This post was written by Professor Paul Wapner of the Global Environmental Politics (GEP) program and originally appeared on the website of the Washington Geoengineering Consortium, an initiative of the GEP Program.
I shuddered when I put David Keith’s book, A Case for Climate Engineering, on the syllabus. As far as I am concerned, the wisest response to climate change has always been mitigation. We need to stop the buildup of greenhouse gases. Period. Geoengineering represents a turning away from this goal. It seeks to mask the challenge through distraction.
What else is geoengineering than the great distraction? Indeed, its proponents—Keith included—acknowledge this. They recognize that saturating the atmosphere with sulfates, fertilizing the oceans with iron, putting mirrors in space, and so forth will not stop but only hold off the reckoning. They will not halt the buildup of carbon and other greenhouse gases but simply turn away our gaze.
I teach Keith’s work in a freshman seminar titled, “Building a Post-Carbon World.” The course introduces students to climate change and explores various responses. It looks at how the state-system, world economy, and our increasingly global culture both fuel climate change and represent political realms for mobilizing response. The course is a downer experience. One might as well retitled it, “Introduction to Doom,” since it spends lots of time understanding the biophysical straightjacket we presently find ourselves in and cataloguing how climate change is already harming the most vulnerable on the planet and spells adversity for all life in the long run. We slog through various literatures dejected by climate change’s magnitude and the darkness of possible futures. After weeks of depressing news—having examined why states, companies, and ordinary citizens have failed to marshal sufficient political will to mitigate greenhouse gases—we turn to geoengineering. All of a sudden, the classroom becomes animated. Hands start going up asking about the details of shooting sulfates into the atmosphere, the amount of sulfuric acid that would make a difference, the effects of such action on the ozone layer, and so on. Finally, it seems, students see light at the end of a climate tunnel, and awaken to the excitement of finding a way out.
As a professor, I love to see such lit-up eyes. Nothing is more gratifying than engaging students in lively conversation about books that they’ve read and ideas that they think stand as genuine possibilities for improving the world. Teaching about geoengineering, it turns out, is really fun.
Most students supported further research on geoengineering and a little over half supported piloting a small-scale test in some part of the world.
After two weeks of studying various geoengineering scenarios, I took a poll. Most students supported further research on geoengineering and a little over half supported piloting a small-scale test in some part of the world. Keith and others had won. They got their cohort. At least my class, beaten down by the structural and behavior impediments to meaningful mitigation, grabbed onto geoengineering’s promise. They were ready if not willing advocates of altering the biophysics of the planet in the service of climate protection.
I was horrified. What had I done? What had my teaching achieved? I taught Keith’s book alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark.” The story tells of Aylmer, a 19th century scientist, who is riding the wave of the scientific revolution. He marries a woman who is, by his own account, the most beautiful creature alive. Over time, however, he notices that a small birthmark on her cheek compromises her beauty and he becomes obsessed with removing it. He convinces Georgiana, his wife, of the hideousness of the mark and she becomes a willing participant in its removal. On the appointed day, Aylmer gives his wife a potion that is supposed to sap the blood from her cheek but, as it begins to take hold, it works at her entire body since, it turns out, the birthmark is connected to Georgiana’s heart. In the end, Georgiana dies at Aylmer’s hand. Despite Aylmer’s assurances, his science fails. The story is a cautionary tale about scientific hubris and our confidence in remaking the world and ourselves.
I taught the story with geoengineering to suggest that large-scale schemes can fail in disastrous ways. I also taught it because it calls on us to question how we should live in the world. Do we respect biological characteristics or do we try to plow through them? Aylmer had no qualms about plowing through. In the end, he lost that which was most precious. What would have happened if he had embraced his wife—with all her so-called imperfections? Could he have lived happily and fully without striving to change that which is?
Climate change is about biophysical limits. It makes clear that we cannot burn fossil fuels and pump excessive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without coming up against the earth’s ability to absorb such waste. Faced with this limit, we also confront a choice. Do we reformat the oceans, atmosphere, and soil so that we can continue living lives unawake to the physical world we live in, or do we learn to live ‘in-place’—at a scale that takes seriously the planet’s organic infrastructure?
Hawthorne teaches us that this is an existential question as much as a technological one. His story forces us to ask what it means to be human. My students have decided that being human means running roughshod over biophysical limits since, as they put it, what other choice do we have? Politicians are unwilling to seek meaningful emission targets, corporations are fundamentally committed to economic growth at all costs, and even ordinary citizens refuse to sacrifice their consumer lives for the promise of a stable climate. Geoengineering cuts through all that mess and offers a quick fix. The ‘fix,’ of course, is more of a junkie’s lament than a technologist’s dream. It speaks more to our addiction to coal, oil, and natural gas than to our desire to live fully as humans with meaningful limits.
In the globalizing liberal world, limits are evil.
In the globalizing liberal world, limits are evil. They hem us in; restrict our freedom; and force us to pay attention to the world around us rather than simply our own desires. Geoengineering aligns well with the liberal world by telling us that we can keep going. We can keep growing bigger and faster without any sense of responsibility to the wider context of other people or the more-than-human realm. I see why my students find it attractive.
The experience of teaching geoengineering makes me realize that I’m stodgy professor. I’m old in my ways. I suffer from hardening of the categories. I have some romanticized sense that being human involves not simply living within limits but cherishing boundaries. It is about taking responsibility and not leaving our mess to the men in white lab coats. Respecting biophysical limits reminds us that we are fundamentally animals—dependent upon and responsible for our environment. Recognizing this and not fleeing its implications is an act of maturity. This doesn’t mean that we should seek no technological routes to human and more-than-human betterment but that our deepest, safest, and sanest orientation involves measured actions that directly address the causes of our problems rather than masking them. Distraction as strategy equals, in my book, immaturity.
Sadly, I predict that one day the exercise will be less abstract and thus less about reflecting on ultimate ends. It will entail learning about the geoengineered world we will then inhabit.
Although my students don’t buy my position, I will continue to teach geoengineering. It provides a fabulous way to understand the stakes of climate change and confront our deepest fears and most cherished values. Given my students’ predilections, sadly I predict that one day the exercise will be less abstract and thus less about reflecting on ultimate ends. It will entail learning about the geoengineered world we will then inhabit. When that time comes, we will study mitigation as an anachronistic strategy—an abstraction that got sidestepped long ago by the dazzle of atmospheric sulfates, ironized phytoplankton, and the hubristic impulse to beat the world. In the future, eyes will light up and hands will rise to discuss the possibility of actually lowering carbon emissions, shifting to clean energy systems, and building a post-carbon world. In a geoengineered world, teaching will thus still be enriching. The earth, however, will be a much scarier place. Hopefully, the opportunity to grow up will still be on the syllabus.
The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University is a diverse and inclusive community. The program does not necessarily endorse the ideas contained in this or any other guest post. Please understand that our aim is to provide a space for the expression of a range of perspectives on global environmental concerns.