Manipulation of the climate – start getting used to it


Klimaatsverandering ©

In the fight against climate change, people look hopefully at technological solutions more and more often. But the debate about it is dangerously superficial, researcher Jeroen Oomen believes. More and more often, people think about the possibility to influence the climate with technological resources. NRC recently reported on the cancellation of the first ScoPEX experiment in Sweden, for which researchers wanted to release a balloon into the stratosphere to test spraying small particles into the atmosphere that should reflect the sunlight and should lower the temperature on Earth with it.

The experiment showcases the growing interest in ‘geo engineering’, also called climate engineering or climate manipulation. In short: various technologies that try to counteract global warming with these kinds of active interventions into the climate. Think along the lines of catching and storing CO2 from open air, or making oceanic clouds more reflective and using stratospheric veils of mini particles to cool down Earth. Most of these technologies exist only in theory, but as long as mitigation (reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases) does not take place, they will continue to gain more attention – and that is problematic. Because this is about experimenting with the climate, without knowing how that will end. The ‘world as a laboratory’ as the German sociologist Ulrich Beck (1944-2015) had already said. In the mean time, the promises about geo engineering begin to influence our climate policy more and more deeply. Taking CO2 out of the air is a standard assumption in climate models and climate politics. Despite the big uncertainty of its feasibility. Speculative interventions in the reflectivity of the Earth also seem to be taking the step from computer models to open-air experiments. It raises the question: what to do with ‘geo engineering’? How should we respond to these proposals? Should there be a moratorium? Or can we allow experiments? And if we can, under which circumstances?

Journalistic approach

The debate on this is in its infancy. The journalistic approach has actually been the same for ten years already. Step 1: explain what geo engineering is, depending on the specific motivation. Step 2: tell what the risks are. Step 3: emphasise why renowned researchers still want research: the urgency of the climate crisis. Step 4: let proponents and opponents talk – with predictable and simplistic quotes. Proponents will state that global warming is so serious that we do not have the luxury to reject geo engineering. Opponents have a comparably simple story: climate manipulation is dangerous, undesirable and uncontrollable. Such research normalises dangerous interventions, and can also cause big political tensions. What is especially frightening is the possibility that such research will actually cause LESS convinced climate mitigation. Enough can be said for both opinions. Less for the simplistic exchange on stage.

It is time to really shape that debate. We need deeper analyses for that. Why are researchers at Harvard full of incomprehension about the resistance against their harmless experiment in Sweden, while scientists in Utrecht and Cambridge are angry about the same experiment? Why do some climate scientists state that research into ‘solar radiation management’ is simply necessary, while others see it as very unwise? That is a complicated question.


Behind the yes-no arguments of proponents and opponents, there are important differences of opinion. This dispute can roughly be understood as three ‘domains’: the physical, the political, the ethical. ‘Physical’ differences of opinion revolve around the question whether or not climate manipulation will do what it promises, and whether or not it reduces the risks of climate change. ‘Political’ differences of opinion revolve around who should control such technologies, and the question whether or not geo engineering is no guarantee for (violent) conflict. ‘Ethical’ questions revolve, often implicitly, around the question what the role of humans is in the bigger whole of Earth, universe, or divine creation – and around questions on justice among humans.

These questions are inseparably connected to each other and exactly that is what makes geo engineering so complicated. Is the question whether or not climate goals can be met without CO2 storage a technological or a political question? Is research into climate manipulation an overconfident attempt by Western scientists to ‘control’ the climate, a political power game, or is it the protection of vulnerable demographics?

Such story lines matter. If scientists see the climate as relatively ‘knowable’ and ‘predicable’, they will often see rejection of geo engineering as narrow-minded and unethical. If scientists see the political system as unwilling, geo engineering quickly becomes a distraction from mitigation.

The same concerns about climate

But still, the proponents and opponents of geo-engineering research meet at important intersections. They all share the concern over climate change. They are not climate deniers. The most staunch opponents are environmental organisations that call for much stronger mitigation – just like proponents. Second, both proponents and opponents are concerned about the political willingness for intervening measures. They just draw various conclusions from this. Within a few years, Dutch and European politics will have to take a position. In order to prevent that taking such a position only exchanges predictable visions (such as now with nuclear energy), it is time to put a scientific commission to work. Such a commission can properly categorise the many facets of geo engineering – physical, political AND ethical. So these frightening, and maybe necessary, technologies get the debate they deserve.

Jeroen Oomen is a researcher at the Urban Futures Studio, Department of Sustainable Development of Utrecht University. Recently, his book Imagining Climate Engineering: dreaming of the designer climate was published.

This blog was published on 17 February 2021 on the climate blog of the NRC. 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'.