Years of fracture

In 1965, the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) published a report entitled ‘Restoring the Quality of Our Environment’.1 The report ushered in a new chapter in the career of climate engineering. It broke new ground as it prepared a momentous departure from the problematisation of climatic change that we explored in the previous chapter, and that had defined much of the 1930s through 1960s. Instead of problematising human-induced climatic change as a matter of inadvertent and deliberate climate modification, this report introduced the distinction of problem and response for the first time. This implied a two-fold shift – a shift that essentially prepared the grounds of the debate over climate engineering today.

What used to be discussed as inadvertent climate modification, as the mere side-effect of deliberate modification schemes, now became formulated as an issue in its own right. It became understood as an environmental problem of global societal significance, moving much closer to an understanding of what we discuss today as global warming. And, what used to be discussed as deliberate climate modification was no longer merely formulated as a great opportunity to improve the Earth’s climate or to mitigate natural hazards. But it appeared as a potential response measure against the very problem of inadvertent modification. It gained significance as a potential remedy against anthropogenic climate change, thus moving much closer to an understanding of what we discuss today as climate engineering.

Specifically, the President’s Science Advisory Committee warned that ‘[t]he climatic changes that may be produced by the increased CO2 content could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings’. The committee then continues to advise President Johnson to explore measures of deliberate climate modification as a potential response to address this very problem. The authors continue:

The possibilities of deliberately bringing about countervailing climatic changes therefore need to be thoroughly explored. A change in the radiation balance in the opposite direction to that which might result from the increase of atmospheric CO2 could be produced by raising the albedo, or reflectivity, of the earth. Such a change in albedo could be brought about, for example by spreading very small reflecting particles over large oceanic areas. The particles should be sufficiently buoyant so that they will remain close to the sea surface and they should have a high reflectivity, so that even a partial covering of the surface would be adequate to produce a marked change in the amount of reflected sunlight.2

Characteristic for the time, the authors focused primarily on measures to alter the Earth’s reflexivity – suggestions that are still currently discussed as solar radiation management (see Chapter 2). What seems noteworthy from our perspective today is that the experts did not refer to the possibility of reducing fossil fuel emissions as a potential response against climate change. Instead, climate engineering appears as the sole suggested remedy here.3

This PSAC report was both path-breaking and ahead of its time. In the following years, only part of the anticipated shift fully materialised: anthropogenic climate change did become established as a societal challenge with global political relevance. This did not, however, further fuel political excitement for climate modification efforts, as one might have assumed, given the PSAC’s advice. To the contrary, the US government drastically cut research funds to this area during the early 1970s.4 Climate engineering, in other words, did not emerge as a ‘Plan A’ in the face of this newly problematised challenge. These measures, in fact, would come into full swing only much later, during the early 2000s (see also Fig. 2.1).

What happened? How can we make sense of this dynamic?

This chapter unpacks how the particular politicisation of anthropogenic climate change during the 1970s through the 1990s re-defined established alliances between climate science and the state, and therein shaped the career of climate engineering for decades to come.

First, we will see how anthropogenic climate change gained political traction during these years as an issue of environmental safeguarding. This meant that climate change became understood as a challenge to reduce rather than expand techno-scientific intervention capacities. It became understood as a challenge that marked the limits of human control over the climate, therefore effectively curbing the earlier political excitement over the prospect of deliberate climate modification that had defined the 1930s through 1960s. As a result, this politicisation of climate change engendered a substantial fracture in established alliances between climate science and politics; it corresponded to a defining shift in the status of climate science for the state. Climate science no longer seemed to promise a potential tool of control at the hands of the state, but, to the contrary, it seemed to question the very hopes of control that had defined the political cultivation of climate expertise until then.

The politicisation of climate change, however, not only fractured established alliances between climate science; it also cemented new ones. In the second part of this chapter, we will see how climate science became established as the problem-defining authority for this newly politicised issue and how this new role of climate science as problem-defining authority provided the essential breeding ground in which notions of techno-scientific climate intervention would, eventually, begin to prosper again. The second section of this chapter turns in more detail to this newly emerging role of climate science in the state. We will unpack the defining expert infrastructure, as well as the relevant expert modes of observation that were essential in assembling this newly politicised issue of climate change (see Introduction for an overview of these concepts). And we will explore how, corresponding to this new problem-defining status of climate science, climate engineering schemes changed their status. While they no longer appeared as an exciting prospect of human control over the atmosphere, these measures did not vanish either. Instead, we can trace how they began to cautiously appear as a potential science-based remedy against this newly defined CO2 problem.

Environmentalism and the politicisation of climate change

We will begin in the following by taking a closer look at the spectacular rise of environmentalism, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. This rise of environmentalism will help us make sense of why climate engineering lost political traction precisely when climate change gained traction as an issue of global political significance. Specifically, we will see how this rise of environmentalism provided the relevant historical context and defining breeding ground which at once shaped the politicisation of human-induced climate change and questioned earlier hopes of techno-scientific control over the climate.

The rise of environmentalism

In the decades from the 1960s to the 1980s, public awareness and political attention focused increasingly on environmental challenges. This rise of environmentalism materialised very prominently in the social movements of the time. Propelled by the experiences of the Second World War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War, these movements called for peace and environmental protection. What united such calls for peace and environmental protection was an experience of the grim side of human efforts to control. The experiences of environmental degradation and the atrocious experiences of war – particularly exemplified in the horrid images that reached the world from the Vietnam War – emphasised the vulnerability of societies to the adverse consequences of their own technological prowess. In the fall of 1969, the New York Times predicted the force of this set of newly emerging issues on the horizon:

Call it conservation, the environment, ecological balance, or what you will, it is a cause more permanent, more far-reaching, than any issue of the era-Vietnam and Black Power included.5

This rise of environmental concerns eventually began to seep into the political sphere as states and international consortia began adopting the issue and internalised it in governance structures and legislative orders. ‘Green’ parties and political programs began proliferating, and between 1972 and 1982, the governments of 118 countries established agencies to deal with environmental issues.6

Environmental legislation enjoyed strong bipartisan support. This is particularly noteworthy for the case of the United States where the outright rejection of the very existence of the climate change issue would later emerge as a legitimate political position. In August 1969, a Senator from Alaska complained that ‘suddenly out of the woodwork come thousands of people talking about ecology’.7 Towards the end of the 1960s, President Nixon was confronted with an ‘extraordinary outburst of mass public pressure’8 and ‘massive bipartisan popular demand’9 to address pressing environmental problems. For the newly elected president, environmental protection provided ‘a welcome opportunity’.10

It seems difficult to imagine, judging from the deep partisan trenches that define environmental policy in the United States today, that in the 1960s and 1970s, environmental protection emerged as a unanimous consensus issue at a time of deep ideological divisions. In their analysis of conservative environmental policy in the United States, James Morton Turner and Andrew Isenberg emphasise just how differently this political setting was compared to today’s situation. In fact, the authors describe the development that would unfold from Nixon to Trump as the ‘Republican Reversal’, suggesting how conservatives used to play a critical role in driving environmental policy.11And so, although Nixon had virtually no prior record on environmental issues and had not run on them for office, he grasped this opportunity. In his 1970 State of the Union, Nixon expressed his desire to turn the 1970s into the historical period, where ‘[we] transform our land into what we want it to become’.12 In April of that year, the first Earth Day amassed more than 20 million US Americans who demonstrated for environmental protection. A couple of weeks later, Nixon formally signed the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) into law, which created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In his retrospective on The EPA at 40, Richard Andrews argued that ‘[i]t is fair to say that President Nixon saw a mob coming, jumped in front of it and called it a parade’.13 The Wilderness Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Air (1970) and Water (1972) Acts, and the Surface Mining Control Reclamation Act (1977) were but a few examples of the many laws passed with strong bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate during these years.14 During this time, environmentalism resonated with both conservatives and liberals as it touched on ‘anxieties about pollution and overpopulation’ and ‘desires for a clean and aesthetically pleasing environment’.15 These bills implemented environmental ‘legal trumps’, laws that prioritised the protection of the environment over other potentially conflicting interests (e.g., commercial interests).16 These bills thus further ‘stacked the deck’ of the environmental movement and importantly institutionalised environmental protection as an issue within the political system.17

The politicisation of climate change

This spectacular rise of environmentalism during the 1960s and 1970s provided the essential breeding ground that defined the politicisation of climate change that began in the 1980s. This, in other words, was the particular historical setting that climate change was born into, when Jim Hansen, a scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) testified before Congress that ‘the earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements’, and that this warming was now large enough to be ascribed to the so-called greenhouse effect.18 That same day, the New York Times reported on the incident, announcing that ‘Global Warming Has Begun’.19

The media and outspoken scientists added to a ‘public imagination’ of the ‘global climate catastrophe’,20 effectively pushing the issue into the political sphere, not only in the United States. While scientists had problematised individual dimensions of human-induced climate change over the preceding decades already (see Chapter 3), it was not until the late 1970s (and especially the 1980s) that human-induced climate change was increasingly being problematised as an environmental issue of global political and societal significance.21 The notion of inadvertent climate modification which had defined the climate change debate during the 1960s was thus incrementally abandoned and replaced by the notion of ‘global warming’ – ‘a long-expected global warming trend linked to pollution’ as the New York Times put it.22 In their account of The Globalization of Climate Science and Climate Politics, Clark Miller and Paul Edwards suggest how, in contrast to earlier decades, climate change was no longer primarily conceptualised in its plural form – as climatic changes concerning the meteorological conditions of individual places and geographic regions. Instead, scientists increasingly began to devise a global category, ‘something more closely akin to the global environment: a natural object to be understood, investigated, and managed on planetary scales’.23

The years following the summer of 1988 saw a growing and consistent public sense of urgency regarding this issue. Ann Keller recounts that, in 1987, Congress held only four hearings on climate change in four separate committees. One year later, it was already present in nine hearings in eight separate committees, and in 1989, a total of 21 hearings were held in twelve committees.24 In addition, countless organisations were established, programs coordinated, and reports written up in the name of tackling this challenge. Climate change became part of a broader agenda focused on efforts such as increasing environmental protection, stopping rainforest depletion, restoring biodiversity or, more generally, achieving an ecological balance between nature and society.25

…And the fate of climate engineering: Fractured alliances between climate science and the state

This problematisation of climate change engendered a substantial shift – a ‘fracture’ – not only in the career of climate engineering, but also in established alliances between climate science and the state more generally. To begin with, the spectacular rise of environmentalism during the 1960s and 1970s effectively marked the end of techno-optimism, which had shaped the war and after-war years. Instead, awareness of technological risks to society rose, as we have seen at the outset of this section. Incidents such as US cloud seeding activities during the Vietnam war, and later the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986, emphasised the vulnerability of societies to the adverse consequences of their own technological progress.26 As a result, earlier excitement about visions of technological climate and weather control lost traction.27 Esteemed climate scientists, such as Stephen Schneider and William Welch Kellogg warned that the sudden scientific progress in climate science would not ultimately result in options of control. In a 1974 Science article on ‘Climate Stabilization’,28 the authors challenge the assumption that (climate) prediction enables (climate) control: ‘even if we could predict the future of our climate, climate control would be a hazardous venture’.29

This particular politicisation of climate change as an environmental challenge impinged on existing alliances between climate science and the state. The massive climate science infrastructure, which had initially been developed as a tool for the state, and established to address geopolitical and military objectives, now ‘discovered a possibility’ (namely anthropogenic climate change).30 Born into the historical context of environmentalism, this ‘possibility’ gained political steam and societal attention as a challenge that threatened to undermine the global political and economic status quo.31 Zeke Baker described this as a ‘historical inversion’ of the situation established during and after the years of World War I and II.32 While the geopolitical challenges of the 1930s through the 1960s had aligned meteorological and political agendas, the environmental challenges of the 1960s through the 1980s provoked a division between scientists on the one hand, and political and economic elites on the other. Prominent figures such as Rachel Carson, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Edward Wilson, Paul Raven and Jim Hansen represented a ‘new breed’ of scientists who spoke to a broader audience and ‘raised the alarm’ about environmental challenges.33

Climate science as a problem-defining authority and the re-normalisation of climate engineering

The previous section of this chapter embedded the politicisation of the climate change issue as we know it today in its historical setting. We have seen how climate change – now in its singular form, understood as global warming – gained political traction in the 1980s, following a spectacular rise of environmentalism during the preceding decades. This context explained part of the puzzle, raised at the outset of this chapter. Specifically, this politicisation of the climate change issue helped explain why climate engineering lost political traction in the 1970s and why this response initially did not fit the problem (just yet). We saw how this politicisation of climate change actually fractured established alliances between climate science and the state.

In the second part of this chapter, we will complement this picture and further unpack the status of climate engineering in the early US political exploration of the climate change issue. As much as the politicisation of climate change provided a fracture and eroded established alliances between climate science and politics, it gave rise to powerful new ones. In what follows, we will see how climate science became established as the problem-defining authority for the politicisation of climate change. We will see how this newly emerging role of climate science in the state provides the precise starting point of a kind of re-normalisation of climate engineering in US climate policy. It explains the context in which these measures incrementally began to prosper again.

Cautious beginnings: Climate engineering (re-)enters US climate change policy

Let’s begin by taking a closer look at the document corpus, comprising all US policy records, referring to or referencing climate engineering from the Federal Digital System (see Introduction and Appendix for tabular overview of the corpus). As we have seen in Chapter 1 already, this database suggests that climate engineering played virtually no role in early US climate change policy (see Fig. 2.1). Climate engineering entered the political exploration of this newly politicised issue only in May 1990. An isolated reference to Cesare Marchetti’s seminal 1977 paper – ‘On Geoengineering and the CO2 Problem’,34 that had coined the term ‘geoengineering’ – appeared on the US political record for the first time, hidden in a 508-page-long report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and tucked away in the archives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).35 During the years that followed, notions of climate engineering remained essentially invisible in the political exploration of climate change in the United States, confined to the outer margins of the examined policy documents.

These observations essentially speak to what we saw in the previous section. Although climate change had already emerged as a relevant policy concern on the US political agenda some decades earlier, there was hardly any reference to climate engineering in this context until the turn of the new millennium (see Appendix). During the 1990s, there are only two policy documents that touched on climate engineering as a potential response measure to climate change at all, and they did so only indirectly.36

So, how did climate engineering matter here? By taking a closer look at these few references to climate engineering from the 1990s, we might begin to understand how these measures made their way back onto policy agendas in the years that would follow.

What stands out in this context is that climate engineering entered the US political debate over global warming as the literal footnote to a controversial scientific hypothesis. In other words, it emerged in reference to a scientific puzzle. These policy documents suggest how a ‘discernible human influence’ on the climate had sparked a policy debate which questioned the very grounds of the scientific method and marked its epistemological limits.37 Chairman John Chafee opened his 1997 hearing on ‘Global Climate Change’ with a swift historical excursion on the scientific ‘discovery’ of anthropogenic climate change:38 ‘what’s going on here? What are the scientists saying’? The hearing was the first in the United States to contain a reference to ‘geoengineering’ (see Appendix). Somewhat ironically, the reference came from Stephen Schneider, professor at Stanford University and one of the most influential climate scientists of the time, who we met in the previous section of this chapter as one of the critical voices on climate engineering. Schneider had warned already in the 1970s that visions of climate control would be ‘a hazardous venture’, as we have seen.39 In this 1997 hearing on ‘Global Climate Change’, Schneider now added a list of climate policy recommendations by the National Academies to his testimony, which suggested research into climate engineering as one among various approaches to address the issue of climate change.40 This list of recommendations had been prepared some years earlier, in 1992, in the context of an assessment of the ‘Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming’.41 The section of the report, which was quoted in the 1997 hearing suggests to ‘undertake research and development projects to improve our understanding of both the potential of geoengineering options to offset global warming and their possible side-effects’. The quoted section continues to stress that ‘this is not a recommendation that geoengineering options be undertaken at this time, but rather that we learn more about their likely advantages and disadvantages’.42 Climate engineering emerges here as an approach that should be researched, but not implemented, much akin to the dichotomies that define the debate today (see Introduction).

The context of these sparse and marginal references to climate engineering complements the picture that the first section of this chapter painted. It suggests just what a difference the politicisation of climate change had made to the US political exploration of climate intervention measures. Instead of fuelling hopes for techno-scientific control, climate engineering appeared here in the midst of a policy struggle over scientific facts regarding anthropogenic climate change. It emerged in debates that concerned the scientific grounds and epistemological premises of climate change. This context thus hints at the emerging new role of climate science in the state that came after the ‘fracture’. While climate science no longer seemed to primarily promise a tool of control, it became established as the problem-defining authority for the politicisation of climate change. Climate science, in other words, became essential in assembling climate change as a governance object. It played a critical role, not only in regard to placing climate change on the political agenda, but primarily in defining the terms in which the issue was problematised and addressed. It structured the terms in which this newly raised issue became legible as a political issue in its own right.

In the rest of this section, we will contextualise this initial picture, drawn from the sparse references to climate engineering in the document corpus prior to 2000. By turning to existing scholarship and politically commissioned scientific assessment reports from the time, we will see how this new role of climate science as a problem-defining authority provided the essential breeding ground in which notions of deliberate climate intervention would slowly begin to prosper again. It is this very context in which the current debate over climate engineering has its direct roots. Climate engineering makes its debut here as a potential response to a newly assembled problem. And in this particular form, it sets out on a journey of re-normalisation.

Forging new alliances between climate science and the state

The politicisation of climate change cemented new alliances between climate science and the state along at least two critical channels. On the one hand, climate science shaped the emerging politics of climate change via individual experts and rather informal networks of scientific experts. On the other hand, the political system began institutionalising climate expertise within the state: politics, in other words, began internalising climatological modes of observation in making sense of and addressing this newly raised issue. As we will see, these two channels are not only similar, but in a sense, they provide the very basis of the arenas in which science came to shape the emerging politics of climate engineering since around 2009, as the book has already explored (see Chapter 2).

To begin with, climate scientists appeared as important spokespeople on the urgency of climate change. During the 1970s, and continuing up to the 1990s, individual experts, such as James Hansen or Stephen Schneider, for example, reached a broad audience via the mass media, and therefore, indirectly, they also reached politics.43 With this visibility, these experts played a critical role in communicating the issue of climate change and pushing it into the sphere of politics. Climate scientists began joining leaders of environmental movements in a coalition that effectively placed climate change as a global environmental problem on political agendas and would eventually help institutionalise the issue within the federal bureaucracy.44 In other words, climate change became internalised by the political system as the result of a scientific ‘push’ rather than a ‘pull’ from elected decision-makers.45 The literature suggests that this push came from a well-defined group of scientists with overlapping institutional affiliations; a group that was described as a ‘nonsinister conspiracy’ advancing their climatological agenda.46

Notably, this metaphor of a kind of scientific ‘conspiracy’ is a recurring theme that describes the pronounced role of individual scientific experts or informal networks of scientists, pushing their perspectives on emerging political agendas. In accounts of the politicisation of biodiversity loss, for example, we find the notion of a ‘mafia’: researchers such as Rachel Carson, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Edward Wilson, or Paul Raven were not only scientifically respected, but also publicly outspoken and institutionally well connected.47 Wilson in this context recounts belonging to a group of biologists that he jokingly referred to as ‘the rainforest mafia’, suggesting the relevance of these scientists in advancing their perspectives in the political realm.48 And in the case of climate engineering, the notion of a ‘clique’ has been advanced to capture the powerful role of a distinct group of scientific experts, advancing and shaping the programmatic exploration of climate engineering as an issue in its own right (we will come back to this in Chapter 6). While the scientists of course vary in each case, these notions of non-sinister ‘conspiracies’, ‘mafias’, or ‘cliques’ of scientists point to the critical role of highly visible scientific experts in channelling scientific observations into the political realm. In the case of climate change, this ‘non-sinister conspiracy’ was essential in making the issue legible to politics; it assumed a critical role in assembling this issue and giving it concrete shape.

Once the issue of climate change had seeped into the political realm – reinforced by a push coming from scientific spokespersons – politics began taking matters into its own hands and internalised the issue within the federal bureaucracy. We might think of this process as a kind of political adoption or translation of the issue of climate change. As early as 1977, the National Academies called for the need to restructure the science-politics nexus at the national level across established infrastructures, such as disciplinary boundaries or bureaucratic programs to properly tackle climate change. The National Academies suggested the need to ‘weave together the interests and capabilities of the scientific community and the various agencies of the federal government in dealing with climate-related problems’. It argued that properly tackling these problems ‘will involve coordination of research in many scientific disciplines and … require adjustments in national policy or the formulation of new legislation’.49 This political internalisation of climate change thus rested essentially on the search and establishment of problem-relevant expertise.

In the United States, the history of the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) demonstrates particularly clearly how climate science became institutionalised as the problem-defining authority on global climate change. As we will see shortly, this history brings us back to the set of acronyms that would later define the inventory of climate engineering expert capacities within the state (Chapter 2). This institutionalisation of climate science as the problem-defining authority provided a relevant foundation for the recent renaissance of climate engineering. It established a problematisation of climate change that climate engineering promised to respond to.

In the following, we can draw on Roger Pielke Jr.’s highly instructive two-part history on the establishment of the US Global Change Research Program to reconstruct how this program came into existence. As extreme weather events hit different world regions throughout the 1970s, US Congress was confronted with calls to increase climate science funding.50 Congress saw the need to federally fund climate science as a means to improve weather predictions and alleviate the consequences of such incidents.51 Eventually, this congressional initiative led to the National Climate Program, a direct predecessor to the US Global Change Research Program. The National Climate Program was signed into law during the fall of 1978 as an inter-agency program to be coordinated within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Its main purpose was to conduct climate research to assess the policy relevance of this newly emerging issue.52 As a result, the participating agencies – particularly the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), NOAA, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) – began fostering climate change capacities and developing specific areas of climate expertise, respectively. For these agencies, a joint global change agenda promised organisational stability by warding off budgetary cuts or political assaults.53 NOAA’s critical role as a ‘home for climate change research’ within the state was further consolidated when the Reagan administration tasked NOAA administrator Anthony Calio in 1986 with heading a White House Domestic Policy Council working group on climate change.54 The working group’s purpose was to assess the problem, advance an integrated agenda on the issue within the state, and suggest what the President was ‘supposed to do about it’.55 Finally, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) also pushed for a coordination of federal research efforts on climate change. As a result, science advisor William Graham decided to form the Committee on Earth Sciences in 1987. After some hiccups, this committee prepared the establishment of the US Global Change Research Program two years later in form of a budget summary. In essence, the USGCRP ‘began as a multi-agency budget […] crosscut’, a funding table organised by agency and discipline (or program).56 The program was then effectively established with the passage of the Global Change Research Act of 1990, which changed the mandate of the former Committee on Earth Sciences to go beyond the mere coordination of research budgets.57 The purpose of the USGCRP was to

provide for development and coordination of a comprehensive and integrated United States Research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human induced and natural processes of global change.58

The US Global Change Research Program thus sought to translate the issue of climate change into a manageable political challenge by means of climatological expertise. It institutionalised climate science to not only ‘understand’ and ‘assess’, but also ‘predict and respond to human induced and natural processes of global change’.59 The program sought to match scientific efforts of understanding climate change directly to political efforts aimed at governing climate change. It set out to ‘develop a predictive understanding of the earth’s climate’, with policymakers expecting it to deliver ‘action programs that are rational and sensible and cost effective’.60

These expectations were, of course, not met. Nonetheless, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this program established climate change as a political issue that would coordinate research agendas across federal agencies for decades to come.61 Writing almost twenty years ago, Roger Pielke Jr. asserted that the legacy of the National Climate Program’s efforts in the late 1970s to define agency roles within global climate change62 extended into the 1990s, via the US Global Change Research Program. Now we can see that, in fact, its legacy extended well into the teens of the new millennium. Through the lens of these expert agencies, climate engineering would emerge as yet another chapter in the federal institutionalisation of climate change expertise in the US, which, at its core, has evolved around the same agencies since the 1970s.

At the international level, it was the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which cemented the political problem-defining role of climate science most prominently. The IPCC was set up by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in 1988, a year that marked the height of climate change politicisation. Ever since then, the IPCC emerged as one of the most prominent and controversial organisations, specifically initiated to bundle policy-relevant expertise on anthropogenic climate change. Its mission has been ‘to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts’.63 Set up as a representative parliamentary body, the IPCC essentially embodied the newly emerging alliances between climate science and climate politics. The organisation was established and gained global status during a time when the reality and severity of global climate change was primarily addressed as a scientific challenge. In the following decades, it ‘gradually acquired status and authority’ in structuring global problem observations of climate change, and more specifically, in linking scientific and political observations on the challenge of climate change.64 The history and dynamic global status of the IPCC thus reflect the inter-governmental institutionalisation of policy-relevant expertise on climate change, its specific scope and outlook more broadly.

Summing up, the 1970s through 1990s demonstrated how the politicisation of climate change not only disrupted existing alliances between climate science and politics, but also how it effectively sealed new ones. These years introduced two channels in particular that established the new – problem-defining – role of climate science in US politics. On the one hand, the prominent role of individual scientists, such as James Hansen or Stephen Schneider, suggested the power of informal networks of scientific experts in shaping political agendas. The establishment of the IPCC and the formation of the USGCRP, on the other hand, demonstrated the critical role that the targeted political organisation of scientific expertise played in this context. Climate change effectively established new boundary organisations (e.g., the IPCC), and it differentiated existing structures, coordinating, for example, a unified policy agenda across a myriad of diverse existing agencies in the United States, particularly within the departments of agriculture, energy, and state, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NASA, NOAA), the NSF, and the US Geological Survey (USGS). As we will see in the following chapters, both mechanisms have continued to shape the career of climate engineering in the United States for years to come. They constitute an essential component of the climate engineering expert infrastructure (see particularly Chapter 6).

Assembling climatic change: From inadvertent and deliberate modification to managing the greenhouse problem

In the final two sections of this chapter, we shift our gaze from the structural dimension of the science-state alliances that defined this historical setting of the career of climate engineering to the epistemic dimensions of these alliances. Connecting to the analytical framework I outlined in the Introduction, this means that we are changing our perspective from scientific experts to scientific expertise – from examining the expert infrastructure to examining the expert modes of observation that shaped this ‘stage’ in the career of climate engineering and undergirded this new problem-defining authority of climate science in the state.

During the late 1970s, at a time when the Carter administration sought to utilise coal for tackling the oil crisis, it was carbon dioxide that moved into the centre of climate policy attention.65 While scientists had explored the role of CO2 on the climate for some decades, it was only now that this issue fully arrived in the political arena.66 Policymakers began commissioning assessments that increasingly focused on atmospheric chemistry and carbon dioxide pollution as a source of ‘Greenhouse Warming’.67 In these final two sections of the chapter, we will see how, during the 1970s through 1990s, climate engineering – although not pursued as ‘Plan A’ – incrementally began to emerge as a potential response to this newly assembled ‘carbon dioxide problem’.68 Specifically, we will see how these measures catered to different visions of tackling this newly assembled challenge, and in extension, to different visions of the role of climate science in the state.

We will begin this section by unpacking how notions of techno-scientific climate intervention were couched in the very formulation of the ‘Greenhouse Problem’. By turning to three politically commissioned scientific assessment reports by the US National Academies, we will see how these measures appeared as a potential answer to the issue of managing atmospheric chemistry, and specifically, how they catered to environmental concerns in this context. This ‘carbon dioxide problem’ no longer appeared as the mere downside of deliberate climate modification schemes, as I suggested earlier, but it was cast as an issue of environmental safeguarding. Concerns over what an ‘optimum global climate’69 or a ‘good environment’70 that humans should aspire to might look like began to guide expert observations.

In a 1977 expert assessment on ‘Energy and the Climate’, the National Academies, for example, suggested that policymakers and scientists should address the question of ‘[w]hat […] the atmospheric carbon dioxide content [should] be over the next century or two to achieve an optimum global climate’.71 The report discussed measures to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as well as measures to reflect sunlight back to space as a potential means for achieving this goal.72 Climate engineering thus emerges here as part of an agenda that envisions climate science as catering to environmental concerns over this newly politicised issue of global warming. Notably, this implies that these measures no longer appear as a straightforward techno-fix. So, while the authors acknowledge that counteracting ‘the climatic effects of added carbon dioxide in the air’ might be achieved by ‘increas[ing] the albedo, or reflectivity, of the earth and thereby […] reduc[ing] the incoming solar radiation’, they also conclude that ‘no practical, plausible, and reliable means to accomplish such an increase seem to be at hand’.73 Climate engineering emerges here as part of a kind of climate science that not only defines and monitors this environmental issue of global warming, but potentially also manages it.

Building on these kinds of observations, President Carter signed the Energy Security Act in June 1980, calling for a ‘comprehensive assessment of the implications of increasing carbon dioxide due to fossil fuel use and other human activities’ by the National Academies and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).74 In response to this, the National Academies formed a Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee under its Climate Board in 1980. In 1983, this committee published what can be understood as one of the earliest policy frameworks for tackling anthropogenic climate, and climate engineering was part of it. Specifically, this ‘framework for policy choices’ presented a four-tiered taxonomy of policy options to address ‘CO2-induced climatic change’. Between the two poles of ‘reduc[ing] CO2 production (1)’ or ‘adapt[ing] to increasing CO2 and changing climate (4)’, the framework listed two more response categories, namely the option to ‘remove CO2 from effluents or atmosphere (2)’ and to ‘make countervailing modifications in climate, weather, hydrology (3)’.75 This taxonomy thus provides an early version of how climate policy approaches largely continue to be categorised and discussed today, namely by distinguishing between mitigating, adapting to, or intervening in climate change.

Finally, around a decade later, the National Academies presented another report addressing the ‘Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming’. We encountered this report earlier during this chapter when it became part of the very first reference to ‘geoengineering’ in the context of a congressional hearing in the United States. It was Stephen Schneider who added some of the text’s climate policy recommendations to his congressional testimony in 1997. This report listed climate engineering measures as a potential policy approach ‘to combat or counteract the effects of changes in atmospheric chemistry’, and in fact, featured an entire chapter on these measures.76

These three reports not only document the political relevance of climatological expertise in assembling climate change as a governance object, but they also demonstrate how this epistemology of ‘the carbon dioxide problem’ immediately implied climate intervention measures as a potential remedy. These texts and taxonomies can be understood as providing the immediate roots of today’s US political exploration of climate engineering. First, they suggest how climate engineering slowly and cautiously became understood as a potential response to anthropogenic climate change. While the tone of these expert assessments is notably less optimistic than during the 1960s, climate engineering becomes part of an agenda here that envisions climate science as catering to environmental concerns in defining, monitoring, and potentially also managing the climate change issue. This new understanding of climate engineering is also reflected in scientific publications of the time. In 1996, the publication Climatic Change, for example, featured an issue that asked if we ‘may’, ‘could’ and ‘should engineer the Earth’s climate?’, focusing notably on normative questions.77

And secondly, these texts and taxonomies provide a critical episode in the ‘career’ of climate engineering because they integrate what we discuss today as carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management into one policy framework. These documents make measures to remove carbon from the atmosphere and measures to alter the Earth’s albedo into distinct components of one (climate) policy agenda. In their promise to tackle this issue, these two sets of otherwise fundamentally different techno-scientific concepts are united, which is an essential step towards the emergence of climate engineering as a political issue in its own right.

We may contextualise this latter point with a brief excursion to the academic debate surrounding climate engineering at the time. This differentiation of carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management as two distinct measures tackling one societal issue was prepared in two path breaking scientific contributions from 1977. These contributions were path breaking in the literal sense of being commonly perceived today as the direct scientific origins of the current climate engineering debate. Each of these texts introduced one of the measures respectively, without, however, relating them yet. In 1977, Russian geoscientist Mikhail Ivanovitch Budyko provided one of the first suggestions of what is discussed today as solar radiation management.78 In his book, Climatic Changes, Budyko suggested applying a stratospheric layer of aerosols, reflecting incoming sunlight back to space to stabilise current climatic conditions.79 The suggestion of what is discussed today as carbon dioxide removal came from Italy during that same year. Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti coined the term ‘geoengineering’ in the early 1970s and then formally introduced the concept in the inaugural issue of Climatic Change in 1977.80 We stumbled across this paper earlier as it provided the very first reference to ‘geoengineering’ in the corpus of climate engineering-relevant policy documents, hidden in a footnote of a 508-page long report from 1990.81 In this contribution, Marchetti suggests ‘geoengineering’ as a means of ‘[tackling] the problem of CO2 control in the atmosphere’. Climate change emerges here as a (CO2) pollution issue and Marchetti proposes to address this issue with ‘a kind of “fuel cycle” for fossil fuels where CO2 is partially or totally collected at certain transformation points and properly disposed of’. For this ‘disposal’ of CO2, Marchetti primarily explores ocean-based methods. Specifically, the paper suggests that

CO2 is disposed of by injection into suitable sinking thermohaline currents that carry and spread it into the deep ocean that has a very large equilibrium capacity. The Mediterranean undercurrent entering the Atlantic at Gibraltar has been identified as one such current; it would have sufficient capacity to deal with all CO2 produced in Europe even in the year 2100.82

Ocean-based measures for removing CO2 from the atmosphere received increasing attention during the decades following Marchetti’s paper. Presumably fuelled by the increasing political interest in ‘managing’ the CO2 problem, the 1990s witnessed a wave of ocean fertilisation studies, effectively ushering in the beginning of intense international studies of climate intervention measures.83

Summing up, these politically commissioned assessments and scientific analyses suggest how hopes of techno-scientific management and control continued to structure the newly forged alliances between climate science and the state. Their point of reference, however, had substantially changed. What was seen during the 1930s through 1960s as a great possibility for national strategic and military application, now cautiously (re-)appeared as a potential remedy against a problem of environmental safeguarding. In these accounts, measures of techno-scientific climate intervention emerged as an option to manage atmospheric chemistry and establish an ‘optimal climate’ to counteract CO2 pollution, and to tackle greenhouse warming.

Economic modes of observation: Assembling climatic change as an issue of ‘just spending money’

In the final section of this chapter, we will see how this climatological gaze onto the ‘carbon dioxide problem’ and its potential ‘management’ via climate engineering measures spoke not only to environmental concerns of safeguarding nature. Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, it was also economic concerns that prominently structured politically commissioned expert assessments on this topic. These economic modes of observation mobilised measures of climate engineering in an effort to speak to a rather different constituency than the environmental movement. These observations suggested climate engineering as a means of decoupling efforts to address climate change from interventions in the economic and political status quo. Climate engineering thus becomes part of a very different vision for climate science in the state here. Instead of raising the alarm about issues of pollution and ecological safeguarding and marking the limits of growth and techno-scientific control, these economic analyses paint a picture of climate science as a tool that permits tackling this issue while stabilising the economic and political status quo.

Again, we can turn to a number of politically commissioned assessment reports by the National Academies to illustrate this point, some of which we touched upon in the previous section already. Thomas C. Schelling, Nobel laureate and pioneer in game theory, for example, provided the final chapter of the aforementioned 1983 National Academies’ report on A Changing Climate. Schelling’s chapter explored the ‘Implications for Welfare and Policy’ that the issue of climate change raised.84 The text builds on climatological modes of assembling this greenhouse problem to then cast the issue of climate change in economic terms. Schelling argues that ‘[w]arming the atmosphere currently is more economical than cooling it, because it happens as a byproduct of energy consumption that would be costly to reduce or terminate’.85 This kind of problematisation deviates from the common environmental problematisations of climate change. The key question here is no longer what the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere should be or what an ‘optimum climate’ would look like, but rather what these things would cost. Schelling then mobilises the notion of climatological intervention not as a science-based means for halting pollution and managing an ‘optimum’ atmospheric carbon composition, but as an economical way of addressing this issue:

But we know that in principle cooling could be arranged. Volcanic eruptions have done it. […] [W]e should not rule out that technologies for global cooling, perhaps by injecting the right particulates into the stratosphere, perhaps by subtler means, will become economical during coming decades.86

A decade later, the 1992 National Academies’ report on ‘Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming’ again emphasised ‘the relatively low costs at which some of the geoengineering options might be implemented’87 – an insight that is readily quoted in recent explorations of the topic.

A couple years before being invited to co-author the 1992 National Academies report, William Nordhaus criticised too much action against climate change88 and stressed that ‘research on climate engineering may well be the best investment’.89 And Thomas Schelling presented his ‘Economic Diplomacy of Geoengineering’90 in 1996, praising how climate control would able to ‘immensely simplify greenhouse policy, transforming it from an exceedingly complicated regulatory regime to a problem in international cost sharing […]’.91 Again, climate engineering is mobilised here in an effort to transform the political economy of the climate change issue:

Putting things in the stratosphere or in orbit can probably be done by ‘exo-national’ programs, not depending on the behavior of populations, not requiring national regulations or incentives, not dependent on universal participation. It will involve merely deciding what to do, how much to do, and who is to pay for it.92

From this perspective, tackling climate change would hardly require questioning the status quo, but rather would ‘involve[s] just spending money’.93

To make sense of the status and saliency of such economic expert observations at the time, we shall return to the ‘fracture’ that the politicisation of climate change had imposed on established alliances between climate science and the state. As I described at the start of this chapter, this fracture resulted from the new problem-defining authority of climate science. With the politicisation of climate change, climate science no longer seemed to provide expertise that promised a tool of political control. To the contrary, by raising the alarm about this newly politicised issue, climate science seemed to directly question the hopes of control and the general techno-optimism that had defined the 1930s through 1960s.

One result of the politicisation of climate change issue in the United States, therefore, was a general decline in bipartisan support for environmental policy. While both the Democratic and Republican parties could take great pride in US environmental leadership through the late 1980s, James Turner and Andrew Isenberg suggest that the politicisation of anthropogenic global warming changed just that.94 The authors argue that it was Ronald Reagan who initially ‘broke’ the bipartisan consensus on the need for environmental protection.95 Ever since then, congressional voting scores on environmental issues have displayed a continually widening gap.96 The 1992 ‘Earth Summit’ sealed this change of direction for years to come. While the Earth Summit brought forth the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Bush administration refrained from committing to clear emission reduction targets.97 By the 1990s and early 2000s, US political support for climate change action was dwindling across the political spectrum. Due to opposition from the Senate, Bill Clinton failed to sign the Kyoto Protocol, and by 2001, George W. Bush made it clear that he would neither abide by the protocol, nor had any intention of implementing binding emissions reductions for the United States.98 Despite rising urgency in the public perception of climate change, US climate policy thus grew increasingly divided, even coming to an effective halt at the federal level.

This brief digression is to emphasise just how consequential the problematisation of climate change as an environmental issue has been in the United States and what lasting effects it had on the political economy of this issue. Against this backdrop, the early economic appraisals of climate engineering can be seen as an effort to question this outlook. In a sense, these economic accounts can be read as an effort to mend the proposed fracture and reinstate climate science as a tool for the state. By presenting climate engineering as an economically smart solution to the ‘carbon dioxide problem’, the authors suggested a perspective on the climate change issue that sought to reconcile political concerns over global warming with interests in maintaining the economic and political status quo. These economic perspectives are therein essential for understanding the controversial debate over climate engineering today.

On the one hand, these accounts explicate a dimension of the political economy of climate engineering which has been decisive in fostering political support of these measures ever since. They speak to political interests which have been committed to warding off any diagnoses pointing to the need for substantial structural changes to the way modern economies operate, depending on ever-increasing sources of energy. On the other hand, these economic accounts explicate the grounds for the outright rejection of climate engineering measures by many advocates for policy action on climate change today.

When climate intervention measures are advocated as both a technologically straightforward and cheap fix to the climate change problem, they clash spectacularly with calls for more environmental safeguarding, techno-scientific humility, and the limits of human control. These economic accounts thus blatantly explicate what many who are critical of the very idea of climate engineering fear: they mobilise climate engineering as a grounds for divesting policy action on climate change and avert structural change to the existing political-economic system. The kind of narrative that is presented in these economic accounts is therefore essential for understanding why suggestions to deliberately intervene in the climate are so often perceived as radically differing from established perspectives on the climate change issue. This assumption, however, masks the fact that suggestions to deliberately modify the climate have been an integral part of the entire history of what we discuss today as anthropogenic climate change.