Environment
3:14 pm
Wed February 12, 2014

Risky Tech Fixes For Climate Becoming Likelier, Critic Warns

Originally published on Wed February 12, 2014 9:06 pm

Some strategists still see a small window of opportunity to address climate change before the effects become damaging and costly. At least one economist, for example, says we can make a lot of progress if at least half the world agrees to put a price tag on the carbon we dump into the atmosphere.

But some big thinkers also see a grim, potentially dangerous world ahead — one where nations, confronting a climate crisis, will instead reach for a risky technological fix.

Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia, is raising that alarm. He has been in the United States talking about his recent book on the subject, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, and we sat down with him to learn why this longtime commentator on climate change has become increasingly concerned.

"Well, I think anyone who looks at the science, the severity of what we face, and takes a realistic view of the prospects of political action over the next decade or so ... has to be glum," Hamilton says.

He reaches back into intellectual history to lay out his argument, putting our current plight into the context of the Age of Reason — the Enlightenment.

"For 300 years or so we've imagined that we are rational creatures who gather evidence, assess it and change our behavior in order to assure our future," Hamilton says. "Well, we're not doing that."

For one thing, humans have never had to face a challenge of this magnitude, Hamilton says, one that calls for both rapid action and the cooperation of many nations all around the world.

"But I think there are some deeper things going on," he says, "deep within the human psyche [that have] to do with an unwillingness to face up to the severity of what the climate scientists are saying is ... already unfolding [and] will unfold in over the next decades."

There's a huge gap between what needs to be done and what's considered doable from an economic and political point of view.

'Practical' Solutions Inadequate

People who frame the question by asking what's practical end up with proposed solutions that Hamilton believes will be hopelessly inadequate.

"We've done that for the past 20 years," he says, "but we're screwed as a result."

And this is where the topic of manipulating the atmosphere to cool the planet comes into play.

"So as the climatic emergencies unfold under the next decade," he says, "there's going to be a call for political leaders to do something. Desperate times call for desperate measures."

For example, if you spray sulfur particles high into the stratosphere, scientists are confident that will cool the planet. It will doubtless have other unanticipated effects as well — and those could cause political conflict and ecological harm.

Nonetheless, if there's some sort of a climate crisis, Hamilton predicts, world leaders are likely to reach for that risky technological fix. "I think the pressures for it are really going to be overwhelming."

That's partly, he says, because the same individuals and think tanks denying the overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change are, even so, starting to talk about engineering the earth's atmosphere.

"The politics of it are, for conservatives, extremely attractive," he says. "You don't have to put taxes on gas or electricity. You don't have to ask consumers to change their lifestyles. You don't have to take on fossil-fuel corporations. And, on the other hand, it's a kind of vindication of man's technological supremacy."

Hamilton frets about the consequences of running that global experiment. But he holds out slim hope for a less risky path forward.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Yesterday on the program, we heard from a prominent economist who argues we can rein in climate change by putting a real price on dumping carbon into the air. Simply put, economic strategies can steer us away from a potential climate crisis. But those strategies have so far gained very little traction. Today, NPR's Richard Harris reports on another big thinker who warns by doing too little about climate change in the past, decision-makers are now careening toward desperate measures.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: One recent chilly afternoon in Washington, D.C., students and faculty from the American University gathered to hear from one of Australia's leading public intellectuals.

(APPLAUSE)

CLIVE HAMILTON: That's very much, Simon, for that introduction on...

HARRIS: Clive Hamilton is a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra. He says the slow gears of economics won't save us. Instead, he was in town to warn that we are in a perilous path toward attempting a technological fix - engineering the climate.

We'll get back to that in a few minutes but first, a bit of context. Hamilton is a Deep Green progressive. A few years back, he wrote a book called "Requiem for a Species." And that title pretty well sets the tone for his glum outlook on life at the precipice of climate change.

HAMILTON: Well, I think anyone who looks at the science and the severity of what we face and takes a realistic view of the prospects of political action over the next decade or so, anyone who understands that has to be glum.

HARRIS: As we settle into an interview, Hamilton digs back into intellectual history. He puts our current plight into the context of the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment.

HAMILTON: For some 300 years or so, we've imagined that we are rational creatures who gather evidence, assess it and change our behavior in order to ensure our future. Well, we're not doing that.

HARRIS: He says human beings have never had to face a challenge of this magnitude that calls for both rapid action and the cooperation of many nations all around the world.

HAMILTON: But I think there are some deeper things going on to do, you know, deep within the human psyche, to do with an unwillingness to face up to the severity of what the climate scientists are saying is going to unfold, is already unfolding but will unfold over the next decades.

HARRIS: There's a huge gap between what need to be done and what's considered doable from an economic and political point of view.

HAMILTON: You see this bizarre thing that goes on.

HARRIS: People who frame the question by asking what's practical end up with proposed solutions that will be hopelessly inadequate. Here's how Hamilton hears their internal monologue.

HAMILTON: The scientists are saying that we have to cut our greenhouse gas emissions extremely quickly, which is unprecedented in policy terms. Therefore, let's just take the scientists in a small dose and think about what's politically possible. Well, you can do that. And that's what we've done for 20 years. But we're screwed as a result.

HARRIS: And this is where the topic of manipulating the atmosphere in order to cool the planet comes into play.

HAMILTON: As the climatic emergencies unfold over the next decade, there is going to be a call on political leaders to do something. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

HARRIS: And for example if you spray sulfur particles high into the atmosphere, scientists are confident that that will cool the planet. It will doubtless have other unanticipated effects as well, and those could cause political conflict and ecological harm. But Hamilton says if there is some sort of a climate crisis, we're likely to reach for that risky, technological fix.

HAMILTON: I think the pressures for it are really going to be overwhelming.

HARRIS: Hamilton says that's in part because the same people and think tanks, who now deny the overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change, are at the same time starting to talk about engineering the Earth's atmosphere.

HAMILTON: The politics of it are, for conservatives, extremely attractive. You don't have to put taxes on gas or on electricity. You don't have to ask consumers to change their lifestyles. You don't have to take on fossil fuel corporations. And on the other hand, it's a kind of vindication of man's technological supremacy.

HARRIS: Clive Hamilton frets about the consequences of running that global experiment, but he holds out slim hope for a less risky path forward. Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.