October 16, 2013 — One of the frustrations of being a climate realist a decade or so ago was the tendency of many environmental activists to pair dire forecasts with solutions that in no way matched the scale of the problem. “Global warming could cause oceans to rise, species to go extinct and civilization to collapse,” they might say, “so be sure to install compact fluorescent lightbulbs!” Today’s activists generally take a more sensible approach, but as I suggested in my previous Ensia piece, “Something Wicked Is Already Here,” they can still have blind spots as to the full complexity of the climate problem.
If fluorescent bulbs and plug-in hybrids are too small a response, what would a more appropriately scaled solution look like? The three scenarios below represent different possible answers to that question. But be warned: None of them would be easy, or even pleasant.
The “Tourniquet Scenario”
In this scenario we would attempt to stop the figurative bleeding brought about by climate change and stabilize the situation so we have time to heal the damage done to the planet. Since a rapid rise in global air and ocean temperatures is the main — though by no means exclusive — source of climate disruption danger, the most likely form the tourniquet takes would be geoengineering in the form of solar radiation management. Researchers have proposed a variety of techniques to reflect some incoming sunlight to hold down global temperatures — from emulating a volcano by creating stratospheric sulfur dioxide particles, to boosting cloud formation. While definitely not a solution to climate disruption, SRM would act as a temporary fix to give us time to (we hope) find a solution.
The more disastrous the looming climate impacts become, the more likely it will be that we’ll see demands to accept authoritarian methods of reducing and eliminating carbon emissions.
There’s still a great deal more research needed before we can seriously consider this, since many questions remain regarding how SRM would affect rainfall patterns, agriculture, even the color of the sky. But those answers are, in principle, discoverable. It will be much more difficult to think through the political questions that arise from the idea of intentionally modifying global temperatures. Who decides the “right” temperature? How would disagreements be managed? How would harmful side effects be identified, and who would be responsible? Essentially, who is in control?
The “Khaki Green Scenario”
The second scenario also grapples with questions of authority, and speed and intensity of response would be valued over democracy and long-term considerations. In the “khaki green scenario” we’d find a world of top-down, almost militarized control over economics and technology in order to avoid catastrophe. The most likely version of this scenario would have governments seeking in desperation to achieve short-term results, putting countries on a “wartime footing.” Given that a world of extreme climate distress would probably also see significant levels of international tension (over water access, for example, or refugees), the “wartime” condition may be more literal than metaphorical.
This scenario becomes more likely as the risk of large-scale disaster rises, and is especially plausible if it’s determined that SRM geoengineering wouldn’t work or would have side effects as dangerous as the global warming it would try to minimize. With seemingly easy fixes no longer under consideration, many nations would seek fast action to stave off disaster, making conventional diplomacy and negotiation difficult. As I stated in my previous essay, climate is a wicked problem: it’s enormously complicated and the best solutions are problematic. The costs of change, the need for collaboration and the complexity of the underlying systems all undermine the efficacy of conventional give-and-take politics. The more disastrous the looming climate impacts become, the more likely it will be that we’ll see demands to accept authoritarian methods of reducing and eliminating carbon emissions.
The “Ecotechnology Scenario”
While the danger of unintended consequences would be great, so would be our ability to deal with those results.
This scenario is in many ways the riskiest of them all. In it, we would look to radical, often experimental, techniques to restore natural systems. Superficially, it may seem like another geoengineering story, but the goals are quite different. The geoengineering I discuss in the “Tourniquet” scenario is an attempt to suppress the symptoms of climate disruption, while using conventional economic and political means to address the causes. What we might call “ecotechnology” is an attempt to attack the sources of climate disruption directly by removing carbon from the atmosphere and acid from the oceans and restoring already distressed ecosystems. Ecotechnologies could include trees bioengineered to boost carbon uptake, “accelerated weathering” to counteract ocean acid, even solar-powered drones designed to capture tropospheric CO2. While these kinds of technologies are still early in development, the larger goal they look to achieve appeals to a growing number of environmental scientists.
This scenario is ripe with opportunities to make globally disastrous mistakes, however. Deploying biotech trees could disrupt ecosystems, for example, or unexpectedly change rainfall patterns. There may even be a risk of removing carbon too quickly; after all, the problem with global warming isn’t just the amount of change, but also how rapidly it’s happening. But while the danger of unintended consequences would be great, so would be our ability to deal with those results — the scientific understanding that would result from our efforts to make ecotechnology work effectively would have enormous additional benefits. If it worked, the results would still echo the choices I described in my first Ensia piece, “Shaping the Anthropocene,” where none is truly appealing. But as I said in that essay, we left the appealing options behind decades ago.
It should be clear at this point that these three scenarios are not necessarily good ideas. Each has the potential for terrible costs, and could in some cases even make the planetary situation worse. But they are at the scale we need to be thinking in order to address climate change. My goal in presenting these three scenarios isn’t to lay them out as our only options, but to provoke thinking at such a scale in order to come up with ideas we actually could call good ones.
In the 1960s, another massive problem captured our attention: the potential for global nuclear conflict. An analyst named Herman Kahn grappled with many of the implications of the threat in his book On Thermonuclear War; his term for looking squarely at the consequences of such an event was “thinking the unthinkable.” Today, we need a similar willingness to consider what it will truly mean to avoid catastrophic climate disruption. Only then can we figure out a solution.