Throwing Shade

Tom Easton

One of the scariest things about the climate change or global warming threat is that over and over again, the projections for the next few years seem to be too conservative.[1] If this continues, temperatures and sea level will go up more, and sooner, Antarctic ice will melt faster, there will be more wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, storms, floods, and so on. Even the food supply will be affected. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stressed how bad things may get.[2]

The worst hit will be developing nations and the poor. Humanity is probably not in danger. Civilization will probably continue. But there will be a lot of damage to pay for, and insurance companies are going to go bust.[3]

The frustrating thing is that we have known for two generations what to do about it: stop putting greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, into the air. Stop burning coal, oil and natural gas. Stop clearing land, too, for cutting down a forest means putting all the carbon in the trees’ wood back into the air—and the trees aren’t there to keep pulling carbon out of the air.

Yet decision-makers have refused to believe we have a problem. They have, in fact, shown great dedication to throwing shade. All this global warming bushwah is just a Chinese hoax, says U.S. President Donald Trump.[4] All those scientists are just trying to get rich off government grant money! And even if it were real, humans aren’t to blame. Climate change is natural! Carbon dioxide is a plant nutrient not a pollutant!

Meanwhile, oil companies have buried their own research indicating a problem.[5] Admitting there was one might, after all, cut into profits. On a larger scale, trying to prevent global warming might damage the economy, and never mind that ignoring the problem will damage the economy much worse.[6]

So we’re not doing much, and it’s getting late to start serious efforts to prevent disaster. We may well need some serious last-ditch technology to save the day.

Fortunately, Mother Nature has given us some hints. In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia blew its top. The resulting cloud of dust and sulfates reflected so much sunlight (and heat) back into space, that 1816 has been known ever since as “the year without a summer,” or “eighteen hundred and froze to death.”[7] In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines repeated the lesson on a smaller scale.

The lesson is that climate can be cooled if the amount of incoming heat from the sun that is reflected back to space can be increased with some sort of “sunshade.” This has led many people to think that if we could manipulate the Earth’s reflectivity by geoengineering or climate engineering, we could do something useful.

Paul Crutzen suggested in 2006[8] that adding sulfur compounds to the stratosphere (as volcanoes have done) could reflect some solar energy and help relieve the problem. Roger Angel[9] suggested using a fleet of millions of small reflective spacecraft.  Others have suggested spraying seawater high into the stratosphere.[10]  At the time, many folks thought these guys (and others) were nuts. Today, well… The Y Combinator startup accelerator has called for proposals to turn geoengineering into businesses.[11] All approaches would be expensive, and the risk of side-effects means that such solutions should be considered only for use in extremis, if greenhouse gas reductions are not sufficient or if global warming runs out of control.  Geoengineering could become our only option.

Robert B. Jackson and James Salzman[12] argue that although we need to move toward increased energy efficiency and greater use of renewable energy and explore ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, we do also need to study the possibilities of geoengineering. “The stakes are too high for us to think that ignorance is a good policy.”  The need to fund the necessary research is also the subject of a two-volume National Research Council report.[13] There are signs that momentum is gathering,[14] but there are also signs that climate skeptics may be preparing to embrace geoengineering as a substitute for more fundamental fixes, such as reducing carbon emissions.[15] Unfortunately, using geoengineering that way is a recipe for disaster, for if the geoengineering effort ever falters, and if carbon emissions have continued unabated, the warming effects of those emissions will kick in all at once.

Not surprisingly, some people are extremely chary of geoengineering proposals. For instance, James R. Fleming[16] argues that climate engineers fail to consider both the risks of unintended consequences to human life and political relationships and the ethics of the human relationship to nature.  They also, he says, display signs of over-confidence in technology as a solution of first resort. Most recently, the environmental group Geoengineering Monitor has issued a “Manifesto Against Geoengineering.”[17] The group contends that geoengineering perpetuates the false belief that today’s unjust ecologically and socially devastating industrial model of production and consumption cannot be changed and that we therefore need techno-fixes to tame its effects. The shifts and transformations we really need to face the climate crisis are fundamentally economic, political, social, and cultural.

Unfortunately, economic, political, social, and cultural changes are precisely the ones the existing economic, political, social, and cultural system resists the most. It is much simpler to implement a technological fix, even if that fix is really no more than a bandaid, a temporary measure that covers up the real problem and allows the world to go on as usual—for a while.

I’m afraid that environmental groups such as Geoengineering Monitor (and all the others that have signed the manifesto) are right when they say that climate change is not a scientific or technological problem. The science tells us, quite convincingly, that we do in fact have a problem. The technology helps us figure out what we can do about it, from renewable energy systems to geoengineering. However, much more fundamentally, climate change is a people problem. We need to change the way people around the world think, even what they value, if we are to have any real hope of warding off the worst effects of global warming.

It is not enough to think about the welfare of the wealthier citizens of the developed nations, for they have the resources to adapt to the problem. Developing nations, and the poor everywhere, do not. And they do matter.

It is not enough to think about the well-being of our children and grandchildren. Their children and grandchildren also matter. And theirs. Intergenerational ethics is a Thing.[18]

It is very much not enough to leave it at “Profit trumps all.”

But… Politics.


[1] https://www.straitstimes.com/world/climate-changing-faster-than-feared-but-why-are-we-surprised

[2] See Matt McGrath, “Final Call to Save the World from ‘Climate Catastrophe.’” BBC News, October 8, 2018; https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-45775309.

[3] It’s already happening: https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/04/us/camp-fire-insurance-company-liquidation/index.html

[4] https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/jun/03/hillary-clinton/yes-donald-trump-did-call-climate-change-chinese-h/

[5] https://insideclimatenews.org/news/22082017/study-confirms-exxon-misled-public-about-climate-change-authors-say

[6] Download the 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment at https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/downloads/

[7] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/blast-from-the-past-65102374/

[8] “Albedo Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections: A Contribution to Resolve a Policy Dilemma?” Climate Change, August 2006,

[9] “Feasibility of Cooling the Earth with a Cloud of Small Spacecraft near the Inner Lagrange Point (L1),” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, November 14, 2006.

[10] Tim Smedley, “How Artificially Brightened Clouds Could Stop Climate Change,” BBC Future (February 26, 2019).

[11] https://techcrunch.com/2018/10/23/y-combinator-issues-a-request-for-geo-engineering-startups-because-climate-change-is-real-and-were-all-going-to-die/

[12] “Pursuing Geoengineering for Atmospheric Restoration,” Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2010.

[13] Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration (2015) and Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth (2015).

[14] James Temple, “The Growing Case for Geoengineering,” Technology Review, April 18, 2017; https://www.technologyreview.com/s/604081/the-growing-case-for-geoengineering/.

[15] Katherine Ellison, “Why Climate Change Skeptics Are Backing Geoengineering,” Wired, March 28, 2018; https://www.wired.com/story/why-climate-change-skeptics-are-backing-geoengineering/.

[16] “The Climate Engineers,” Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2007.

[17] Geoengineering Monitor, “Hands Off Mother Earth! Manifesto Against Geoengineering,” October 2018; http://www.geoengineeringmonitor.org/2018/10/hands-off-mother-earth-manifesto-against-geoengineering/.

[18] https://www.unicef-irc.org/article/920-climate-change-and-intergenerational-justice.html; http://ww.hettingern.people.cofc.edu/Environmental_Philosophy_Sp_09/Gardner_Perfect_Moral_Storm.pdf

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *