Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Geoengineering: the only way to stop not slow Global Warming

Emissions reductions are also needed, but by themselves they cannot achieve their goal
by Ira Straus
Chair, Center for War-Peace Studies


There are two basic plans for responding to global warming: emissions reductions alone, and geoengineering alongside emissions reductions.

Geoengineering -- blocking up to 2% of incoming sunlight -- was the main plan for dealing with global warming in the Federal Science report of 1965. However, a few years later the New Left Movement, with its ideological orientations against technology and the West, captured environmentalism. It excluded geoengineering from the global warming discussion, which came to be confined exclusively to cutting greenhouse emissions.



The original environmental movement of the early 1900s had had a balance between conservative and liberal conservationists. Since the late 1960s, the dominant environmentalism has been one that spoke a Movement language, deploring the industrial capitalist world of the West with its global power and its technological systems (fossil fuels and nuclear) for powering domestic society, and praising other societies as more natural and environmental.

Geoengineering is, almost inevitably, the once and future plan for stopping global warming. However, emissions cutting, after decades of exclusive domination of the public discourse, has come to call itself Plan A, relegating geoengineering to an unspoken Plan B. The two plans are, in brief:

  • Plan A: Cut net emissions to zero-minus.
  • Plan B: Solar geoengineering -- block a fraction of incoming sunlight -- alongside the emissions reductions.

Plan B could stop and reverse global warming within a limited timeframe. Plan A is not projected by its proponents to stop either the global warming or its feedback loops, but some advocate ramping up its costs considerably in the hope of eventually doing so.

Both plans have geopolitical consequences.  Plan A discriminates against the West and weakens it globally; Plan B seeks to avoid regionally discriminatory effects and is, interestingly, blamed for not disadvantaging the West. Plan A has been formulated for the West to provide a kind of leadership, but in the sense of leadership in harming itself. Plan B would in most versions also have the West provide a global leadership, but one that is directed against the warming not against itself.

Plan A has been deliberately geopolitical. Its commitments on financing and reductions have been tilted to weaken the West and strengthen the South, with the stated motivation that this would be eco-justice. Plan B, while geopolitically neutral insofar as it is pursued for its primary objective, could also be tilted by whatever entities take the lead on it.

Plan A is, let me state up front, unrealistic and unviable. It can never achieve its goal of stopping the warming. It is in fact regularly described as failing by its own proponents. Many of them advocate upping the ante on it, but their own projections on what would be sufficient to stop global warming would be so expensive and socially disruptive as to be doomed to fail. They would literally go up in flames.

Plan B is minimally expensive and disruptive. It is estimated in a recent mainstream scientific article at $2 billion a year.

Plans A and B together: favored by geoengineers, refused by many emitters

I have contrasted these plans for clarity, as if they were opposing ones. In reality, there is no reason for them to be opposing. They can be readily combined. They most probably will be combined, since geoengineering is needed to provide time for emissions reductions to succeed.

Geoengineering proponents have almost always advocated combining the two plans. They see a near-term need to geoengineer sunlight reductions and to continue reducing emissions, so that the emissions levels can move in a longer term to net negative and bring reductions in the actual global atmospheric carbon level. They point to obvious statistical facts that show that geoengineering is the only way to buy the time needed for reducing the atmospheric carbon level, without passing tipping points in the meantime that would overpower the effects of the slight lessening of carbon increases along the way. Were Plan A to accept this supplement, it would no longer have to be self-defeating in this way.

However, the dominant Plan A proponents have refused such help from geoengineering. Many of them, including famously President Macron, have resorted to a rhetorical line, at once dogmatic and self-refuting, for this purpose: “There is no Plan B on global warming.” This serves as a way of rejecting any discussion of the very real Plan B, without letting listeners in on what Plan B actually is. It is as if there is a fear that people might, if they heard about Plan B, see good sense in it.
The dogmatism in the name of Plan A has kept Plan A on a path to fail. It has prevented anything better, including any altered supplemented version of itself, from getting considered seriously.
The inherently insufficiency of Plan A for stopping warming is compounded by its political unviability. It has suffered repeated, explicit rejection by the U.S. This rejection has had a mix of reasons, the main ones of which are good and not to be dismissed as deplorable. This happened long ago when the Senate, with a remarkable 95 to 0 vote, rejected in advance the basic trend of the Kyoto Protocol that was then under negotiation. It happened again when President Trump’s withdrew from the Paris accord, which his predecessor did not even submit to the Senate for the inevitable rejection.

When the Senate rejected Kyoto, it stated its reason: that Kyoto was skewed against the West, and was doomed to fail to achieve its goal for the very reason that it exempts China and the developing world from the commitments it imposes on the West. Two decades later, President Trump has indicated the same basic reason against Paris -- that it is an unfair deal for the U.S. and advantages China -- even if sometimes couching this in words about global warming itself being a Chinese fraud.

However, the U.S. has not yet broken the taboo on putting forward a Plan B, geoengineering, or its combination with Plan A.

The Plan A advocates can claim much of the credit for this failure. It is a tribute to the force of their efforts to keep geoengineering out of the discussion. It is a pyrrhic victory, one that keeps their own plan on a path to failure.
Fortunately the barriers to Plan B are beginning to break down. And none too soon.

Plan B Rising: Geoengineering belatedly creeps back into the mainstream

For decades, people have known that geoengineering is out there but mostly kept mum about it. Those scientists who advanced it got little space for it in the dominant discourse venues. It was actively demonized in Movement spaces and in academic discourse spaces. These spaces do much to shape the thinking of journalists. The mainstream media followed suit by mostly excluding discussion of geoengineering.

Then, suddenly, in November 2018 it was all over the mainstream media. And briefly acknowledged as almost inevitable.

It was a good thing that public discussion has begun on geoengineering. It is a matter of some urgency to revive it, and with it, start thinking through the real options for stopping global warming.
Indeed, it is long overdue -- a matter of remedial urgency. The “it” has for years been ruled out of discussion, often without mentioning what the “it” is. This produced the lengthy delay in discussion and preparation, adding greatly to our risks. The line that “there is no Plan B on global warming” has done more than hide what it is denying; it has served to erect a kind of public mental block against thinking about any alternative to the official emissions-reduction plan. This leaves only one option to the mind: to double down still harder on the same plan when it proves inadequate. Its logical conclusion, as it never reaches actual adequacy, is to keep escalating until it reaches a point of hysteria.

Beneath the silence treatment, however, the ideological workshops of the intelligentsia and media have generated a whole slew of arguments against geoengineering. These have run the gamut: from the ad hominem (“it’s mad scientists who want this”, “it’s supported by global warming deniers”), to the conspiracy theories (“it’s a DOD plot to commit genocide”, “it’s a globalist plot to set up a world government”), to the otherwise-legitimately cautionary (“it’s too risky”, “it hasn’t been researched well enough”, “it will have side-effects that we can’t be sure of”), to the geopolitical (“if we do it everyone will start doing it and we’ll have climate wars”), to the “deep” or fundamentalist ecologism (“it means more f---ing with Mother Nature and the whole problem is that we’ve been f---ing with Mother Nature”).

These arguments cannot in my estimation withstand examination. The deep ecology argument line about “f---ing Mother Nature” is irrelevant, although enormously influential, a fact that should itself be a warning sign that something is badly wrong in the collective mind of the Movement. The ad hominem line is also irrelevant, and self-contradictory at that: if “global warming deniers” are advocating geoengineering against global warming, they can’t really be global warming deniers, can they?

The cautionary concerns on side-effects and risks are different; they are “otherwise legitimate”, i.e., they would be legitimate except for the way they tend to be used. They get used dogmatically as if they constituted a priori conclusions against geoengineering, a use that is an abuse: it is logically insupportable. Without that misuse, they would be valid and constructive concerns. These concerns not only require attending to when proceeding on geoengineering; they are a large part of the motivation for geoengineering research. In point of fact, geoengineering researchers and proponents consistently give attention to these concerns.
Unfortunately, the illegitimate form is the more frequent one. They are rarely posed in the context that any thinking person knows to be necessary for reaching a valid conclusion on any matter: the comparative context.

The question that has to be asked about all policy options, and that normally is asked, is this: Is it better or worse than the alternatives? To which, as we shall see, the answer for geoengineering is, “Yes, it is better than all alternatives that are based on not doing it at all. It is less risky than all those alternatives”. Significantly, it was the mere posing of this question, quite belatedly, after global warming had grown dangerously after decades of neglect of geoengineering, that finally broke down barriers to public discussion of the option. Also significantly: the question had to be posed by scientists of the highest credentials, in order to get past the barriers, and even then only some of the barriers actually gave way.

The comparative safety of geoengineering, compared to the alternative and to further delay, is by now a strong general conclusion. It is by now quite possibly less dangerous than delay even were it to be implemented almost immediately, without further careful preparation. It is quite a bit more certainly true when one adds the other elementary point of context for any emerging scientific and technological policy: that further research and testing, which is what every geoengineering scientist actually advocates, can improve it and greatly reduce the risks. Timely and iterative implementation, to be sure, is also risk-reductive, compared to a last-ditch desperation implementation of it. All projections of implementation are in fact iterative; the technology inherently would be used on a beginning scale and, with time experience and corrective adaptations, scaled up.
Also risk-reductive is supplementation of geoengineering with emissions reductions. By this I mean pragmatic emissions reductions, no longer radical, exclusive, sacralized, or done in catastrophe mode. When done in the catastrophe style, emissions reductions can be even more risky than last-minute hastily-done geoengineering would be.

The arguments against geoengineering, thus, are all either plainly misplaced, in some cases beating on an open door, or are simply legitimate concerns to be addressed while proceeding with it rather than truly arguments against it.

Why have such weak arguments remained so influential against geoengineering, to the point of being able to enforce for decades a silence treatment on the subject? I can see two explanations. First, they fit in with a sensibility that is predominant in our leading subcultures, whose environmentalism is an outgrowth of that of the Movement. Second, the very fact of heading off public discussion of geoengineering has served, in a self-perpetuating vicious circle, to shield the anti-geoengineering arguments from critical examination.

It is a normal phenomenon in all fields that a privileging of the arguments on one side of a subject is likely to lead them to coalesce into a closed or vicious circle of argumentation. Mutual approbation gets coupled with deploral of contrary views. Mental blocks develop.

This is what happened with the arguments against geoengineering. It would be hard not to give them credit of a sort: they have succeeded in delaying public discussion of geoengineering, depressing the needed research and testing of it, and setting back by several decades the prospects for timely and well prepared use of geoengineering. In so doing, they have considerably exacerbated the main environmental risk to humanity, the very risk for which they profess concern: runaway warming.
Then in November 2018 something changed. It was as if public reason had broken through the barriers.

Growing acknowledgment of the failure of emissions controls; geoengineering enters the breach

The recent progress in getting geoengineering discussed was due at root to the growing pressures of reality. Mainstream sources have been emphasizing for some time that global warming costs and consequences have already begun playing out at devastating cost. And maintaining with some fervor that their own official anti-emissions plan is proving dangerously inadequate. This has made it a plainly risky thing to continue limiting the discussion to those plans and avoiding geoengineering.
Despite this, the proponents of the existing policies and plan, including many a leading national and international official, have almost all called merely for upping the ante still further on those plans, not for stepping outside them to think through and prepare for acting on the geoengineering supplementation that is needed. This, despite the further fact that their very calculations, used for calling for upping the ante, indicate that the emissions reduction approach would remain inadequate even were it to be ramped up radically. The psychological mechanisms of denial and doubling down have been at work.

In fact, even were atmospheric carbon levels to be somehow miraculously stabilized immediately, it would not be enough. This is due to the feedback loops that have already been long in play: ocean warming increases water vapor (the strongest greenhouse gas) and melts polar ice (making the earth less reflective, more heat-absorptive); the permafrost warms and melts, releasing methane. The feedback loops would continue causing a further global temperature rise, even were there to be an immediate arrival at net zero human emissions. Carbon stabilization alone cannot bring climate stabilization.

Given these feedback loops, only a sustained lowering of the global temperature could bring a subsequent restabilization of that temperature. And only geoengineering can achieve this lowering.
What a radical doubling down against emissions could realistically accomplish, however, would be to drive economies into ruin and set countries aflame. More carbon emissions could come from the flames of riot than the ones prevented by the anti-emissions policy. The emissions controls would get dropped as people refocused on immediate needs of survival and restoring society. We have already seen this begin to play out in France. The “Yellow Vests” protests and riots began as a reaction against Macron’s increase in the gas tax, in turn something that Macron called for as a part of ramping up the anti-emissions program.

These riots are only a small foretaste of where it would be likely to take us, if we got much further into ruining economies in the name of a plan that wouldn't stop global warming anyway. The “Green New Deal”, put forward by the new cutting edge left in Congress and endorsed in a general way by the rest of the congressional Democratic Party, is a full-catastrophe plan, at once utopian and dystopian. Its costs verge on the unlimited. It that would have far more severe socially disruptive consequences than France has experienced. Its critics on the Right say it would require a dictatorship to enforce it; while I think chaos a more probable consequence, I have to acknowledge that some of its proponents on the Left, including a Sanders campaign staffer, in fact advocate dictatorship to carry it through.

Chaos feeds on itself; restoring order is harder than averting it. The potential for public chaos can go very high indeed, when economies are being seriously damaged by a government that is acting on ideological grounds that it proclaims with a blind enthusiasm.

A sound policy has to be realistic in both senses: the sense of working if tried, and the sense of being politically and sociologically viable enough to get sustained if tried. It is not sound if it can make only a minor difference in relation to its goal, and leads meanwhile to public chaos.

It should be evident by now that the exclusive anti-emissions policy is unsound in both senses. Geoengineering is the only way to stop and reverse global warming.

The public relaunch of geoengineering

In 2006, Paul Crutzen wrote a scientific article on geoengineering that made a major splash. Perhaps this was because it was impossible to dismiss him as a global warming denier, or even as not supporting emissions reductions strongly enough. He had excellent scientific credentials at both the Department of Atmospheric Chemistry at the Max-Planck-Institute for Chemistry and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California.

Some have described this article as the beginning of a real discussion of the subject. However, the discussion got quickly driven underground again. Much could be understood about our problem, were we to figure out why. Why did it require a person of such high credentials, to get a willingness on the part of publishers and readers to entertain sometimes obvious responses to sometimes obvious logical holes in the by-then encrusted anti-geoengineering argumentation? What were the methods by which the public discussion, after a promising beginning, went back into shutdown, in this case and others? Why did these methods come into play at all?

I suspect that we all instinctively can come up with several probable answers to these questions. I will not give my own, but simply point out here that these are important questions. It is an important survival need of humanity, for us to get beyond the point of freely accepting and recirculating illogical arguments that come from an anti-geoengineering standpoint, while having a hard time of absorbing more logical supportive arguments for geoengineering.

In 2017, Wallace Smith Broecker, the oceanographer who first coined the phrase “global warming”, punctured the fa├žade of monolithic faith in the anti-emissions program as the focus and sole answer on global warming. He showed simply enough that the dominant view, which he shared, of the seriousness of the warming problem also meant that the present approach to dealing with it was unserious. He called for focusing also and urgently on geoengineering as the inevitable way we will have to go to arrive at a serious policy.

Broecker gave an important interview on this in The New York magazine in July 2017  (http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/07/man-who-coined-global-warming-on-worst-case-scenarios.html). It garnered a lot of comments and raised eyebrows, but did not yet give rise to a serious discussion. Most of the response was just to denounce it as a scandalous breaking of Movement ranks.

Nevertheless, it was a breach in the wall of silence around geoengineering. It prepared the ground.
In the last two months of 2018, something like the beginning of serious discussion finally arose. There was a spate of relatively fair-minded segments on the major media about geoengineering. Not perfectly fair-minded; that was not possible after decades of angry dogmatic dismissal of geoengineering. The media discussion of it was certainly not blindly supportive, much less adulatory in the way that has been seen repeatedly in the media segments on cutting emissions. Nevertheless, it was remarkably fair by contrast with previous discussion.

This discussion was spurred by another article on the subject in a scientific journal. It was a peer-reviewed study in Environmental Research Letters. The study was conducted by a team of researchers, among them Dr. Gernot Wagner of Harvard, for many years an economist at the Environment Defense Fund.

This article did finally seem for a time to break through the mental blocks against consideration of geoengineering.

To be sure, the old mental blocks were deeply entrenched. They still came slowly back into play, as they did after the earlier breach in the silence in 2006.

Nevertheless, the discussion cycle started at the end of 2018 has left a mark. It helped that the ramparts against it had been weakened in 2017 by the pressures of reality. They were truly breached in 2018. A spate of reasonable accounts of geoengineering poured through in the major media. The discussion was after that mostly dropped again, yet the impression it made has not entirely disappeared. It remains in our hands to resume the discussion, or to drop the ball again.

A Primer on Climate Geoengineering

The main climate geoengineering options fall into two basic categories: Carbon Removal (removal from the atmosphere of greenhouse gases) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM). Of the two, SRM is the only one that can address the problem adequately in this era.

Within the SRM category, in turn, Stratospheric Aesorsol Injection (SAI), blocking up to 2% of sunlight with aerosols, is as yet the only plausible this-era solution, for reasons both economic and technological. More advanced methods will almost certainly come later, such as space mirrors to block sunlight -- and adjustable to function as a global thermostadt -- but their financial feasibility is likely to come only some technological generations down the road.

The numbers on emissions and carbon levels show that reality is pressing upon us. After all the anti-emissions policies, carbon emissions are still going up, not down, on the global level. Please note the full meaning of this: New emissions are not just continuing to increase the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, but the annual amount of the new emissions themselves continues to increase. This, despite the successful technological developments in America that have reduced emissions, and despite the costly efforts in European countries to try to reduce them somewhat still further. These efforts are outweighed by the emissions increases elsewhere in the world. As non-Western countries grow economically, global energy demand grows with them. Non-Western emissions are growing faster than Western ones can be reduced. They will continue doing so under existing plans, even under the revised ramped up forms of existing plans, indeed under almost any scenario. The widely favored renewables, despite making much progress in shelf price, cannot make up the difference due to other costs, including their own environmental costs. The expensive reduction plans are inherently inadequate. And, once again, we must remember that even if global emissions finally begin to go down, and even if later they get to net zero, that still will not be enough to stop, much less reverse, global warming. It will simply leave a too-high level of carbon in the atmosphere. The feedback loops will continue to operate, including the release of methane sinks, intensifying the problem probably more rapidly than benign trends (carbon and methane falling out of the atmosphere) can lessen it.

When are drastic emissions reductions likely to finally begin on the global level? Probably only when we develop and make major use of new nuclear energy technologies, eventually fusion. We must work toward that but cannot wait for that. Until then, we need to dial back the temperature in order to gain the time to get to fusion. SRM geoengineering is the only thing that can do that.
Generations still later, atmospheric carbon removal will become viable. This is likely to remain needed for ceasing and reversing the dealkalinization (acidification) of the oceans, no matter how successful geoengineering proves in dealing with the warming itself. Local seas can be realkalinized by local geoengineering, but as yet there is no viable known way to get to doing this in the larger ocean spaces except through global atmospheric carbon removal. While the latter is also as yet unviable, it will become promising if efficient fusion energy is achieved.

The immediate need: greatly stepped up research, testing, and development of geoengineering

Geoengineering has been compared by some of its reluctant advocates to a Hail Mary pass: a desperation play that has been made necessary by our getting to -- and past -- crisis points in global warming. The arguably desperation style in it, however, is due to the fact that it has not been sufficiently discussed, researched, developed, tested, and prepared in good time. That in turn is due to the same ideological sensibilities that have created the mental blocks to the public discussion of it and the road blocks to scientific work and funding on it.

Over the decades considerable geoengineering work has been done nonetheless at a few of the West’s highest universities. It is still not sufficient. It also has an almost lethargic air. Lethargy is something that naturally invades the spirit of research and depresses it, in such conditions as that the research is treated as disreputable work by the larger intellectual community, is only barely tolerated in that community, and is not feeding a public space that is giving serious consideration to implementation of its results, but rather into a public space that seems mostly consolidated against implementation.
This sorry situation can probably be corrected by decision-makers, but it will take courage. They themselves will have to breach the mental blocks and make decisions that get the discussion past the defenders of those blocks. They will need to proceed to fund the research and testing on a full scale, and help create a larger policy discussion context that is properly supportive and appreciative of the research. In other words, the leaders will need to themselves propel a political and intellectual discussion that is serious about wanting the research to succeed and provide a basis for implementing SRM.

The logic of American and Western leadership on geoengineering

Reality is impelling us morally to get on with geoengineering. In practice, humanity seems sure to get on with geoengineering either one way or the other: either by preparing well and acting in time, or by an unforeseen actor doing it in desperation when it’s already halfway too late. It seems obvious that, if “we” don't prepare to do geoengineering competently, then others will do it carelessly.
The “we” above means, approximately, the Western or OECD countries, acting in tandem with global organizations to ensure sufficient global consent and acceptance. The lead could be taken by the U.S., EU, Japan, or some combination of the three.

We “doing it” means: preparing geoengineering with more rapid and adequate research and testing than hitherto; agreeing on a plan of implementation, if the research results justify this; and working through agreement on it in wider international organizations.

“Others” here means other countries, or wealthy corporations and individuals, or social or religious groups or ideological movements with sufficient funds. Some of these “others” would do it, if “we” don’t, by whatever means they can find available -- distributing SO2 particles by a few old fashioned planes if they don’t have the megaplanes to distribute them widely, or by balloons, or just shooting them from the ground toward the stratosphere. There are already ideas and plans for these methods. Some of them really are half-baked. When non-Western countries get desperate enough from global warming, they won’t be as foolish as we have hitherto been, waiting for permission to do it from environmentalist Movement groups that are dead set against it.  They won’t have our misplaced taboos. They will also have fewer of our legitimate scruples. They are more likely than “we” to end up doing SRM in multiple separate national ways, mutually contradictory, and without much regard to making it fair for each other. Some, such as China, could be expected to do it with a definite view to enhancing their relative power in the world against other countries.

The current emergent level of thinking about geoengineering allows at least some hope that “we” will get on with researching and testing geoengineering fast enough and on a large enough scale. In that case, it will change from a Hail Mary pass into a skilled planned response, even if at a relatively later moment than it should have been. There will still be risks in it -- the arguments about the risks in it are not unfounded, just not framed in a rational comparative context -- but they will have become considerably less than the risks of not doing it, or of any other of the known approaches to the problem. And, tautologically, less than the risks of leaving it to be done in desperation without the preparation.


Governing the global thermostat

Governance of geoengineering requires more international organization and cooperation: both new or increased use of existing organizations, and new organizational creation. How much more is a matter that will need a lot of thinking as geoengineering progresses from initial SAI forms to more advanced forms.

Here we may be in luck, at least momentarily. The recent scientific articles indicate that the initial SAI form can be done in a realistic evolutionary way on the basis of current international structures. These would be used both to provide sufficient consultation and consent for proceeding with geoengineering, and to prevent multiple competing geoengineering deployments. Regulating and restricting technology is, to be sure, not easy. But it would remain just as necessary if we (the West) failed to take the lead in the development and deployment of geoengineering; and it would become more difficult in that case, for the same reasons as why it would be more dangerous.

The rule of thumb is that we should aspire to the maximum amount of international institutional capability development that we can achieve for regulating SRM, but should not delay SRM’s implementation to wait for a maximum; rather delay it only to the extent needed for achieving the minimum necessary degrees of consent and joint capability.

In the short run, the needed amount of increased joint global capability will be a function in part on how much technological advancement is needed for a country to develop and deploy the large aircraft that would be best for doing SAI well. Wagner argues that it is not as easy technically as earlier thought, because requiring some new aircraft development, although still quite affordable. He deduces that cooperative management to prevent competitive or chaotic geoengineering remains necessary but would not be as difficult or have to be as far-reaching as previously thought. This is true, to be sure, only for the short run, and only for doing it “well”; it does not guarantee against other actors doing it poorly and cheaply instead.

In a more medium run, the means to do SAI geoengineering will inevitably grow affordable to most nations, and for that matter to many large public organizations and corporations. Prices will come down, technologies will be more widely diffused, and financial capabilities will keep growing everywhere. This means there will come to be a need for stronger channels for joint regulation of SRM projects and prevention of competing ones.

In the long run, humanity, assuming it survives, is going to move on from SAI to more advanced methods of SRM such as adjustable space mirrors. This would create the equivalent of a global thermostadt. Again, that seems an inevitable outcome in the future. Our level of civilization will have both the ability to do global temperature stabilization and the need to do it. We no longer live in a society of a few million nomads worldwide with plenty of space to move around to as ice ages and flood ages come and go. We have vast amounts of hard-to-move populations and infrastructure. Global climate control is one of those things that we will no longer be able to afford not doing.
Space mirrors in turn will require strong joint management and regulation. One could reasonably argue that nothing short of a global government would be able to control them safely and prevent independent actors from using them for destruction.

Is a global government realistic? Plainly not in the short run, yet plainly it is also necessary. The verdict of the original standard-bearers of realism in America, Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans Morgenthau, was that world government is our ultimate inevitability and our ultimate impossibility. We have to do it, we can’t do it, and we can’t do without it.

Niebuhr and Morgenthau added, in their more careful moments, that what they really meant was, we can’t do it yet. We can’t create a viable world government in this era; it could even do more harm than good if attempted. And we can’t skip realistic power politics here and now in the illusion that we’re already creating a world government that will solve all the problems. They nevertheless advocated laying the groundwork for an eventual world government, by building functionalist structures for deeper cooperation, and building a global political community by doing more serious diplomacy. This has relevance today for how to manage the near-term stages of geoengineering.

Morgenthau also advocated, in his book In Defense of the National Interest, a hyper-realist power politics perspective put forward by Arnold Toynbee on how to get to world government: by eventually merging the de facto half-of-the-world governments led by America and the Soviet Union. This underestimated the community of values and the sociological commonality that is essential for an enduring community of power. It was only much later, for a brief period after 1989, that something like that might have happened: Gorbachev moved back toward the underlying pan-European and pan-Western community of values, and by the end he advocated a merger of the East and West blocs to build a Common European Home throughout the Helsinki area, or what Jacques Delors called the “Greater Europe” from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The world was still sufficiently dominated by the two sides, with clients throughout most of the rest of the world, that their merger into a greater West would have become a quasi-world government. But the merger did not take place. Gorbachev’s ideas were vague, the West didn’t make an effort to give them a viable form, and it did the same with Yeltsin, whose ideas were more consistent about joining the West but would still have required the West to come up with specific content for implementing it. The water has long since passed under the bridge. Russia and the West will not merge anytime soon into a common power. If their merger does some day take place, the world will have moved on far enough that it will fall quite short of a world government. Nevertheless, for governance of a Western-led SRM geoengineering that, as we have noted, does not at this stage need anything too close to a world government, it could help; it is worth noting that Russia is likely to be relatively supportive of this, unlike emissions-reductions programs which run opposite to its geoeconomic interests, and its technological and aviation contributions might be welcome.

Later, more true to actual realism, Morgenthau argued, in The Purpose of American Politics, that America must continue its organizing of the Western world in the quasi-union that has been providing the primary global leadership since 1946, in sometimes-tandem with the UN, and eventually that could become the core of a global quasi-union. Anything else, he wrote, would be a betrayal of America’s national interest.

This later perspective of Morgenthau’s has considerable relevance to organizing for governing geoengineering. American and Western leadership is the realistic way of proceeding with geoengineering. This means using two levels of cooperation: the relatively stronger West-West institutions, for coordinating the active implementation; and the global institutions, for consent diplomatically and setting global regulatory norms on geoengineering.

This two-level approach would also serve, inter alia, as a corrective to the political balance within the global institutions, so they would function more in keeping with the actual balance of capabilities globally, and be less influenced by anti-Western ideologies or less prone to policies calibrated at the expense of the West. This recalibration is, to be sure, often called a reason to avoid geoengineering; an argument that suggests that punishment of the West, not stopping global warming, is the operational motivation. I should wish therefore to underline that such a recalibration is actually desirable from a standpoint of justice, as well as being necessary from the pragmatic standpoint of escaping the politically debilitating effects of its discrimination against Western interests.
I am not suggesting that Western leadership and East-West and global cooperation on such a matter as geoengineering would bring us close to a world government in the near-term, as Morgenthau seemed to think. This might have been true in his time; today it would only reopen the door to thinking about how we might eventually get to such a goal. What I am suggesting, however, is that it is the way to move forward on the limited global governance that we have.

Public discussion is needed on both matters -- on geoengineering and on its global climate governance

It is easy to see how dangerous it would be to have competing space mirrors systems set up by mutually hostile national governments. And it is easy to see that, as technology advances, the capability for that will inevitably arrive. And that nations, if still sovereign and competing for power, will do geoengineering on their own if they do not have a strong joint authority that ensures it is done only jointly. The inevitability of geoengineering -- of the capacity for it and for its use -- provides one of the strongest arguments for world government.

This makes it something of a paradox that advocates of global government have mostly deferred to the subculture that focuses solely on emissions and opposes geoengineering. Damagingly, those who speak of “global governance” have mostly deferred to that same subculture. This has resulted in advocating, not joint global governance for doing geoengineering, but using the inefficiencies and unit-veto structures of global governance so as to obstruct the testing and development of geoengineering. It is a case of scoring an own-goal.

A global government, in order to manage space mirrors safely and be entrusted with not using them maliciously against opponents, would itself have to be a “good government”. It would have to be a lot better than the present global average of governments, many of which engage in killing a large number of their own people. Good government is not always in ready supply, there for the taking. Nor is the will to create any new global government at all in ready supply at present.

It used to be taken for granted by many futurists that we will have a global federal government by the time we do these vast things, so our emerging capabilities will not get turned into a thousand new kinds of instruments of mutual annihilation. That was the premise of Star Trek; its federation of planets was a metaphor for world federation. Not as many futurists make this assumption today; much of futurism and science fiction alike instead assume continued national and factional conflict and project it outward into the conquest of space. Some speak of a galactic balance of power and view this optimistically as benign, creating a concern for the opinion of other powerful species that will restrain every interstellar species from genocide of weaker ones. This perhaps reflects the “small is beautiful” sensibility of the post-1960s culture. It may be hoped that it will prove a temporary fashion and give way to a wiser sensibility.  That wiser one will be closer to the earlier one: the Aristotelian mean, which tells us that we must find a shifting pragmatic balance between our vast capabilities for affecting the world and our capabilities for jointly managing how we affect it. That kind of pragmatic, ever-evolving golden mean was the sensibility tested and proved over the course of thousands of years. If we are to make it to our future, we must recover it.

Fortunately, its future necessity does not mean that a world government is needed immediately for geoengineering purposes. A sufficient space mirror capability is a few technological generations down the road; an evolutionary path to its joint management is the most plausible path. But there will be a time when it becomes urgent, and one might reasonably be concerned that we will still not be ready for forming reliable joint management structures at that time.

What this does mean, then, is that reasonable people will begin thinking now about how to be able to get to good government on the global level. Not purely as a leisure intellectual activity, but with a view to having some prospect of being ready when something like that will become needed for management of the evolving forms of geoengineering.

It is the same principle as the need for a widespread, honest discussion of geoengineering at this moment: unhindered discussion of it is the thing needed most to add to the hope for its being done right, and in time.


The trend of evolution and futurist projections

And what about the line popular in the deep ecology sector of the Movement: that geoengineering is just an exacerbation of the problem, a humanity that is “f---ing with Mother Nature”? This line assumes that nature is stable, and that humans are an alien disruptor of nature. It is wrong on both counts.

Science has shown that nature is violent and changes radically; and that all species have always altered the natural order that they’re a part of. Humans, with their naturally evolved mental capabilities, have become able to do so more than other species. This is why geologists are coming to define the current era as the “anthropocene”.

Environmentalism began as a part of this human evolution toward affecting the nature we are a part of. Its true aim is to make this effect conscious. Since 1900, we have evolved environmentalist ideas and structures as a feedback loop to regulate our ever-growing effects on our environment. This loop has made much progress in some areas, such as reforestation of the world and protection of the ozone layer. It is still, however, reactive not proactive. It will need to match the growing pace of our effects on the environment, with a commensurate accelerating pace of awareness, concern, and control over our effects. Indeed, we will need the planning for regulating our effects to get ahead of the effects we can be projected to have. We still have a way to go in getting to this level of proactivity.

Geoengineering is, alongside AI and future simulations, the next step in becoming proactive. It is a natural, necessary part of our positive evolution toward an environmentalism of planned impact that gets ahead of the problems created by unplanned human impact on the environmental.

Geoengineering can be expected to grow to involve several aspects: restraining our effects on the environment, channeling these effects, causing new effects, counteracting old effects, and counteracting or channeling nature’s own non-manmade changes. Climate geoengineering is only a beginning of it. It is a beginning that in the future will be seen as small and cautious; it is simply the beginning that is pushed upon us at this time by the realities of global warming.

For futurists, climate geoengineering is not a startling new idea but an old assumption about the future. It is simply taken for granted, by many inhabitants of the highly intelligent futurist community, that climate geoengineering will be the main solution to global warming.

Climate geoengineering is in turn only the start of a more general geoengineering. Far-reaching, non-climate forms of geoengineering will also occur. Within another century they are likely to reshape the geography of our world both horizontally and vertically. There has been much discussion of terraforming Mars, the Moon, and other celestial bodies. This has led to discussion in turn of the logic of focusing terraforming efforts first and foremost on the immediately available locus of habitation, the earth itself. Such “terraforming of the earth”, upon reflection, seems inevitable.
All such futurism has an air of science fiction unrealism at first sight. Nevertheless, it would be unrealistic for projections akin to these not to materialize, if scientific civilization continues another century or two.

That futuristic future is still at some distance. Surviving so we get to it is the priority for this era.
Climate engineering is an essential part of the survival program for the present. That is how it should and will begin. It can be expected to evolve from there into a building block for the further future.





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