Monday, July 13, 2015

The antinomies of climate engineering

Last week I attended a conference at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Organized by the German research council DFG academics from various disciplines gathered for three days at the Climate Engineering Research Symposium in the old but nicely refurbished building at the Gendarmenmarkt. The arches and pillars on the right side of the conference room still show the bullet holes from the last war. The hanging glass ceiling floats perfectly above the heads of the audience, with ever so tiny spaces between the panels, illuminated from above. This example of (low-tech) engineering and craftsmanship could be seen as a symbol of the floating fleet of aircraft deployed to inject particles into the stratosphere to cool the planet.

These two aspects are worth remembering when talking about climate engineering. On the one hand there is the issue of past events that affect us today (the bullets from the past), and our decisions that will affect those that come after us. On the other hand there is the effort by engineers to devise solutions for problematic things inherited from the past, such as a war torn building or the global climate. But clearly it took more than engineers to restore the building in Berlin Mitte.

My observations are highly impressionistic and not meant to be an account of the proceedings, so if you expect a comprehensive and accurate rendering of positions from specific persons click away now.

Climate engineering (CE) is still a somewhat obscure and elite discourse, mainly conducted in the Western world. As one presentation illustrated, the concept has been discussed for over two decades in the scientific community and in science policy circles, leading to the publication of several hundred papers and documents. The public discourse on the topic pales in comparison. The Lexis-Nexis newspaper database lists just 134 newspaper articles containing the term ‘climate engineering’ from 1995 until today in the English-speaking world.

The DFG symposium was interesting in that scholars from a range of disciplines and countries presented their ideas, exposing the different epistemic cultures. There was no attempt made by the organizers to prove a meta-narrative, or even to contextualize the various different contributions. Several contributions from the physical sciences did not even attempt to summarize their main points to an audience which is at some distance to the technical jargon.

The CE experts gathered at the symposium seems to follow the broader scientific climate change discourse in that a lot of energy is spent on modeling efforts. This is of course the stomping ground of atmospheric scientists and economists, with psychologists adding quantitative studies about personal perceptions and behavior. But there were also philosophers and legal experts present, even qualitative social science and STS perspectives.

The sequence of talks followed the script familiar to us from climate change discourse: first come the physical sciences, then the social, political and moral questions. Listening to the modeling results from atmospheric scientists my impression was that the physical effects of various CE techniques are far beyond our understanding and control.

A common thread in the modeling contributions is a reductionism and determinism (that is conceded, even at times happily acknowledged by the authors). Often a tight causal relationships is assumed, such as the link between research into CE and its actual deployment. Depending on where you stand, you are either in favour of ‘doing’ CE, or in opposition. In economists’ parlance, it is not clear if CE is (or leads to) a ‘public good’ or to a ‘public bad’. There were no passionate calls for stopping CE research in its tracks.

Most presentations used the concepts of CE and Solar Radiation Management (SRM) interchangeably. SRM is only one of many CE applications and the problems associated with each are different. SRM is an emerging technology that aims at injecting particles into the stratosphere. This would mimic the effect of large volcano eruptions which are known to have cooled the Earth in the past. If another CE technique were available at scale without negative side effects, such as carbon dioxide removal, we would probably have a very different kind of debate.

While CE is interdisciplinary the main core of research happens in the physical sciences, as Jack Stilgoe nicely illustrated, making use of a scientometric network analysis. Some social sciences are visible as well, mainly from economics, law, psychology and international relations. Surprisingly, engineering is absent from this research field called Climate Engineering. Jack made a distinction between CE as a noun and as gerund, showing potentially new insights if we take climate engineering as a process and activity.

The problem of uncertainty was raised by several speakers across the disciplines, from atmospheric science to philosophy. As Johannes Lenhard pointed out scientists tend to equate uncertainty with variations of empirical estimates (as in error bars of measurements or model projections) whereas some social scientists make a distinction between cases where we know the probabilities of something to happen and cases where we do not. Only the latter is a case of real uncertainty, according to the economist Frank Knight. Lenhard argued that scientists and economists often make uncertainty disappear by taking take mean values from different studies, excluding the full range of possibilities. They transform uncertainty into risk, which is a fallacy.

It was refreshing to see some heterodox approaches, too. Talking about uncertainties, someone stated that we do not seem to understand the climate system very well, as evidenced by the failure of climate models to account for the recent temperature record (he would have been lambasted in a more conventional climate change meeting). If anything, CE will exacerbate uncertainty. Another presenter mentioned that several countries would prefer a temperature rise of more than 1.5°C compared to 2006 as this would benefit their agriculture (pure heresy for the mainstream). One presentation advocated the use of cultural cognition for the analysis of people’s reactions to information about CE, another the use of human rights as a legal instrument to govern CE applications. The argument is that one form of harm (past CO2 emissions) cannot be corrected by another form of harm (CE).

Ethical issues were raised throughout, such as the problem of intergenerational justice. But CE is a problem of intra-generational justice as well, as the only speaker present from an African country remarked. This is intertwined with the causal models mentioned above: who will benefit from CE’s applications? Which side effects will it have? What legitimation exists for its deployment? As one speaker rightly said, CE applications would need a social license to operate. How could this legitimation be provided on a global scale? It seems as if the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change does not provide an obvious or robust basis in international law (Art 2 talks about ‘stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’--not about the reduction of solar irradiation). If UN frameworks do not exist this may lead to problems of unilateral or mini-lateral initiatives of CE, which again, will be seen by some as good and by others as bad.

Other ethical issues were mentioned, such as the slippery slope argument or moral hazard. The moral hazard problem arises if CE solutions become scalable, safe, and cheap as there would be little reason to invest in mitigation policies. But this would be analogous to many classical pollution problems where the solution to the problem was to use an end of pipe device without radically altering the polluting technology. We seem to be well equipped in the logic of this kind of moral hazard that it does not pose a fundamental problem.

However, no one mentioned an obvious challenge to international climate policy and ethics. If CE becomes scalable, safe and cheap, what would be the target temperature of the global thermostat? And if we could agree on a number, what would be the legitimate way to arrive at binding decisions about it?

In sum, CE is still in the pre-problem stage of public attention. It is an issue that could make its transition into the stage of alarmed discovery. For this to happen several problems need solving simultaneously which are currently entangled within the CE expert communities: the question if CE would be effective and controllable, beneficial to all stakeholders, safe, and ethical to use with regard to future generations. 

The bullet holes on the pillars in the Academy pose the question to us contemporaries if the violence could have prevented and what we make of the war, looking back at history. No matter which lesson we take from it, it seems a complicated story, with technology, ethics and politics interacting.

One lesson that has been drawn is to build strong international institutions to prevent an escalation of conflicts. Europe drew the lesson of unification after the Second World War, a project that was characterized by good intentions but executed in a technocratic manner. The good intentions eventually led to unintended consequences that plague the union today. Democratic participation has been a problem although the ‘social license’ to operate was not called into question on a broader basis until recently. Even in the current crisis the EU’s ‘natural’ modus operandi is technocratic and elitist.

Governance structures have been proposed for CE, too. There is disagreement where they should start; should CE research be controlled and restricted, or should we wait with regulations until specific projects are ready to be deployed? The answer to that question will depend very much on the nature and trajectory of the CE community. If it envisages a technocratic path, which will lead to CE applications by a club of countries (‘coalition of the willing’) then a semi secret environment, much like military applications would be logical. If, on the other hand, public debates unfold about the problems of climate policy, including options for CE, the legitimation of specific avenues of scientific and technical applications would be challenged from the start. My sympathies are clearly with the latter approach. A precondition for this would be that CE debates extend beyond expert communities to become visible in public discourse.


Jack Stilgoe said...

Great post Reiner. Thank you for your insights. To my mind, there was insufficient consideration of these antinomies at the meeting. This is perhaps inevitable, given that this was very much about 'research' and 'research' hardly gets at the challenges presented by imaginaries of geoengineering. Even if the research is not in itself as reductionist as in many areas, the mere act of turning the issue into empirical questions troubles me. Perhaps it's asking for too much to expect every research paper to be laden with more caveats than answers, but we must not leave behind the baggage...

Anonymous said...

Reiner reports some valuable insights! One Question about a question: If CE becomes scalable, safe and cheap, what would be the target temperature of the global thermostat? And if we could agree on a number, what would be the legitimate way to arrive at binding decisions about it?

a) I am reluctant to believe in a sound scientific understanding of all the aspects of human effect on climate, as long we do not see any clear understanding of climate engineering. Roger Pielke could be interpreted as an apologete of anthropogenic landuse patterns being an outstanding effective (but not "mastered") climate engineering technology so far, besides carbon dioxide and other "global" CEG agents.

Lets assume that we already had mastered a range of working and economically feasible and regionally scaleable CE technologies. They would trigger some important political issues - how to deal with national boundaries and local impacts of such technologies, which might be positive for some and negative for others? I a) tend to doubt a "global termostat" as a suitable variable for regional decision making. b) I assume a political proposal to use climate engineering on a larger scale is a sort of third rail in the political field. Compare the vast amount of conspiracy theories and heated debates resulting from the use of already existing "Schwäbische Hausfrau" / old school economic receipees on Greece, a steaming hot kitchen in the mediterranean. A public debate of the actual pros and cons of CE is in danger to be framed by happy chemtrail conspirationists versus 50ies retro style largescale engineering thinking, among others. How to avoid that?

Regards Friedrich Heckmann

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Friedrich, you say "I am reluctant to believe in a sound scientific understanding of all the aspects of human effect on climate, as long we do not see any clear understanding of climate engineering." Can you explain this a bit more? A lot of what you say afterwards seems to depend on this statement.

The sentence could be understood in a theoretical way (first we need better understanding) or in a practical way (if we have shown that we can control climate through climate engineering, we have understood all aspects of human effects on climate). The latter would be easily accused as hubris but is in line with the enlightenment motive of 'verum factum convertuntur' - that we only truly understand the things we as humans have made. Nature was made by God and remains thus mysterious.

Anonymous said...

Hallo Reiner,

I tried to check your latin quote - 'verum factum convertuntur' is based on Karl Löwiths work on Giambattista Vico 'Verum quia factum'. I think Vico has a point! True is only what we have done and gestalted (framed) ourselves. Take soil and rock mechanics and material science which allow bridge and tunnels, mining and dam building. Take forest ecology and its interaction with applied forestry and silvyculture. Nevertheless bridges may fail, forests may burn and rocks may fall. Tand, Tand / Ist das Gebilde von Menschenhand

As I just am in the process to move to Berlin I have reason to be humble. Even if airports have been constructed elsewhere, the BER disaster (Motto "niemand hat vor einen Flughafen zu errichten") shows that even an established technology may face major failures in given socioeconomic and political circumstances. If we haved achieved a sound understanding of the natural science in a certain field, you should be able to make a serious technology / engineering and businesses out of it. But climate engineering is - if I understand right about your impressions- being far from having gained such a proof of concept.

Quoting the WP Article on vico: Der menschliche Geist kann nicht erkennen, wie er selbst funktioniert, da er seine Erkenntnisobjekte selbst gestaltet (rather latouric!) Stattdessen muss man, so Vico, die Ursprünge und die Entwicklung der Phänomene untersuchen; und wenn nur das „wahr“ ist, was wir selbst gestaltet haben, dann bedeutet Wissenschaft nicht nur Kenntnis dieser Ursachen, sondern auch ihre eigene (Weiter-)Entwicklung. Damit führte Vico in die Erkenntnistheorie das Element der Dynamisierung ein – eine radikale Neuerung in der europäischen Geistesgeschichte.

I doubt the human influence on climate is 100% bad or good or negligeable per se - its an important, multifaceted influence as pointed out by Pielke. But a perspective asking for absolute (anthropogenic) climate neutrality is as naive as anti-enlightenment and anti-human. That said - claiming that we know everything about climate, is a similar hubris as the sceptical Know-Nothing approach.


Quoting Löwith:
Daß wir aber überhaupt die Geschichte im ganzen auf Sinn und Unsinn hin befragen, ist selbst schon geschichtlich bedingt: jüdisches und christliches Denken haben diese maßlose Frage ins Leben gerufen. Nach dem letzten Sinn der Geschichte ernstlich zu fragen, überschreitet alles Wissenkönnen und verschlägt uns den Atem; es versetzt uns in ein Vakuum, das nur Hoffnung und Glaube auszufüllen vermögen. Die Griechen waren bescheidener. Sie maßten sich nicht an, den letzten Sinn der Weltgeschichte zu ergründen. Sie waren von der sichtbaren Ordnung und Schönheit des natürlichen Kosmos ergriffen.“

@ReinerGrundmann said...


Vico's principle is just that, a claim about an important difference in what can be known with certainty. Nevertheless it may be interesting to use as a heuristic device. BTW the fact that a technology can fail is not a disproof of the principle. And technology is always linked to social institutions which creates the kind of complexity that makes its control or mastery difficult. My suspicion is that BER's failure had less to do with purely technical aspects but with social.

Yes the Greeks were more modest but Vico's principle seems to be at the heart of Modernity's relation to nature, which as defined the past centuries of industrial development (Marx, of course, was a great fan of Vico). Even the distinction between danger and risk, and between natural and anthropogenic causes, relates to this.

I have written on the interaction of technology and society using Vico's principle but also Charles Perrow's concept of Normal Accidents. This latter framework could be applied to geo-engineering quite easily. It is based on the interaction of two dimensions, tight and loose coupling of elements in a system, and linear or complex interactions between elements. High risk systems, according to Perrow, are those that are tightly coupled and complex. Climate engineering could be in this bag, but much depends on the time dimension , i.e. how quickly an accident propagates through the system. In SRM the lag time seems to be considerable and it looks difficult to figure out what the effects of SRM are compared to other influences.

Anonymous said...

Reiners approach is much more abstract than mine ;)

Point is - we started from the relation between low amount of interest (and applicability) of climate engineering and the far reaching claims of model based climatology. For a practical example - if the Papal academy of science would provide a far reaching, sound and throrough review of global human sexuality research but would claim that abstinence is the only acceptable or safe technology in the field (Carl Djerassi's pill not being allowed), we both probably would see either a lack of understanding or ideological reasons behind.

Now the IPCC comes up with a thorough review of climate science, but the only "cure" currently approved is abstinence (CO2 reduction to fullfill the 2°C goal). Right? Point is that not only climate engineering is proably in a Normal accident bag, overall human interaction with climate always has been. Practical example: doi: 10.1177/0306312712448130 and 10.1126/sciadv.1500093 - the IPCC might underestimate the (severe and global) uncertainities and risks concerning a possible meltdown of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, some share of the known instability might be due to natural (volcanic) causes.

Does it mean that "no interaction with climate" or "not living on coastlines" is the only solution? I doubt it. That said, if climate engineering is still in a native state, my doubts about the useability of general climate research for actual practical political solutions still prevail.

Anonymous said...

K.M. aus T.: "Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation." Hmmm. Does climate engineering lack material conditions? ;) Friedrich

wettercafe said...

But to burn million tons of million years aged carbon is not a kind of climate engineering?
Well, it still appears much easier today...

Anonymous said...

Burning aged carbon in large power stations is much healthier than burning of (reneweable) wood and charcoal in human dwellings.
Both do not fullfill terms like "climate engineering" or "climate technology". We may know how to build a power station, but do we have a real clue how it exactly influences climate on different regional scales?