There are few topics as politically and ideologically contentious as anthropogenic climate change and the possibility of responding by deploying geoengineering technologies. Despite, or because of, all the Sturm und Drang, however, the current discourse is both misdirected and unhelpfully superficial. It is misdirected in that it frames climate change as a problem that can be solved, either through policy or technological silver bullets, rather than a condition, inherent to a planet with seven billion people, which must be managed. It is superficial because although it may be the most visible concern right now, the real challenge is not climate change. The topic that truly deserves our attention is the Anthropocene, the new stage of human history characterized by the growing significance of human actions in the overall state of the planet. Focusing exclusively on climate change is equivalent to treating symptoms rather than attacking disease. The point is not that climate change should not be a concern or that its effects do not have to be managed. Rather, the sad irony is that, despite the best intentions of the participants, the climate change and geoengineering discussions have so far been a way to evade knowledge and responsibility, not to extend them.
In 1992, the United Nations (UN) Rio Earth Summit adopted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with the objective, stated in Article 2, of achieving “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The implementing treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, was adopted in 1997 and entered into force in February 2005. Since 1992, except for a brief dip in 2008-2009 when global economic activity took a sharp dive, emissions of the most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), have steadily increased; anthropogenic emissions of methane, after a period of relative stability from around 1999 to 2006, are also climbing.
The increasingly obvious failure of the UNFCCC process, combined with growing social concern about global climate change, has led to increasing interest in geoengineering, which the UK Royal Society defines as “deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming.” Geoengineering technologies are further broken down into two categories. CO2 removal (CDR) technologies remove CO2 from the atmosphere through biological or industrial means. Solar radiation management (SRM) technologies reflect some of the incoming energy from the sun back into space before it has a chance to reach the Earth’s surface. Each of these technologies has a unique mix of potential costs and benefits. For example, one result of high ambient levels of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing acidification of the oceans with potentially deleterious effects on marine life; CDR technologies would mitigate such effects, whereas SRM technologies would not.
No reputable scientist disputes the planetary greenhouse effect. Mars, with little atmosphere and therefore little atmospheric radiation absorption, is cold, whereas Venus, with a substantial atmosphere composed mainly of CO2, has a surface temperature of about 870 Fahrenheit. That water vapor, CO2, and methane all absorb energy at crucial wavelengths to contribute to increased atmospheric energy content is well established. Nonetheless, to observe that this domain is contentious is a gross understatement. The controversy is not really over whether the Earth is subject to a greenhouse effect, because it clearly is; moreover, human activity produces CO2 and methane that are known to increase the greenhouse effect. But there is disagreement over whether such human influences are meaningful given the complex dynamics involved and over how worried we should be about any resulting changes in temperature and other aspects of climate.
Technically, such questions could be approached objectively, with all parties agreeing on a set of factual predicates for subsequent policy debates. Even the most casual observer will, of course, recognize that this is not what has happened. The language used to characterize those perceived as less committed to immediate action to reduce emissions is notably unscientific: Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote that “global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers.” In 2011, the UK Energy and Climate Change Minister demanded immediate action on climate, saying that “[g]iving in to the forces of low ambition would be an act of climate appeasement,” and that “[t]his is our Munich moment,” referring to the 1938 Munich agreement that ceded Czechoslovakia to Hitler. James Hansen, a U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration climate scientist, wrote in a 2009 article that “coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet,” and that “The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death.” In turn, their opponents have coined the term “climate Nazis” because of their demands for heavy-handed government regulation. This is the rhetoric of morality. One can rationally discuss science and technology options, but one does not negotiate with evil.
Similar arguments swirl around geoengineering. These fall into two general categories. One involves the uncertainties and potentially significant risks of deploying such technologies. No amount of small-scale research will be sufficient to reliably predict all the results of this planetary experiment. The second category is the “moral hazard” argument: no geoengineering technology should be researched, developed, or deployed, because making it an option reduces pressure on individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Supporters of this position argue that major changes in lifestyle and perspective are very seldom achieved without significant forcing pressure. Opponents respond that a refusal to research geoengineering is an unethical form of social engineering.
Both the climate change and geoengineering debates are premised on a false dichotomy. The choice is not between the Kyoto Protocol and geoengineering. Rather, the choice is between a world view in which human activity has only isolated effects on the planet and an acceptance of a new reality in which human activity is unavoidably a major Earth system.
Anthropogenic climate change is merely a symptom of a far more profound emergent reality. Revisions to the failing Kyoto process or the premature deployment of a powerful technology fix are not what is needed. Rather, what is needed is an understanding that we have now crossed a threshold from a past where humans were but one species wandering the planet to a present where humans and their myriad activities, institutions, and aspirations now increasingly affect all planetary systems. Failure to accept that responsibility by burying one’s head in romantic ideologies or loud pontification at this point in human evolution is not just irresponsible, it is profoundly unethical. And it will have serious implications, for if climate change is the first test of humanity’s ability to operate rationally and ethically in the Anthropocene, we should try hard not to fail, and to learn from the experience. Neither of those outcomes appears probable on current trend.
Adjusting the focus
I am not saying that global climate change should not be addressed, both through mitigation and adaptation, and quite possibly through scaled introduction of geoengineering technologies. What I am saying is that even if we were to reduce the carbon content of the atmosphere to pre-industrialization levels—say, 280 ppm CO2—we wouldn’t be restoring the planet to its pre-industrial state. Complex adaptive systems do not have a default setting to which they can revert. We can’t de-Anthropocene the planet.
And this is the nub of the issue. The climate change phenomenon, and the debates swirling about it, are worrying, but not just because they may challenge the adaptive capability of individuals, societies, institutions, and other species. They are worrying because they illustrate, all too clearly, the inadequacy of our nascent efforts to respond to the challenges of the Anthropocene—the Age of Humans. If climate change and other similar issues, such as reductions in evolved biodiversity or perturbations in the nitrogen, hydrologic, and phosphorous cycles, are isolatable problems that can be addressed by the familiar methods of reductionism and environmental regulation, we are psychologically and institutionally prepared to respond appropriately. If, however, climate change is simply one of a number of coupled emergent behaviors generated by seven billion people with their vast array of institutions, cultures, and economic and technological systems, that approach is no longer viable. And the first step in adjusting to that reality is shifting to an adequate framing of the reality of the systems we’re dealing with.
The first challenge, then, is simply to recognize that we are, in fact, emerging into the Anthropocene. In this new era in the history of our planet, human activity is surfacing as one of the most important Earth systems, rivaling and stressing the natural systems that govern the planet’s habitability. To ensure a sustainable future as a planetary species, humanity needs to develop the capacity to manage these complex, interwoven systems. Developing this capacity requires that we adopt an integrated planetary perspective. Too often, we view humanity as an imposition on the planet. In this view, Earth can be restored to a pastoral golden age by reducing (ideally, removing) the human influence from nature. This perspective fundamentally misunderstands the Anthropocene as an event that can be reversed.
A more productive perspective is to view the Anthropocene as a natural transition resulting from a very recent innovation: the evolution of tool-using intelligence and the consequent rise of technological civilization. This innovation is as irreversible and disruptive to Earth’s systems as previous major evolutionary innovations, such as the evolution of land plants, the development of skeletons, the origin of multicellular organisms, and the invention of oxygen-producing photosynthesis. Like these prior milestones in the history of life on Earth, the genie of tool-using intelligence cannot be stuffed back into the evolutionary bottle. Evolution is never retrograde. Instead, we need to aim for pragmatic, sustainable design and management of a planetary ecosystem that includes the human system as an integral, permanent, and constantly evolving component—an intelligent part that can impact the planet thoughtfully, as well as thoughtlessly.
As the previous discussion has made clear, we are far from having the capacity, as a species, to be responsible designers and managers of our planetary ecosystem, despite the clear and present need. The good news is that our comprehension of the physical, chemical, and biological systems that go into making a habitable planet deepened dramatically in recent decades. Although there is much yet to learn, our knowledge is expanding at least as rapidly as our recognition of the environmental, energy, and resource challenges before us.
At the same time, the accelerating pace of technological evolution challenges our insight into the human system that drives the Anthropocene. Areas as diverse as nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, robotics, and cognitive sciences are advancing in ways that are ever more complex, rapid, and difficult to predict, but that are converging in a way that makes humanity itself a design space. The redesign of the human as currently constituted is an increasingly probable scenario. These changes will not only accelerate human effects on Earth’s natural systems, but also pose significant and as-yet-unpredictable challenges to the social systems that modulate these effects. We do not yet have the capability as a species to anticipate and respond ethically, rationally, and responsibly to these coming challenges. That said, we can at least begin to develop some basic principles that would support more effective institutional and policy responses.
The correct answer is none of the above. The challenges of the Anthropocene are not “problems” with “solutions;” rather, they are conditions, often highly coupled to other conditions and systems that can at best be managed.
Be prepared. An important mechanism for managing Anthropogenic challenges is the conscious cultivation of technological, institutional, and social options—a toolkit for adapting rapidly to changes in Earth systems.
Practice makes perfect. Borrowing the techniques of defense and foreign policy strategists, use scenarios and games to expand institutional perception, thinking, and agility.
When in doubt, doubt. The complex adaptive systems that characterize the Anthropocene are inherently unpredictable; it follows that predictions regarding future paths and outcomes should always be regarded skeptically.
Diversity enables adaptability. The inherent unknowability of complex adaptive systems privileges pluralistic institutions and cultures.
Scale matters. Many Anthropogenic systems behave in a linear fashion at small scale but can become unpredictably non-linear at larger scales.
Stay in school. Because the Anthropocene is characterized by evolving conditions that will confront us with new ethical, social, and technological challenges, it demands continuous learning.
The conflictual, partisan, and superficial environment that has developed around the issue of anthropogenic climate change is unfortunate, not just because it is unproductive and ineffective. It has also served to mischaracterize and disguise the full magnitude and complexity of the challenge posed by the Anthropocene, an era in which return to any sort of fabled, golden, pastoral age is fantasy. What is needed now is not policy “solutions,” which for the most part will prove partial and inadequate, nor technological silver bullets, which are likely to be far more disruptive and costly than expected. Rather, what is needed is the courage to perceive and accept the world as it is today, and to appreciate the difficulty of responsibly managing it. That the planet is increasingly shaped by the activities and choices of one species cannot be denied; that we know how to do so consciously and ethically cannot be confidently asserted. That is the real challenge we face at the beginning of the Anthropocene.
Braden Allenby (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President’s Professor, Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering, and Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics at Arizona State University.