The Planet Remade: How geoengineering could change the world by Oliver Morton
reviewed for New Scientist, 9 December 2015.
WHO’S afraid of big engineering? Apparently, there exists a global network of activists convinced that aircraft vapour trails are substances sprayed into the air as part of a government programme for – take your pick – mind control, sterilisation or climate management.
All those in this network, and many outside, fear Promethean science. And geoengineering – the idea that we should alter the climate to our advantage while there’s still food in the shops and our coastal cities are above sea level – is certainly Promethean.
It is, however, anything but the darling of the military-industrial complex. Its researchers are poorly funded enthusiasts, many of them close to retirement. They do not want to control the climate, and indeed could not, even if they tried. Instead, they want to offer a stopgap technology that will keep global temperatures stable while the gargantuan work of unpicking the carbon economy goes on.
The global consensus on climate change treats carbon as a contaminant. The hope is that enough political will can be mustered to get rid of excess atmospheric carbon, in much the way the world abandoned the chlorofluorocarbons responsible for damaging the ozone layer.
This is an approach that has been shown to work, but in The Planet Remade, Oliver Morton is here to show that it is hopeless: “Any plausible cuts in carbon dioxide emissions made today would have more or less no effect until the mid-century. By that time the costs of inaction might be horribly plain – but there will be no time machine with which to come back and set the necessary cuts in motion on the basis of that future knowledge.” Something as complex as the relationship of industrial civilisation to Earth “isn’t the sort of thing that is simply solved, once and for all, and it’s a snare to think that it is”.
Veiling the atmosphere with sulphur could stabilise global temperatures indefinitely for little cost, he believes. It would be another form of climate change and Earth would be a little drier. There might be losers as well as winners. But even the losers in Morton’s meticulously detailed and exhaustively referenced scenarios would fare better than if we heat Earth by more than 2 °C. The task would then be to replace the carbon economy.
Naysayers believe that if we were to stabilise global temperatures, we would somehow forget about the carbon problem. But given the fast-declining alkalinity of the oceans, this hardly seems likely.
Morton believes the climate-change debate is hobbled by a bleak view of humanity. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that we will not recognise runaway industrial growth as folly until it has done all the damage it can – and that full recognition of that folly is the only route to avoiding further destruction. “I can’t say that there is no wisdom in that stance,” writes Morton. “I can only say I do not share it. I refuse to accept a world in which nothing can be protected and only pain and loss instruct.”
Over nearly 400 pages, Morton constructs his argument with the intensity of an essayist. It is a dizzying, exhausting, exhilarating read. And let me nail my colours to the mast: he’s right.