24 Jun 2009

Geoengineering: More Political and Moral Than Scientific?

Much of the green agenda regarding climate change seeks to reverse the effects of global warming by reversing the trend in carbon dioxide emissions. But what if there was a way to both remove the carbon dioxide and bring average temperatures back down again, without having to stall our polluting economies? Welcome to the world of geoengineering.

Tim Harper, nanotech guru and investor, tells of a debate he attended that looked at such issues. We can already manipulate the weather locally, so why not do it globally? Forget the corporate pain of the carbon tax and the tedium of recycling. We can reflect back some sunlight with a space shield, aerosols or manufactured cloud cover. We can soak up the excess CO2 with genetically modified trees or carbon burial factories. The latter solution is particularly ironic as fossil fuels come out of the ground in the first place. So why is Greenpeace so dead against geoengineering?

Harper describes the Greenpeace position as setting up any number of straw men just to knock them down. However, Harper soon engages in precisely the same tactic: "Just imagine a world where you could carry on as normal, but technology provides a way of cleaning up the mess so we don’t all have to live in teepees and ride bicycles?" I must admit that my own gut instinct is to side with Greenpeace, although rather tempered with my distaste for their own solutions.

The two main arguments against geoengineering is that it may do more harm than good and that it is purely driven by the same economic greed that caused the problem in the first place. Actually, there are many problems (in the plural) that seem to be sidelined in the name of climate change such as chemical, pharmaceutical and electromagnetic pollution, but let's stick to geoengineering the climate for now.

Harper is well aware that geoengineering technologies can either be used within a global cooperative effort to stabilise the environment, or they can be used as weapons. The on-going oil wars will one day come to an end but that is unlikely to stop conflicts over other resources such as water or even clean air. He is also only too aware that as strategic weapons they will be in the hands of the military-industrial complex that really doesn't give a damn about other countries, never mind its own population. So, in his opinion, the best thing to do is to move towards some international agreements over at least the protocols to conduct experiments.

He dismisses as slightly naive the accusation that the drive towards geoengineering is driven purely by money. Sure, making a profit out of technology is not a crime, but in my opinion this is yet another technology of control to be used against humans rather than for the collective benefit. The protocol for introducing any control technology is always the same: problem, reaction, solution. Climate control becomes population control.

Once upon a time, natural disasters were... well, natural. Now, every hurricane becomes the starting point for yet another debate on climate change, greenhouse gases, carbon footprints and the soaring price of umbrellas. The weather does not respect political boundaries; a destructive hurricane for one country can be agricultural manna for a neighbour. Just as with nuclear weapons, those countries who cannot afford the technology will be vassals to those who can.

From what I can see, there is no political will to solve the climate problem except for solutions that increase the power of the state over the individual. Geoengineering takes this one step further to increase the power of some states over others. Harper is right to point out that the arguments are not just scientific but also, indeed primarily, political and moral. But what if he's right? What if we can trash the place in the knowledge we can hire a technological cleaning maid?

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