Will Our Grandchildren Say That We Changed the Earth Too Little?

Get ready to start hearing a lot more about geoengineering.

Marine cloud brightening might be one way to stem the warming of the planet. (International Space Station / Reuters)

Oliver Morton has written a great book about geoengineering, and that is no small achievement. Say that word aloud—“geoengineering”—and it sounds wonky and remote. But there is a good chance that “geoengineering” will soon be on the lips of every politician on this planet.

The world’s rich economies have steered humankind into a difficult position. In the two centuries since the Industrial Revolution, we have wrapped the Earth in a layer of technology, powered by the burning of fossil fuels, whose exhaust products are pooling in the gas bubble that surrounds our blue marble.

The atmosphere is becoming a greenhouse. The surface of our planet is now warming, with unpredictable consequences. Earth’s biota may experience a sixth mass extinction. Cities may flood. Crops may be ruined. Hundreds of millions of people may become refugees, or starve outright. Our descendants may one day say that ours was a time of affluence, subsidized by their suffering.

Humans must now choose between two unattractive options. We can continue pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. We can cross our fingers that we adapt to a warming climate, and that earth’s natural systems adapt too. Or we can transition to a cleaner global energy system, at a speed that is unprecedented, across all of history.

The geoengineers offer us a third way, and their pitch is seductive, even flattering. Human ingenuity landed us in this pickle, they say. Maybe human ingenuity will set us free. Maybe we can deploy a technical fix, something that will buy us enough time to phase out fossil fuels, without crashing civilization in the process.

Maybe we can spray a mist of particles into the stratosphere, to block sunlight that would otherwise beam down to Earth’s surface. Maybe we can use drone ships to pump chemical glitter into clouds that hover over the oceans, so they reflect sunlight back into black space. Maybe we can nourish massive plankton blooms in the Southern Ocean, to suck CO2 straight out of the sky.

At universities across the world, well-funded, tenured scientists are working hard on these ideas. For the past 6 years, Oliver Morton, a longtime editor at The Economist, has been following their work, testing their ideas, thinking about the practical implications of geoengineering—and the philosophical implications, too.

Earlier this week we talked about his new book, The Planet Remade, at length. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.

Ross Andersen: In your book, you use the word geoengineering in a more expansive way than most people. Why is that?

Oliver Morton: Well, there's a way of talking about geoengineering that's too large for me. There's a way that you sometimes hear people who are naively in favor of geoengineering say “well, we're already geoengineering the earth system—we should just do it better.”

There are various problems I have with that thinking. There are bits of the earth system that humans are just making a mess of. I would put the carbon balance of the atmosphere in that category. But that’s not deliberate.

When I sat down to write this book, I wondered if there were parts of the earth system that humans are deliberately changing, with forethought. The one I develop most in the book is the example of the nitrogen cycle, which was once driven by soil bacteria, but has been absolutely taken over by human fertilizer factories.

That wasn’t something that just happened. It was something that senior chemists wanted to happen. It was something that institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation, and the U.S. government, and the Central Committee of China's Communist Party wanted to happen. This was a willed thing.

And although it's not a perfect analogy to the geoengineering people might use to mitigate climate change, it does reset your thinking. It frames geoengineering within this broader question about what kinds of choices people should make in the anthropocene, when the earth is under human dominion, to some extent.

Andersen: One of the pleasures of your book is its emphasis on the intellectual history of geoengineering. How long have humans been thinking about doing something like this?

Morton: Humans have thought that they have an influence on climate for a very long time, and especially during the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson believed that America’s climate was much nastier than Europe’s, and there was a widespread view that this was because Europe's climate had been ameliorated by the human presence in a way that America's climate had not. Jefferson and others thought that bringing European farming to America would improve its climate, and they put this idea forward in various unconvincing ways.

Then, in the later 19th century, you start seeing these grand engineering schemes whereby people talk about taking directly taking on the climate and other aspects of the earth system, without just having to lead good European lives. And people also imagine this going on elsewhere. When Percival Lowell looks at Mars, he sees canals, and he thinks of them as a form of what we might call terraforming, or what we might call geoengineering. He sees it as the Martians taking an active control over their environment.

Andersen: Here at The Atlantic we recently published an interview with Bill Gates on the subject of climate change and what can be done about it. And on Twitter you expressed surprise that geoengineering wasn't discussed. Is that part of a larger pattern? Are you surprised there isn't more frank discussion of geoengineering in the pubic sphere right now?

Morton: I'm not surprised about it in the public sphere so much, because I understand why people try to stop discussion of geoengineering. The idea that there might be a way to soften the blow of human-created climate change with technology is dangerous, because it weakens the resolve that will be necessary to actually deal with emissions. That's a very serious issue, and one of the things I'm very keen to get across in this book is that I do not in any way see geoengineering as an alternative to a program of emissions reduction. I think that that would be a very foolish approach to the problem.

I'm slightly surprised that it doesn't come up in a conversation with Bill Gates in The Atlantic, because both you and he think more widely about these things—and indeed Bill Gates has funded some work on geoengineering. It just seems to me that if you really don’t think the climate should get more than 2 degrees warmer, then you kind of have to be talking about geoengineering in one way or another.

You either have to be talking about sucking a lot of CO2 out of the atmosphere once emissions have peaked, or you have to talk about reducing, slightly, the amount of sunlight that's coming into the system. And, yeah, it does frustrate me that that point isn't made more often—and I thought that your conversation with Gates might have been a good chance to do that.

Andersen: In your book, you argue that it would be impossible to transition away from fossil fuels quickly, because our current global-energy infrastructure simply can't be replaced within a single generation. Can you give me a sense of the scale of that infrastructure? What would need replacing?

Morton: Well, you have to remember that over 80 percent of the world's energy comes from fossil fuels—and the world uses a lot of energy, and will be using even more energy soon. There are, after all, a large number of people who still don't have access to modern energy services. In the beginning of the 20th century, no one lived the sort of life that well-off people in developing countries live or aspire to. Now about 1.6 to 2 billion people live that kind of life. And that's great, but there are 5 billion people who aren't leading that kind of life. They are going to use a lot of energy.

At the end of this century there will be 9 or 10 billion people on the face of the planet. You would kind of hope that in a century's time, they would all have the access to energy that you and I enjoy. That would mean going from 2 billion people with access to 10 billion, a much larger increase than we saw during the 20th century.

Of course, there's a huge amount that we can do with better energy technology over the course of the 21st century. But as the world develops, I think there's still going to be an awful lot of fossil fuels burned. I think it's a fundamental mistake to think that with just a bit more political will, you can suddenly go to a zero-carbon world.

Andersen: Should people take solace from the speed at which France transitioned to nuclear? Or the speed at which Germany has converted to wind and solar?

Morton: France and Sweden both transitioned very well onto nuclear. But France had a culture that was well suited to the quick distribution of nuclear power—and I don't think that sort of culture is as widespread as one would wish. For instance, when one talks about whether South Africa should have more nuclear power, it occurs to me that nuclear power requires strong, independent regulation. And if I look at the political situation in South Africa, it seems very unlikely to provide strong independent regulation for a nuclear-power program.

The other thing is that even though France has great nuclear electricity potential, it still uses fossil fuels for other things. It still runs its cars on fossil fuels, it still runs various industries on fossil fuels. If you want to cut 30 or 40 percent of your fossil-fuels budget, you can transition to nuclear. But if you want to cut it all the way back to zero that gets really hard—and if you actually want, in the long term, a balanced composition of the atmosphere, you really do have to get the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels more or less to zero.

I think that the scale of that endeavor still escapes people. It doesn't escape some very deep greens who think that it's absolutely impossible and that instead we’ll see an industrial crash, or the end of civilization. But, that's something that I would rather avert.

Andersen: Am I right to think that currently the most plausible geoengineering scheme is to seed the stratosphere with sulfate aerosols to reflect away some portion of sunlight?

Morton: That's certainly the approach that's been most widely discussed. And there are various reasons for this. One is historical—this is, after all, something we have seen before. After a large volcanic eruption, the layer of sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere gets thicker, and we see, in the historic record, that the Earth cools down in response. Another reason you see this technique discussed so often is that it fits into global-climate modeling rather well. Computer scientists that do global-climate modeling are fairly well set up to deal with thinking about that sort of thing.

There are other technologies that might have regional or even global applications that work differently, and which are in a similar place, with respect to the sophistication of the research. The one that's most notable is something that's called marine cloud brightening, where tiny particles are added to existing clouds over the oceans, in order to brighten them and reflect away more sunlight.

The exact mechanism there is not as clear as the stratospheric mechanism, but the possibility of actually trying it out on a limited scale is much more attractive, because you could create a little particle generator and put it under some clouds and see whether they were, indeed, brightened. Whereas you can't isolate a tiny bit of the stratosphere in the same way. So in terms of what might be experimented on first, it wouldn't be surprising if it was marine cloud brightening.

Andersen: If you were to tinker with the stratosphere that would obviously affect people across the entire planet. Do you think geoengineering of that sort could be moral outside of some kind of global democratic decision process?

Morton: I think it might be defensible. But my argument is precisely that we would need to find a way of politically dealing with this. The real challenge of geoengineering is developing the institutions that might use this technology in a just and responsible way. I give some examples of how that might happen in the book, but I see it as a huge, difficult, open question.

Andersen: When people worry about unilateral, undemocratic acts of geoengineering, they tend to worry about some consortium of rich countries jamming this through. But of course, it could go the other way. I sometimes wonder what stops Bangladesh from seeding the stratosphere with these aerosols on its own, because the cost of doing so is trivial.

Morton: We should always remember that these are notional technologies. Actually implementing them might be quite difficult, but, yes, it seems as though putting a million tons of stuff into the stratosphere on an annual basis is not something that's going to break the bank of even quite a small country.

It is, however, going to upset a lot of other people. And unless your country is used to upsetting a lot of other people, and able to withstand what happens when you upset a lot of people, then that might not be where you wish to go.

Also, for Bangladesh in particular, the amount of geoengineering that you would have to do to have a near-term effect on sea level would be a great deal. It's very hard to actually have near-term sea-level effects with geoengineering. Because there's a lot of other warming already in the pipe that you would have to kind of wish away.

Andersen: In your book, you spend some time with David Keith, a professor of applied physics at Harvard. I watched Keith give a talk in San Francisco earlier this year, and at dinner afterward I asked him which objection to geoengineering kept him up at night. He told me it was “addiction,” this idea that geoengineering could work so well that people would turn to it again and again without actually doing anything about carbon emissions themselves. And that would be a big problem, because carbon emissions have all of these other harmful effects like ocean acidification and so forth. Is “addiction” your biggest worry as well?

Morton: What I really worry about with geoengineering is that conflict over its use will lead to a greater conflict that leads to a nuclear war. And that’s because I worry about nuclear wars a lot more than I worry about geoengineering, frankly, because we don't even know if anyone's going to try geoengineering, but we know the wherewithal to have a nuclear war is out there in the world already.

David Keith's scenario, though it is undeniably troubling, is also, to some extent, a problem of success. It’s not clear to me whether David's worry is that it works very well and humanity ends up in this dependency that puts us in this ever-more-artificial world, in which all these things have been wiped out by ocean acidification. Or is it that his worry is that it works really well until it absolutely stops working and then there's a collapse.

Those are slightly different arguments, and I wouldn't care to guess which he was talking about. But I will say that the other worry I do have is that people in the 23rd or 24th century will look back and say that it's kind of a pity that people in the 21st century didn't very slightly cool the planet to give themselves a bit more time, so that the horrible thing that happened in 2055 didn't happen. Which is to say that when one worries about what geoengineering might do, one should also worry about the opportunity cost that might arise if a well-regulated, just, defensible form of geoengineering were not on the table.

Andersen: If we went forward with one of these global geoengineering schemes, would that be the end of wilderness on this planet, and does wilderness exist now?

Morton: Ah, the wilderness question. A particularly popular question, I find, with Americans. As someone who's British and lives on an island with basically no wilderness, this is less of a pressing question to me. I think wilderness is, to some extent, a state of mind, and to some extent a necessarily paradoxical state of mind, because it's about a place that exists by your denial of it; the more you as a civilized person are in it, the less wild it is, because you are there. It's a strange, easily deconstructed way of thinking about the world, which I don't find particularly powerful.

I like the wild, and I have a great sympathy for the people in the rewilding business who talk about self-willed nature. In general, I try to think about nature in terms of processes not in terms of stocks. I think that endless fount of the unexpected and the self-willed that nature provides is very valuable. It does that in all sorts of different places. You can see the little plants growing in the cracks of abandoned paving stones and they're very much like what you see in a natural limestone pavement up in the Yorkshire moors, or in the mountains of Portugal, where I was recently walking.

The processes of nature and the processes of the wild, and that sense of inhuman autonomy—that’s where I get that wilderness kick. And I think those will entirely continue. There's no way you're going to stop those sorts of processes from going on. As for whether they meet some sort of categorization as “wilderness” or not, that’s not really my fight.

Andersen: People often get caught up in thinking about geoengineering strictly in the context of human-caused climate change. What other sorts of applications could geoengineering have in the deeper future? Might humans try geoengineering to ward off the extreme temperature swings we see across geologic time?

Morton: To me, the whole thing about the geology of the anthropocene is that geological time has now been massively compressed—and we are now responsible for those intense temperature swings. But more than that, thinking about human agency in terms of more than a few centuries just doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me.

Humans are so different in what they can do and in their ways of relating to each other than they were even 10,000 years ago. And 10,000 years ago is nothing in geological time.

That does remind me, though, of a larger problem of human agency. You and I have been talking a lot about what “we” humans might do. If there's a lesson that I’ve taken from thinking about geoengineering, it's that there isn't a “we” that can talk about this yet. Making a group of people that can identify as a group and have sensible opinions about this—that's a lot of work. That's something that needs to be achieved.

There's a laziness in which writers say “we” and they mean “you,” the reader, and “me” and all us right-thinking people, and not “them,” who are dubious and shifty and other.

And that's a way that a lot of pro- and anti- geoengineering talk goes. They ask what “we” should do. But who is we? At the moment, there are no institutions that you could possibly trust this to. I want to start having this discussion so that those institutions can be developed in this century, and then when that development is done, then maybe we can turn to the deepest of deep times.

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