Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Geo-engineering: Clamping a Lid on a Boiling Pot

The irony is worthy of a Noel Coward play. If it weren't so frightening, it would be worth a good guffaw.

Defenders of the fossil patch have gone from accusing climate science of being incapable of producing reliable predictions, to arguing that we can "geo-engineer" our way out of this problem. So on the one hand, climate science is an immature, complicated and unreliable science. On the other, we are capable of controlling the entire global ecosystem, essentially forever, by engineering temperature-reducing solutions and controlling the outcome.

The underlying paradox hints at other motivations. Like defending business-as-usual whatever the cost, including intellectual dishonesty. Like pretending we are not in a pile of trouble. Like wanting to stick your head in the sand.

Geo-engineering means treating the global climate system like a machine, one that you can not just predict, but actually control. But it's more like trying to clamp a lid on a pot of boiling water. As the water heats up, you need to clamp the lid on tighter and tighter. Forever. This is not a a solution, this is hubris. And yet another excuse not to deal with the root causes, to do the real work that needs to be done.

Bjorn Lomborg, director of the "Copenhagen Consensus Center", has successfully put geo-engineering front and center just in time for COP15. The argument is that it's cheaper to control global temperatures - by putting reflective dust in the upper atmosphere, or increasing cloud cover over the oceans - than it is to reduce our carbon footprint.

It's true geo-engineering is cheap: it's often cheaper to suppress symptoms than to deal with underlying causes. It's also true that we'll probably need some sort of geo-engineering: we're far too late to the climate reducing game to avoid some level of temperature increase.

But geo-engineering is a dangerous distraction from the main event. Committing ourselves to a future in which we are responsible for artificially controlling the temperature of an enormously complicated system, replete with feedback mechanisms, is Faustian madness. It brings to mind a skidding car, when the driver over-compensates by trying to steer in the other direction. The result is an uncontrollable spin.

What geo-engineering might do is give us a bit more time. But it is no reason not to act on the carbon front.

We are in deep trouble. Let's not pretend geo-engineering abdicates us of our responsibility to deal with it.