Confronting the crisis

In November 2009, Bart Gordon, then Chairman to the US House Science Committee, welcomed his fellow members of Congress to a session of hearings: ‘good morning […] Today we begin what I believe will be a long conversation’.1 The ‘long conversation’ that Gordon initiated here concerned ‘the deliberate large-scale modification of the Earth’s climate systems for the purposes of counteracting climate change’,2 also referred to as climate engineering.

This is where our inquiry begins. As I will suggest in this and the following chapter, Gordon’s hearing was a watershed moment for the career of climate engineering in the United States. The hearing marked the arrival of climate engineering on the agenda of US climate politics. Over the following months and years, US policymakers began to assess the promise of a controversial set of measures consisting of shooting sulphate particles into the stratosphere, fertilising the oceans, or installing artificial trees that can suck carbon dioxide from the air. It is the symbolic moment when climate engineering materialised in the US political realm and assumed the form that continues to define the debate over climate engineering until today. In addition to mitigating and adapting to climate change, climate engineering became established as a potential third kind of policy approach to tackling climate change – ‘a third possible risk-management strategy for climate change’ – as one federal agency put it.3

Approaching a watershed moment

Before exploring this starting point further, let’s take a step back. Fig. 2.1 may help to provide a bigger picture of where we stand at this moment in time. The graph situates the historical moment of Gordon’s hearing within the wider context of US climate policy. It traces the rise in policy attention to climate engineering for the period of 1994 to 2020 and compares this to discussions addressing other measures to counteract climate change.4 The graph draws on a corpus of policy documents. It builds on records in the digital database of the US Government Publishing Office (FDsys). The squares in the lower panel display the distribution of all policy documents addressing climate change, with the other three plots charting trends in policy that attend to different modes of tackling this issue: mitigating climate change (diamonds, lower panel), adapting to its consequences (triangles, lower panel), and climate engineering (dots, upper panel).

Fig. 2.1 Climate Engineering in US Climate Policy (FDsys)Upper Panel: All policy documents addressing the topic of climate engineering (105 records in total) in the US Federal Digital System (FDsys) in the years from 1994 to 2020. Lower Panel: All policy documents addressing the topics of global climate change (squares, 29.383 records in total), the mitigation of global climate change (diamonds, 11.955 records in total), and the adaption to global climate change (triangles, 9.569 records in total) in the US Federal Digital System (FDsys) in the years from 1994 to 2020.

The graph suggests that between the early 1990s and 2006, climate change slowly emerged as a relevant issue within US climate policy, accompanied by the continuous exploration of mitigation and adaptation as potential response measures. Climate engineering, by contrast, played virtually no role in these debates. The politicisation of climate change during these years thus did not stimulate political exploration of climate engineering as a potential response measure. In fact, climate engineering did not become an issue within US climate policy until the dawn of the new millennium, lagging notably behind as the chart begins to suggest. It is only in the period between 1997 and 2009 that these controversial measures slowly begin to appear on the political agenda. Still, however, political attention to climate engineering remains very cautious during these years. Between 1997 and 2006, the topic only pops up in a total of seven policy documents. Part of the reason for this dynamic is likely a general shift of attention away from the issue of climate change in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001.5

Around 2006, however, the issue of climate change gained renewed traction, and this time, exploration of climate engineering followed suit. In 2009, US political attention to climate engineering reached its first peak. Document density jumped from two documents in 2008 to twelve in 2009. While this attention to climate engineering levelled off somewhat after 2009, ten years later, in 2019, it reached a second substantial peak. Document density jumped from eight relevant policy documents in 2018 to a total of 29 in 2019. And as the climate agenda of the incoming Biden administration suggests, it seems likely that climate engineering will only gain political traction in the years to come.6 The issue, in other words, appears to be here to stay.

This growing political attention to climate engineering corresponded to growing funding levels for research and development, both from state and private sources, as well as intensifying publication activity in this field. While there is, to my knowledge, no comprehensive account of climate engineering funding allocated from 1994 through 2020, we gain a glimpse of the overall dynamic by combining several accounts and sources. Take solar radiation management, for example. The Harvard Solar Geoengineering Research Program suggests that government funding for this particular version of climate engineering has, so far, been miniscule, especially when compared to other climate related research. The group does, however, point to increases in funding over time. While there was a little over $1 million of funding in 2008, in 2018 this figure was a little over $8 million.7 In 2016, the scientists noted a distinct spike in funding which can largely be attributed to the inception of two critical research programs, namely Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program and the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative.

More recent funding decisions suggest continuously growing political interest in the issue. In December 2019, for example, President Trump signed a spending package which earmarked a total of $4 million for solar radiation management related research. Congress directed these funds to a federal research agency – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – for studying, among other things, ‘the impact of the introduction of material into the stratosphere from … proposals to inject material to affect climate, and the assessment of solar climate interventions’.8 This decision attracted much media attention as the ‘first time ever’ that the US government ‘allocated funding for a federal agency to conduct geoengineering research’.9 In 2020, the House of Representatives proposed a 2021 budget for that same agency, NOAA, which, if enacted, would more than double these funds, adding another $5 million to the budget.10 And in that same year, Silver Lining, a non-profit organisation based in Washington D.C. announced its Safe Climate Research Initiative (SCRI) ‘to advance critical research in the historically underfunded field of solar climate intervention’, promising yet more money for solar radiation management related research.11 In a first step, the initiative awarded $3 million to a number of research programs not only in the United States, but also the United Kingdom and the ‘Global South’.12

We can trace a similar dynamic with respect to carbon dioxide removal. While US government spending has been larger for this climate engineering approach, funds have increased dramatically since the early 2000s. An analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, estimated that in the decade between 2009 and 2019 government spending on direct air capture measures comprised $10.9 million in total.13 For the 2020 fiscal year, Congress allocated twice this amount to the Department of Energy alone to research direct air capture and other negative emissions technologies.14 And if enacted, the House appropriations bill for 2021 would triple this amount, directing a total of $40 million to the Department of Energy to study direct air capture measures and an additional $25 million to establish a ‘Direct Air Capture Center’.15 The US National Academies – one of the most authoritative national institutions dedicated to the advancement of science – recommended that funding levels for direct air capture should be ramped up even further, suggesting a budget of between $1,810 million and $2,400 million over a ten-year period.16

Analyses of publication output further complement this picture, helping us to contextualise this watershed moment in the career of climate engineering. In addition to growing political attention and increasing funding levels, bibliometric studies trace intensifying publication activity in the field of climate engineering, around 2009.17 Oldham and others, for example, noted more than a tripling of publication output in 2008.18 Belter and Seidel found that more than half of all climate engineering articles published between 1988 and 2011 have appeared since 2008. The authors suggest that a series of ocean fertilisation experiments between 1988 and 2008 seems to explain most publication activity between 2000 and 2008, while solar radiation management publications follow suit, displaying ‘an exceptionally large increase’ between 2006 and 2009.19

In self-descriptions of the field, this substantial boost in scientific attention to the topic is commonly pinned down to the publication of one distinct paper in 2006.20 In this editorial essay, Paul Crutzen, Dutch atmospheric chemist and Nobel Laureate, asked if solar radiation management could provide ‘A Contribution to Resolve a Policy Dilemma?’21 The landmark essay, published in Climatic Change together with five commentaries on the text, managed to spark a heated debate along with ‘harsh criticism’.22 In hindsight, Crutzen has been praised for having lifted the ‘taboo’ on climate engineering and particularly solar radiation management research.23 As a renowned scientist, particularly acclaimed for his contributions to ozone chemistry, he is seen as having effectively provided legitimacy to the controversial suggestion of engineering the climate.24

Taken together, this series of examples helps situate this moment in time in the career of climate engineering in a first approach. It begins to suggest just how substantially the dynamic of the climate engineering debate shifted its pace and quality around 2009, from rising political attention to the issue over increasing funding levels to intensifying publication activity in the field.

A bad idea whose time has come

We can return now to Gordon’s hearing and further delve into the ‘long conversation’ that he sought to initiate here. Gordon had placed climate engineering on the congressional agenda just a couple of weeks before the climate negotiations in Copenhagen. It was the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The climate policy world had its hopes up and its eyes fixed on the Danish capital as delegates from around the world flocked to Copenhagen to try to negotiate a binding agreement on mitigating climate change. Fig. 2.1 suggests the distinct peak in US policy attention focused on global climate change during that year. While the initial goal of the meeting was a joint commitment to emissions reductions, delegates were left with nothing more than an informal agreement. The Conference ended in ‘failure, rancor and disillusionment’.25 The goal of effectively tackling climate change by mitigating greenhouse gases seemed to recede into the dim distance.

Yet, when Gordon opened his hearing on ‘the deliberate large-scale modification of the Earth’s climate systems for the purposes of counteracting climate change’,26 he wanted to make sure it had absolutely nothing to do with the pending negotiations in Copenhagen. Anticipating ‘misleading headlines’, he explicitly disconnected the hearing from the Copenhagen delegates’ quest to commit the world to a global response to the problem of climate change. As we continue to follow Gordon’s opening remarks, he seems to outright reject the very idea which his hearing’s program was officially proposing, namely, to counteract climate change by means of the deliberate large-scale modification of the Earth’s climate:

But before we begin this discussion today, I want to make something very clear upfront. My decision to hold this hearing should not in any way be misconstrued as an endorsement of any geoengineering activity, and the timing has nothing to do with the pending negotiations in Copenhagen. I know we will run the risk of misleading headlines.27

A similar tone defines the testimonies of the invited expert witnesses, presenting, for example, lists of ‘reasons why geoengineering might be a bad idea’,28 emphasising ‘in the strongest possible terms’ that they were ‘not arguing that the US or anyone else should engage in [solar radiation management]’,29 that ‘the United States Government should make it absolutely clear we are not planning for deployment of climate intervention technology’,30 and that ‘climate engineering technologies do not now offer a viable response to global climate change’.31

Climate engineering, in other words, gained political traction during the early 2000s as ‘a bad idea whose time has come’, as science journalist Eli Kintisch put it.32 The controversial measures successfully arrived on climate policy agendas as a kind of last resort option, a ‘Plan B’, something that needed to be considered, but would not really be an option and definitely not a solution against global warming.

While the 1980s and 1990s had established climate change as a complex, yet containable problem, the early 2000s witnessed a change of perspective and came with a surge of publications which emphasised the increasingly dangerous impacts of climate change on society. Metaphors of ‘climate emergencies’ and ‘tipping points’, from which there would be no return, had reached political and scientific attention.33 This language marked a growing sense of urgency about how to tackle this problem. Climate change was experienced primarily through ‘science-fuelled imagination’34, but extreme weather events, images of melting icecaps and starving polar bears all added tangibility to the daunting crisis.35 Indeed, as various scholars have pointed out, there was something of a ‘crisification’ of climate change in the years leading up to the 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen.36 We will come back and unpack the role of particularly numerical modes of observing and problematising climate change to advance the notion of climate engineering in Chapter 6.

Against this backdrop, experts and policymakers alike had begun to argue for the need to look into climate engineering, not by drawing on positive images of techno-scientific innovation, but by invoking the impending climate crisis. This was when Paul Crutzen – the Nobel laureate chemist who we met earlier in this chapter, acclaimed for having ‘lifted the taboo’ on climate engineering – famously dismissed the desirable option of effectively counteracting global warming by the sole mitigation of greenhouse gases as ‘a pious wish’.37 Following the same line of reasoning, chairman Gordon motivated the Science Committee’s inquiry into climate engineering by drawing on a ‘stark’38 and ‘unfortunate reality’39, namely that the ‘[…] onset of climate change impacts may outpace the world’s political, technical, and economic capacities to prevent and adapt to them’.40 The experts invited to the 2009 hearings similarly suggested that ‘[t]he problem is too serious to allow prejudice to take options off of the table’41 and that it is therefore ‘time to take the option [climate engineering] out of the closet’.42 In these testimonies, the need for climate engineering research was deeply embedded in frightening scenarios such as this:

What if we were to find out that parts of Greenland were sliding into the sea, and that sea-level might rise 10 feet by mid-century? […] What if rainfall patterns shifted in a way that caused massive famines? What if our agricultural heartland turned into a perpetual dustbowl?43

Experts furthermore suggested that this dire situation directly concerns national security needs: ‘direct intervention in the climate system might someday save lives and reduce suffering of American citizens’.44 Phil Willis, then chairman of the UK Science Committee, also mirrored Crutzen’s sentiment in his testimony, concluding that ‘[t]he decision not to consider any initiative other than Plan A – mitigation – could be considered negligent’.45 He had therefore ‘urged’ the government of the UK ‘to consider the full range of policy options for managing climate change’, including ‘various geoengineering options as potential Plan Bs, in the event that Plan A, mitigation and adaption, was not sufficient’.46

Gordon followed suit by formally recommending that ‘comprehensive and multi-disciplinary climate engineering research at the federal level’ should be considered ‘as soon as possible’ to be prepared ‘for future climate events’. Going even further, he urged for the need of a policy consensus on what would constitute a ‘climate emergency’ that would legitimately warrant ‘deployment of [solar radiation management] SRM technologies’.47

What these observations begin to suggest is that references to the daunting climate change catastrophe served to make the assessment and pursuit of this ‘bad idea’ consistent, rational, and legitimate.48 And it is precisely this notion of choicelessness – the suggestion that, in the face of dangerous climate change, we simply cannot afford to ignore these controversial measures – that has, in the years following 2009, continued to successfully push the idea of climate engineering further into the political limelight. In 2015, for example, the US National Academies for Sciences pointed to the particular contemporary historical circumstances as a rationale for their landmark inquiry into climate engineering. The working group argued that the time had come to look into these measures because ‘as a society, we have reached a point’ where the ‘risks from climate change’ seem to ‘outweigh’ the risks of ‘a suitably designed and governed research program’ on climate engineering.49

Two years later, the Geoengineering Research Evaluation Act of 2017 was introduced into Congress, tasking the Academies with yet another report on climate engineering, and more specifically, with devising ‘a research agenda to advance the understanding of albedo modification strategies’. The bill established the need for such a report by pointing, first, to ‘the severe impacts’ of global warming ‘on human health, the global economy, and United States national security’, to then argue for additional measures in tackling climate change: ‘cutting carbon pollution is still the best way to mitigate climate change … However, the United States and other nations may also need to consider climate intervention strategies’.50

Again, climate engineering appears in these observations as an undesirable, yet inevitable fate, as something that needs to be faced, whether we want to or not. That same year, the federal climate change research program (the US Global Change Research Program) suggested that in the face of the ‘severely challenging task’ of limiting the global mean temperature rise or adapting to the impacts of a warmer world, ‘some scientists and policymakers’ have shown ‘increased interest … in exploring additional measures’ such as ‘geoengineering or climate intervention (CI) actions’.51 And in June 2020, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis52 argued that climate engineering was needed as a way of ‘solving the climate crisis’.53 The committee’s Congressional Action Plan includes research and development on both solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal measures. Carbon dioxide removal, particularly in the form of direct air capture measures, in fact provides a key component in this plan.54 For the context of solar radiation management, the committee suggested that ‘if global efforts to mitigate carbon emissions falter, and as the impacts of climate change continue to worsen, governments may consider alternative approaches to intervene in the atmospheric climate system’. Adding to the notion that we simply have no choice in dealing with these measures, the authors invoke a kind of techno-scientific arms race:

Deploying ACI [atmospheric climate intervention] would be, at best, a modest complement. Nonetheless, the possibility of future deployment of ACI, including by foreign governments or non-state actors, necessitates consideration of the risks and governance of ACI.

Considering that climate engineering becomes a necessity, the committee recommended that ‘Congress should … establish a research program to investigate potential ACI approaches, their risks, and governance frameworks’.55

Making sense of the politics of climate engineering: Confronting narratives of choicelessness

These actors’ accounts thus suggest that climate engineering provides a rather paradoxical case of a techno-political project. Instead of resonating as a positive vision of socio-technical innovation, climate engineering gained political currency during the first decade of this millennium as an unappealing, even daunting measure of a last resort, a wholly disenchanted vision of ‘science to the rescue’. Scholarship on the discursive framing of climate engineering has demonstrated how these measures became established during the early 2000s as a ‘prudent’ strategy of ‘risk-reduction, management and control’.56 The literature identifies ‘a whole family of metaphors’ that formulate climate engineering as an insurance strategy against the daunting climate catastrophe.57 In these observations, climate change appears as a chronic disease,58 a car or a plane crash,59 against which climate engineering provides the potential remedy. In a conversation with the New Yorker in May of 2012, Hugh Hunt – an engineering professor at Cambridge University who was part of the first attempt to undertake an experiment on Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) – perfectly captures this sentiment by suggesting:

I know this is all unpleasant. […] Nobody wants it, but nobody wants to put high doses of poisonous chemicals into their body, either. That is what chemotherapy is, though […]. This is how I prefer to look at the possibility of engineering the climate. It isn’t a cure for anything. But it could very well turn out to be the least bad option we are going to have.60

With regards to the debate in the media, Holly Buck finds that ‘almost nobody’ presented their accounts ‘with attention to the positive power of humans to transform their societies or environments’.61 After all, the success of this controversial idea seems intimately linked to the notion of choicelessness:

Humans, even when they are cast as fixers, are rarely protagonists. Even the articles [on geoengineering] which featured ecological modernization were not exactly enthusiastic or positive: more often, they approached managing the earth as a chore, rather than a creative activity. The actors featured seem unable to act ... It is necessary to stabilize the climate to avert chaos – as Boykoff et al (2010: 60) explain, ‘a guiding ethos of climate stabilization is the imagined future, safe, secure, stable climate, which can be engineered by our actions now’. Yet this stability is about averting the negative, not about establishing something positive.62

These perspectives, then, beg the question of how to make sense of this conflicted status of climate engineering. I want to suggest in this book that to engage in a meaningful way with this controversial debate over climate engineering and with the politics of techno-scientific innovation more broadly, we need to unpack and confront this notion of choicelessness. Referring to urgency in efforts to argue for the need to counteract climate change is of course important (the risks of climate change and extreme weather events are very real and constantly increasing). Urgency alone, however, fails to explain the necessity, not to mention the inevitability of climate engineering in contrast to other approaches of addressing the problem, such as radical emission cuts, political-economic reorganisation, or drastic changes in energy consumption and lifestyles.63

To provide a more satisfactory account of how we got here, we need to take this narrative of choicelessness seriously as an actor’s category. This means that instead of arguing why climate engineering is or is not a Plan B,64 we need to unpack how this techno-political project gained traction precisely as such. We need to place this understanding of climate engineering in its historical context, and more specifically, we need to understand its historical status in relating climate science to politics. The histories of climate engineering are necessarily manifold. This book seeks to complement accounts of climate engineering as an unprecedented last resort with an inquiry into the grown alliances that have driven political interest in climate science for decades. If we disentangle the science-politics interrelations that have shaped the recent arrival of climate engineering on the political agenda, we see that next to this temporal dynamic of crisis and fracture sits a story of continuity. This book aims to integrate these perspectives.