Imagining Geoengineering

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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.

Why Geoengineering?

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.

Anticipatory governance

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.

 

  1. IPCC. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. A Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2014).
  2. Anderson, K. Duality in climate science. Nat. Geosci. 8, 898–900 (2015).
  3. Shepherd, J. et al. Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty. (2009).
  4. National Academy of Sciences. Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth. (The National Academies Press, 2015).
  5. Lawrence, M. G. The Geoengineering Dilemma: To Speak or not to Speak. Clim. Change 77, 245–248 (2006).
  6. Yusoff, K. & Gabrys, J. Climate change and the imagination. Wiley Interdiscip. Rev. Clim. Chang. 2, 516–534 (2011).
  7. Buell, L. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, nature writing, and the formation of American Culture. (Harvard University Press, 1995).
  8. Swyngedouw, E. Apocalypse Forever?: Post-political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change. Theory, Cult. Soc. 27, 213–232 (2010).
  9. Hulme, M. The conquering of climate: Discourses of fear and their dissolution. Geogr. J. 174, 5–16 (2008).
  10. 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).
  11. 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).
  12. 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).
  13. 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).
  14. Keith, D. A Case for Climate Engineering. (Boston Review, 2013).
  15. Ricke, K. L., Morgan, M. G. & Allen, M. R. Regional climate response to solar-radiation management. Nat. Geosci. 3, 537–541 (2010).
  16. 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).
  17. Foley, R. W., Guston, D. H. & Sarewitz, D. Geoengineering Our Climate? Toward the Anticipatory Governance of Geoengineering. (2015). at <http://wp.me/p2zsRk-c8&gt;
  18. Anderson, B. Preemption, precaution, preparedness: Anticipatory action and future geographies. Prog. Hum. Geogr. 34, 777–798 (2010).
  19. Commission on Global Security Justice & Governance. Confronting the Crisis of Global Governance. (2015).

 

Cases around Climate Engineering

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This book review was published in Climate Change Law Review (CCLR) 2015, Vol. 9 Issue 1. Below is an extract from the original text:

In the face of increasing urgency and exasperation with the politics of climate change, an unsettling idea has started to make the rounds. In his 2013 book “A Case for Climate Engineering”, the Harvard physicist and environmental scientist David Keith attempts to make a case for engineering the Earth’s climate as a way to decelerate the rise in global average temperature. More precisely, he advocates for more research on solar geoengineering – the injection of tiny particles into the Earth’s stratosphere to scatter some of the incoming sunlight back into Space and thereby cool the planet. Opposing him in the ring of advocacy is Mike Hulme of King’s College in London. In “Can Science Fix Climate Change? A Case Against Climate Engineering”, Hulme counters Keith in his efforts to justify a technological fix by putting climate change into a cultural context and questioning the emergency narrative commonly used by climate engineering advocates.

David Keith presents himself as an environmentalist and humanist. His main arguments circle around the facts that (i) reducing emissions will do nothing to reduce the impacts of climate change for our generation, (ii) the poor will suffer the most from this development, and (iii) solar geoengineering is cheap and easy to do, and could be deployed within a few decades. If responsibly used, he argues, geoengineering could reduce the rate at which the planet is warming and buy time to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Keith fully recognizes the side effects that are commonly pointed out: the risk of altering local weather patterns, similarities to nuclear proliferation, and reduced incentives for cutting down carbon emissions. Nevertheless, he maintains that a gradual implementation could give us enough warning to abort the experiment in time. Further, he argues that a lack of serious research provides fertile ground for controversy, extremism and uninformed debate.

Picking up on the ‘need for more research’ argument, Mike Hulme criticizes that any decision to invest in solar geoengineering research also necessitates a decision on how to deal with potential implementation and all the complications of multilateral governance. These are, in his opinion, impossible to solve. Therefore any investment in research is misplaced. He structures his arguments around the judgements that solar geoengineering is (i) undesirable because regulating the global temperature will not help us regulate local weather conditions, (ii) that it is democratically ungovernable as the only feasible scenarios of implementation would be through an unstable consortium of willing states or unilateral action by a single rogue state, and (iii) that it is unreliable because the unintended consequences would multiply rather than reduce humanitarian, political, legal and security troubles. Hulme challenges the commonly used frame of ‘global warming’ constructed around climate change, arguing that this kind of narrative leads to misguided efforts to regulate a non-existent figure: the mathematically constructed average of global temperature.

Both authors represent a strong view on a controversial topic. Keith openly states this in his preface, while Hulme employs a more academic style and occasionally weaves in his personal view. Although Keith aims to make a case for climate engineering, his acknowledgement of the very serious risks in combination with a maintained advocacy on the basis of ‘responsible use’ acts more deterring than encouraging. For a reader with any understanding of politics and human history, the precondition of responsible use when it comes to powerful technologies is a major risk factor in itself that Keith does not openly address. His belief in the technological capacity of humankind is quite unfazed, and the unquestioning reliance on the use of climate models to accurately predict what would happen if solar geoengineering were deployed is worrying. He laments the loss of humanity’s connection to nature while offering geoengineering as a way of rediscovering that connection. In many similar points, the arguments he makes do not intuitively match the implications he derives from them.

Hulme on the other hand points to the problems of governance and the consequences of focusing too much on the global dimension of climate change without differentiating between sources, drivers and solutions. However, he himself does not refrain from taking the common approach of lumping together very different climate engineering technologies and placing biochar (charcoal), urban whitewashing and carbon capture and storage into the same box as solar geoengineering. While first defining them all as climate engineering technologies and raising a general scepticism towards these in the inexperienced reader, he later advocates for research on “negative emissions” technologies (p. 129) without mentioning that these are precisely some of the technologies that he defined as climate engineering earlier on. In his call for climate pragmatism, he argues that global energy use is expected to increase by nearly fifty per cent in the next two decades, and that this requires a transition to cheap, reliable and clean energy – therefore reigning in carbon emissions from the energy sector. How he draws this conclusion on the precondition that the energy question needs to be decoupled from the climate question remains a mystery.

Personally, I would have liked to see more respect from both authors for the reader’s capacity to recognize errors in logic and spelling. Nevertheless, both books in conjunction offer a compelling read for an educated, but not necessarily scientific audience interested in the double-edged nature of tinkering with the Earth’s atmosphere. Their dichotomy accurately reflects the general polarisation of scientists when it comes to the topic of solar geoengineering and the battle for the title of who is the better environmentalist. They also give an insight to the interesting phenomenon of personalization and people-politics in the discussion of climate engineering. There seems to be no consensus of who is actually supporting climate engineering, and the traditional differentiation between left-wing and right-wing world views does not hold. Rather, analysts may be better advised to look for alternative ways of categorizing supporters and opponents.

Continents joined at the navel

Absurd Today

“It is a great irony of history and geography that Africa, whose landmass is closer than any other to the mainland of Europe, should come to occupy in the European psychological disposition the farthest point of otherness, should indeed become Europe’s very antithesis”

The essence of these words, written by the celebrated Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in his 1998 essay ‘Africa’s tarnished name’, is what constitutes my first observed absurdity of Absurd Today. Although I had ceased to think much about the startling degree of Africa-related cluelessness amongst the majority of my European friends, Achebe’s sentence unleashes a river of memories about my move to provincial Germany after thirteen years of life in Uganda. As a child, the questions asked by young and old about living standards and every-day necessities ‘in Africa’ just seemed incomprehensibly rude. As an adult, reflecting back on them puts the unintended rudeness into a context…

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7 simple steps to reduce your carbon footprint

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Have you heard of the ManBearPig? If not, I suggest you watch the sixth episode of the tenth season of South Park, and you will be enlightened. Meanwhile, here are a few tips on how to make climate change a little bit less intimidating and unreal, and how to cut your own carbon emissions in every day life. It may seem like the biggest problem on Earth (and it may be), but in German we say “Kleinvieh macht auch Mist” in order to express that many small actions can lead to significant change.

1. Love Your Local. Travelling to the ends of the Earth may seem wicked, but sometimes you can go on equally adventurous discovery trips in your local area. Plane flights are the biggest sources of carbon in an every-day Westerner’s life, and it is what most environmentalists struggle with most. Try and focus on holiday destinations which are reachable by bike or train and make the journey a discovery in itself.

2. Mind the Meat. This doesn’t mean you have to become a vegetarian. Just reduce the amount of meat you consume and save it for special occasions. That way you can also afford to buy good meat when you do eat it, preferably wild meat or meat from you local eco butcher.

3. Dump the Dairy. Animal husbandry is very energy intensive, so eating dairy products is about equally carbon intensive as eating meat. In some countries, there are excellent alternatives to milk, yoghurt and cream cheese made of oats or soy. Again, this doesn’t have to become a dogma. I love feta cheese and cheese in general and couldn’t imagine doing without it. It’s rather a question of reducing your daily intake and trying out some new products and recipes.

4. Park Your Car. Unless you have an electric car which runs on renewable energy, every kilometre you drives dumps carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Leave the car in its place if you can avoid it and try public transport, biking or walking. Its better for your health and you open up windows of opportunity to meet someone special.

5. Keep Cool. Instead of heating your entire house in winter, follow Grandma’s principle of having a “warme Stube” – one warm room in the house in which to spend most of your time, while the less used rooms are not heated. If you are a house owner, make sure your roof and windows are well insulated to trap as much heat as possible inside.

6. Share Your Home. The more people share a house or an apartment, the less energy is used per-capita. Additionally, it’s a lot more fun to live with many people than to live alone. Do some community building by cooking together, planting vegetables in your garden, or spending an evening per week playing games together.

7. Be A Hipster and shop second hand. There is so much stuff out there that is in perfectly good condition and that can be used again – furniture, clothes, electronics, books… hunting for treasures in your local second hand shop or organising swapping events with your friends makes life a lot more interesting, artsy and hip. Need some musical motivation? Check out this!

clash of cultures – on religion and belief in science and academia

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I never believed in God, and I never believed that there was one single way of living a good life. I never liked the idea of having to adhere to a certain belief structure of do’s and don’ts. I refused to be confirmed when I was fourteen. Having been educated in an international school, I learned that there were many ways to think about the world, and that each way had to be respected equally. Until recently, I also thought of religion in a relatively traditional sense, i.e. Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Animism… I assumed that people could choose to either live with one of these religions or not.

In political science, religion is generally talked about from a scientific perspective (most often as an independent variable) and we ask questions like ‘are Catholics more inclined to violent political action than Protestants?’ or ‘How is religion used as a strategy in resource wars?’ A lot of time and effort is put into coding ones and zeros or writing memos and conducting interviews. Most scientists will shake their heads at hearing about mid-west republicans founding schools which offer creationism instead of evolution in their biology classes. But the fact is that religion permeates academics as much as it does everyday life, and just as in the ‘real world’, it leads to in-and-out groups, to prejudice and to conflict.

According to Émile Durkheim (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life) “Religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things”. If knowledge were to be seen as a sacred thing, and the ways we go about collecting, analyzing and presenting knowledge were categorized as a system of beliefs and practices, then what does that make science? It almost feels like a taboo to do these kinds of comparisons. Personally, I have always seen science as search for truth and religion as a method to exert control and/or to create a feeling of community. But in that sense, am I really so different from any religious believer out there who is convinced that his or her religion is the one truth to be found?

Although science may seem like an internally coherent system of gathering knowledge to the outside world, it turns out to be a wild and contested turf of beliefs when one takes part on the inside. A revealing example of this was a recent research seminar on teaching gender and sexuality in international relations, which took place at my department. Essentially the problem was that, although political science and IR is very much focused on power relation, sexuality is almost never an issue. Students are not interested in hearing about it, and teachers do not feel capable of talking about it (or find it irrelevant). But although this may be a very serious and important topic as such, the most interesting thing about the seminar was the clash of cultures that it revealed among the partaking researchers.

While there was no argument about whether or not sexuality and gender were important, the way in which one should or could talk about them in a classroom were fundamentally different. The result of the discussion pitted a clear line between the ingrained feminists who were convinced that gender needed to be talked about in a critical manner, i.e. questioning every power relation in society there ever was and relating that to the construction of male and female roles; and the die-hard positivists who felt quite uncomfortable about taking such an approach and much preferred sticking to percentages of women in parliament and impacts of quotas on the labor market. (The outcome of this seminar was at least one little group gossip session about ‘the others’ and allegations of lacking professionalism).

In (social) science there is something called ‘Theory of Knowledge’, which is essentially a science studying science, a bit like theology and religion. Instead of making distinctions among Protestants and Catholics, it differentiates between Positivists and Interpretivists. Instead of analyzing the relationship between God and the Believer, it examines different opinions on ‘what is reality’ (ontology), ‘what can be known about it’ (epistemology) and ‘how can we go about knowing’ (methodology). Depending on where you study and what you study, you will or will not be exposed to the fact that these things can actually vary amongst scientists.

For me, coming to Sweden meant learning that there were more variations in scientific worldviews than I could ever have imagined, to the extreme where scientists could not possibly find out anything about the world that might be relevant to anyone. This also meant dealing with a much wider range in acceptance of what is counted as ‘scientific’. Whereas I was initially taught that validity, reliability and generalizability were the holy grails of social science, I was quite radically re-educated and left with a semi-permanent sense of confusion. Learning that there are other beliefs out there, you get three choices: xenophobia, tolerance or proselytization. I’m not sure yet what to do.

Similar to the world of religions, the varying beliefs in science do not always get along with each other. I have heard stories of people avoiding conversation or even exerting physical violence due to differences in scientific belief structures. Different departments will adhere to different ‘religions’, and talking about a taboo (e.g. the positive sides of de-growth in an economics department or the negative sides of participation in a sustainability science department) will give you strange looks at the least. Furthermore, depending on which field of science boasts the highest amount of authority with our political leaders, its beliefs will permeate and influence our societal structures and define our policy alternatives.

What we can draw from all of this is a) humans (even scientists) need a structure of beliefs to live within; b) beliefs always create in-and-out groups, no matter how much tolerance or objectivity we pretend to have; and c) ‘scientific’ religions can have just as much impact on society as ‘traditional’ religions do. Being an Atheist precisely due to the political problems that religions have created, I don’t really know where to run to if science acts no differently. But then again, maybe there is no other way than giving in to being just a human being with all the implications that this entails.

faith and fatalism – on schizophrenia in climate change research

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Yesterday I met Mephisto. At least that is what it felt like, when Rasmus Karlsson came up to me during the SWEPSA conference in Lund and expressed his excitation in having found someone who is ‘also interested in Geoengineering’. After three hours of intense conversation about where the world is going and what we should do when it comes to climate change, my brain was smoking and my convictions were crumbling, and I desperately needed to put something on paper in order not to go slightly mad (thanks to Queen by the way for the appropriate song – I assume it will pop up more frequently in the course of this PhD project).

On a background note – after having completed a Masters degree in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science, I signed up for a PhD on the governance of Climate Geoengineering. The principle reasons for this were: a) I wanted to go back to political science, b) I wanted to work on climate change, c) the position opened up at a time where I was looking for work, d) I was lucky to be chosen by the committee amongst 54 other applicants. So here we go.

When I told my teachers and colleagues at the sustainability science center about the job I had taken and the subject I would be doing research on, most of them gave me a very puzzled look and shook their heads. “Why geoengineering?” That’s like the most evil of approaches when it comes to climate change mitigation: end-of-pipe, megalomaniac, techno-centric, dangerous and completely crazy. I give them credit; I am of the same opinion. But I disagree that this is a reason why we shouldn’t do research on it. In fact, these are ultimately the principle reasons why we have deal with it at some point or another, at least from a governance perspective.

Today, I am five weeks into my PhD and bubbling with ideas, but I am also being confronted with the fundamentals of my being and my ideas of the world. Doing research in such an area is not just about doing research. It involves engaging with people who are of a completely different opinion than my sustainability science colleagues are, and these people are not all mad. They are smart, educated, and extremely worried about our planet. They are not evil neo-liberals who are paid by oil companies to keep our capitalist system alive (at least I didn’t get this impression). They are concerned about the proximity of climate change disasters and that a societal and behavioral change will not happen fast enough to avoid dangerous rises in temperature and sea level. And they have good arguments.

In sustainability science I was taught that there are no single solutions; that we cannot rely on technology to solve our problems; that we need to restructure society and reduce our consumption if we want to cope with climate change in a sustainable manner. Yes, absolutely. But how much time will this take? How do we change our own behavior? How can we expect everyone else on the planet to change his or her behavior, considering that climate change is such an indirect and far-off threat? And will it be enough, considering that we would need to peak CO2 emissions within 6 years if we want to stay below the political goal of 2°C average temperature rise?

Even before my introduction to “the dark side”, these thoughts kept nagging at my brain: No nuclear, no GMOs, no geoengineering. We need a change in mindset, ecological citizenship, less consumption. But this insight seems to be inherent to only a very small handful of people on this big planet Earth (and the ones who really practice it are even less). A slightly larger group will nod their heads and say “yes, absolutely” when confronted with such ideas, but then turn around and continue life in exactly the same way as before. To most people, the thought is alien, not present on any kind of agenda. And why should we expect people who are a lot less well off than us (highly educated, socially secured and enormously privileged academics) to care about such a development pathway in the first place?

At the moment I feel caught between the camps of an ‘Öko’ community of permaculture, urban gardening and civil disobedience; and the shady world of grand scale silver buckshots, belief in technological fix and elitist scientific sects. Being a traditional environmentalist at heart I feel like a traitor of the first and an imposter in the second. I must say that this whole endeavor feels schizophrenic, and even though my aim is to be an agnostic and objective researcher, the question is how long this mirage can be upheld without adjusting my values to my research. Scary? Yes, totally.

“Nun sag, wie hast du’s mit der Religion? Du bist ein herzlich guter Mann, allein ich glaub, du hältst nicht viel davon.”

Those of you familiar with German literature will recognize this as the pivotal question when it comes to uncovering uncomfortable truths, the so-called Gretchen-Frage in Goethe’s Dr. Faustus. “Say, what is your stance on religion? I see you are a good man at heart, but I don’t think you’re all too into it.” I am embedded in a culture in which we believe that energy efficiency, small scale agriculture and de-growth will save the world. I love the idea. It is the optimal of all my future scenarios. But I also suspect that it is an extremely Eurocentric and elitist way of thinking, far from any Indian or Chinese reality (and these two countries alone cover more than a third of the Earths population).

Many will argue that it’s not about people in ‘developing’ countries having to restrict their development; it’s about western, high-energy and material consuming people in the US and in Europe. Ok, granted that we actually all manage to get rid of our cars, convert to renewable energy and become vegetarians, we constitute just about 1 (out of currently 7) billion people on this planet. So what about the other 6 billion and counting? Considering how difficult it is to convince a high-income, extremely well educated and reflected academic (one of my colleagues) doing research on forests and climate governance to stop eating meat, good luck with the rest of the world who are desperately trying to climb up the pyramid of wealth and prosperity. It may be well and easy for us sitting at the top to shake our fingers, but we have to realize our position and potential hypocrisy when doing it.

challenge your own ideas – on climate change

storm

Sometimes I find it difficult to talk to climate change deniars (or at least people saying ‘its not our fault’) without getting overly emotional and compromising on my own capability to make logical and complete arguments. I know that it might not be easy to differentiate between what is right and wrong on climate change when you are not surrounded by scientific papers every day, but sometimes I am truly surprised at some of the misunderstanding that is out there (even among well educated and politically moderate persons). Don’t get me wrong, I think we are all vulnerable to downplaying when it comes to really big and serious issues, but this – this is really a big and serious issue! And there is no way that we are going to deal with it properly if we keep pretending we can’t do anything about it.

Its not enough to wait until everyone else starts doing something, or until our governments figure out a common policy to do something, or we have the final, 100% proof that what those crazy scientists are putting out there is actually true. How willing are you to get onto a plane that will crash with 95% certainty? Didn’t think so. Jetting from Copenhagen to Paris because the plane would have gone anyway is not an argument. Eating meat 5 times a week because its cheap and/or healthy and/or standards for meat production in Europe are comparatively high is not an argument. Buying a new phone every two years because your old one is outdated is not an argument. Getting new clothes because they’re on sale is not an argument. Every one of these actions unnecessarily strains the energy and material resources that our earth provides us with, pumps carbon dioxide or methane into the atmosphere and will inevitably lead to many areas in our world being frigging hot and/or frigging wet in just a few decades time. (Plus a multitude of other undesirable side-effects).

Be conscious of your own effect on the market. Be conscious of your power as a consumer. And most of all, don’t let yourself be lied to, you are better than that. You don’t believe in government regulations? Then regulate yourself. Take responsibility for your actions, so that you and your kids will have at least some chance of continuing life in a beautiful world.

As I already said, I can’t help but get emotional when it comes to these issues. This doesn’t mean that I’m not being serious, or that I’m picture perfect when it comes to all the issues described above. Just like you, I sometimes tend to blend out things when I don’t feel like thinking about them. Its human and its natural. But we need to be conscious about what it means to blend them out. Have a look at what Clive Hamilton has to say on this, its a nicely written article on the choices we make and the things that incentivize us to ignore big issues:

http://www.ethicsandinternationalaffairs.org/2014/moral-collapse-in-a-warming-world/

Good read and good luck in challenging yourself!