It’s Time To Talk About Solar Geoengineering

We need to start talking about seemingly drastic approaches to the climate crisis, such as sun-dimming aerosols, right now — or we risk losing democratic control of the process.

Holly Jean Buck | an excerpt adapted from After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration | Verso | 2019 | 24 minutes (6,467 words)

December in California at one degree of warming: ash motes float lazily through the afternoon light as distant wildfires rage. This smoky “winter” follows a brutal autumn at one degree of warming: a wayward hurricane roared toward Ireland, while Puerto Rico’s grid, lashed by winds, remains dark. This winter, the stratospheric winds break down. The polar jet splits and warps, shoving cold air into the middle of the United States. Then, summer again: drought grips Europe, forests in Sweden are burning, the Rhine is drying up. And so on.

One degree of warming has already revealed itself to be about more than just elevated temperatures. Wild variability is the new normal. Atmospheric patterns get stuck in place, creating multiweek spells of weather that are out of place. Megafires and extreme events are also the new normal — or the new abnormal, as Jerry Brown, California’s former governor, put it. One degree is more than one unit of measurement. One degree is about the uncanny, and the unfamiliar.

If this is one degree, what will three degrees be like? Four?

At some point — maybe it will be two, or three, or four degrees of warming — people will lose hope in the capacity of current emissions-reduction measures to avert climate upheaval. On one hand, there is a personal threshold at which one loses hope: many of the climate scientists I know are there already. But there ’s also a societal threshold: a turning point, after which the collective discourse of ambition will slip into something else. A shift of narrative. Voices that say, “Let’s be realistic; we’re not going to make it.” Whatever making it means: perhaps limiting warming to 2°C, or 1.5, as the Paris Agreement urged the world to strive for. There will be a moment where “we,” in some kind of implied community, decide that something else must be tried. Where “we” say: Okay, it’s too late. We didn’t try our best, and now we are in that bad future. Then, there will be grappling for something that can be done.

This is the point where it becomes “necessary” to consider the future we didn’t want: solar geoengineering. People will talk about changing how we live, from diet to consumption to transportation; but by then, the geophysics of the system will no longer be on our side. A specter rears its head: the idea of injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to block incoming sunlight. The vision is one of shielding ourselves in a haze of intentional pollution, a security blanket that now seems safer than the alternative. This discussion, while not an absolute given, seems plausible, if not probable, from the vantage point of one degree of warming — especially given that emissions are still rising.

You may have heard something about solar geoengineering. It’s been skulking in the shadows of climate policy for a decade, and haunting science for longer than that, even though it’s still just a rough idea. But it is unlikely you imagined solar geoengineering would be a serious topic of discussion, because it sounds too crazy — change the reflectivity of the earth to send more sunlight back out into space? Indeed, it is a drastic idea.

We are fortunate to have rays of sunlight streaming through space and hitting the atmospheric borders of our planet at a “solar constant” of about 1,360 watts per square meter (W/m2) where the planet is directly facing the sun. This solar constant is our greatest resource; a foundation of life on earth. In fact, it’s not actually so constant — it was named before people were able to measure it from space. The solar constant varies during the year, day to day, even minute to minute. Nevertheless, this incoming solar energy is one of the few things in life we can count on.

Much of this sunlight does not reach the surface; about 30 percent of it gets reflected back into space. So on a clear day when the sun is at its zenith, the solar radiation might reach 1,000 W/m2. But this varies depending on where you are on the globe, on the time of day, on the reflectivity of the surface (ice, desert, forest, ocean, etc.), on the clouds, on the composition of the atmosphere, and so on. Because it’s night half the time, and because the sun is hitting most of the earth at an angle, the average solar radiation around the globe works out to about 180 W/m2 over land. Still, this 180 W/m2 is a bounty.

The point of reciting all these numbers is this: solar geoengineering amounts to an effort to change this math. That’s how a researcher might look at it, anyway.

From one perspective, it sounds like complete lunacy to intentionally mess with something as fundamental as incoming solar radiation. The sun, after all, has been worshipped by cultures around the world: countless prayers uttered to Ra, Helios, Sol, Bel, Surya, Amaterasu, and countless other solar deities throughout the ages. Today, many still celebrate holidays descended from solar worship. And that worship makes sense — without the sun, there would be nothing. Even in late capitalism, we valorize the sun: people search for living spaces with great natural light; they get suntans; they create tourist destinations with marketing based on the sun and bring entire populations to them via aircraft. Changing the way sunlight reaches us and all other life on earth is almost unimaginably drastic.

But there are ways of talking about solar geoengineering that normalize it, that make you forget the thing being discussed is sunlight itself. The most discussed method of solar geoengineering is “stratospheric aerosol injection” — that is, putting particles into the stratosphere, a layer of the atmosphere higher than planes normally fly. These particles would block some fraction of incoming sunlight, perhaps about 1 to 2 percent of it. Stratospheric aerosols would change not only the amount of light coming down, but also the type: the light would be more diffuse, scattering differently. These changes would alter the color of our skies, whitening them to a degree that may or may not be easily perceptible, depending on whether you live in an urban area. The distortion would also affect how plants and phytoplankton operate. Certainly, this type of intervention seems extreme.

And despite the extremity of the idea, it’s not straightforwardly irrational. First of all, solar radiation is already naturally variable; a single passing cloud can change the flux by 25 W/m2. What’s more, solar radiation is unnaturally variable. Global warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions — the greenhouse gas molecules trap heat, creating an imbalance between the energy coming in and the energy going back out. Since 1750, these emissions have increased the flux another 2.29 W/m2. This disparity between incoming and outgoing energy is what scientists call “radiative forcing” — a measure of imbalance, of forced change, caused by human activity. That imbalance would actually be greater — just over 3 W/m2 — if not for the slight countervailing effect of aerosol emissions that remain close to the ground. Think about a smoggy day. The quality of the light is dimmer. Indeed, air pollution from cars, trucks, and factories on the ground already masks about a degree of warming. Total removal of aerosols — as we’re trying to accomplish, in order to improve air quality and human health — could induce heating of 0.5 to 1.1°C globally.

There will be a moment where we’…say: Okay, it’s too late. We didn’t try our best, and now we are in that bad future.

So, from another perspective, because human activity is already messing with the balance of radiation through both greenhouse gas emissions (warming) and emitting particulate matter from industry and vehicles (cooling), it doesn’t sound as absurd to entertain the idea that another tweak might not be that significant — especially if the counterfactual scenario is extreme climate suffering. If you stretch your imagination, you can picture a future scenario where it could be more outrageous not to talk about this idea.

The question is, are we at the point — let’s call it “the shift” — where it is worth talking about more radical or extreme measures — such as removing carbon from the atmosphere, leaving oil in the ground, social and cultural change, radical adaptation, or even solar geoengineering?

Deciding where the shift — the moment of reckoning, the desperation point — lies is a difficult task, because for every optimist who thinks renewables will save the day, there is a pessimist noting that the storage capacity and electrical grid needed for a true renewable revolution does not even exist as a plan. For many people, it’s hard to tell how desperate to feel: we know we should be worried, but we also imagine the world might slide to safety, show up five minutes to midnight and catch the train to an okay place, with some last-minute luck. It can seem like the dissonance around what’s possible actually increases the closer we get to the crunch point; the event horizon. Some of this uncertainty is indeed grounded in the science. “Climate sensitivity” — the measurement describing how earth would respond to a doubling of greenhouse gas concentrations from preindustrial times — is still unknown. That means we don’t know precisely what impacts a given amount of greenhouse gas emissions will have.

However, basic physics dictates that this season of uncertainty is limited. The picture will become clearer as emissions continue, and as scientists tally up how much carbon is in the atmosphere. Nevertheless, examining the situation today provides useful insights that should be well known, but somehow are rarely discussed in venues other than technical scientific meetings.

At present, human activities emit about 40 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide a year, or 50 Gt of “carbon dioxide equivalent,” a measure that includes other greenhouse gases like methane. (A gigaton is a billion tons.) Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have emitted about 2,200 Gt of CO2. Scientists have estimated that releasing another 1,000 Gt CO2 equivalent during this century would raise temperatures by two degrees Celsius — exceeding the target of the Paris Agreement — meaning that 1,000 Gt CO2 is, if you like, our maximum remaining budget (these are rough figures; it could be much less). Knowing that today roughly 50 Gt of carbon dioxide equivalent is emitted, it is evident that emitters are on track to squander the entire carbon budget within the next 20 years. Moreover, the rate of warming is still increasing. This means that if the rate of warming slows down yet emissions remain at today’s rate, in twenty years, two degrees of warming are essentially guaranteed.

What would it take to avoid this? To keep warming below two degrees, emissions will need to drop dramatically — and even go negative by the end of this century, according to scenarios assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Let’s consider a typical “okay future” scenario; one that would provide for a decent chance of staying within two degrees, like the one represented last year in Science magazine by a graph of median values from 18 “good” scenarios assessed in the IPCC’s 2018 special report on 1.5°C of warming.

First, a typical “good future” scenario has emissions peaking around 2020, and then dropping dramatically. Dramatic emissions reductions are key to any scenario that limits warming.

Second, in an “okay future,” emissions go net negative around 2070. “Net negative” means that the world is sucking up more carbon than it is emitting. How is that done? While emissions can be zeroed via the mitigation measures we’re familiar with — using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, stopping deforestation, halting the destruction of wetlands, and so on — to push emissions beyond zero and into negative territory requires a greater degree of intervention. There are two main categories of approach: biological methods, including using forests, agricultural systems, and marine environments to store carbon; and geologic methods, which typically employ industrial means to capture and store CO2 underground or in rock. Some approaches combine these, though: for instance, coupling bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.

But here, note a third point: in a “good future” scenario, carbon actually starts to be removed in the 2020s and 2030s, when emissions are still relatively high. Industrial carbon capture and storage (CCS) — the practice of capturing streams of carbon at industrial sites and injecting it into underground wells — is a crucial technique for accomplishing these levels of carbon removal. As of 2019, the world has only around twenty CCS plants in operation, a number that is almost quaint in scale. To begin removing carbon at the level required for a “good future” scenario implies scaling up the current amount of carbon stored by something like a thousandfold. By 2100, the world would be sequestering ten or fifteen gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. And the scale-up begins right away.


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In the graph of the “okay future” scenario, the gentle slope of declining greenhouse gases looks so neat and calm. It is a fantasy described in clean lines; in the language of numbers, the same language engineers and builders and technocrats speak. This language lends weight to the image, making it seem less fantastic. However, this scenario relies on carbon removal technology at a scale far beyond the demonstration projects being planned today. As the IPCC warned in its special report on 1.5°C, reliance on such technology is a major risk. But the same report indicated that all the pathways analyzed depended upon the removal of between 100 and 1,000 gigatons of carbon in total. In short, limiting warming to 2°C is very difficult without some use of negative emissions technologies — and 1.5°C is virtually unattainable without them.

Does this mean it is impossible to avert two degrees of warming? No. For we know plenty of practices that can be used to remove carbon. We can store it in soils, in building materials and products, in rock. After all, it’s a prevalent element upon which all life is based. It would be difficult to scale these practices under our current economic and political logic, as we’ll explore this book. But it’s technically possible to imagine a future where the excesses of the past (our present) are tucked away, cleaned up, like a stain removed.

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Geoengineering talk often focuses on one moment — the decision to “deploy,” and how or whether publics will be a part of this decision. But looking at prospective decision points muddies this notion of a discrete decision. It’s also not clear exactly who these “decision makers” are. In much of our conversation about climate action, the citizen becomes a witness to history, to decision ceremonies of the powerful. Out of view are the backstories, the tiny actions that accumulated into a formal decision. It becomes hard to imagine otherwise — that geoengineering could be carried out in conversation with civil society, much less led by us.

Right now, geoengineering doesn’t exist. Indeed, the concept is an awkward catch-all that bears little correspondence with the things it purports to describe. The UK’s Royal Society laid out the term in a 2009 report, which assessed both carbon dioxide removal and solar geoengineering, also known as solar radiation management. (For a deeper understanding of how the concept of “geoengineering” came about, Oliver Morton’s book The Planet Remade and Jack Stilgoe’s book Experiment Earth are excellent resources.) Subsequent policy and scientific research adopted the Royal Society’s framing, though it’s quite possible that in the near future, the marriage of these two approaches will dissolve: a 2019 resolution brought before the United Nations Environment Assembly to assess geoengineering failed in part because it combined such different approaches. My hope is that “geoengineering” is a word that future generations will not recognize — not because they’re living it and it’s become an ordinary background condition, but because it’s a weird artifact of the early twenty-first-century way of seeing the human relationship with the rest of nature. Instead, I want us to contemplate what comes “after geoengineering” in the sense that it extends an invitation to think toward the end goals of geoengineering. “After geoengineering” also aims to evolve the conceptual language we use to apprehend what it means to intentionally change the climate: once “geoengineering” is a retired signifier, how do we understand these practices, and what does the new language and new understanding enable?

Even though climate engineering is mostly imaginary right now, it’s a topic that’s unlikely to disappear until either mitigation is pursued in earnest or the concept of geoengineering is replaced by something better; as long as climate change worsens, the specter is always there. In fact, some of the scarier scenarios result when geoengineering isn’t implemented until the impacts of climate change are even more extreme, and is therefore conducted by governments that are starting to fray and unravel. Looking at these fictional scenarios as they unfold prompts some hard questions about the optimal timing of geoengineering. Climate policy at large has been influenced by a “wait and see” attitude, where policymakers wait and see what kinds of economic damage it will cause before taking action. Research shows that even highly educated adults believe this is a reasonable approach, possibly because their mental models don’t properly apprehend stocks and flows. Climate change is a problem of carbon stocks, not carbon flows: the earth system is like a bathtub, filling up (an analogy used by climate modeler John Sterman and educator Linda Booth Sweeney). Reducing the flow of water into the bathtub isn’t going to fix our problem unless we’re actually draining it, too: the amount of emissions can be reduced, but greenhouse gas concentrations will still be rising. Wait-and-see is actually a recipe for disaster, then, because more water is flowing into the bathtub every year. Carbon removal increases the drain. It doesn’t make sense to wait and see if it’s needed. Moreover, it is possible that our capacity to carry out carbon removal — economically, politically, and socially — could actually be greater now than it will be in a climate-stressed future.

Solar geoengineering is trickier. A wait-and-see approach makes intuitive sense: let’s wait and see if society gets emissions under control in the next couple of decades, and let’s wait and see if scientists can get better estimates of climate sensitivity and sink responses. However, there are two key limitations to note here. First, scientists anticipate that doing the research on solar geoengineering could take at least twenty years, and possibly many decades. Second, we won’t know about some of these climate tipping points until we’ve crossed them. Imagine implementing a solar geoengineering program in order to save coastal megacities from rising seas — a plausible reason a society might try something like this. It would be desirable to do the solar geoengineering before warming reached levels where the sea level rise was locked in. But that year might only be known in hindsight, given that it’s a nonlinear system. For some, this is a rationale for at least starting geoengineering research right away. A counterargument is that research is a slippery slope, and doing the research makes it more likely that solar geoengineering will be deployed.

In much of our conversation about climate action, the citizen becomes a witness to history, to decision ceremonies of the powerful.

Whatever conclusion one arrives at in this debate, the main takeaway, for me, is this: There are certainly scenarios in which global society does figure out how to cut emissions to zero, albeit with much climate suffering (in the near future as well as our current present). Yet, if one thinks it’s plausible that there won’t be a significant start on this in the next decade, and that the risks of climate change are significant, it could be reasonable to look into solar geoengineering. And naturally one would want to avoid the worst-case and go for the better-case ways of doing it. There are crucial choices to be made about how it is done. For most climate engineering techniques, what is outrageous inheres not in the technology, but in the context in which it would be deployed.

Those contexts vary, but they all have two important elements. One is the counterfactual climate change scenario: How bad is climate change turning out to be, on a scale from pretty bad to catastrophic? The second is what is being done at the time to confront climate change, whether that be carbon removal, mitigation, adaptation — or nothing. These are very different futures. If a solar geoengineering program is to be ended on a meaningful timescale, it will rely on mitigation and carbon removal. If a regime begins solar geoengineering, it needs to keep putting those particles up there year after year, until carbon emissions are brought down. Thus, the hard thing isn’t beginning the project, but ending it: ensuring that what comes after geoengineering is livable. This is a battleground that’s currently obscured in most discussions of geoengineering.

The definitive story of the twenty-first century, for people working to combat climate change, may be captured in one graph: the rise of greenhouse gas emissions. The line features a dramatic, tension-laden rise — and, ideally, a peak, followed by a dramatic and then gentle downslope, a resolution that accords a feeling of restoration and completion. From Shakespeare to the novel to the life course, the exposition–conflict–climax–resolution–moral story arc is a classic one. It maps nicely onto a temperature-overshoot scenario, where emissions are temporarily high but come back down. This story line lands us, the challenged yet triumphant protagonist, with 2°C of warming at century’s end. These established narrative forms are how we know how to locate ourselves in an overwhelming situation; how we manage to narrate the task at hand. In these imaginaries of managing an overshoot via carbon removal, we risk simply mapping our familiar narrative form onto the problem.

As philosopher Pak-Hang Wong argues, geoengineering needs to be seen “not as a one-off event but as a temporally extended process.” It’s not about the hero’s moment of action, the climax. I would add that this re-visioning of geoengineering must be directed not just into the future, but into the past as well, thereby placing climate intervention into historical context. Future processes of both solar geoengineering and carbon removal will entail dealing with compensation or insurance for people who suffer loss and damage, working out ways to protect vulnerable people, working out who pays for it — and all that requires a reckoning with history, particularly with colonial histories of land appropriation, dispossession, and exploitation. On the international level, negotiators will have to delve into the histories of uneven development, carbon debt, and, yes, colonialism. Carbon removal can be viewed in terms of debt repayment. The addition of solar geoengineering on top of carbon removal would therefore be like living with the repo man always in the sky above you, reminding you what happens if the debt isn’t paid back. Financially, we are already living in a world of debt peonage, as Marxist geographer David Harvey points out; most of the population has future claims on their labor. Now future generations are going to have a double debt. It’s not just the decision to do geoengineering that matters; it’s how this carbon debt and carbon cleanup operation is taken care of, too. The details are everything.

In reality, the resolution of this narrative curve is going to involve struggles all along the way. The latter part of the work, the last half of the curve towards completion, may be tougher than the first, because decarbonizing the electricity sector by switching to solar panels is simply easier than dealing with “hard to mitigate” sectors or deep cultural changes, like decarbonization of aviation and industrial production, or reduction of meat consumption. Deciding to start geoengineering is a bit like deciding to get married. It’s not saying the vows that is hard, but doing the work of the marriage. “Tying the knot,” in reality, doesn’t actually mean that you’re going to stay together forever, despite the metaphor. You have to keep choosing your spouse, or the marriage deteriorates. Solar geoengineering, in particular, would be more like a relationship than a ceremony: and yet much of the treatment in the literature and the press focuses on the expensive wedding. We should instead be thinking more about the world after geoengineering, because climate engineering could be a means to very different ends.

Indeed, it has been difficult for environmentalists and the left to engage with either carbon removal or solar geoengineering in a forward-thinking way. Part of this is due to a fixation on the immediate need to see emissions peak — but part of it also has to do with some serious limitations in how we think.

Copenhagen, December 2009, 1°C / 34°F

The banners unfurled under the dreary skies read “Hopenhagen.” I crossed the plaza, pigeons scattering. A historic brick building loomed above, its rooftop scaffolding bearing the logo: “i’m loving it.” On the ground floor were a Burger King and KFC. Between this fast-food sandwich hung a three-story advertisement sponsored by “corporate citizens Coca-Cola and Siemens”: two young, blonde boys, skinny and pale, with fists in the air, ready to heft a burden. “Earth’s Bodyguards,” read the caption.

I waited in the cold with hundreds of bundled-up delegates and protestors for a train to the Bella Center, where the fifteenth session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of the Parties was taking place. We glided past a glassy office building with a several-story bright-green banner. “Stop climate change. Make COP 15 matter,” it instructed us in Helvetica Light, the logo of construction corporation Skanska beneath.

At the time, climate politics seemed haunted by the specter of green capitalism. We marched under the slogan System Change Not Climate Change. While I have only a few distinct memories of this summit, they portended something quite different than our green capitalist, ecologically modernized future.

Between breaks, delegates would spill out of the conference rooms and rush to treat-laden tables in the hallways in a near melee for the best desserts. A European diplomat in a suit and a young student both reached for the last chocolate on the table, and the man in the suit slapped the confection out of the younger man’s hand.

A retinue of men, dressed in suits, swept briskly through the corridor like a cold wind. The man in the center was the focal point; the rest flanked him, like a military formation. I flattened myself into the side of the hallway as they passed. It’s an unremarkable thing, people passing each other in a nondescript corridor, but I felt chilled. “Did you see Robert Mugabe? He’s here,” someone whispered to me a few minutes later.

A tent, in the rain, in the “free city” of Christiania. I listened to Naomi Klein and other activists muster the forces. We drank mulled wine to keep warm and waited for the police to sweep in with their water cannons and tear gas; there was a rumor that they were coming. (They came.)

There was a kind of power that crackled in the air. Every time it manifested, it surprised me. I was expecting a climate summit to be a rather stuffy and formal affair, filled with acronyms and technical jargon. The injunctions of green capitalism postered around the city seemed pleading, thin, compared to these older and more primal forms of power. Hugo Chávez, speaking at the summit, said that “a ghost is stalking the streets of Copenhagen…it’s capitalism, capitalism is that ghost.” Chavez declared, “When these capitalist gods of carbon burp and belch their dangerous emissions, it’s we, the lesser mortals of the developing sphere who gasp and sink and eventually die.” I can understand the sentiment — particularly when it comes to the unevenness of climate impacts and the brutality of the historical record. As ecological Marxist theory argues, capital accumulation and the treadmill of production is a central factor in global environmental degradation — a thesis I’m onboard with. Nevertheless, I don’t think that green capitalism was the ghost roaming those halls. Perhaps we were focusing on the wrong ghost.

Those of us schooled in keeping watch against green capitalism would naturally read geoengineering as capitalism’s next move in self-preservation. I’m skeptical of this, because I don’t see the evidence that capitalism is capable of acting in its own long-term benefit — especially not consciously, on the scale and temporality of mobilization that this intervention would require. But capital is something of a headless monster, incapable of this kind of macro-level, strategic, long-term thinking. In the face of what could be an existential crisis, innovation is flowing toward hookup apps and making sure porny advertising doesn’t get stationed next to famous brands. This is where capital’s attention and money is directed; as anthropologist David Graeber observes, technological progress since the 1970s has been largely in information technologies, technologies of simulation. Graeber notes that there was a shift from “investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to investment in technologies that furthered labor discipline and social control” — in other words, it’s a big mistake to assume capitalism is naturally technologically progressive. In fact, he suggests, “invention and true innovation will not happen within the framework of contemporary corporate capitalism — or, most likely any form of capitalism at all.” I agree — we ’ve seen numerous terrific ideas since the 1970s in alternative energy, and even in carbon removal, but they’ve been constantly thwarted or shelved. Whatever form of capitalism we’re living in now, it doesn’t seem like a system in which carbon removal is going to evolve. The derivation of capitalism we’re coping with is predatory, inelegant, and fragmented, seemingly incapable of delivering fixed-capital tools like carbon capture and storage or transformative bioenergy to extend its lifespan.

Critical theorist McKenzie Wark asks: “We think within a metaphysical construct in which capital has some eternal inner essence, and only its forms of appearance ever change…But what if the whole of capitalism had mutated into something else?” Wark speculates on the emergence of what he calls the “vectoralist” class, a new postcapitalist ruling class that owns and controls the means of producing information: the vectors. This is actually worse than capitalism, Wark argues, because the information vector can render everything on the planet a resource.

If a regime begins solar geoengineering, it needs to keep putting those particles up there year after year, until carbon emissions are brought down. Thus, the hard thing isn’t beginning the project, but ending it.

So what does all this mean for geoengineering? If capitalism is focused on vectoral control and ineffective when it comes to ensuring the material conditions of its own existence, solar geoengineering would be done by states or not at all. As for carbon removal, the question is this: If zombified neoliberal capitalism isn’t going to build up CCS and carbon removal in order to save itself from planetary crisis, who’s going to do it?

We, the workers and voters, will have to decide to force the removal of carbon from the atmosphere. And we should — those of us living in the global North, in particular. A whole host of commonly accepted moral principles align with carbon removal: “clean up your own mess,” “the polluter pays,” the “precautionary principle,” and others. Moreover, doing carbon removal in a socially just and environmentally rigorous manner is not just morally desirable — it is actually a precondition for emissions going net negative.

There are basically two levels to carbon removal, as I see it. Level 1 involves niche, boutique, aesthetic, or symbolic removals. This is the biochar at your farmer’s market, the wool beanie grown with regeneratively grazed sheep, the shoes made with recycled carbon, water carbonated by Coca-Cola with carbon captured directly from the air. It is cool. Advocates see it as the first step toward reaching Level 2. You don’t want to knock its fragile emergence, because it’s important for generating momentum and raising awareness of carbon removal. But it’s geophysically impossible that it will “solve” climate change.

Level 2 is the gigaton-scale removals that could actually lower greenhouse gas concentrations. Call it “climate significant.” It’s waste cleanup; pollution disposal.

How does one get from Level 1 to Level 2? Some people think it will naturally happen, just as cleantech — renewable energy — “naturally” becomes cheaper and scales. But unlike cleantech, Level 2 is a cleanup operation; in general, these scales of storage and disposal don’t generate usable products. I asked Noah Deich, executive director of the nonprofit Carbon180, about these middle-range pathways from demonstration to disposal scales, because his organization has done significant work articulating policy proposals for carbon removal. In the near term, Deich sees a threefold approach, or a “stool with three legs.” One is moonshot research and development across the technology and land sectors. The second is supporting entrepreneurs to bring promising ideas to market. Lastly, he notes, “we need to change policy so that there’s sufficient funding for the research and development, but there are also large-scale markets, so that those entrepreneurs and those land managers can access those markets at a meaningful scale.” The near-term actions he identifies include engagement of universities in research and development, starting up an incubator for carbon tech, and policy work such as implementation of tax credits for CCS and the inclusion of carbon farming in the US farm bill.

When I remarked that the middle time frame seemed fuzzy, Deich replied, “The middle part will remain fuzzy, because I think it’s iterative.” You get started with technology in existing markets, which creates jobs and investment opportunities, he says. Success begets policy support, whether it be government or corporate, which begets more markets, and it becomes a reinforcing cycle that snowballs. “If we’re able to create incentives for taking that carbon out of the air, I think it’s reasonable that we’ll be able to ratchet up those incentives and build that broad political coalition that’s both durable and meaningful to do this at large scale.”

Yet I am less and less convinced that there is a clear route from Level 1 to Level 2, nor that the first would naturally progress to the next. Level 1 is what our current set of policies and incentives can accomplish, with a lot of work from think tanks, NGOs, philanthropists, and the like. Level 2 requires a massive transformation: economic, political, cultural. It implies that we decide to treat carbon dioxide as a waste product and dedicate a significant portion of GDP to cleaning it up, at the least. It would require profound state regulation — the same sort that’s needed for strong mitigation, and then some.

There is sometimes a hope among environmentalists and social justice advocates that confronting climate change will itself bring about social transformation — that it will flip us into a new narrative that could take on the climate pollution challenge. As cultural theorist Claire Colebrook writes,

From Naomi Klein’s claim that climate change is the opportunity finally to triumph over capitalism, to the environmental humanities movement that spurns decades of “textualist” theory in order to regain nature and life, to wise geo-engineers who operate from the imperative that if we are to survive we must act immediately and unilaterally, the end of man has generated a thousand tiny industries of new dawns.

However, I think there are plenty of scenarios where we deal with climate change in a middling way that preserves the existing unequal arrangements, leaving us not with a new dawn, but with a long and torturous afternoon. Replacing our current liquid fuels with synthetic, lower-carbon fuels produced with direct air capture and enhanced oil recovery would be one version. But those dawnless scenarios are not necessarily geoengineering scenarios, and vice versa. There are both horrifying and mildly likeable scenarios for how carbon removal might be accomplished. The horrifying ones are easy to conjure to mind, while the likable ones stretch the imagination. It would be easy to tag best-case carbon removal scenarios as utopias — even though they would actually be worlds that have failed to mitigate in time, representing at best a muddling through. That’s where we’re at: even muddling through looks like an amazing social feat, an orchestration so elaborate and requiring so much luck that people may find it a fantastic, utopian dream.

We can maximize our chances of muddling through by engaging proactively with both carbon removal and solar geoengineering. However, binary thinking about climate engineering has made it difficult for progressives to create a dialogue about how engaging with these emerging approaches might be done. Climate engineering has been stuck in the realm of “technology,” rather than understood as a variety of practices that include people in various relationships with nature and each other. To free ourselves of these binaries and imagine a different kind of strategy-led engagement, it’s valuable to articulate a best-case scenario for how these practices could unfold.

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There’s an abyss in contemporary thinking about the role of industrial technology in coping with climate change.

On one side of this abyss are people who appraise the potential of technology optimistically, but fail to articulate any real historical awareness of how technology has developed in and through contexts that are often exploitative, unequal, and even violent.

On the other side of the abyss are thinkers who, on the contrary, have a deep understanding of colonialism, imperialism, and the historical evolution of capitalism, but dismiss technology as a useful part of responding to climate change.

This cleavage leaves little room for critical discussion of how technologies might be used to further climate justice. It makes it impossible to imagine, for example, democratically controlled industrial technology that doesn’t exist to “conquer” nature. Today, most left thinking has abandoned the “streak of admiration for the productive forces as the instruments of a conquest of nature that will ultimately usher in communist affluence for everyone,” as human ecologist Andreas Malm has observed. But this abandonment did not immediately lead to a coherent articulation of a view of technology that is collective or cooperative, or that works with nature.

I am not the first to observe this. A number of calls have emerged recently for the left to think differently about industrial technology. Geographer Matthew Huber, for one, suggests that “Marx believed that there is something inherently emancipatory about large-scale industrialization, and ecosocialists need not be so quick to dismiss this possibility.” He asks, “What if the phrase ‘development of the productive forces’ was not simply equated with the expansion of dirty industrial production based on coal, oil, and gas and instead represented the full development of industrial energy systems based on cleaner and renewable fuels?” Sociologist Jesse Goldstein, in Planetary Improvement, his critical ethnographic analysis of cleantech, observes that “the sociotechnical capacity is out there to transform the world in any number of ways,” but realizing emancipatory visions will require “killing the investor” in our minds, “thereby liberating our imaginations, our sciences, and our technologies from the narrowing logic of capital.”

These overlapping binaries — geoengineering versus real change — obscure the reality that there is a spectrum of ways of doing, enacting, practicing, deploying, or implementing climate intervention. The implementation does not inhere in the technology. Sticking rigidly to these binaries keeps us from seeing possible futures: it gives the terrain for shaping climate engineering over to the few.

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From After Geoengineering, by Holly Jean Buck, recently published by Verso.

Holly Jean Buck writes on emerging technologies in the Anthropocene, with work appearing in journals like Development and Change, Climatic Change, Annals of the American Association of Geographers and Hypatia. Since 2009, she has been researching the social dimensions of geoengineering, including as a faculty fellow with the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment in Washington, DC, as a member of the Steering Committee for the international Climate Engineering Conference in Berlin, and as a doctoral researcher at Cornell University, from which she holds a PhD in development sociology.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky