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BOOK review: Geo-engineering conflicts

By Joan Martinez-Alier.

Clive Hamilton, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, Yale University Press, 2013, 288pp

Many ecological economists know at least one book co-authored in 1997 by Australian professor of ethics Clive Hamilton: Human ecology, human economy. A critic of excessive consumption and a philosopher by origin, he now trained himself in the technologies of geo-engineering to write an enlightening book.

Plan A is to recognize the reality of climate change due to increased emissions of greenhouse gases, and agree to a vigorous and equitable plan to reduce emissions. This seemed the accepted program after the climate change treaty was signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. But after the United States failed to ratify the Kyoto agreement, after the failure in many countries to implement carbon taxes, after the spectacular failures of Copenhagen in 2009 and all UN summits on climate ever since, there is a sense of despair when faced by the irresponsibility of UN negotiators and the world top statesmen. On May 9, Carbon dioxide concentration has reached the record level of 400 ppm in Hawai. It is rising by 2 ppm per year, while the safe limit is 350 ppm.

In the wake of the failure of international negotiations, a new set of actors (scientists and entrepreneurs) appeared. They call for Plan B: geo-engineering. Note the perverse economics of this option. First, we count economic growth without subtracting the uncertain risks caused to the climate. Then we shall add to economic growth the investment done for geo-engineering. This is the macroeconomics. At the business level, geo-engineering will hopefully mean subsidies and profits.

We should prefer Plan A to Plan B.  In Ecuador, in the Yasuni ITT proposal, Plan A has been to leave oil in the soil. This has attracted much attention but little external support. Plan B (which president Correa seems to be shifting to) is to take and sell the oil from the ITT fields to China and other countries. Ecuador’s Plan B fits in with the geo-engineers Plan B because if we cannot reduce the burning of fossil fuels, then we need (they say) a combination of adaptation and geo-engineering.

The technologies of geo-engineering, as explained in Hamilton’s book, consists for instance in spraying sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere to filter incoming sunlight, or to put iron particles in the oceans to increase the production of plankton, or to squirt water droplets to make the stratocumulus clouds more reflective so that the sun’s rays are bounced back into space.

Sociologist Herminio Martins wrote about the global technological Experimentum Humanum we are running under conditions of uncertainty, not knowing really the risks that we are imposing on future generations and other species. It is an Experimentum Mundi. No doubt that some of the geo-engineers have good intentions and are the same people that demonstrate on the streets against the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States. But alarmed about climate change, they want to take control as the new Earthmasters. Do we want to give them that power?

Clive Hamilton thinks that collectively, we’re unable to manage Plan B. It would indeed be better to leave oil in the soil and coal in the hole than to take it out, burn it, and then devise doubtful remedies against the enhanced greenhouse effect. We should support the application of the Yasuni ITT Plan A at a much larger scale and in many places. But in this eco-social innovation there’s no money for new technologies to make, no new market to tap into.

There is the further point that the promises of geo-engineering, if believed by a disillusioned general public, will diminish the already feeble commitment of statesmen towards the reductions of emissions. After all: who would risk electoral defeat through unpopular and long-term measures when it’s easy to make people believe in the fairy tale of geo-engineering? This prospect makes Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering a must read to be prepared for the propaganda that is coming upon us.

One comment

  1. The transition to weather/climate stability (albedoism) culminates in United Albedo Regions on Earth (UARE), epitomizing a compassionate/cooperative global society.

    Albedoism is defined as the pursuit and attainment of weather/climate stability on all planets with intelligent life.