Climate Change Denial

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June 2, 2009


George Marshall @ 3:32 pm

adam-corner-resizedDr Adam Corner argues that geo-engineered solutions to climate change are ‘capitalism’s ultimate parlour trick….an impressive leap from a desperate denial of the causes of climate change, to a triumphant denial of the consequences’

In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein joined the dots between the commercial manufacture of military weaponry, the marketing of anti-flu pandemic drugs and the foreign construction firms drafted in to rebuild Iraq – three happy projects bound by the shared philosophy of ‘disaster capitalism’. It may be time to add another enterprising scheme to this rather opportunistic programme of panic-driven profit making: Geo-engineering – the intentional, large-scale manipulation of the earth and its ecosystems in response to human-caused climate change.

In an impressive leap from a desperate denial of the causes of climate change, to a triumphant denial of the consequences, frontier capitalism may have stumbled across its best idea yet. The loose band of technologies that offer the mouth-watering prospect of engineering our way out of the climate crisis are straight out of science fiction, yet are being taken seriously by scientists and investors alike.

Schemes vary from injecting the atmosphere with sulphate particles to induce cooling, to fertilising algal blooms with iron filings to cause increased CO2 sequestration, to chemically ‘scrubbing’ CO2 out of the air. As the Royal Geographical Society  event on geo-engineering last week link showed, many are seduced by science that dangles the carrot of a technological fix to climate change in front of their noses.

The event provided a fascinating window into the way in which geo-engineering is currently perceived by the scientific community. Professor David Keith link…, a keen advocate (although far from an evangeliser) of geo-engineering called for a responsible, measured research programme into the possibilities of geo-engineering. The problem with this proposal, however, is that even toying with the idea of geo-engineering opens a Pandora’s Box of climatic and socio-political uncertainty. As the Greenpeace scientist Dr Paul Johnston noted at the same event, even the most elementary research into geo-engineering will involve real-world experiments with the global commons.

Jim Thomas, campaigner with the Canadian ETC Group has observed that if control over this global commons appears even remotely feasible, international conflict will inevitably ensue link… . Environmental scientists like David Keith are undoubtedly well-meaning in their pursuit of technological solutions to climate change, but their research does not take place in a vacuum – it is conducted in a world that is defined by a deeply unsustainable and inequitable socio-economic system.

What hope is there that geo-engineering will be benignly applied for the greater good? Will the consent of the developing world be sought when we conduct our climatic experiments with their natural resources? Will we share our new found knowledge with everyone, or only those who can afford to buy our patented designs?

As philosophers like John Gray have repeatedly observed, an unwavering faith in human progress often amounts to little more than a secular replacement of religious fervour. In response to accusations that that geo-engineering research would involve taking unprecedented risks with the planet’s fragile eco-system, Professor David Keith replied “This isn’t 1750” – the implication being that while pre-industrial revolution scientists did not foresee the consequences of their actions, today’s crop of experts are too wise to act so carelessly. But while few in the environmental science community would seek to take unquantifiable risks with the climate, there is a hardy band of disaster capitalists that would happily take the risk for them.

Worryingly, several experiments with algal blooming have been driven by commercial pressure from companies keen to sell credits into the emerging carbon-trading market. Never mind that artificial algal blooms are yet to deliver any proven CO2 reductions – large scale geo-engineering projects could be capitalism’s ultimate parlour trick: The design and manufacture of machines, on which we ultimately become dependent, to neutralise the waste produced by a society of consumption-driven economic growth. The lure of geo-engineering – colonic irrigation for the planet – is almost irresistible. What if it worked – what if we really could scrub the skies of carbon, and without having to reduce our carbon emissions?

Unfortunately, the question of technical proficiency is a red herring. We know we can design technologies that can alter the climate – that’s the problem we’re trying to solve. The more important issue is whether we can engineer our way out of trouble in a way that does not exacerbate existing inequalities. Tackling climate change is perhaps the most critical test of our commitment to social justice we will ever encounter – what could be more fundamental than the intentional management and division of the earth’s natural resources?

But unless significant changes in how scientific knowledge is shared and distributed are achieved, geo-engineering simply cannot address climate change in an equitable way. To believe that the unprecedented power of geo-engineering will not be wielded by the rich and the powerful at the expense of the weak and the vulnerable is more than simply wide-eyed techno-optimism: It amounts to a comprehensive denial of political reality.

Dr Adam Corner is a Research Associate in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University. His research focuses on the public understanding of science and the communication of climate change. He write regularly for his blog

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