When addressing climate change, two approaches stand out. Mitigation concerns the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to make sure that warming does not exceed a devastating threshold. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cautions that this threshold may be crossed when global average temperatures increase by more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Adaptation, on the other hand, focuses on dealing with the impacts of climate change. This approach is becoming more prominent as it dawns upon us that we are doing a very poor job in altering our behavior in order to reduce harmful emissions. The failure of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Conference of Climate Change (UNFCCC) can be seen as evidence of that claim. It is possible, therefore, that to contain global warming within the 2°C range is already futile.
There is a third approach, however, which until recently has been considered the unrealistic, even foolish, approach, pursued by science fiction writers and fringe scientists. Geoengineering tinkers with the climate itself to reduce the negative effects of global warming. The two broad angles of geoengineering include solar radiation management and the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Mike Hulme’s recent book “Can science fix climate change: A case against climate engineering” specifically addresses problems related to offsetting the greenhouse effect through curbing the warming effects of solar radiation. Crucially, however, it is through this analysis that we better understand the global response to climate change more broadly, and its shortcomings.
Mike Hulme is professor of climate and culture at Kings College in London and, among other things, he studies the ‘public life’ of climate change. He is interested in looking at our perceptions of climate change, and how we go about framing and solving the issue. As the title of his book suggests, Hulme is highly critical of geoengineering as an approach to address climate change, but not just geoengineering.
Hulme argues that geoengineering technologies received a boost in 2006 by an article authored by atmospheric chemist and Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen titled “Albedo enhancement by stratospheric sulphur injections: A contribution to resolve a policy dilemma.” Crutzen advocated for curbing the warming effects of solar radiation through injecting chemicals into the atmosphere. Hulme depicts Crutzen’s work as a “global thermostat” concept, which would allow “setting” climate and weather in different regions across the planet.
The thermostat imagery, Hulme notes, is highly problematic for three main reasons. First, it is scientifically unattainable. Second, even if it were, the governance of “setting the temperature” would likely be a new source of political discord and conflict. Third, the implications of climate tinkering for regional weather are not at all clear. It is at this juncture that Hulme’s monograph grown in importance and shares valuable insights.
Instead of pursuing research in, let alone implementation of, geoengineering, Hulme argues for re-framing global warming itself. Perceiving global warming as “the problem” obscures a more diverse range of welfare goals including quests for sustainable energy, human health, food security, and ecosystem integrity, for which none is there a silver bullet to be found. Hulme argues, furthermore, that using global temperature as a boundary object for discussing climate change is misleading as an index of the state of climate-humans relations. It obscures what matters in terms of weather: rain to grow crops, wind to power turbines, or cyclones from which to shelter. Focusing on the 2°C threshold alone solves none of the above.
Borrowing from interactive governance theory, Hulme sees climate change as a “wicked problem” -- in other words, a public policy concern that defies rational or optimal solutions. Hulme calls for climate pragmatism that a) decouples energy production and consumption from the climate question, and b) recognizes the many different ways in which humans alter the atmosphere, ranging from fossil fuel combustion to land use change and industrial manufacturing. These two principles of climate pragmatism would turn the singular problem of climate change into a tripartite problem concerning the reduction of weather risks, the improving of air quality, and innovation in the search for cheaper, reliable clean energy. In doing so, it opens up a portfolio of policy goals including enhancing social resilience, reducing emissions of atmospheric pollutants, and meeting growing demands for energy in a sustainable manner.
Hulme’s work is important less because of its critique of geoengineering, but for its focus on the ethical pitfalls that plague the climate changes discourse, and thus policy response still. Such pitfalls include presenting geoengineering as the last and only viable option in solving a climate emergency, thereby invoking dramatic, crisis-fuelled language and constructions that are problematic for various reasons.
Who defines what is an emergency? Who decides on appropriate responses or actions? What if climate emergencies become self-fulfilling prophesies: because of the climate emergency, must we inject aerosols into the atmosphere? “The climate emergency demands it!” as Hulme succinctly puts it.
For those interested in this subject, I highly recommend this (http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/climate-science-geoengineering-save-world) conversation between Mike Hulme and David Keith, professor of applied physics (SEAS) and professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. The debate nicely summarizes some main arguments for and against the case of climate engineering.
-Rudy Riedlsperger, AMRDI