Assembling an engineering problem
‘The trouble with the global warming debate is that it has become a moral crusade when it’s really an engineering problem’. Solving an engineering problem requires defining the goal quantitatively, facing the technical challenges, and creating systems to address these as cost-effectively as possible.
Martin Hoffert before the House Committee on Science, September 20, 2006, quoting Robert Samuelson.1
Within a matter of a decade, the congressional debates and policy disputes surrounding the exploration of climate engineering in the United States changed substantially, not only in their tone but in their very objective. In this chapter, we will see how, beginning in early 2000, notions of climate engineering (re-) gained political currency in the United States when the very problem that these concepts promised to address was reformulated – that is, when climate change became assembled as a technological innovation challenge, when it was formulated as a project which would lend itself to techno-scientific intervention and control.
In contrast to the 1990s, climate change was no longer discussed as a curious scientific puzzle; instead, it emerged now as an urgent societal challenge – a challenge to be tackled, combatted, and ‘won’ by techno-scientific innovation. Put differently, it took transforming the problem that climate engineering promised to address to bring these measures further into the political limelight again. In response to this understanding of climate change as a challenge of technological innovation, notions of climate engineering moved from the footnotes of academic debates where they were found during the 1990s to the very core of controversial legislative inquires and executive efforts as we move into the early 2000s.
Reformulating climate change in this manner implied a new vision for climate science’s relationship to the state. These shifting configurations in the alliances between climate science and the state once again defined this particular historical setting in the career of the climate engineering. From the 1970s to the 1990s, it had been outspoken scientists and social movements that shaped the politicisation of climate change, as we have seen in the previous chapter. These groups had emphasised environmental safeguarding and formulated climate change as a challenge involving a reduction, rather than an expansion, of techno-scientific intervention capacities. During the first decade of the new millennium, the political exploration of climate engineering suggested the antithesis to this scenario. Climate engineering was now pushed onto the congressional agenda in the context of calls to properly harness climate science as a tool for the state in addressing the climate change issue. Climate science was no longer envisioned as questioning the political and economic status quo, but instead emerged as a potential tool for stabilising it. Climate engineering gained further traction, in other words, as climate science evolved from problem-defining to a problem-addressing authority. In a sense, this emerging role of climate science in the state thus realised a vision that had been looming already in the economic analyses which we explored in the final section of the previous chapter.
In this third part of the book, we will trace a kind of renaissance of climate engineering measures in US politics. In this kind of re-kindled vision of techno-scientific control of the climate, climate engineering mobilised otherwise conflicting (even competing) constituencies over the issue of climatic change. It engaged Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and progressives, climate scientists and oil companies in rather controversial policy disputes and legislative inquiries over what was at stake.
This and the following chapter trace this re-invigorated debate over climate engineering through two very different political landscapes, respectively coinciding roughly with the Bush and Obama presidencies. We will begin in this chapter by exploring the status of climate engineering prior to the official inquiry into these measures from 2009, focusing in particular on the years from 2003 to 2007. The chapter begins by examining the specific political problematisation of climate change that defined the debate over climate engineering during these years. We will also take a closer look at the kinds of expert observations that were essential for assembling climate change in this context. The chapter then follows climate engineering through the policy process and explores how it took political shape during the early 2000s. In doing so, it focuses on three distinct contexts: how climate engineering was discussed in legislative disputes over the status of science and technology within US climate policy, how it became subject to highly controversial expert testimonies, and finally, how it gained political traction by mobilising an economic and managerial gaze onto the issue of climate change. Each of these three contexts will serve to further substantiate how the career of climate engineering corresponded to the aforementioned shifting alliances in climate science and the state as well as a new and rather diverse constituency for climate policy matters.
Do we need a Manhattan Project for the environment?
To make sense of how the politics of climate engineering have evolved thus far in the twenty-first century, we need to consider the period’s particular political landscapes. As we will see in this and the following chapter, the political exploration of climate engineering seems somewhat formatted by a shift in administration. The presidency of George W. Bush, lasting from 2001 until 2009, provided the defining political environment for the career of climate engineering in the period covered in this chapter, while the incoming Obama administration, lasting from 2009 to 2017, provided the relevant context for the period covered in the next chapter.
In 2001, George W. Bush won a highly controversial presidential election against Democratic candidate, Al Gore. While climate change had played virtually no role in either of the 2000 presidential campaigns, the election of Bush drastically intensified politicisation of the issue, effectively driving it to the heart of partisan politics.2 Beginning in the early 2000s, we can trace a general invasion of US American politics by ‘the specter of abrupt climate change’.3 This was driven by increasing public concern for the climate change issue in the United States – having reached a ‘historic high’ in 2000.4 In the years following the election, climate change thus became the subject of fierce political dispute and controversy. In 2006, in the middle of George W. Bush’s second term as president, Al Gore released the high-profile film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. It formed a key part of Gore’s extensive campaign to educate the American public about the problem of global warming. Almost simultaneously, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law the first cap on CO2 emissions within the United States as Governor of California.5 The Bush administration, on the other hand, followed a strategy of halting and forestalling policy action on climate change and dismantling regulatory initiatives.6 By the first half of 2007, partisan conflict and public interest in the issue had driven climate change onto the agenda of 39 congressional hearings.7
As the issue of climate change became the subject of a fierce political and partisan conflict, the role of science and technology in fighting the issue emerged as a core battleground.8 The political problematisation of climate change during these years was marked by an increasing sense of urgency and intensified politicisation of climate change, while, at the same time, re-invoking hopes of techno-scientific control as a means for addressing this issue.
We can get a sense of this notable shift in how climate change became assembled during this period by zooming into some of the expert observations that defined congressional debates at the height of these conflicts. In September 2006, Martin Hoffert, emeritus professor for physics at New York University opened his testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform by quoting John F. Kennedy:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because the challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.9
We met Hoffert at the beginning of this chapter – as the author of the introductory quote taken from the very same testimony, in which he suggested that climate change needs to be understood as an engineering challenge. Hoffert’s testimony provides an instructive starting point into these controversial discussions, as it reflects and very much pinpoints the new gaze onto the climate change issue that accompanied the political exploration of climate engineering during these years. Hoffert was invited to testify – and he ultimately did so across two separate hearings – in the context of an inquiry into the status of the Bush administration’s efforts to foster climate change technology research. The title of one of the hearings asked, ‘Do we Need a Manhattan Project for the Environment’? I will unpack the status and details of this hearing in more detail later during this chapter. For now, I simply want to focus on the programmatic status of this question for the problematisation of climate change during the early 2000s and the implied role of science and technology in addressing the problem.10
Beginning in 2003 and particularly around 2006, climate policy actors and experts alike began invoking a set of high-profile techno-scientific projects that had forged a tight bond between science and the state during the Second World War and in its aftermath. The first was the Manhattan Project. Between 1939 and 1946, the Manhattan Project had resulted in the development of the first nuclear weapons. Now, in discussions of climate change, it was repeatedly mobilised to invoke visions of national strength in the face of this challenge. The analogy served to suggest the grandeur of the climate change challenge, all the while emphasising that this challenge, too, would similarly be manageable by techno-scientific innovation.11 Other reference points during the period included Project Apollo, which had succeeded in putting a US American on the moon, and the establishment of military research and development infrastructure such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).12
These comparisons channelled science and technology as a kind of weaponry – as a form of national strength and security in tackling the climate change challenge. In these observations, counteracting climate change is like building the atomic bomb or landing on the moon; it is a challenge that would take ‘the greatest engineering effort in history […]’.13 ‘What we are faced with’, Martin Hoffert suggested, ‘is a kind of existential challenge to our high-technology civilization’.14 Climate change appears in these observations as a serious challenge, manageable only by a targeted and orchestrated national effort aimed at steering the right kind of research and development. It is presented as controllable, in other words, by the development of the right kinds of techno-scientific weaponry.
Quantified modes of observing were essential in assembling this gaze onto the issue of climate change. This quantified gaze served to scale the issue of climate change; it served to suggest both the grandeur of the challenge as well as its techno-scientific manageability. Around 2006, numeric observations of climatic change became increasingly standardised, with experts and policy actors alike increasingly invoking the symbolic power of distinct numbers. Take, for example, the target of limiting global warming to 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, along with the goal of stabilising concentrations of atmospheric CO2 at 450 parts per million (ppm). Both goals made their first appearance in the examined policy documents in 2006. And these distinct numbers were used to argue for the need for more concrete policy goals in tackling the climate change challenge. For instance, Hoffert mobilised the 2°C temperature target in a critique of the Climate Change Technology Program:15
This is the real problem. The Manhattan Project didn’t aim to explore nuclear weapons in general; its goal was building a Bomb before the end of WWII. The Apollo Program didn’t aim at exploring manned space flight in general; it’s goal was putting a (US) man on the Moon by the end the ‘60s. So too does the CCTP [Climate Change Technology] program need a more concrete goal […] Tony Blair at the recent Exeter conference in the UK set an upper limit of two degrees Celsius global warming.16
By proclaiming climatic thresholds, targets, and ecological tipping points, these observations quantified ‘the size of the world’s job’.17 Setting the right kind of goal in this sense invokes a sense of control in the face of this challenge. It appeals to urgency and the manageability of climate change at the same time. On the one hand, these ‘numbers’ provided the formerly diffuse atmospheric and oceanographic phenomenon with tangibility. By invoking the daunting environmental catastrophe, they reinforced the urgent need to tackle this challenge.18 On the other hand, these targets and thresholds transformed climate change into a manageable challenge, a challenge that seemed subjectable to economic logic and techno-scientific management, even control. Climate change becomes an ‘engineering problem’, as Hoffert suggested at the outset of this section; it becomes a challenge that ‘requires defining the goal quantitatively’ to then ‘fac[e] the technical challenges’, and eventually ‘creat[e] systems to address these as cost-effectively as possible’.19
Social scientific scholarship has suggested how such thresholds and targets combine scientific observations with policy directives.20 Bettina Heintz, for example, called attention to the dual nature of numerical observations as both representing and making reality.21 Numerical observation emerges here as a means of ‘world-creation’ (Welterzeugung).22 Theodore Porter prominently coined the expression of ‘speaking precision to power’ in this context.23 This means that although climate thresholds or tipping points might not necessarily be accurate, they successfully invoke a sense of precise and thus legitimate observation. Therefore, this ‘indexed language’ of climatic targets offers the suggestion of control and thereby reinstates the political capacity to act in an otherwise hopelessly complex situation.24 It seems fitting in this sense that it was mostly policy actors (and not, for example, scientific experts), who called for the quantification of distinct stabilisation targets to prevent dangerous climate change.25 As Senator Waxman put it, ‘[i]f we don’t pick a goal and the right goal, we may be aiming for disaster’.26
It was this hope for techno-scientific control in the face of a national challenge that brought a White House which had been ‘officially sceptical’ of global warming to start to explore climate intervention measures.27 It was this vision of techno-scientific control that provided the relevant context and defining breeding ground for the highly controversial inquiries into climate engineering during these years. Climate science appeared not merely as an academic endeavour in this context but prevailed as a powerful political – and particularly national strategic – force. It was mobilised as the very tool that would provide the nation with agency in tackling the issue of climate change. Against this backdrop, we will now explore three defining contexts in which climate engineering took political shape in the period between 2000 and 2009. We will see how climate engineering became subject to controversial legislative disputes over the status of science and technology within US climate policy, how it was visibly pushed onto the congressional agenda in the context of highly controversial expert observations on these measures, and finally, how it gained political traction by speaking to economic and corporate concerns regarding climate change.
‘From debating science to finding solutions’: Climate science as a tool for the state
In September of 2006, Tom Davis was one of the first28 members of Congress to bring the issue of climate engineering into congressional debate, when he criticised the Bush administration’s lack of attention to these measures. ‘The federal government’, he complained, had not yet engaged ‘in any exploratory or innovative technology research on climate change’, leaving ‘climate clinicians [sic] that lie outside of existing technology, such as geo-engineering and artificial photosynthesis [...] unaddressed’.29 Tom Davis, former Republican member of the US House of Representatives, was speaking here as Chairman of the Government Reform Committee, one of the most powerful congressional committees, responsible for government oversight. He was opening the very hearing which we touched upon earlier in this chapter, assessing US ‘Climate Change Technology Research’ and asking whether the United States would need a ‘Manhattan Project for the Environment’. Davis’ concern for the need for climate engineering research was couched here into a new vision for climate science in the state.
This hearing as well as Davis’ critique of the lack of federal attention to climate engineering measures was part of an ongoing legislative inquiry into the Bush administration’s climate change technology initiatives during the early 2000s.30 In this section, we will see how climate engineering moved further into the political limelight in the context of a bigger conversation regarding the status and promise of technological innovation as a national approach to climate change. In a number of hearings between 2003 and 2007, policy actors and experts controversially discussed the place of climate engineering research within such a national approach – particularly in the context of assessing the Bush administration’s Strategic Plan for its so-called Climate Change Technology Program (CCTP), which had just been released in September of 2006.
The Climate Change Technology Program was established in 2002, as part of the Bush administration’s effort to expand the ‘technology component’ of US climate change research.31 To this end, Bush launched the CCTP as a multi-agency initiative, led by the Department of Energy, and relabelled the existing US Global Change Research Program as the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP).32 In this new set-up, the two programs, CCTP and CCSP, were intended to differentiate and strengthen the ‘technology’ component of US climate change research from the ‘science’ component.33 These programs thus reflect the shifting status and role of climatological expertise within the state during these years. They are the product of an administration that, on the one hand, was averse to policy action against climate change, yet, on the other, felt the pressure of rising public concern over the issue.34
In 2006, the CCTP finally released its much-anticipated Strategic Plan. The plan attributed around 3 billion dollars in federal spending for ‘climate technology research, development, demonstration, and deployment’ and presented a ‘planning-horizon’ for no less than 100 years.35 Former Secretary of Energy, Samuel W. Bodman described the document as ‘[…] inspired by the President’s vision to harness America’s strengths in innovation and technology’ to provide a more sustainable energy system.36 Climate change research was invoked here as the solution itself: instead of questioning the economic and political status quo, it appeared as a national tool to trigger technological innovation in tackling climate change.
This new vision for climate change research within the state was precisely the defining context which brought Congressman Davis to call for the need for climate engineering research. When the CCTP presented this Strategic Plan to Congress in 2006, it came under harsh scrutiny, triggering, among other concerns, controversial debates over the need of climate engineering research to become part of the program. Notably, this was despite the fact that the plan did include some forms of climate engineering measures – specifically terrestrial and ocean sequestration measures.37 Davis addressed his fellow members of Congress in the House Committee on Government Reform just one day after the plan’s publication:
Good morning, and welcome to today’s hearing on climate change technology. As we sit here today, the debate over climate change science continues, but this Committee [on Government Reform] […] – as well as the Administration and many others in government – have already recognized the important facts: that global mean temperature has increased over the past century, and that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has contributed in some way to this warming. With this in mind, our committee seeks to move away from debating science to finding solutions.38
Davis’ observations thus nicely pinpoint the shift that we have traced regarding the status of climate science in the state from the previous chapter to this one: in the 1970s through 1990s, climate science had become established as the authority to ‘discover’, assemble, and define the carbon dioxide problem (see Chapter 4). This had stoked debates over the basic epistemological premises of the climate change issue. Climate change, to use Davis’ words, became primarily subject to debates over ‘the science’ of this issue. In contrast to this outlook, this legislative inquiry during the early 2000s now advanced a vision of climate science – and particularly technology – as a central political asset in addressing the climate change issue. Climate science thus shifted its status from a problem-defining to a problem-addressing authority in these debates; it appeared as literal weaponry at the service of government. The committee, Davis announced, ‘has taken an important step by discussing how the Federal Government can better arm itself with technology to address this worldwide problem [of climate change]’.39
Following this line of reasoning, one central issue on the committee’s agenda was the potential and promise to develop an ‘ARPA for climate change’.40 ARPA in this case stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency and refers to an agency that President Eisenhower had established during the Cold War years in response to the Soviet launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik. During the 1970s, ARPA was renamed DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The organisation still exists today. ARPA essentially implies an organisational model specifically devised to foster technological breakthroughs, a ‘central, authorized body to command exploratory research’.41 The idea was to create an agency within the federal government that would focus on ‘high-risk, high payoff’ research in a relatively independent, ‘non-bureaucratic’ setting with little oversight and an emphasis on exploratory research – i.e. ‘risk-taking and tolerant of failure, open to learning’.42 By suggesting this organisational model for climate change research, the congressional debate thus further specified the new problem-addressing vision that emerged during these years for climate science in the state. These observations suggest organising climate research in a manner that would turn basic science into ‘solutions’ – much like DARPA, which, according to Congressman Davis, ‘was created to turn innovative technology into military capabilities’ and by doing so, ‘produced not only military advancement but commercial benefits, as well’.43 The DARPA model, in other words, promised an organisational blueprint for generating, even systematically programming, politically relevant research; it promised a set-up that would seamlessly match scientific to political interests.
This discussion over a new organisational model for triggering climate change technology stood in the context of a bigger inquiry, spearheaded by members of both parties, who, in 2005, asked the US National Academies of Sciences how the United States could ‘maintain leadership in key areas of science and technology’.44 In their report, which was officially published only in 2007, the academies suggested establishing the ARPA model for energy research – an ARPA-E within the Department of Energy. While Bush signed ARPA-E into law in 2007,45 just one year after the House Committee on Government Reform hearing, an ARPA for climate change is yet to be realised. That said, the idea was brought back onto the agenda in 2020 as part of the presidential campaign by the Biden administration.46
Climate engineering appeared in these debates during the early 2000s as a highly controversial example for the kinds of ‘exploratory’ or ‘high-risk’ research that would be implied by such a new approach to federal climate research. Expert witnesses advocated both for and against the need to include climate engineering research into such a federal program. Lee Lane, for example, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy think tank, appeared as a vocal advocate for climate engineering research. Lane strongly advocated for the urgent need to ‘expand the program’s [CCTP] agenda to include geoengineering’ in his testimony.47 According to Lane, the option to engineer the climate would provide an ‘insurance against runaway climate change’ that could, in contrast to the regulation of emissions, be ‘implemented swiftly’.48 Richard Van Atta from the Institute for Defense Analyses, in contrast, drew on his experience with the DARPA initiative to voice concerns regarding an ARPA model as the fitting institutional setting to oversee and direct research like ‘dispersing particles in the atmosphere’.49
Pushing a controversial fix: Expert witnesses as agenda setters
A second defining context, in which climate engineering took political shape in the first decade of the 2000s, was a set of dispersed and highly controversial congressional expert testimonies. In stark contrast to the cautious, indirect, and rather well-hidden congressional references to climate engineering during the 1990s, these testimonies were now loud and clear – at least regarding their own position on the issue. Experts and policymakers now started both pushing and challenging climate engineering as a ‘fix’ for climate change. They variously suggested it as a ‘great’50, ‘inevitable’51 ‘potential’52, ‘risky’53, ‘unproven’54, ‘very wrong’55, or simply ‘bad’56 approach for counteracting climate change. In this section, we will see how these dispersed and highly controversial testimonies provided a kind of odd, yet critical arena in pushing climate engineering further into the political limelight. These testimonies served as a kind of masked agenda setting context for climate engineering – masked, because they strongly advocated for or against these measures before the issue was officially introduced to the political agenda, that is, before policymakers took an official stance on the topic.
A case in point for such an agenda setting expert account was a 2007 testimony by David Schnare in a hearing on, ‘The Impacts of Global Warming on the Chesapeake Bay’, before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.57 At the time of his testimony, David Schnare was part of the Thomas Jefferson Institute, a non-for-profit think tank based in Virginia, which has since come under critique for its ties to climate denialist organisations.58 Aside from his role at the Thomas Jefferson Institute, Schnare also has had a long career with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – most recently in 2017, as part of the Trump administration’s EPA transition team. In his testimony, he strongly advocated for the need for solar radiation management research and development. Schnare urged the committee to address climate engineering as a first response to climate change. In his opinion, global leadership regarding the responsible assessment and deployment of these measures remained an ‘unmet national duty’.59 He argued that ‘absent some form of geo-engineering […] it is too late to prevent melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and the planet will suffer a 23-foot rise in ocean levels’.60 In his testimony, we can trace the relevance of scaling the issue of climate change for advancing climate engineering as a critical response measure. Scaling this issue served to assess the appropriate response; it served to legitimise radical approaches and delegitimise others as ‘pious’:
the question of incremental approaches crashes on the rocks of the time scales with which we are operating. If we are to prevent 550 parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere, which is considered the point at which we hit the first tipping point, the inevitable full melting of the Greenland ice sheet, some argue, including Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, that it is already too late, and that any attempt to prevent that is nothing more than, in his words, ‘a pious hope’.61
David Schnare not only introduced but visibly marked climate engineering into the political record by adding several papers on geoengineering in full to the congressional record.62 He managed to fill 50 some pages with numerous references to likeminded scholars and scientific studies at a time when climate engineering was only beginning to be explicitly picked up in congressional debate.63
Similarly positive were the accounts of expert witnesses such as Lee Lane and Kenneth Green, the latter of whom criticised the focus on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions as ‘misplaced’.64 Kenneth Green pushed the topic in a notably expansive and repetitive intervention, by advocating for the need to invest in climate engineering research and development across four different hearings in almost identical testimonies.65 David Conover, Scott Doney, Richard Feely and Russ George, provided less enthusiastic accounts in their explorations of the potential of ocean fertilisation measures,66 and Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, rather played down the relevance of climate engineering to the incoming Obama administration when asked about the topic.67 Other expert witnesses were highly critical of the potential of technological climate intervention. Emily Figdor from Environment America – an environmental protection advocacy group – for example, strongly dismissed the viability of ocean fertilisation measures as part of US climate legislation, when discussing potential carbon offset projects.68
Despite their outspoken positions on the issue, the expert witnesses who introduced climate engineering to the congressional agenda here, hardly appeared as prominent experts on the matter – at least as indicated by the US political inquiry into the issue: these witnesses made their statements on climate engineering in the context of thematically diverse hearings, spread over several years, and rather isolated from any systematic debate of the issue. Most of these experts were not invited to be part of the programmatic congressional inquiry into climate engineering that would begin in November of 2009. And what is more, they were not prominently referenced or referred to in the context of this systematic inquiry. In fact, twelve of the eighteen experts that raised the issue of climate engineering between 2000 and 2009 did not appear in the examined policy documents on the issue every again.
Seen individually, these experts thus appear rather irrelevant in this context of the politics of climate engineering. When taken as a group, however, they can be seen as playing a key role in shaping the career of these measures in US politics. These experts swiftly introduced a controversial issue into the congressional debate – apparently without the political initiative of congressional representatives themselves. As we have seen in Chapter 2, hearings provide Congress with essential leeway to place and navigate issues on the US political agenda and generate an evidence base for crafting legislation.69 Depending on Congress’s specific partisan composition, it can utilise these hearings either to support or to challenge the executive branch or the current administration. Aside from their role in sourcing information, hearings are thus essentially about asserting and contesting controversial issues and shaping the context for their political assessment.
Against this backdrop, these expert witnesses can be understood as playing the role of masked agenda setters. Their inputs allow policymakers to introduce a controversial issue onto the agenda without having to yet take an official stance on the topic. And in so doing, these experts pave the way for a programmatic congressional assessment of the issue at stake at a later point in time, allowing policymakers to refer back to their testimonies. In the case of David Schnare’s testimony, for example, the hosting Chairman explicitly urged Schnare to provide a policy framework on climate engineering:
Dr. Schnare, thank you very much for bringing the geo-engineering information. We will come back to it in time, but I would just invite you, if you have a framework that you would like to bring to my committee’s attention, we would welcome this, because I think it will be a topic that will move on the global screen. I have questions and yellow lights about it. But rather than us giving our opinions about it, let’s go beyond opinion and go to sound data and research, which is what we have been talking about here today.70
As requested, Schnare provided such a framework titled ‘To Prevent the Catastrophic Effects of Global Warming Using Solar Radiation Management (Geo-Engineering)’. The Committee then added it to the record together with his prepared testimony.71 In effect, this means that without the committee having to formulate an official position on this controversial matter, climate engineering was placed ‘on the record’. By doing so, Congress can build on already established expertise on climate engineering – on ‘sound data and research’ – without having to establish an official inquiry into the issue. The selection of congressional expert witnesses is a highly strategic and purposive part of legislative activity in this sense.72 Expert witnesses are expected ‘[…] to play a role in meeting the goals the chair has for the hearing’.73 They provide a kind of ‘ideologically and politically reliable’ form of expertise, a type of ‘staged advice’, as we have seen in Chapter 2.74
The role of these expert witnesses in bringing the issue of climate engineering onto the congressional agenda also speaks to political science scholarship which has emphasised the shifting role of scientific expertise across different phases or stages of the policy process. Keller, for example, finds that scientific experts are more likely to provide explicit advocacy during the agenda setting phase, while during later stages of the policy process, the provision of expertise becomes increasingly formalised.75
Getting what you pay for: The ‘incredible economics’ of climate engineering
Economic and corporate efforts to mobilise visions of techno-scientific control over the issue of climate change provide a third and final defining context in which climate engineering appeared in US climate policy during the early 2000s. This context further substantiates the emerging shift in the status of climate science from a problem-defining to a problem-addressing authority during this particular stage in the career of climate engineering. The political exploration of climate engineering was now increasingly built on the kinds of economic observations that had advanced climate engineering measures in the context of scientific assessments of climate policy since the 1980s and 1990s (see Chapter 4). Climate science in this context was not only envisioned as a tool for the state, as weaponry for the nation, but also as a potential economic asset, an investment opportunity. It was seen as offering, in other words, a managerial gaze onto the issue of climate change.76 This was a new outlook that did not mark the limits to growth or question the economic status quo, but one that would promise control and provide business opportunities or economic solutions.
On the surface, this outlook became most obviously visible in some of the expert testimonies of the time. The accounts of Lee Lane and David Schnare are particularly illustrative in this context, as well as the papers by Alan Carlin and Scott Barrett, which were part of the group added by Schnare to the congressional record, as mentioned earlier.77 In addition, the economic analyses from the 1980s and 1990s which we encountered in the previous chapter became increasingly prominent reference points within congressional debates of the early 2000s. Lane and Schnare, for example, referred in their testimonies to the analyses by William Nordhaus, Thomas Schelling, and the 1992 report by the National Academies of Sciences, which we explored in the final section of the previous chapter.78
Each of these accounts sought to establish the viability of targeted climate intervention in economic terms – as ‘surprisingly cheap’,79 economically ‘incredible’80, or presenting a ‘risky gamble’.81 They formulated the goal of reducing emissions as ‘well intentioned and even helpful’, yet as ‘inflexible, expensive, risky, and politically unrealistic’ as a main policy strategy for tackling climate change.82 Economic observations became essential in this context for advancing climate engineering in contrast to other policy measures. They provided the grounds for formulating these measures as superior to other mitigation options, even suggesting them as ‘inevitable’,83 in contrast to other mitigation options:84 ‘keep in mind that use of geo-engineering will pay for itself, while exclusive reliance on greenhouse reduction will not only fail to pay for itself, it will fail to prevent global warming’, as Schnare put it in his testimony.85 Or: ‘it is unlikely that cost would play any significant role in a decision to deploy stratospheric scatterers because the cost of any such system is trivial compared to the cost of other mitigation options’, as Barrett suggested.86
Beyond this superficial layer of overly enthusiastic expert observations, economic and corporate concerns guided the set-up of a climate engineering-relevant research and development infrastructure. In the following two sections, we will see how at the turn of the new millennium notions of ‘clean coal’, carbon capture, and offsets began providing an important platform for advancing climate engineering research in the name of economic climate solutions.87
The rise of corporate and governmental research infrastructures
Part of the reason that climate engineering gained political currency during the early 2000s was that it mobilised what had thus far seemed like a rather unlikely constituency for the issue of climate change. This included corporate interests, particularly associated with the fossil fuel industry. In 2003, for example, the Federal Register gave notice that three of the world’s largest energy and oil companies established a research and development project devoted to climate change and energy issues. Exxon Mobil Corporation, General Electric Company, and Schlumberger Technology Corporation initiated the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP), a commercially funded research and development initiative, located at Stanford University.88 This project serves to illustrate how growing corporate interests in advancing technical fixes to tackle climate change aided in further establishing climate science as a problem-solving authority. Climate research was mobilised by the project not as ‘raising the alarm’ about an increasingly urgent problem,89 but as providing ‘new solutions to one of the grand challenges of this century’.90 These ‘new solutions’ also included climate engineering-relevant research. With its focus on energy research, the project provided essential insights for advancing carbon dioxide removal (CDR) approaches. During its almost 17 years of operation, the Global Climate and Energy Project was dedicated to ‘long-term pioneering research to identify options for commercially viable, technological systems for energy supply and use with substantially reduced net greenhouse emissions’, including ‘fundamental science and pre-commercial research’ in ‘carbon sinks, carbon dioxide separation and storage’.91 The project ended in August of 2019.
A diverse set of international carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects, which began popping up in congressional debates during the early 2000s further substantiate this growing corporate interest in climate intervention measures. Members of Congress and expert witnesses began mobilising these projects to both confirm92 and question93 the technological readiness of climate engineering measures. This included references to large-scale geologic sequestration and ocean fertilisation projects such as the Weyburn Project (initiated in 2000 and steered by the Canadian Department of Natural Resources),94 the In Salah Project (established in 2004 by BP, Sontrach and Statoil in Algeria), 95 and the Sleipner gas field in the North Sea.96 To take the Sleipner gas field as an example, it contains the world’s first industrial scale CO2 storage unit and is the longest continuing CO2 injection project initiated to date. It is operated by Equinor (formerly Statoil), Norway’s state oil company. Equinor built the unit in 1996 to avoid paying CO2 taxes on its natural gas production. At an offshore platform used to extract natural gas, CO2 is simultaneously removed from the gas produced and then injected in the Utsira formation, a deep saline reservoir about one kilometre below the North Sea floor, off the shores of Norway. Since its inception, the Sleipner unit has led to the storage of over 16 million tons of CO2 underground.97
The Executive branch, too, internalised this new managerial gaze onto the issue of climate change. Through its Office of Fossil Energy, the Department of Energy, for example, began advancing carbon capture and storage (CCS) research and development as early as 1997.98 The Office’s diverse set of Federal and private sector partners – ranging from the US Geologic Survey, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to representatives from the oil industry99 – suggests just how multi-faceted the political exploration of the topic has become since the 1990s.100 The carbon capture and storage research portfolio of the department includes formats such as ‘industry cost-shared technology development projects, university research grants, collaborative work with other national laboratories’ as well as ‘in-house’ research through national laboratories.101 Particularly through its so-called Carbon Sequestration Program, the Department of Energy has advanced climate engineering relevant research and development.102 The program’s goal was to ‘clean up’ fossil energy sources by first ‘demonstrat[ing] a series of safe and cost-effective technologies at a commercial scale’ before ‘establish[ing] the potential for deployment leading to substantial market acceptance’.103 These ‘safe and cost-effective technologies’ included, among other approaches, ocean fertilisation measures.104
These corporate and federal initiatives illustrate how climate engineering relevant research became advanced during the early 2000s through the incremental development of a diverse industrial-scientific research and development infrastructure. They are realisations of emerging alliances between climate science and corporate interests forged by the promise of techno-scientific control. All of these initiatives were driven by the goal to provide economical ‘solutions’ to the climate change issue. And thereby, they importantly aided in institutionalising this new vision of climate science as a problem-solving authority in tackling climate change.
Carbon offsets: Capturing and storing a negative commodity
Finally, I want to turn to a controversial congressional debate over so-called carbon offsets that flared up in 2007. The debate reveals another facet of the economic problematisation of climate change and the corresponding new vision of the relationship between science in the state. Specifically, it suggests how this problematisation of climate change shaped not only the setup of a research and development infrastructure, but also legislative inquiry into climate engineering measures.
The basic idea of carbon offsets is to ‘make up’ for already emitted CO2 by purchasing and trading titles to measures that reduce or remove atmospheric CO2 emissions. Such carbon offsets thus differ from concepts like ‘clean coal’ or ‘carbon capture and storage’ in how the emission of carbon into the atmosphere and the capture of carbon from the atmosphere are integrated. Carbon capture and storage units integrate the removal of CO2 and the generation of energy physically and structurally – the Sleipner unit, for example, removes CO2 directly from its generated gas stream before the CO2 would be emitted to the atmosphere and before the gas is pumped to the shore and distributed. Carbon offsets, in contrast, integrate the emission and capture of carbon indirectly, namely via offset markets. These markets develop criteria, measures, and certificates that verify and account for offsets and that are intended to determine the quality and value of different types of offsets.
In July 2007, the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming held a hearing on the topic of ‘Voluntary Carbon Offsets – Getting What You Pay For’. Among the invited witnesses was Russ George, CEO of Planktos Inc. Planktos was a private for-profit enterprise that sought to generate and sell carbon offsets by sequestering and storing CO2 in the Pacific Ocean via ocean fertilisation. Earlier that year, the company had announced plans to seed a 100 km by 100 km area of the Pacific Ocean, close to the Galapagos Islands with approximately 100 tons of iron dust.105 On 21 May 2007, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had contacted Planktos and required additional information regarding the venture’s planned iron fertilisation project.106 When Planktos was unable to provide that information, the United States submitted an agenda item to the Scientific Group of the London Convention on 1 June.107 The London Convention is one of the first global conventions addressing pollution at sea. In their note to the scientific group, the United States expressed concern over the potential environmental impacts of Planktos’ ocean fertilisation activities. According to the submitted agenda item, Planktos had informed the EPA in response to these concerns that it was no longer planning to conduct its ocean fertilisation activities from the Weatherbird II, a United States flagged vessel, but instead ‘use a non-United States flagged vessel for releasing the iron so as not to be subject to regulation under the United States’ Ocean Dumping Act’.108 In July, the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming had invited George to respond to these concerns and discuss his company’s efforts in more detail.109
The controversial debate that flared up in the context of this hearing illustrates how climate engineering gained political traction during the early 2000s by promising to realign action against climate change with economic benefits. Throughout his testimony, Russ George devised ocean fertilisation as a science-based tool that would turn environmental safeguarding into an ‘enterprise’:
Our plan follows the consensus opinion of many ocean scientists, who have called for larger, more controlled, and more fully monitored iron addition trials that will generate the multidisciplinary data needed to understand this technology’s true capacity as a tool for CO2 mitigation and ocean stewardship. As a for profit business, we are of course also interested in the economic implications of that data […] We consider this work to be akin to the development of the applied science and technologies of agronomy and forestry and believe it can finally foster similar stewardship-based enterprises for the world’s oceans.110
George devised Planktos’ ocean fertilisation efforts as a ‘frontier enterprise effort’ that mobilised scientific research for the benefit of enterprise.111 In this sense, he reasoned that ‘if we succeed, we will have created a new industry. If we don’t succeed, we will have produced a lot of great science’.112
Climate science, in other words, appears as a measure that can translate action against climate change into a business opportunity. More specifically, in George’s observations, CO2 becomes a form of negative commodity, a resource to be economically cultivated. Regarding the afforestation projects of Planktos’ Hungarian subsidiary, KlimaFa, George suggested, for example:
[…] if you’re going to bank carbon dioxide in a carbon bank account, which is a forest, you need a bank guard. And we’ve selected the European National Park System as the bank guard for our carbon deposits that we’re banking. We think that’s safe, secure carbon.113
By means of scientific expertise, George suggested that it would be possible to ‘hire a tree or a green plant in the ocean to take that ton of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn it into those living plants, that living ecosystem […], healing the harm done to date’.114 Notions of techno-scientific control are directly linked here to environmental concerns about safeguarding nature. George continues: ‘[…] if we’re lucky, if we do everything right, we might be able to mimic [the natural Galapagos bloom] and develop this as a technology that might have major utility in helping to reverse the decline of the ocean ecosystems’.115
Timothy Mitchell has shown how in the great engineering projects at the turn of the twentieth century, scientific expertise was politically envisioned as a means of ‘taming’ and ‘ordering’ nature.116 We can see echoes of this vision for scientific expertise here, as climate engineering begins to appear as a project that would not only order, but essentially ‘improve’, or even ‘heal’, nature during the early 2000as. We will come back to this in more detail in the following chapter (see Chapter 6). Planktos’ ocean seeding project became subject to fierce criticism and eventually got abandoned, as the company had issues securing the necessary funds. Nevertheless, the company’s efforts illustrate how corporate interests joined the aforementioned federal interests in exploring ocean fertilisation as a measure to counteract climate change during these years and thereby importantly advanced a climate engineering-relevant expert infrastructure.117
This chapter has illustrated how climate engineering regained political currency between 2000 and 2009 when the very problem it promised to address was being reformulated. We have seen how climate change became problematised in the political realm as a challenge to techno-scientific innovation. The political problematisation of climate change did not concern the scientific prerequisites and epistemological underpinnings of a curious phenomenon anymore, but rather the effective management of an urgent problem. Building on the newly forged alliances between climate science and the state, which defined the 1970s through 1990s (see Chapter 4), climate science now further consolidated its status and evolved from a problem-defining to a problem-addressing authority during these years. Climate engineering thus moved to the surface of US climate policy during these years as it became part of an agenda to harness climate science (and particularly technology) as a tool for the state, as weaponry in the fight of a grand societal challenge.