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Geoengineering or Climate Engineering

Geoengineering is the intentional, large-scale technological manipulation of the Earth’s systems. It is also known as Climate Engineering because it is often discussed as a technological solution for combating climate change. The New Oxford Dictionary of English first described geoengineering in 2010 as ‘The deliberate large-scale manipulation of an environmental process that affects the earth’s climate, in an attempt to counteract the effects of global warming’.

Defining geoengineering is a political act. Therefore, different multilateral bodies have defined geoengineering differently. However, some common elements can be found in most definitions:

  • Intent: Geoengineering is always deliberate (but may have unintended impacts). Unintentional damage of the global environment or climate (like global warming) is thus excluded.
  • Earth systems: Contemporary discussions about geoengineering often invoke the climate crisis.
  • Scale: Geoengineering technologies are intended for global, or at least large-scale, deployment rather than local application.
  • Technology: Geoengineering is a technological approach that precludes discussion of other possible pathways that could have a noticeable impact on the climate – for example, those aimed at changing consumption patterns or promoting low-tech organic agriculture.

Climate/Geoengineering technologies can be divided into three broad areas: (1) so-called solar radiation management (reflecting sunlight to space), (2) greenhouse gas removal and sequestration and (3) weather modification. These technologies include a wide range of techniques such as blasting sulphate particles into the stratosphere or ‘whitening’ clouds to reflect the sun’s rays; dumping iron particles in the oceans to nurture CO2 -absorbing plankton; firing silver iodide into clouds to produce rain; or genetically engineering crops so their foliage can better reflect sunlight. Most geoengineering technologies that fall under the category of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) are attempts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere after it has been emitted, thereby actively intervening in the climate.

The technologies of geoengineering are criticised by the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) group. It is led by activists like Right Livelihood Award laureate Pat Mooney, Silvia Ribeiro and others. It opposes geoengineering and other false solutions to climate change (e.g., proprietary, genetically-engineered ‘climate-ready’ crops) and supports peasant-led agro-ecological responses to the climate crisis.

Defining geoengineering as ‘the intentional, large-scale technological manipulation of the Earth’s systems, including systems related to climate’, the ETC has published a map of 300 geoengineering projects or experiments belonging to ten different types of climate-altering technologies, and that sometimes give rise to new ecological distribution conflicts. As new technological climate fixes are contemplated, definitions become more complex and more contentious.

It is a subject of dispute, for example, whether or not carbon capture and storage should be defined as a geoengineering technology. This is because it is highly problematic to include the goal of combating climate change in the definition of geoengineering. This would suggest that these technologies are realistic solutions for fighting climate change, giving planet-altering technologies a veneer of respectability they have not earned. Fleming (2010) explicitly points out that an engineering practice that is defined by its global scale of application cannot be constrained by its stated purpose (environmental improvement) or by its currently proposed techniques (space mirrors) or by its stated goal (to counteract anthropogenic climate change).

Weather modification is another controversial issue. Different from carbon capture and storage it is often explicitly excluded from discussions of geoengineering with the argument that such interventions are local and short-term. However, the contemporary fascination with climate manipulation has its historical roots in weather modification and it would be unwise to ignore that history. In fact, the intention, the technologies themselves, the institutions and the potential impacts of weather modification have a great deal in common with other global climate engineering schemes – there are many overlaps with climate manipulation and many potentially dangerous extraterritorial impacts which have to be considered. This calls for the application of the precautionary principle.

Beyond the actual focus on the carbon cycle it has to be kept in mind that geoengineering schemes could also be employed  to manage other Earth systems such as hydrological or nitrogen cycles. While it may be useful to refer to the climate for descriptive purposes, it would be short-sighted to think that climate change mitigation will be the sole purpose of these technologies.

Critical voices on geoengineering stress the point that the technologies used are embedded in a philosophy and a world view that is dominated by a Western, male, narrowly scientific paradigm that fails to recognize its own epistemic position of privilege. Geoengineering contrasts sharply with the notion of stewardship, seeing our ecosystems as resources to be optimized or fixed rather than systems to be protected and restored. Keeping in mind, that the Encyclopedia Britanica defines engineering as ‘the application of science to the optimum conversion of the resources of nature to the uses of humankind,’ it is extremely questionable if it is desirable to adopt this to our geo/Earth system.


ETC Group 2010.Geopiracy: The case against geoengineering. Ottawa, ETC Group Communiqué 103.

Fleming, J.R. 2010. Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, New York, Columbia University Press, p. 228.

Hegerl, GC, Solomon, S. 2009. Risks of climate engineering, Science, 325 (5943), 955-956

Useful website

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Joan Martinez Alier

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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