Mark Lynas suggests we should, in our God-like way, try a little geo-engineering. It is, after all, an emergency. If there is a God, he could be some distance from Mr Lynas, because that’s not what ‘dominion’ means

Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, had an opinion piece in the Dominion Post last Thursday July 14, 2011 which I’ve copied at some length here, because it isn’t online.

On a planetary scale [he wrote], humans now assert unchallenged dominion over all living things. Our collective power already threatens or overwhelms most of the major forces of nature, from the water cycle to the circulation of major elements like nitrogen and carbon.

For the biosphere as a whole the Age of Humans has been a catastrophe. Our domestication of the planet’s surface to provide food and fuel has displaced all competing species to the margins. The Earth is now in the throes of its sixth mass extinction, the worst since the ecological calamity that wiped out the dinosaurs.

We need to recognise that we are now in charge — whether for good or ill — and to take conscious and collective decisions about how far we interfere with the planet’s natural cycles and how we manage our global-scale impacts. For the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence suggests that we are fast approaching the point where our interference in the planet’s great bio-geochemical cycles is threatening to endanger the system itself, and hence our own survival as a species.

Central to the standard Green creed is the idea that playing God is dangerous: hence the reflexive opposition to new technologies from splitting the atom to cloning cattle. My thesis is the reverse: playing God is essential, if creation is not to be irreparably damaged or even destroyed by humanity unwittingly deploying its new-found powers in disastrous ways. At this late stage, false humility is a more urgent danger than hubris [my emphasis].

He goes on to talk of “jettisoning some sacred cows”: anti-nuclear and GE-free.

Most Greens also emphatically object to geo-engineering — the idea that we could consciously alter the atmosphere to counteract climate change, for example by spraying sulphates high in the stratosphere to act as a sunscreen. But the objectors seem to forget that we are already carrying out massive geo-engineering every day, as a hundred million people step into their cars, a billion farmers dig their ploughs into the soil and 10 million fishermen cast their nets.

Geo-engineering could mean something as harmless as painting roads and roofs white. Or, filling the ocean with phytoplankton, cloud seeding to make rain, engineering plants so their leaves are lighter, putting mirrors into space to act as a sun shade — and my personal favourite, the one mentioned by Lynas, “fleets of aircraft [carbon-emitting fleets of aircraft?] continually spraying tons of reflective sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere”. Apparently, this is scientists’ first choice too.

There is scepticism and yet, momentum. This says scientists are "divided on the deployment of planetary-scale geo-engineering but united on the need for research – if only to show that many of the proposed schemes may be rubbish". In March, Kiwi scientists convened to talk about it, including how to manage it internationally.

Certainly [writes Lynas], deciding on something as epochal as intentional climatic geo-engineering would involve us in some awesome collective decisions, which we have only just begun to evolve the international governance structures to manage. But if we want the world of tomorrow to resemble the world of today, we will need to act fast.

Hm.

On the matter of geo-engineering in particular, I think the author might be a bit more interested in selling his new book than the idea. He tells us four facts, in an opinion-free zone.

In my opinion, that is not what ‘dominion’ means. I think it means using the gifts of knowledge and conscience and foresight, and choosing to act with restraint. Either way, global change is required, on a scale, with an urgency never before tried. We can choose to do more of the same: climate geo-engineering, deliberate not inadvertent this time. Or, we could just stop.

We could use the smarts we were given in a different way. Mark Lynas equates humility with not using them at all.

Never mind what it would mean, to play God. Let us be secular, and scientific. Geo-engineering is a big science experiment. Slowly, scientists proved that human-induced climate change was real. If I have a prayer, it’s that the same caution would be applied to its solutions. Especially the really stupid solutions.

How do you even research this stuff, without buggering up the control?

When was the answer to hubris more hubris?

You will call me a Luddite, perhaps. Well, I am not; but I would rather be that than a guinea pig.

Comments (8)

by SPM on July 18, 2011
SPM

I understand (from "Cool It") that some geo-engineering ideas, like the cloud spraying, are sort-of more last resort or time-gainers, rather than a first choice (like painting roofs white might be).  Also, I understood that the spraying was to be done from the sea, using some kind of solar-powered floating spraying-thing, that used sea-water, which would have the same or a similar effect. No doubt there's more work to be done but it doesn't seem like a good idea to discount good ideas.

 

by Claire Browning on July 18, 2011
Claire Browning

Oh, okay. Which party are you speaking (anonymously) on behalf of, so I know not to vote for you?

Also, the 'mad.scientist' thing? Totally justified.

by Tobias Barkley on July 18, 2011
Tobias Barkley

Just for the record Cool It was a film featuring a political scientist (Bjorn Lomborg - Professor at the Copehagen Business School) brainstorming ideas about global warming. If geo-engineering is ever implemented I hope its not by political scientists.

by SPM on July 19, 2011
SPM

Oh, okay.  I thought it was reasonable to discuss things raised in your item but I guess not.  I don't have anything to do with NZ politics or political scientists and if brainstorming ideas is not welcome then I suppose this will be the second and last post I ever make on any of your posts.

by Claire Browning on July 19, 2011
Claire Browning

Yes, well I deserved that, and I apologise.

Tobias, on the other hand, offers the sort of comment we like on Pundit: courteous, and substantive.

by Simon on July 20, 2011
Simon

Mark Lynas hit a high point when he put a cream pie in Bjorn Lomborg's face at a book launch for <i>The Skeptical Environmentalist</i> (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOg8IqkS4PA).

Since then, his views and analysis just have not resonated.

 

by Frank Macskasy on July 20, 2011
Frank Macskasy

I wonder if anyone has picked up on a little point in this matter...

I wonder Clamate change deniers - especially those who vehemently deny anthropogenic global warming  - support geo-engineering, as outlined by Mark Lynas?

Because if so, they've just admitted that humans are capable of altering the planet's environment by our collective actions.

Sprung!

On the point of Mark Lynas' suggestion to geo-engineer our environment: I hold grave fears for any such plan. On so many levels, this is ringing alarm bells with me.

1. Do we have the wisdom; the scientific knowledge; and the complete understanding of Earth's inter-related systems? Would we know what we're doing?

Or, would it be like the person who has a passing knowledge of a computer; encounters a problem; takes the computer apart; and "fixes" whatever he thinks went wrong. Only to find out he's just thrown away a vital componant, or cross-wired the fan into the motherboard, or somesuch. *Zzzap!*

2. The technology of geo-engineering confers an awesome power on whichever nation(s) wield it. The term "godlike" is almost a euthemism. It would ultimately be the ultimate weapon if used in a localised manner, against someone we didn't like.

3. The power of public opinion. Sorry folks, but after so many recent mass-hysterias, my opinion of public opinion has plummetted.  Governments can be beholding to so many vested interests - and a government that faces re-election every X years will always have one eye on opinion polls.

Imagine if we needed less rain in a given area. Imagine if the farmers in that area found that their crops; their farms; and their livelihoods would end up down the gurglar? Then imagine the  media showing images of kids playing in dust-bowls, and reporting despondent farmers lamenting the passing of their once-fertile land?

Or imagine needing more rain over a popular holiday resort - especially one frequented by the Rich & Powerful?

Ok, maybe geo-engineering cannot be localised in quite the manner I'm suggesting. Changing the CO2/methane levels in our atmosphere isn't something achieved by a mad scientist's Weather Ray machine.

But questions remain.

And if we get it wrong - End Game. We have nowhere to go. No Plan B. No lifeboat.

If we're capable of geo-engineering, perhaps we should try looking at the causes of AGW: the emission of greenhouse gases.

Far safer, I think.

by Gary Cranston on July 23, 2011
Gary Cranston

As far as I can see, geoengineering is already being inadvertantly promoted by many parts of the environmental movement here in Aotearoa. Biochar production on a global scale is geoengineering, as is growing GE trees specifically for carbon sequestration [lets not forget that carbon sinks were only introduced into the UN to get heavy emmitters who knew they would nake a killing from carbon credits and fiddle their carbon accountancy to sign up to Kyoto]. Both of these technologies, to name only two of them are now being promoted as 'cleantech'. Some of the companies behind these trojan horse technologies seeking approval by liberal type environmentalist and geeky green policy makers are very close to the Pure Advantage / Cleantech business leaders group. One of them, Scion, the company growing GE trees in Rotorua has a chairman on the ETS review panel, and the Biochar lobby is all over the place spreading their disinformation, selective studies and lobbying for carbon market support both here in NZ and at a UN level. You're right Claire... we do need to stop. Theres some good reading on geoengineering at the ETC group website. ETC got the UN to place a moratorium on geoengineering at the last biodiversity COP, that geoengineering meeting in Wellington hosted by the Royal Society was an attempt to identify peoples concerns about geoengineering so they can be picked off one by one and the likes of the Royal Society, who are a big player in the pro geoengineering debate can move forward past this moratorium. [ETC group report: Geopiracy: the case against geoengineering http://www.etcgroup.org/en/node/5217] [Campaign website: www.handsoffmotherearth.org]

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