25 June 2019

Jeroen Oomen on the NRC climate blog

Artificial cooling is heating up the debate

Climate change is starting to take the shape of a climate crisis. The lacklustre political response is fuelling the call for resolute technological interventions. While many people expect scientists to solve this issue, Utrecht University researcher Jeroen Oomen disputes their logic.

This blog was published on 18 June 2019 on the climate blog of the NRC

Credit: iStock.com/vladm

Following years of denial and inertia in the face of global warming, climate disasters are occurring in rapid succession. Islands succumb to the waves, freak frosts hit Washington—and the climate system is reduced to complete disruption. As the world enters a state of climate panic, all climate measures are suddenly sanctioned, regardless of their risks and consequences.

The above situation is not a newsflash but a series of events from Science in the Capital, the science fiction trilogy written by Kim Stanley Robinson from 2004 to 2007. Although this story about the climate is fictional, its central thesis is rather convincing.

In reality too, it seems unlikely that the climate objectives of no more than 1.5 to 2 degrees of global warming will actually be met, unless global action is taken at short notice and on a large scale. As a result, scientific and political interest in climate engineering, the scientific term for active climate interventions, is increasing.

Interest in climate engineering is increasing, due to unlikeliness that climate objectives will be met
Jeroen Oomen
Urban Futures Studio

Climate engineering includes a wide range of speculative technologies, from the genetic manipulation of plants so that they can store additional CO2 to the use of particulate matter that envelops the earth in a cooling shroud, or from the construction of factories that capture CO2 to the manipulation of clouds to prevent the melting of the polar icecaps.

These interventions are often imagined to be a last resort in response to sudden climate catastrophes, not unlike the fiction of Science in the Capital. A common argument is that politicians will lack the will to intervene on behalf of the climate until climate catastrophes strike the world’s powerful countries. The question is, for how long will this argument remain valid?

Regional disasters

Climate engineering will inevitably become a divisive element in politics. The thought of artificial cooling is met with growing political interest and increasing social disquiet. Is climate engineering even a desirable or acceptable line of research? How could we ever safely determine whether it ‘works’? The average temperature, for example, might drop globally, but at the cost of severe disruptions in rainfall in some places—meaning the total disruption of certain regions. Would we be willing to accept those regional disasters? Who would be able to make such decisions and on what merit?

Climate interventions should not become a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions

The largest risk, however, is that the notion of climate engineering might weaken the political commitment to fully comply with the Paris Agreement. Climate interventions should not become a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is a real risk. Climate models already often assume that the large-scale capture of CO2 will be instrumental in achieving the climate objectives set at 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius—even though it is entirely unclear whether it can ever be applied at such a scale.

Credit: iStock.com/graphicwithart

As long as we avoid taking any meaningful climate measures, climate engineering will continue to seem an appealing alternative to many. This means that political debate on climate engineering is probably unavoidable. If we have to have such political discussions, however, we should make sure they are  truly political. Too often, discussions about climate engineering rely excessively on pseudo-scientific arguments: is it possible, does it work, will it succeed? Like it simply concerns another addition to the climate mitigation portfolio, with the main criterion being whether it will ‘work’ in limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees.

Speculative technology

Climate engineering introduces fundamentally political and moral dilemmas, which demand a more complex and thorough debate. What are the implications of considering the climate to be an object of technological intervention? Which institutional preconditions are necessary before climate interventions can even be carried out to an acceptable standard? How do such interventions fit into the society we imagine to be or wish to have? Who has the final say on speculative developments in technology and why? What is the exact objective of our climate policy and what role would climate engineering have to play in this regard?

The climate change debate isn’t just a scientific question; it is a sociopolitical challenge that affects us all
Jeroen Oomen
Urban Futures Studio

The climate change debate isn’t just a scientific question; it is a sociopolitical challenge that affects us all. This is precisely the reason why we should already be debating active climate interventions—and be doing so based on the right questions. If we still need to answer these questions when we are actually up to our necks in rising waters, as depicted in Science in the Capital, we will be far too late.

Scientists from Utrecht University are reporting in the climate blog of the NRC on their research in the field of sustainability. They are united around the strategic theme of 'Pathways to Sustainability’.