Avoiding Climate Imperialism: A Leftist Vision of Geoengineering

We are all familiar with the ongoing climate chaos. Levels of carbon dioxide have exceeded 410 ppm, the probability of avoiding 2°C of global warming is getting smaller, and a Hothouse Earth seems more and more likely. We are approaching the point of no return.

Climate change now threatens the process of capital accumulation and business-as-usual. Geoengineering, the large-scale engineering of non-human nature, is now invoked by the IPCC as an emergency solution.

Truthfully, global warming is geoengineering; capitalism is geoengineering -- a massive, centuries-long project that has modified nature, torn open metabolic rifts, and altered the composition of the atmosphere as part of a class war, pursuing capital accumulation and sources of cheap nature. It has been unintentional, mostly -- climate modification as externality is what has brought us to this precipice -- but like intentional geoengineering, it has affected the whole of the biosphere.

Is it sensible to try and steer this geoengineering in an attempt to rectify capitalism’s scars on the biosphere? In a word: yes.

Geoengineering could easily perpetuate existing power structures and exacerbate the injustices we face, but these technologies should not be rejected outright. They “mandate caution and prudence”, but steered towards leftist goals they can help to both mitigate climate change and create a more just economic, political and social order.

Ultimately we may have no choice. Some temperature increase is “locked in” due to built-in inertia, and a “large fraction of climate change is largely irreversible on human time scales” unless massive atmospheric carbon removal occurs. Some models of future climate change suggest global biodiversity would suffer more from climate change than geoengineering. The aerosol emissions from decades of industrial activity have been masking the “true” warming associated with greenhouse gas emissions for some time. Cleaning up this aerosol pollution (and thus improving air quality and reducing deaths associated with air pollution) will induce up to 1°C of global warming.

The capitalist class can easily adapt to a warming world up to a point: wealth buys underground bunkers and gated oases; power obtains border walls and land grabs. A shared atmosphere does not mean we are in this together. To not engage in some form of geoengineering is to take a privileged position and condemn the poorest and most vulnerable of us to despair and degradation -- 0.1 degree Celsius can mean the difference between life and death for millions of people.

It will surprise no one that geoengineering carries risks. Modifying the climate or weather, even on small-scales such as cloud seeding, tugs at the tapestry of life -- and we don’t always see what threads we pull. But not all geoengineering is equal. There are big differences between reflecting sunlight back into space and sequestering carbon dioxide.

Let’s take a look at some of the more problematic forms of geoengineering.

“Solar radiation management” involves modifying the amount of solar energy entering the atmosphere system by injecting aerosols into the air, enhancing the albedo of Earth’s surface, or space reflectors. It is best compared to nuclear power: it requires centralization and a technocratic system of management. Despite decades of research, it is still not well understood, and scientific understanding of the potential impacts “remains poor”, according to the American Geophysical Union. The idea of reflecting sunlight away from Earth with giant space mirrors or the “Pinatubo option”, reducing global temperatures while maintaining levels of fossil fuel consumption and emission levels, is an appealing solution to the capitalist class. Instead of economic transformation, it encourages a quick-fix mentality, endowing technological processes and entities with the power to solve hitherto intractable problems -- a problem that David Harvey called techno-fetishism.

What impacts could we expect from a world employing solar radiation management? It wouldn’t reverse the agricultural damage caused by climate change, for a start. It wouldn’t prevent further ocean acidification, as it has no effect on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. It would increase the frequency of hurricanes, and it would cause massive decreases in tropical rainfall and disrupt the summer monsoons, adversely affecting precipitation to the food supply for billions of people who have historically had little role in causing climate change. Earth’s temperature and precipitation cycles are so tightly bound that even if temperature increases are reversed, the water cycle will not react the same way: solar radiation management is unlikely to restore the planet’s original climate.

There is also the problem of the “termination effect”, a rebound effect where global temperatures will suddenly increase if solar radiation management is deployed and then stopped prematurely. This would lock us into a program of anthropogenic temperature regulation, as it would be too dangerous to stop -- by some estimates, decades worth of temperature increase could be induced in just five years. This effect is by no means certain, however. Other research claims such geoengineering is more robust than thought, and could be phased out slowly without triggering a temperature rebound. This merely highlights the uncertainty surrounding such methods of climate modification.

The administrative challenges of such a project would be huge, and could easily create an anti-democratic bureaucracy of experts and engineers with a command-and-control structure. Solar radiation management risks reproducing a techno-science agenda reminiscent of the Cold War without guaranteeing any positive results.

Are there more reasonable forms of geoengineering?

“Carbon dioxide removal” is the other wing of geoengineering, drawing down and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere rather than reflecting sunlight away. Its methods range from afforestation, biochar (storing carbon in the soil), iron fertilization and ambient air capture, aiming to address the source of the climate crisis: greenhouse gas emissions.

As deforestation is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions (by some estimates the second largest source of carbon dioxide emissions after fossil fuels), the reforestation and afforestation of areas of Earth is an obvious method to reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Described as the most efficient and environmentally benign method of geoengineering, it can have a “significant impact” on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels on a long-term basis.

Carbon farming” is another geoengineering technique.This involves changing agricultural practices, including the use of biochar and agroforestry to enhance carbon sequestration. This coupled with reforestation can incidentally also help to reverse the desolation of the world’s soils and mitigate the declining carbon sequestration ability of existing forests, and help to contribute to what Murray Bookchin called radical agriculture.

Moving from land to the sea, the “fertilization” of phytoplankton blooms with iron nutrients is another method of carbon drawdown that avoids land-use conflicts, although scientific uncertainty persists. The sequestering of carbon as organic detritus that fall to the ocean floor can remove carbon from the carbon cycle for thousands of years, but as the plankton decay they can create oxygen-deprived dead zones. Some phytoplankton species can produce dimethyl sulfide, which on a large enough scale can enhance cloud cover and increase cloud albedo, but like other forms of solar radiation management would negatively affect precipitation and water resources in Europe and parts of Africa and the Middle East. Plantations of algae is another method of drawing down carbon dioxide while avoiding competition for agricultural land or freshwater, and will prove extremely effective when integrated with bioenergy.

Another method is to utilize what the Royal Society called “carbon capture and storage infrastructure”. This involves extracting carbon dioxide from the air and using the captured gases for agriculture or synthetic fossil fuels. This machine-driven carbon capture may be necessary if biological limits are reached, but it is easy to see how such approaches can be absorbed into existing capitalist practices -- in 2015 Bill Gates was the world’s top funder of geoengineering research.

All of these techniques are huge steps towards reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. But the necessity of scaling them up to be effective will have negative effects. Based on current estimates, the land requirements for forest carbon sequestration could be immense, affecting food security by competing for fertile soils in the same way biofuels did earlier this century. The researchers behind the Atlas for the End of the World are more direct: there will not be enough land “to utilize forestry as the single mechanism for carbon sequestration.” As Holly Jean Buck writes, Carbon Dioxide Removal is complex and possibly perilous -- and it needs to be talked about.

All forms of geoengineering need to be reviewed and scrutinized, but some of these techniques will be more conducive to a leftist approach, whereas others are likely to entrench capitalist power structures. Whether geoengineering is a leftist project or a capitalist project depends on the extent to which it can be used to maximize democracy and accountability, broad participation, and produce a fair distribution of its consequences. If a technique would further entrench economic inequality, give power to a small ruling elite, and maintain an extractivist, ecocidal approach to the natural world, it must be jettisoned. A capitalist geoengineering is another way for capitalism to extend its tentacles into the web of life, maintaining its extractivist nature, wasteful levels of production, and providing a “lifeline” for the survival of business-as-usual. It is a geoengineering that is already taking place.

Dozens of countries currently maintain cloud seeding programs, with China’s weather modification over Tibet occupying the boundary between tweaking rainfall and full-blown geoengineering. In the future, individual countries -- pursuing their own agendas and self-interest -- will not hesitate to pursue geoengineering programs to save themselves in a warming world, reducing local negative impacts regardless of the impact on their neighbours. This would encourage the weaponization of the climate, ENMOD be damned -- “one nation’s emergency can be another’s opportunity.”

This would be a world disciplined not just by capital but by a technocratic elite, profiting from climate inaction and patented geoengineering technologies while allowing climate-induced scarcity to ravage the rest of us: a world of green and gated oases of affluence surrounded by a population under siege.

But what would a leftist geoengineering look like?

Socialism is the democratization of production. This would involve democratically-organized, decentralized, coordinated control of the technologies that can modify the atmosphere, on small and large scales. It would involve collective control over energy technologies and industrial processes with the removal of the profit motive from all decision-making. It would be a high-tech planned economy, in which greenhouse gas levels are monitored via remote sensing technologies and local observatories via horizontal coordinating committees.

The science behind proposed geoengineering must be sound and transparent. Under capitalism there is a disincentive to communicate information -- knowledge is patented, hidden, squirrelled away for short-term competitiveness, encouraging technocratic cultishness. We need “socially responsible science” in the interests of wider society, not for the interests of capitalism and the state. Something like the Durham Resolution, written by the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, is a good starting point.

The infrastructure required for socially just geoengineering is in the hands of the capitalist class -- like all means of production, it needs seizing and utilizing for the global good. It will cost trillions of dollars to sequester enough carbon dioxide to stave off climate catastrophe. This will be a Herculean feat, something never before achieved. It is imperative that the working class controls and steers these programs, or the biosphere will be the latest (and maybe last) victim sacrificed to the appetite of capital.

To paraphrase Albert Camus, geoengineering is a danger only in the way that it would be employed under capitalism. The benefits must be accepted even if its ravages are rejected.

Leftist or not, geoengineering is not a silver bullet. Technocratic solutions which reject popular participation or understanding will do nothing to rectify the climate crisis. As science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson emphasized, the best geoengineering technology is “a rapid shift to social justice and an end to capitalism.” And we have reasons to be hopeful -- we already have the know-how to properly mitigate the climate crisis. It won’t be easy, but it is possible.

But geoengineering has a part in a broader leftist strategy to halt the biocrisis and evolve beyond capitalism. It has to work together with systems of degrowth, reducing economic growth and redistributing wealth. Geoengineering can easily mesh with the goal of full decarbonization and 100% renewable energy generation.

At the same time, it can help soften the blows of climate change impacts too late to stop, helping us to create socially-just adaptation infrastructures, promoting networks of mutual aid, resistance, and disaster communism.

The left must not be afraid to make demands for a progressive geoengineering. Reforestation projects with mass public participation, improving soil carbon stocks on local farms, calling for the public ownership of carbon removal infrastructure, demands for public investment and research into the risks and uncertainties of geoengineering -- these are just some ways to integrate geoengineering into our climate demands and at the same time time educating the public on what a leftist geoengineering would look like.

To ignore the possibility of large-scale environmental modification leaves the battlefield of ideas open to exploitation by the forces of reaction, of distant technocrats and remorseless capitalists.

We cannot let the planet’s thermostat be controlled by the invisible hand. We’re stewards of this world, whether we want the role or not.

James Wakefield is a charity sector worker in the UK with an interest in climate change, geoengineering, and sustainable agriculture. He is part of the Out of the Woods collective (@out_woods).