Conclusion to Part II

This second part of the book has illustrated that the recent rise of climate engineering as a ‘bad idea whose time has come’ is only the latest episode in a much longer standing history of ideas about deliberately modifying the climate. Chapters 3 and 4 have traced the historical roots of the current debate all the way back to the turn of twentieth century. This long-range perspective confronts a common assumption. It questions the often-propagated fracture that the daunting proposition of climate engineering has implied for climate policy agendas. This long-range perspective sheds light on another temporality of this debate, adding another piece of the puzzle, and thus providing a more differentiated picture of this career of climate engineering.

The early history of climate engineering illustrates that, despite being framed as a ‘last resort’ or ‘Plan B’, suggestions of techno-scientific climate intervention have been an essential part of the political cultivation of climate science from the outset. From the angle of these historical perspectives, it is not the notion of climate engineering which imposed a fracture on established science-politics alliances around climatic change. Instead, it was the politicisation of climate change which fractured historically grown alliances around promises of climatological control. In a way, this career of climate engineering is thus a particular history of the career of climate science in politics. The concept of targeted climate intervention has not been devised in responding to climate change. It has not been devised as the result of a linear innovation or science policy process. The discovery of the problem did not stimulate exploration of this response. Instead, problem and response have co-evolved from the very beginning; their histories coalesced. Climate engineering, then, can be understood as a node that has managed to effectively match scientific to political agendas around issues from agricultural interests to military interests, and eventually to environmental concerns. Each stage of the career of climate engineering has been defined by shifting alliances between politicians and climate scientists as they sought to advance their respective agendas.

Chapter 3 suggested that hopes for the positive prospects of deliberate climate control preceded fears of global warming. Notions of targeted climate intervention were rooted in the very first scientific explorations of human agency in climatic change around 1900. These observations were born out of a deeply divided and pre-disciplinary field of climatology. Descriptive meteorological efforts were institutionalised in a growing network of state-funded weather services, while central insights regarding physical theories of climate change were rather dispersed and brought forth by isolated and individual scientific efforts. The geopolitical challenges of the early- to mid-twentieth century then turned climatology into a project of national security, prestige, and progress. Meteorology became politically relevant, resulting in vast institutional and professional expansion of climate research. This massive infrastructure of climate research made the atmosphere into a subject that could not only be qualitatively described and mapped, but also ‘rendered calculable’ and – this was hoped at least – controllable.1 Significant meteorological progress in observational and modelling capacities during the second half of the twentieth century further fuelled political visions of climate control.

Chapter 4 then traced how the politicisation of global warming between the 1970s and 1990s implied a substantial fracture for these hopes of climate control and the grown alliances between climate science and the state more generally. What had previously been primarily addressed as two sides of the same coin (inadvertent and deliberate modification), now appeared as a problem (anthropogenic climate change) and – cautiously and slowly – a potential response (techno-scientific climate intervention).2

In the first part of the chapter, we saw how political interest in climate and weather modification was drowned out precisely as climate change became politicised as a problem of global societal significance. Nurtured in the newly established institutions of environmentalism, climate change became problematised as a concern for environmental safeguarding; it rested on ecological observations on the fragility of nature. This meant that climate change became understood as a challenge to reduce rather than expand techno-scientific intervention capacities. It became understood as a problem that marked the limits of human control over the climate, one that highlighted the ‘limits of growth’, and that questioned the political and economic status quo. This had two relevant consequences for the career of climate engineering. On the one hand, this problematisation of climate change effectively curbed the earlier political excitement over the prospect of deliberate climate modification that had defined the 1930s through 1960s. On the other hand, this politicisation of climate change fractured established alliances between climate science and the state more broadly. Climate science no longer seemed to provide a tool of control at the hands of the state, but, quite to the contrary, seemed to be part of an agenda that questioned the economic and political status quo.

The politicisation of climate change not only questioned established alliances between climate science and the state, but it also forged powerful new ones. The second part of Chapter 4 suggested how, between the 1970s and 1990s, climate science became established as the problem-defining authority of this newly politicised issue. And although not pursued as a Plan A, we saw how climate engineering was couched in the very formulation of this ‘greenhouse problem’. The chapter traced how these measures now emerged as catering to different visions of tackling this newly assembled challenge, and, by extension, to different visions of the role of climate science in the state. This second part of the chapter thus describes the roots of what might be described as an incremental re-normalisation of climate engineering in the context of climate change policy. From here on out, these measures would embark on a journey back into the limelight of US climate policy.

This second part of the book thus illustrated how the formulation of this ‘bad idea whose time has come’ bundles the disparate histories of various technological concepts – sprouting in different contexts and times – as well as the dynamic problematisation of climatic change as an agricultural, military, and environmental challenge. This perspective suggests that we are not, in fact, at a point zero today. Instead, we have systematically paved a way to arrive here. The forces which shape these emerging politics of climate engineering are grown forces of science in politics. This part of the book suggested how visions of techno-scientific climate control have successfully linked scientific to political agendas throughout different historical contexts, couched in the shifting issues and problems of their time. By considering these multiple threads of the story, it becomes clear that climate engineering emerges on policy agendas not merely because of the somehow external urgency of the issue at hand. Instead, this envisioned response measure is rooted in historically contingent modes of defining the problem.