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The Ethics of Geoengineering: An Interview With Oliver Morton

In The Planet Remade, Oliver Morton considers ambitious—and controversial—arguments in favor of technological climate intervention.
oliver morton

(Photo: Oliver Morton)

What if we could fashion a planetary umbrella out of sulfur? What if there were techno-fixes to climate change? Who would decide to deploy them? What would the rest of us have to say?

An editor at The Economist in London, Oliver Morton has established a reputation as an essential science writer with such books as Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination and the Birth of a World and Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet. His latest is The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, a thoughtfully written and meticulously reported volume that explores the nascent and controversial field of deliberate technological interventions in the climate—interventions meant to cool the planet.

Once unmentionable among scientists and policymakers as an approach to global warming, geoengineering has recently come to the fore as an option—or a last resort. The failure to actually reduce global emissions has meant that all possibilities are now on the table, including some that sound like premises from a science-fiction novel: Humans could sequester carbon dioxide by removing it from the air through technologies that mimic trees, or we could spray water droplets in the lower atmosphere to reflect light and heat back to space, or we could seed sulfur aerosols in the stratosphere to do the same. We know the latter option has worked because that’s what really big volcanoes do. The first approach is called, simply, CDR, or carbon-dioxide removal; the second two are forms of SRM, or solar-radiation management.

Since the field is mired in controversy, very little real-world geoengineering has taken place. Research has been essentially confined to computer models, while debate continues between those who advocate the need to test this approach and those who see geoengineering as a way to avoid actually reducing greenhouse-gas consumption. Questions of how geoengineering should be regulated are paramount, as are possible regional side effects, which could include increased drought in some areas.

Morton blends careful research, beautiful writing, and dramatic storytelling skills with a meditative tone, inviting readers to consider not only the literal possibilities of geoengineering but the wider historical truth that we already have deeply altered a variety of crucial planetary processes. Seen in this light, geoengineering becomes less of a "techno fix" and more of an existential question: Can humanity use its power to save ourselves—and the rest of the biosphere as it now stands?

Even exploring such an approach is a non-starter for many mainstream environmentalists and those suspicious of technology and capitalism's ability to serve socially just ends. But geoengineering remains a part of the future for some upstart ecological modernists, who argue that intensifying efficiencies and embracing some technologies (including genetically modified organisms) can lift people out of poverty while also leaving more wild nature alone. Like the eco-modernists, Morton shares an interest in technological approaches to environmental problems. Unlike some, he is perhaps more sanguine about the questions of social governance.

Morton's is a balanced and deeply considered book that forces readers to confront not only basic assumptions about the human relationship to the non-human world but to consider what we must do if that relationship is to move from recklessness to stewardship on a planetary scale. The Planet Remade is, yes, a deliberate and important book, and I spoke with Morton one recent morning to talk about it.

The Planet Remade

The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. (Photo: Princeton University Press)

The subtitle of your book The Planet Remade is How Geoengineering Could Change the World. It's not "will" or "should." Can you talk about geoengineering's prospects in the coming decades? Do you expect to see geoengineering happen in your lifetime?

Well, first I'd like to slightly expand your time horizon looking backwards. The progress of geoengineering has been from a mainstream, if not practically intended, area of scientific speculation to something not talked about, and now it is swinging back. I say this to emphasize that ideas about how people might and should interact with the climate have been quite labile over the decades and centuries, and I think that that is the right sort of timescale for this sort of discussion.

What I hope to see happen in my lifetime, which we'll be actuarial about and top out somewhere in the early 2040s, is that there is a serious discussion about realizing geoengineering in some sort of safe, just, and governable form as an additional response to climate change. If it can't be made safe, just, and governable to any satisfactory degree (all those adjectives have gradations) then I don't want to see it.

This maybe goes right to something you bring up near the end of the book: "There is a word mostly missing from this book. It is 'we.'" In a first-world culture with a spotty technological track record, political dysfunction, and scientific illiteracy—can we have a serious discussion about geoengineering that could result in a safe, just, and governable deployment? I mean, what does that look like, to have the discussion first?

Well, I don't want that discussion to happen just in the culture that you describe; this is a global issue, and the discussion needs to reflect that (though that in no way makes things easier). To a significant extent this would mean a broadening out of the current discussion about climate. You might note that that discussion is a poor one, perhaps particularly in the United States, but it is real and it engages the world. Part of the broadening I would imagine would be to increase the role played in that discussion by the reduction of harm (and the risks of harm).

A greater focus on reduction of actual harm makes it easier to look at other responses—most notably adaptation, but also perhaps geoengineering. This is a view that I think fits well, by the way, with making sure that the debate is global; the parts of the world where most people live, where most emissions are, and where most harm is likely to be felt may well be strong participants in that sort of re-shaping.

So ideally the discussion about geoengineering is really in that wider frame and takes place in the media, classrooms, legislative bodies, and the like? I just wonder if we are facing timescales that are too pressing for what might be a slow cultural discussion.

I think you may be overdoing the slow change aspect of things. Some things are hard and thus slow to change—a world-spanning industrial economy based on more than 80 percent fossil-fuel energy and its associated distribution and conversion technologies is one of them.

Attitudes to nature may move rather quicker. Deep as they feel to us, they may display less inertia. To take an example: When my colleagues at The Economist began to champion gay marriage about 20 years ago, the case against seemed both to be very entrenched and to lean very heavily on notions of what was and wasn't "natural." And though those beliefs are still there in many people, they have proved to be quite changeable in many others.

I have heard friends and colleagues suggest that this means that getting rid of fossil fuels might be similarly quick and comparatively easy (though I don't want to under emphasize the hard work the gay-marriage cause has required). I think that parallel is misleading, because of the costs and interests involved in eliminating fossil fuels, but the parallel to a change of heart about "nature" that might see a broader interest in geoengineering strikes me as at least a bit plausible.

Indeed, in the community of scientists and scholars and wonks that thinks about geoengineering, there is a persistent worry that some changes in mindset might come terribly quickly: Specifically, they fear that a significant part of the political class, especially in America, might move with Necker-cube instaneity from "climate change does not exist/is not man made and thus is not a problem to address" to "climate change can be easily sorted out by geoengineering and is not a problem to address any further."

And that's a worry because to those people—as to me—it embodies two of the great mistakes in thinking about geoengineering. One is that once you have decided on the technology, that's it—no more work on "safe, just, and governable." The other is that it treats geoengineering as a categorical alternative to other forms of climate action, when it [geoengineering] is better seen as an adjunct. To champion geoengineering as a way of simply avoiding the difficulty of fundamentally changing the world's energy system is, to me and most others who think about it, really wrong. If geoengineering is to make sense, it must be in concert with action on mitigation and adaptation.

But to return to your point on unilateral action. I don't take pure Greenfinger scenarios—tech billionaire starts to put aerosols into the sky with his own devices—all that seriously, because I think the response would be quite swift and strong. I do think, though, and I explore in the book, the possibility of action by a small group of states. People tend to think that a state that might do this would have to be a very strong one, a nuclear weapon state, perhaps. But I think there is also, to borrow from Vaclav Havel, a "power of the powerless."

States that are not major emitters and are seeing serious harm, even existential loss, might choose to act in such a way as to confront the broader world with facts on the ground: "This is here, how are you going to proceed?” That short-circuits some governance talk. The idea of perfect governance in advance is not necessarily attainable. I think that's the lesson of history. But that in no way means that states and other actors should not think about and develop mechanisms for governance that might be called into action rather quickly should circumstances warrant.

One last question. Critics see geoengineering as a techno-fix, sort of like the attitude you described just now: "Oh, climate change is here, after all, but we don't have to do anything so long as we can geoengineer." But you have a lovely passage in the book about the necessity of utopian thinking or, to take it down a notch, perhaps just the human impulse to craft lasting beauty. Can you briefly talk about that?

Well, the technological fix attitude stems from a belief that the problem is simply posed in a language that technology can address. I tend to see climate change as much too complex a set of issues for that sort of attitude to be defensible. I see it as part of the context in which everything else plays out—something you respond to and worry about rather than try to take off the table with a simple solution or with some mechanism of control like those which so dominated a lot of thinking in the application of science in the 20th century. Because, geoengineered or not, the fact that human influence now reaches deep into the planet's workings at nearly all scales and in many ways is here to stay, and that needs to be worked with.

I suppose that's where I differ somewhat from the eco-modernists. They have a tendency to see the correct response to the current situation as to power through it by having higher density energy sources—notably small, safe nuclear plants—and more intense farming and thus providing more space for nature. It's a coherent and interesting program, and one that I think offers much to like, such as an emphasis on energy access for the poor of the world. But it also seems to me to rely on an old-fashioned division of the human from the natural, with the natural providing some sort of external "other" that humans, once modernized, can be relied on to value.

My sense of nature is less about it as a thing, or set of things—a place, an untouched ecosystem, an unveiled sky—but as process that is ungoverned, or self-willed, in a way that provides tensions and resolutions to our lives.

Earlier on I mentioned a contrast between climate action as harm reduction and climate action as restoration, and positioned myself rather more in the former camp than in the latter one. But the two are not mutually exclusive. One of my guiding thoughts when writing The Planet Remade was a line from my friend Francis Spufford's remarkable book about the emotional basis of a contemporary Christian life and calling, Unapologetic: "Far more can be mended than you know."

I am not a Christian, though I was raised as one, but that line speaks to me strongly in my own damaged way and resonates with images of things beautifully mended. It puts me in mind of a sermon that my uncle, Martin Loft, preached at my sister's wedding when I was a child and which stayed with me, about how wedding rings are gold because the gold does not tarnish but is also soft, and thus takes nicks and tiny dents that build up into a patina richer than a perfect gloss.

I would never wish harm simply so that it might be relieved. I don't want to aestheticize or spiritualize climate action to an undue extent. But it's foolish to think that aesthetics and matters of the spirit and emotional temperament don't shape the way one confronts and responds to these issues. And I like the beauty, and morality, of a work in progress, a successive approximation to the good, one that calls on us to keep trying and rewards us for those efforts by the sense of being part of something.


Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.