I wrote this essay in the context of a PhD course titled “The Stuff of Environmental Politics: Theorising the Power of/in Materiality” let by Dr. Angela Oels at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS). My aim is to explore the role of human imagination in our perception and reaction to climate change, and explain the inherent attraction of geoengineering. It is inspired by the wave of post-apocalyptic hollywood movies – snow piercer, mad max, the day after tomorrow, the road – that use a drastic change in the climate as a setting for their stories.
Within the last decade, the political discussion on climate change has shifted in an unexpected way. Whereas official policy options were decidedly limited to the reduction of emissions and adaptation responses in 20071, the latest IPCC report includes a new option at the centre of its policy pathways, namely the reliance on technologies to suck carbon out of the air2,3. This approach, termed ‘negative emissions technologies’ (NET) by the IPCC authors, is also known as Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and considered a major subgroup of geoengineering – technologies that intentionally alter the Earth’s climate through large-scale interventions in the Earth’s atmosphere4. Other forms of geoengineering aiming to regulate the reflectivity of the planet and reduce incoming sunlight (Solar Radiation Management – SRM) are not quite as institutionalized yet, but have nevertheless found their way into the political realms of climate change and are now being assessed for governmental organisations5. First suggested in the 1960s, geoengineering was considered a taboo for many years, as it was deemed too dangerous for public morale to be discussed at all6. The central question of my research project revolves around the sudden inclusion of geoengineering as a desirable climate scenario, and I use this essay to explore the role that imagination plays in justifying such a future.
The power of the future
The future is a powerful thing. It animates the human imagination, opens up the mind for new possibilities, and glosses over the inconsistencies and unanticipated obstacles that bedevil the present. As much as there would be no failure without an imagined future, there could be no success. In Napoleon’s imagined future, his grand army would invade Russia and with a speedy victory compel the Russian Tsar to submit to the treaty he had signed four years earlier. In the present that evolved, this imagined future led to the single most bloody battle of the Napoleonic wars and resulted in the death of over 500,000 French soldiers. Less dramatically, any person who imagines creating something – be it the construction of an Ikea shelf, the refurbishment of an old bicycle, or the writing of an academic article – will recognise that the imagined future tense only rarely matches the actualities that accompany implementation. But in spite of the future’s fickle nature, imagining it is essential to human identity and action. In the context of climate change, imagination of the future plays an essential role in identifying it, in the importance we attribute to it, and in the consequences that we derive from it. Without comparing the present with the past, the idea of climate change would not exist. Without modelling the future of the atmosphere, we would not think it important. And without imagining what these models could imply for our societal reality, we could take no action. The future provides the justification for acting in the present, and in seeing, sensing, thinking and dreaming about the future, we create the conditions for material interventions in the world7.
Imagining the apocalypse
What better excuse could one have for a material intervention here and now than an imminent apocalypse? As Lawrence Buell argues, “apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal.”8 It is also the dominant future imaginary of climate change. Popular not only in books, films and other cultural representations of the future, it is used by scientists and politicians to rally for certain kinds of policies that often involve an increase in monitoring and technocracy. Some argue that the apocalyptic depiction of the future of our environment lies at the core of the contemporary trend towards ‘post-politics’, and that simulating a state of emergency disallows for political deliberation or dissent9. Others point out that these discourses of fear result in the perception of having to ‘conquer the climate’, followed by hubristic ideas of mastery and control10. Lorenzo DiTommaso explains that apocalypticism carries a teleological orientation that makes itself attractive to any group of people who consider themself a special object of history. Although the Greek word apokalypsis originally meant ‘unveiling’ or ‘revelation’, its contemporary interpretation describes a singular event that opens the door towards a post-apocalyptic future. Herein also lies the explanation of why the apocalypse is such an attractive concept, and simultaneously why it is completely useless in rallying human beings to act more sustainably. The apocalypse serves as a clearing of slates, an erasing of the contemporary, messy reality in which we find ourselves in, and the opportunity for a chosen few (with whom we all identify) to start over again11. In essence, it makes it possible to escape the intractable complications of today and to imagine ourselves as heroes of the future who will build a new and better society from scratch.
Saving the world
The intractable present is also what motivates and justifies research on geoengineering technologies. Some of the most important arguments made when advocating for more research is that the current political situation is untenable, that we are not changing our behaviour fast enough to avoid dangerous climate change, and that a ‘quick fix’ or ‘back-up plan’ is needed to avoid the worst of disasters when the time comes12. Simultaneously, some forms of geoengineering are regarded as ‘terrifying’ solutions and as the ‘lesser of two evils’ (whereas the other evil would be the implications of uncontrolled climate change)13. But despite their imperfections, it is argued that the technologies provide a solution, something that can be done to save the planet when the Antarctic ice sheets start melting – and something to alleviate the excruciatingly boring and frustrating process of everyday climate politics. Scientists and engineers are designing ways of scattering sunlight back into outer space or pumping captured carbon dioxide into as yet undiscovered underground storage spaces. Not only are they designing technologies, but these technologies are now comfortably placed side by side with mitigation and adaptation strategies, and are being evaluated according to feasibility and possible pathways of technological development14. It does not seem to matter much that critics point out the inherent dangers of developing a technology that is powerful enough to intentionally manipulate the Earth’s atmosphere in a relatively short amount of time. While climate modellers shows that an intervention such as stratospheric aerosol injection could have major implications for global precipitation patterns and especially the monsoon16, geoengineering advocates continue referring to the injustices of rising sea levels and portray geoengineering as a solution for the poor15. Possibly the most amazing thing about geoengineering is that even though the advocates themselves acknowledge the unpredictable and potentially catastrophic side effects of these technologies, they do not seem deterred in the slightest from advocating for more research15.
Alongside the call for more research comes the call for governance, and it is here that we see the most obvious effect of the imagined geoengineering future on the present. In anticipation of the technologies to come, the scenario of the apocalypse changes from one of uncontrolled climate change to one of rogue states, climate wars, new ice ages and ‘termination shock’, describing an exponential version of global warming if SRM is first deployed and then abruptly stopped17. These predicted dangers of the new technologies, whose research is so avidly advocated for as a response to the dangers of climate change, now provide the conditions and justifications for new material interventions in the form of governance institutions ‘while management remains possible’18. Similar to waging wars in the name of pre-empting the threat of terror, culling bird populations to pre-empt avian flu, and trading carbon credits to pre-empt climate change, the creation of institutions to regulate geoengineering research (and deployment) is another anticipatory action to regulate an uncertain and threatening vision of a future geography19. Originally advocated for mainly by social scientists, the perceived necessity to govern geoengineering has also been picked up by high-level politicians involved in international security and presented as one of the most pressing political issues of the coming decade. In their 2015 report on global governance reform, the commission on global security, justice and governance (led by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright) suggests that the United Nations should establish a climate engineering advisory board and experiments registry to monitor and control experimentation20. And again, the generation of an apocalyptic vision and the framing of geoengineering as a security issue opens the door for more monitoring and bureaucratisation.
Making space for heroes
So what role does the imagination play in the evolving reality of geoengineering? It seems that the subject is steeped through and through with visions of an apocalypse, not only in the justification of its existence but also in the sense that it in itself creates visions of a threatening future, albeit a much more concrete one than the incremental and unpredictable effects of accumulating greenhouse gases. Its Janus-headed character animates the mind to dream about what could be, diverting much attention from the more ethical, complicated and pressing question of what should be. In essence, it is a form of daydreaming, letting our minds float out of the window to an imagined future in which we have control – either to fix the planet or to ruin it entirely, but at least intentionally. This form of imagined action is much more simple and satisfying than facing the endless and intractable complexities of every day life in a world riddled by interdependencies, bureaucracies and lengthy decision making procedures. It gives us the feeling that we can do something significant outside the mess of reality. And so, although it spells out danger, it feels extremely empowering. In a sense, it does not only serve as a solution to an imagined and hard-to-predict apocalypse, but creates a new apocalypse that can be accelerated into the present at will – ending with a blast rather than ending in the slow process of suffocation. Matching DiTommaso’s account of the modern apocalypse, geoengineering could constitute an historical event that would change the flow of history and open the door towards a post-apocalyptic future in which there is, again, a time and space for heroes.
- IPCC. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. A Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2014).
- Anderson, K. Duality in climate science. Nat. Geosci. 8, 898–900 (2015).
- Shepherd, J. et al. Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty. (2009).
- National Academy of Sciences. Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth. (The National Academies Press, 2015).
- Lawrence, M. G. The Geoengineering Dilemma: To Speak or not to Speak. Clim. Change 77, 245–248 (2006).
- Yusoff, K. & Gabrys, J. Climate change and the imagination. Wiley Interdiscip. Rev. Clim. Chang. 2, 516–534 (2011).
- Buell, L. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, nature writing, and the formation of American Culture. (Harvard University Press, 1995).
- Swyngedouw, E. Apocalypse Forever?: Post-political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change. Theory, Cult. Soc. 27, 213–232 (2010).
- Hulme, M. The conquering of climate: Discourses of fear and their dissolution. Geogr. J. 174, 5–16 (2008).
- DiTommaso, L. in End of Days: Essays on the Apocalypse from Antiquity to Modernity (eds. Kinane, K. & Ryan, M. A.) 221–241 (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009).
- Markusson, N., Ginn, F., Ghaleigh, N. S. & Wiley, J. ‘In case of emergency press here’: framing geoengineering as a response to dangerous climate change. WIREs Clim Chang. 5, 281–290 (2014).
- Anshelm, J. & Hansson, A. The Last Chance to Save the Planet? An Analysis of the Geoengineering Advocacy Discourse in the Public Debate. Environ. Humanit. 5, 101–123 (2014).
- Bellamy, R., Chilvers, J., Vaughan, N. E. & Lenton, T. M. A review of climate geoengineering appraisals. Wiley Interdiscip. Rev. Clim. Chang. 3, 597–615 (2012).
- Keith, D. A Case for Climate Engineering. (Boston Review, 2013).
- Ricke, K. L., Morgan, M. G. & Allen, M. R. Regional climate response to solar-radiation management. Nat. Geosci. 3, 537–541 (2010).
- Jones, A. et al. The impact of abrupt suspension of solar radiation management (termination effect) in experiment G2 of the Geoengineering Model Intercomparison Project (GeoMIP). J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 118, 9743–9752 (2013).
- Foley, R. W., Guston, D. H. & Sarewitz, D. Geoengineering Our Climate? Toward the Anticipatory Governance of Geoengineering. (2015). at <http://wp.me/p2zsRk-c8>
- Anderson, B. Preemption, precaution, preparedness: Anticipatory action and future geographies. Prog. Hum. Geogr. 34, 777–798 (2010).
- Commission on Global Security Justice & Governance. Confronting the Crisis of Global Governance. (2015).