Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Student Research: Working in the Eye of the Storm

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By Jeroen Oomen (Doctoral Candidate)

When the COP21 Paris climate agreement was announced in December 2015, much of the world reacted with relief, disbelief, or skepticism. For the first time since the Kyoto Protocol, after many monumental failures, the international community seemed to have managed to commit to decisive action on climate change. This was the best we could hope for, wasn’t it? Or is COP21 just a symbolic agreement that won’t change the geopolitical reality?

In the weeks that followed, the agreement was thoroughly overanalyzed. Much of the analysis didn’t stick, but there was one thing I read that resonated clearly with me, and with my PhD research: the COP21 agreement assumes that after 2050 the entirety of human existence and production will be carbon negative. This means that by 2050, we are supposed to, on average, extract more CO2 from the atmosphere than we put back into it. In short, we will be climate engineering.

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COP21 2015, Conference Center. Photo: Jmdigne, Wikicommons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

It is partly because of the strong societal outcry over and devoted opposition to technological solutions to climate change—a so-called technofix—that I turned my attention to climate engineering. It was my advisor for my master’s thesis in philosophy who turned me onto climate engineering, although back then geoengineering was still the preferred nomenclature. I had expressed an interest in the reflexivity of human science, in how scientists observe their own research field, and the interplay of science, technology, and politics, which combined well with his desire to learn more about climate engineering.

The term climate engineering refers to a large set of proposed technologies aimed at counteracting anthropogenic climate change. For the most part, we can neatly divide them into two categories. The first is solar radiation management (SRM), which consists of different technologies aimed at raising the Earth’s reflectivity. This should ensure less global warming as more solar energy is redirected into space. The second category is carbon dioxide reduction (CDR), which aims at dealing with the root cause of climate change: the excess of greenhouse gases that humanity has emitted into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

I personally feel that much contemporary analysis of climate engineering is either insensitive to the historical roots and complexities of these issues, or overly historical, and that either of these approaches risks losing the nuance that makes human life so fantastically difficult and rewarding. As such, I believe that we cannot truly hope to understand any contemporary issue without taking a serious look at its history. Perceptions, hope, and dreams are culturally perpetuated. They will always inform any field of human action. At the same time, we cannot hope to grasp current concerns on the basis of history alone. Rewriting history is a noble endeavor, and it does help us to understand patterns and behaviors, but people in the present don’t act based on the actual historical facts. They aren’t necessarily informed or consciously influenced by whether or not it was Svante Arrhenius who discovered the effect of carbon dioxide on the global greenhouse effect. They are informed by the perpetuation of the intellectual and historical structures they operate in.

Starting from that belief, I structured my research. To me, it both feels like an overly ambitious attempt to merge the history of climate engineering and its sociology, and like the only way to understand how climate engineering is developing (and will continue to do so). Over the course of the next three years, I hope to be able to understand how the history of the past 120 years of climate engineering—which I consider to have started in 1896—is integrated, both consciously and subconsciously, into the contemporary developments of the scientific and political field. In my attempt to understand these issues, I have formulated several key questions that I hope to answer by the summer of 2018.

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Proposed climate engineering projects. Image: kiel-earth-institute,  own work, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Apart from a chapter on the historical roots of climate engineering, I focus on three distinct questions that I feel are central to the climate engineering debate:

First, what are the mechanisms that led to climate engineering being defined as we know it today?  As we have seen above, climate engineering is usually thought to include both CDR and SRM methods. Many proponents of CDR methods, however, object to this classification, as they don’t want to be associated with the risks and uncertainty of SRM methods. How did the two approaches come to be lumped together? And what are the consequences of this for the development of climate engineering as a scientific field?

Second, how does climate engineering research work in practice? This involves, among other things, answering questions about how climate engineering research is institutionalized, how the funding structure is set up, and where the central hubs of climate engineering research are located, as well as establishing how “sound science” is defined in the case of climate engineering.

Finally, I want to explore how all the dynamics we have seen above play out in actual research, on a day-to-day basis: How does the day-to-day development of science and technology evolve in this particular case?

Like Martin Meiske, who is working on the “birth of geoengineering” at the RCC, I too am aware of the vast challenges that this approach holds for me. It might prove overly ambitious and difficult to answer all these questions comprehensively. But it’s a challenge that, a few months in, I am still looking forward to completing.

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