Given the abject failure to deliver on the governmental pledges made in 2015 at Cop 21, there has been an increasing turn to bogus technological solutions, warns Jack Conrad
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently issued a report on the viability of developing and deploying SRM (solar radiation management): that is, technology which mimics the cooling effect volcanoes have on the climate (June 30 2023).1 The latest in a string of similar such studies.
First mooted back in 2006 by Dutch Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen, the idea is to shoot reflective particles into the stratosphere, or spray salt into coastal clouds to make them brighter and last longer.2 That carries the promise of putting off or even halting climate change without capitalism suffering the beastly fuss, bother and costs of running down the fossil fuel industry, reorganising agriculture and moving away from the car economy.
While he deployed the term ‘geoengineering’, Crutzen never actually advocated such a course - well, except as a desperate last measure. Presumably he knew better. Despite that, his work spawned a whole slew of well-rewarded research papers, networks, conferences, computer simulations, feasibility studies and government consultations. Besides the latest OSTP report, other quick-fix solutions include seeding the oceans with iron filings and growing huge algae blooms, which would absorb CO2. On the grandest of grand scales there is another piece of SRM technology - the scheme to unfold a 2,000-kilometre-diameter eye patch in near-Earth orbit (estimated cost: around $5 trillion).3 A technological marvel which would reflect solar radiation back into outer space, reduce average terrestrial temperatures and thereby save the planet.
Geoengineering is certainly in vogue nowadays. Practically “everyone above a certain net worth” has a World-Saving Project (WSP). So writes the novelist, Hunter Murray, in the FT. As well as dreaming of getting his arse to Mars, Elon Musk ($225 billion) has pledged $100 million to the winners of his XPrize for carbon capture. George Soros ($7.16 billion) wants to refreeze the Arctic. Jeff Bezos ($153 billion) has announced $10 billion for his grant-giving Bezos Earth Fund. And former Reddit chief Yishan Wong intends to plant a trillion trees. But by far the “most popular” idea amongst the “potential Greenfingers” is SRM.4
Could some billionaire Greenfinger start launching climate-change rockets from their James Bond-like private island or place a giant reflector dish in near space without state backing? Hardly. Anti-missile missile systems are now commonplace and even second-rate powers such as Britain, France and Germany could easily blow them out of the skies. No, what the billionaires do with their WSPs is shape research programmes, shift public opinion and steer government agendas. Undoubtedly, this salves the conscience of plutocrats, but breeds complacency. By holding out the prospect of a high tech solution to the threat of climate catastrophe, big business can happily carry on emitting greenhouse gases, as the overriding aim is pursued: M-C-M’. No wonder SRM is the poster child of the billionaire class.
However, there are numerous scientific studies warning of the unintended consequences: eg, Climate Analytics and its ‘Why geoengineering is not a solution to the climate crisis’ (2018). Its authors, Fahad Saeed, Carl-Friedrich Schleussner and William Hare, write:
Solar radiation management does not address the drivers of human-induced climate change, nor does it address the full range of climate and other impacts of anthropogenic greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions … At best, SRM would mask warming temporarily … would alter the global hydrological cycle, as well as fundamentally affect global circulation patterns such as monsoons.5
As long ago as 2011, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, then director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, branded both SRM and CCS (carbon capture and storage) as a “tale of two fairies” in a damning comment piece published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.6
CCS is Schellnhuber’s “tolerably good” fairy, with its aim of reducing CO2 levels by sucking it in from the atmosphere mechanically or capturing it before its release from fossil fuel-burning power stations, steel plants, cement kilns, etc - CO2 being stored in geologically suitable underwater or land sites (which will not leak, of course).
However, there are definite downsides. The estimated cost of CCS is around $50-$100 per ton. Note, the IPPC reckons that to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C, between 100 billion and one trillion tons of CO2 needs to be removed from the atmosphere. In other words, if CCS is going to do that job, it would cost between $5 trillion and $100 trillion (in 2021, global GDP was put at some $93 trillion). But, once the complex infrastructure of pipes, pumps and storage needed for CCS are included, capturing a ton of CO2 rises to around $1,000 a ton and would therefore, if it were to impact on global warming, leave governments effectively bankrupt.
Not only is CCS prohibitively expensive: it has “a long history of failing”. Leave aside leakage. Carbon can be removed from the atmosphere - that much is easy. However, CCS is an “energy-intensive” technology.7 Sadly, CCS sucks carbon from the atmosphere only to pump it back out again. Doubtless, if perfected, carbon capture and utilisation has the potential to clean up vital industries, such as cement and steel (CO2 can be captured and put to use). But as a general solution to global warming CCS is a non-starter, yet another excuse for prolonging the life of fossil-fuel capitalism and delaying the measures necessary to reach net zero carbon and then below.
SRM is Schellnhuber’s “rather wicked” fairy. SRM evokes for Schellnhuber the nightmare of the nuclear arms race - countries competing each with other in a scenario leading to mutually assured destruction. “If the climate can be influenced rather inexpensively by sending aerosol rockets to the stratosphere, then who decides when and where the buttons are pushed?” he wrote. Schellnhuber saw dreadful traits of MAD in SRM: that is, the cold war doctrine whereby neither great power bloc attacks the other … but if they did, it would be the end of each side and maybe even the end of humanity itself.
It should be pointed out, moreover, that some of the geoengineering ideas, including SRM, originated in the military-scientific circles organised around John von Neumann and Edward Teller in the 1950s. These Dr Strangeloves openly advocated climatological warfare as a way to beat the Soviet Union. Droughts could be created, harvests ruined.8 Given the unpredictability of the atmosphere, that meant developing sophisticated computer models and channelling in huge resources. And, of course, from the theory there came, inevitably, the practice. Between 1966 and 1973, US forces in Vietnam implemented the now declassified Project Popeye. This saw 2,300 cloud-seeding missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the vain attempt to stop north-south arms and munitions supply lines by artificially extending the monsoon rains and its mud, floods and landslides.9
However, given rising concerns about global warming, military-scientific institutions involved in climatological warfare easily segued into geoengineering research. Not that this amounts to beating swords into ploughshares.
Doubtless, certain countries, take Russia, might actually welcome some warming of their territories - it would make the north-eastern passage navigable year-round by way of conventional shipping, open-up vast oil, gas and mining opportunities, and considerably enhance agricultural potential. Indeed, beginning in the 1960s, there were studies conducted in the Soviet Union investigating the possibility of building a giant Bering Sea dam and pumping waters from the cold Arctic Ocean into the warm Pacific, and thereby shrink the Arctic ice cap - fortunately this mad-cap notion was eventually abandoned.10
Russia might well shoot down, say, US or Indian geoengineering missiles launched with the stated intention of stabilising the Asian monsoon pattern or other tipping elements in the climate system. One step further up the escalation ladder, the supposed beneficiaries of climate change might turn to counter-geoengineering measures: ie, deliberately increasing greenhouse gas emissions to compensate for SRM measures.
There is, though, the crucial point: SRM would most probably wreak havoc with the climate system.
While the OSTP report emphasises a precautionary approach, the fact that it comes from the highest levels of the US administration could be a step down a slippery slope towards attempting geoengineering interventions into the climate before all the risks are anywhere near fully understood. Raymond Pierrehumbert, a physicist and climate researcher at Oxford, says that there is an “unfortunate edging towards normalisation, that geoengineering is just going to be another part of our response to climate change, when the case for whether it will ever be usable is still extremely weak.”11
Pierrehumbert is one of those spearheading the proposed Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering, he worries that “a lot of mainstream scientists” with little background studying SRM have recently been signing petitions or letters promoted by a vocal “pro-geoengineering camp”. Even to research into this technology is to eventually invite usage by who knows who.
A recent policy statement on geoengineering by the American Geophysical Union certainly ought to be read as giving support to an active research programme into climate intervention, potentially including large-scale atmospheric experiments.12 The AGU statement is vaguely worded - presumably deliberately so - it does not even state how to decide upon what kind of experimentation ought to be allowed.
But this is clearly part and parcel of building a constituency with a series of reports from governments, scientific institutes and philanthropic foundations, which help make the idea of geoengineering acceptable. Pierrehumbert fears that, if scientists get the go-ahead to do small-scale experimentation and then they admit that, “Well, this didn’t answer our questions”, they will say they need something bigger: “you can see how there’s a slippery slope leading towards deployment”.13
It is vital to understand that small-scale experiments do not show anything about the effect of geoengineering on climate change. For that, an experiment would need to be carried out over a long time and on such a large scale that it “could not be called an experiment”; rather, it would be a “large-scale deployment of geoengineering”, with all its potential impacts and irreversibility. “Geoengineering can’t really have an experimental phase” (Silvia Ribeiro).14
Naturally enough, the pro-geoengineering lobby says that such is the danger of runaway global warming that it fully justifies more SRM research - with the implication that application must follow PDQ. A February 27 2023 open letter “organised by members of the physical and biological science community” was signed by a rather unimpressive list of 110 PhDs and student PhDs and calls for accelerated studies of technologies that could tackle the climate risk.15
The letter says that spiralling climate impacts will increase the pressure to reduce the warming by any means necessary, including solar geoengineering. A fuller understanding of the risks could enable scientists to issue even more clear warnings about using technological climate fixes, and could also help show what might result from a unilateral, unregulated deployment of aerosols to the stratosphere, or saline compounds to ocean clouds.
In fact, many countries in the so-called global south express concern that the rich G7 and G20 nations could use climate interventions to try and protect their own territories, while leaving them to fry. The Geoengineering Monitor website, for example, complains about geoengineering activities conducted on the African continent with little or no involvement by local researchers.16 In a word: climate imperialism.
Naturally enough, the February 27 letter calls for “rigorous, rapid scientific assessment of the feasibility and impacts of SRM approaches, specifically because such knowledge is a critical component of making effective and ethical decisions about SRM”. But it is hard not to miss the stench of self-serving hypocrisy.
The OSTP report was followed by a flurry of email pitches to journalists from geoengineering consulting and research companies, making the case for governments boosting solar geoengineering funding. One firm called for a $13 billion increase in research over the next five years “to ensure a safe climate”.17
The OSTP’s report dealt specifically with stratospheric aerosol injection and marine cloud brightening. It follows, though, the much wider 2021 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that helped mainstream geoengineering discussions.18 Many US agencies contributed to its ‘Reflecting sunlight’ final report, which focused on atmospheric approaches, because they could be implemented sooner than other geoengineering methods, but present a greater challenge to governments, since their effects would be felt across borders and therefore, potentially, involve a clash of rival state interests if any one country were to go ahead and launch a sun-dimming project unilaterally - warned against by Jennie Stephens, Prakash Kashwan, Duncan McLaren and Kevin Surprise amongst many others.19 Hence the almost ritualistic incantations about “international collaboration” on research and SRM governance.20
In that same conventional spirit we read that “full consideration” will be given to the “implications for society” in order to reduce the “risk that research is perceived as a step towards inevitable deployment”. Societal concerns include the usual buzz words: environmental justice, geopolitical stability, mitigation, adaptation, public perception and acceptance, etc.
Notwithstanding the fact that the report could be seen as a form of course correction, there is still no perspective in the US administration of establishing a UN or some other such formal international body to oversee, monitor and direct research and development.21 Understandably something supported by many in the climate science field. Indeed various IPCC reports say the lack of robust international governance of SRM is a risk in itself. However, if such a thing were to happen - and we should expect such a development some time in the near future - the danger is all too apparent: geoengineering, including SRM, is being normalised.
Meanwhile, governments routinely fail to meet the already grossly inadequate Cop emission targets and global temperatures hurtle towards 1.5°C, 2°C and beyond - if emissions continue to increase at their present rate the world will hit 8°C above pre-industrial levels in 2300 - the hottest it has been in 40 million years.22
Elizabeth Kolbert, a Pulitzer prize-winning author, pinpoints the faulty logic of the would-be geoengineers: “If control is the problem, then, by the logic of the Anthropocene, still more control must be the solution.”23 In effect, the geoengineers want to treat greenhouse gas emissions in the same way as Victorian engineers, such as Joseph Bazalgette, dealt with London’s sewage crisis following the famous 1858 ‘great stink’. But the climate system is vastly more complex: everything is connected to everything else. Physics, biology, chemistry and human society form an interconnected and interacting whole.
So, in all probability, if one of the SRM pseudo-solutions was to be implemented, it would let loose a Pandora’s box of demons. For example, triggering armed conflicts, regional climate extremes, disruption of precipitation patterns, limiting the growth of crops and thinning stratospheric ozone. Then there is the “potentially dangerous” consequence of a temperature bounce when the programme is finally terminated, which would be “two to four times larger” than would otherwise have had been the case.24 The impact on ecosystems and biodiversity, though largely unexplored, would, to put it mildly, probably be decidedly negative.
Surveying the sorry results of past efforts to ‘solve nature’s problems’, Michael and Joyce Huesmann argue, not unreasonably, that humans cannot “substantially modify natural world systems without creating unanticipated and undesirable consequences”.25 With that in mind, there are far too many on the left who advocate techno-fixes.
The blind worship of technology can be seen in recent times with ‘left’ accelerationists such as Nick Land, Mark Fisher, Paul Mason, Nick Smicek and Aaron Bastani. Technology is held out as the means of overcoming climate change, third-world poverty, etc, etc. Technology is even credited with a fabulous ability to deliver “fully automated luxury communism”. Instead of organising the working class into a party - so passé - we have the relentless forward march of technology. Technology, not the working class, undermines capitalism and duly holds out the promise of human freedom. Through supercomputers, through embracing automation, through space rockets, through mining asteroids, through following the “leading-edge” political vanguard of Alexis Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias, we are promised a 10-hour working week, more equality and all manner of tawdry luxury commodities - yes, taken from an article that is over five years old.26 The whole, almost instantly dated, utterly banal, ‘left’ accelerationist programme clearly owes rather more to Eduard Bernstein, HG Wells and Isaac Asimov than Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
Not that orthodox(ish) Marxism can be entirely excused. Here is what Leon Trotsky, still near the pinnacle of political power in 1924, wrote about refashioning nature:
The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests and of seashores cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing ‘on faith’, is actually able to cut down mountains and move them.
Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the Earth - if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.27
And the approach to nature Trotsky preached, Joseph Stalin and his successors put into practice - not in order to realise some global artistic grand design: rather, more prosaically, to provide the state (and in due course, its citizens) with more and more use-values.
Leave aside the radioactive waste littered over Kazakhstan, the open-cast mining, the oil spills and the ruinous industrial practices which caused choking air pollution, poisoned rivers and killed lakes. Let us focus on agriculture. We will see why Marx argued that what is needed for rational agriculture is either the “small farmer living by his own labour or the control of associated producers”.28
Expropriating the peasants through forced collectivisation in the late 1920s and early 1930s caused agricultural production to crash. The cities went hungry. The countryside starved. Millions died. However, joining together the country’s peasant farms even without the necessary tractors and combines meant that the regime would never again be held to ransom by richer peasants, the kulaks.
Throughout the 1920s they had held back grain when prices were considered too low. The state had to respond, either by increasing prices (and thereby denying industry, the army, etc) or by sending out special armed detachments to seize grain supplies.
But collectivisation merely collectivised primitiveness. The peasants were, to all intents and purposes, re-enserfed. They were state helots. When tractors and combines eventually came on stream, productivity remained notoriously low. Collective farm members had to be allocated individual plots to grow fruit and vegetables for their own consumption and for sale in special, private, markets established in the towns and cities. Despite lacking machinery, productivity on the individual plot was far higher than on the kolkhoz and sovkhoz.
As one of many techo-fixes, in the second half of the 1940s Stalin proposed his Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature - a superambitious response to the 1946 drought, which in 1947 left an estimated half to one million dead. Huge bands of land were to be forested in the southern steppe to provide a network of shelterbelts.
Rivers feeding into the Aral Sea were to be diverted - once the world’s fourth largest lake, it has now virtually disappeared. Irrigation canals, reservoirs and countless ponds were going to upgrade the thin soils. Trofim Lysenko’s “elite strains of seed”, so went the presumption, would ensure fabulously high yields.
Lysenko, of course, contemptuously dismissed the Mendelian theory of gene inheritance as an example of “metaphysics and idealism”.29 Instead he upheld a neo-Lamarckian doctrine of crops passing on environmentally acquired characteristics, such as cold resistance and drought resistance. This was vigorously opposed in Britain by the CPGB’s scientific superstar, JBS Haldane (much to the chagrin of the official leadership faction).30 Haldane was famously one of the originators of the Darwinian-Mendelian synthesis31 and eventually resigned from the CPGB in 1950. A great loss.
Lysenkoism had been elevated into official doctrine in the Soviet Union. Those who disagreed were viciously denounced, dismissed from academic posts and often ended up in the gulag. That or they were simply shot. The message was clear: politics, not scientific facts - certainly not nature - was in command.
In 1948, Lysenko made his notorious speech to the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences. He rhetorically asked: “What is the attitude of the central committee of the party to my report?” He answers: “the central committee has examined my report and approves of it (Stormy applause. Ovation. All rise).” The “most chilling passage in all the literature of the 20th century science”, writes Stephen Jay Gould.32
The Great Plan ended in complete failure. The trees were of the wrong kind, went untended and died. The crops were of the wrong kind too, and froze or wilted. Topsoils were quickly exhausted and were washed away by rain or blown away on the winds (they contained, of course, the highest concentrates of organic matter and microorganisms). All negative and unintended consequences.
Nikita Khrushchev attempted his own techno-fix. In 1953 the virgin lands campaign was launched. Within two years the first secretary sought to put 13 million hectares of hitherto uncultivated land under the plough, in “Kazakhstan, western Siberia, the lower Volga and (to a limited extent) in the northern Caucasus”.33 ‘Fallow land is lost land; erosion is a fiction’ ran a Khrushchevite slogan, featured widely in the Soviet press during the mid-1950s. An obvious stupidity.
The eventual target for 1962 was adding a staggering 42 million hectares. Never before in history had there been such a vast projected extension of cultivation in such a short period of time. Masses of urban volunteers were mobilised - especially young enthusiasts. However, neither instruments of labour (tractors, combines, etc) nor the extra labour-power itself proved up to the job. Crucially, though, topsoils were thin and weather conditions notoriously dry. Repeatedly ploughing, sowing and harvesting the fragile virgin lands of the northern Caucasus, western Siberia and north Kazakhstan saw productivity steadily decline. Soils were quickly exhausted and deserts expanded.
Khrushchev had one more gigantic techno-fix up his sleeve: irrigating the arid south, specifically in order to expand cotton production. He gave the go-ahead to divert 12 rivers ‘uselessly’ flowing into the Arctic Ocean. Reversing the flow of the Pechora was not only going to boost cotton production: the shrinking Aral and Caspian seas would be replenished.
Obviously part of the project relied on digging new water channels. However, instead of using traditional methods - mechanical diggers, dumper trucks and the requisite labour-power - the proposal was to detonate 250 nuclear devices. In fact, the Soviet bureaucracy envisaged the almost boundless application of nuclear technology to construction, industry, agriculture and medicine: “atomic-powered communism”.34 Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The wonders of computers, automation, robots and, yes, nuclear power held out the prospect of catching up with the US by 1970 and the beginnings of ‘communist abundance’ by 1980. Three 15-kiloton devices were actually detonated - inevitably causing some fallout. The whole crazy river-diversion idea was finally abandoned in 1986. Who knows what the consequences would have been if it had gone to completion.
With warm river waters no longer flowing into the cold Arctic Ocean from the south, maybe a new, Eurasian, ice age is triggered. Glaciers, permafrost and sea ice slowly spread. Leningrad is eventually permanently frozen in. The city becomes uninhabitable and has to be evacuated. Nowadays climate modellers might well be able to give us a highly accurate prediction - impossible in the 1960s and 70s, though.
Either way, the message is clear: leave behind the dangerous nonsense about humanity being the master of nature. No, we should aspire to being nothing more than good custodians.
PJ Crutzen, ‘Albedo enhancement by stratospheric sulphur injections: a contribution to resolve a policy dilemma’ Climatic Change No77, July 25 2006, pp211-19.↩︎
Financial Times June 30 2023.↩︎
See KC Harper Make it rain: state control of the atmosphere in twentieth-century America Chicago IL 2017.↩︎
Quoted in insideclimatenews.org/news/21072023/new-federal-report-on-research-into-sun-dimming-technologies-delivers-more-questions-than-answers.↩︎
Quoted in insideclimatenews.org/news/21072023/new-federal-report-on-research-into-sun-dimming-technologies-delivers-more-questions-than-answers.↩︎
JC Stephens, P Kashwan, D McLaren and K Surprise, ‘Toward dangerous US unilateralism on solar geoengineering’ Environmental Politics Vol 32, No1 2023.↩︎
As urged by Janos Pasztor, Cynthia Scharf and Kai-Uwe Barani Schmidt of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative - see ‘Solar geoengineering is coming. It’s time to regulate it.’ Foreign Affairs May 23 2023.↩︎
JC Zachos et al, ‘An astronomically dated record of Earth’s climate and its predictability over the last 66 million years’ Science September 11 2020.↩︎
E Kolbert Under a white sky: the nature of the future London 2021.↩︎
CH Trisos et al, ‘Potentially dangerous consequences for biodiversity of solar geoengineering implementation and termination’ Nature Ecology and Evolution March 2018.↩︎
M Huesmann and J Huesmann Techno-fix: why technology won’t save us or the environment Gabriola Island BC 2011, pxxv.↩︎
L Trotsky Literature and art - see: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lit_revo/ch08.htm.↩︎
K Marx Capital Vol III, Moscow 1971, p121.↩︎
TD Lysenko The situation in biological science Moscow 1951, p24.↩︎
See www.marxists.org/archive/haldane/works/1940s/lysenko.htm. For Haldane’s MI5-bugged exchanges with CPGB tops, see blogs.ucl.ac.uk/sts-observatory/2017/07/26/science-and-the-cold-war-at-ucl-1-surveillance.↩︎
JBS Haldane The causes of evolution London 1932. The title deliberately included the plural. See: jbshaldane.org/books/1932-Causes-of-Evolution/haldane-1932-causes-of-evolution-flat.pdf.↩︎
SJ Gould Hen’s teeth and horse’s toes New York 1983, p135.↩︎
R Sakwa The rise and fall of the Soviet Union 1917-1991 London 1999, p304.↩︎
PR Johnson, ‘Atomic-powered communism: nuclear culture in the post-war USSR’ Slavic Review summer 1996, pp297-324.↩︎