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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  1. markr says:

    The near future has been well-laid out for humankind–business as usual at any cost, even self-destruction. The imperative of self-advancement does not allow for grimly sensible communal sacrifice to mitigate our oncoming self-induced disaster. Cars will become electric hybrids, because plugging into an already-existing electrical supply created by coal-fired power plants (in the US)is the easiest solution. Coal production will increase to supplant decreases in oil supplies.
    Carbon cap and trade is already a proven lie, and those theoretical third-world preserves cannot be saved from petty greed and an impulse by “developed” nations to co-opt such land for biofuel production (another boondoggle, but…).
    If the environmental crisis is brought about by human destructiveness, then geo-engineering will only exacerbate and accelerate the destruction, for the preservation of wealth and power of the entrenched at the expense of us all.

  2. Charlton Heston says:

    Soylent Green is People!

  3. Anthony says:

    Sooner or later we are going to panic and do geo engineering, probably with disastrous results. Geo engineering proposals must be studied so that we can avoid the worst results.

    Even knowing that there will be adverse consequences it will happen.

  4. The Manhattan Project did not foresee the awful radiation consequences of the atomic bomb.

  5. Paul says:

    This is what happens when you induce people to panic – when your ‘green’ agenda takes precedence over your socio-political agenda. By connecting all the ills of the world (which are and have always been the result of a our global ‘socio-economic system’) you are actually distracting us from the ‘inequitable system’ towards the simpler ‘unsustainable system’ (your words).

    Every person that claims malaria to be the result of climate change, ignores the fact that malaria is open to being wiped out, given the correct measures. The panic in the current approach ensures that no action will be taken.

    Those that will bugger our planet will be the best intentioned idiots with their geo-engineering projects. We are rapidly going back to a world where we see ourselves at the centre. Geo-engineering is part of this dangerous ideology.

  6. Ben Kalafut says:

    Leading off with invocation of a discredited and slanderous book by conspiracy theorist Naomi Klein is a great way to lose an audience. That’s as bad as invoking Milloy, Balling or Singer, and for the same reasons.

  7. Derek Wall says:

    Ben, shouting at Naomi Klein is not really an argument is it,

  8. Jon Turney says:

    A couple of questions…
    “The more important issue is whether we can engineer our way out of trouble in a way that does not exacerbate existing inequalities.”
    I’m sympathetic to that, but is there an argument for why it is more important? Or do we just have to acceot it as assertion?
    “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.”
    This is, I suppose, a generic argument against any powerful new technology? One could substitute “biofuels” or “synthetic biology” here, yes?

  9. Adam Corner says:

    Jon – thanks for your comments…

    1. Im not sure that I understand your first question – you’re asking for some reasons why exacerbating inequality is a bad thing?

    It seems to me that while not everyone in the world would subscribe to utilitarianism, most coherent ideologies that can stand up to moral scrutiny do not aim to increase human inequality…yet, in a laissez-faire capitalist economy, intoxicated with grand visions of techno-dominance, supposedly ‘revolutionary’ technological advances turn out to be exactly the opposite: very unrevolutionary tools of maintaining or widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Simply plugging new technology into a world order that is riddled with inequality is unlikely to be a panacea for anything. So, I suppose my point is that perhaps a world dominated by profit-seeking multinationals is NOT a coherent ideology that can stand up to moral scrutiny…and throwing geoengineering into the mix is only going to make things worse

    2. Yes, the arguments I make could be formulated against almost any new major technological advance – but geoengineering is special in the sense that it is being framed as the ‘solution’ to the biggest ‘problem’ we have: climate change. Nanotechnology, synthetic biology, biofuels etc etc all have their social and ethical risks attached, and many of them overlap with geoengineering. But while there is always a ‘pull’ with developing new technology, there is an added ‘push’ with geoengineering.

  10. […] In contrast, this article from the Climate Change Denial website suggests that such projects represent denial of climate change on a global scale. […]

  11. Ian says:

    As you know, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are already way too high. We need to throw everything we have at climate change at this stage. Radical emissions cuts, energy supply and demand cuts, renewables, and perhaps also geo-engineering. While I wouldn’t endorse any barely-scientific leaps of folly, it would be wrong to oppose these technological aides on ideological grounds, just as it would be wrong to support geo-engineering on the belief that it would make the continuation of the status quo possible.

  12. Tor says:

    I think you are very wrong on many of the things you say in this post. I higly recommend you to read this article: It’s a bit long, but contains a lot of interesting and important information about geoengineering.

  13. Milan says:

    I think there is a role for geoengineering research, to be used in a last resort desperate scenario. If large amounts of methane start being released from the permafrost or methane clathrates, we would be facing devastating runaway warming.

    In that case, we would want to know whether some sort of geoengineering approach could stop the slide into self-amplifying feedbacks.

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