumber from the marginalized to swell corporate coffers.

The point is that many technologies have power relations built into them which they can perpetuate and entrench. Geo-engineering technologies, by their very nature, embody probably the most unequal power relations possible. These are large-scale, capital-intensive endeavours that can only be deployed by industrial élites and yet claim to have the power rapidly and unilaterally to alter planetary ecosystems. We’ve had a few technologies like that before – nuclear bombs or maybe space weaponry. The similarity to weapons of mass destruction is not by chance. In 1976 the world signed the ENMOD treaty against the hostile use of large-scale environmental modification techniques. In fact it was the last environmental treaty the US bothered to sign. Even they recognized that the development of such capabilities would grant awesome and destabilizing power in geopolitical affairs.

You say you wouldn’t accept any old form of geo-engineering. I’m glad you are discerning but please explain what you are advocating. To help narrow the field, let me suggest a taxonomy. First, there are the proposals to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequester it somewhere unspecified (in the ocean maybe, or perhaps vented into outer space). Second, there are proposals to reflect more sunlight back into space to reduce warming – by laying millions of hectares of white plastic over deserts or shooting nanoparticles into the stratosphere. Third, there is straightforward weather modification, such as blowing hurricanes off course so that they don’t hit American cities. Which of these are you suggesting we should fall back on? Should we prepare to suck, reflect or blow?

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Dear Jim

The Luddites suffered from the absence of democracy, not the presence of a new piece of technology. I’d love to know what forms of technology you feel can be within our political control… or are we helpless victims in the face of all innovation?

Anyway – suck, reflect or blow? All three! Professors John Latham and Stephen Salter’s proposal to seed clouds using sprayed ocean water droplets (thereby increasing the quantity of cooling, reflective cloud cover over the oceans) involves all three, and looks really promising. At present, the plan involves a fleet of 1,000 wind-powered automated vessels. Most of the electricity would be generated by turbines dragged along behind the craft. To quote Latham: ‘The ideal solution to the global warming problem is that the burning of fossil fuels be drastically reduced… One advantage of our plan is that it is ecologically benign; the only raw material required being seawater. The amount of cooling could be controlled, via satellite measurements and a computer model, and if an emergency arose, the system could be switched off… What effect will this have on the world’s fragile ecosystem, and do we have the right to interfere with the planet in this way? Before we could justify deploying such a scheme on a global scale we would need to [conduct tests] to establish whether there might be serious or harmful meteorological or climatological ramifications.’

I’m not a qualified meteorologist– there may be serious drawbacks to this proposal, but 1,000 boats powered by the wind, that can be switched off if need be, doesn’t strike me as a megalomaniac, uncontrollable industrial plot against the poor. If anything, it has something of an Intermediate Technology feel to it.

Perhaps it won’t work. But then who knows what other solutions might be possible, human creativity being what it is?

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Dear Paul

Latham and Salter’s is actually just a ‘reflect’ proposal. It aims only to reduce sunlight, not CO2, so will do nothing to arrest the acidification of the very ocean being sprayed skywards. It’s also the sort of remedy that once you start you likely have to keep going. If you ‘switched it off’, temperatures might rise quickly since there would still be significant greenhouse-gas concentrations. Nor is it exactly a small-is-beautiful ‘intermediate technology’. Scientists working on the project privately estimate that they would need to enhance cloud cover over about 20 per cent of the ocean to be effective (that is, to counteract a doubling of warming). Such artificial cloud formation would be targeted to coastal areas such as the Peruvian and Californian coastline and along storm tracks and would likely reduce rainfall. In effect they would then be engaging in large-scale inadvertent weather modification along coastal regions. I’m not sure how Peruvian and Californian farmers will feel about losing rainfall in a time of severe water shortages, but my suspicion is that they won’t be in on the decision-making anyway. Applying this technique in storm zones may lessen storms and hurricanes or it may just redirect them to hit new unfortunate targets. The problem is, you will likely be replacing one set of unpredictable climatic events caused by warming with another set of unpredictable climate behaviours caused by geo-engineering, and I don’t see how that is progress. What Latham euphemistically calls ‘tests’, like atmospheric nuclear tests or GM crop tests, means altering real world weather patterns.

Prove to me that we’ll succeed in lowering our emissions successfully, that we haven’t reached the point of no return, and I’ll stop considering geo-engineering

But your question about which forms of technology could be within democratic control is a really important one that policymakers and scientists alike repeatedly fail to ask. I think the best of technological creativity is far removed from the world of big budgets and PhDs. There are a multitude of unsung solutions being quietly developed by communities in response to climate change, which can be every bit as ingenious and complex as geo-engineering but far more appropriate. Small farmers across the globe are breeding resilient seed varieties and developing farming techniques to adapt agriculture to climate change. Forest communities are practising forest management techniques that avoid deforestation, while organic farming systems offer real promise to increase carbon storage in the soil while eliminating nitrous oxide emissions from synthetic fertilizers.

These are not the ‘big science’ one-size-fits-all solutions that our technocratic ‘leaders’ prefer. And that’s too bad. As we’ve learned from globalization and t-shirt sales alike, the promise of ‘one-size-fits-all’ rarely delivers what it says on the label. In reality such ‘solutions’ tend to fit the big guys just fine but leave the little people swamped. Whether you are talking t-shirts or climate policy, what sort of justice is that?

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Dear Jim

You’ve raised a lot of (very interesting) questions about the political control of technology, but still not answered the key question – what will we do if we fail to bring about sufficient CO2 reductions? None of the ‘small science’ projects you outline will resolve the worst case scenario.

Latham and Salter clearly acknowledge the need to reduce CO2, and that their scheme needs to be carefully scrutinized for unforeseen consequences. But being alarmed by a localized drop in rainfall, when taken in the wider context of the devastation climate change may bring, seems odd. Prove to me that we’ll succeed in lowering our emissions successfully, that we haven’t reached the point of no return, and I’ll stop considering geo-engineering. If not, let’s be involved in the process rather than indulge in post-modernist tut-tutting from the sidelines, and ensure it isn’t dominated by reckless short-term neoliberals who want to use it as permission to carry on business as usual.

You insist that exploring a geo-engineering approach automatically means the end of all future efforts to curb CO2 emissions. That simply isn’t logical, and smacks of a defeatist lack of faith in people.

We clearly identify the same corporate power élite as the main obstacle to justice and freedom. What I find strange is you seem to think all industrial technology is inevitably tied up with that élite, and forever lies beyond democratic control, as if any technology you don’t like has some kind of innate voodoo quality.

There’s a wider context again to this debate… I see great potential for (but no guarantees of!) a profound ethical transformation in the way our species behaves. Our history resembles a kind of moral evolution, slowly and painfully struggling towards increasing levels of democracy and human rights. Undoubtedly there are very serious enemies and injustices to overcome still; enemies who want to perpetuate a feudal, robber-baron style of economic power over the majority.

Continuing that progress requires time and breathing space. The massive social chaos climate change may well bring will result in fascism, not liberation. Yes, let’s keep a sharp critical eye on the political issues thrown up by new technology. But I simply refuse to take an entrenched position when so much is at stake. If there is a workable and sustainable safety net option available to us, let’s explore it, and if need be, I say we take it. Then use the ‘second chance’ it gives humanity to end poverty, injustice and corporate rule, and bring into existence a genuine economic democracy.

Jim Thomas is a technology activist and writer with the ETC Group: www.etcgroup.org
Paul Fitzgerald is an activist, artist, writer and science educator.

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