Conclusion to Part III

In this third and final part of the book, we have come full circle to where we started at the outset of our analysis. Chapters 5 and 6 traced the career of climate engineering between the beginning and the teens of the new millennium. The story that these two chapters tell is one of a renaissance or re-normalisation of climate engineering within US climate policy. These chapters describe what might be understood as a kind of ‘second wave’ of visions to intervene in and control the climate. After the politicisation of global warming had drowned out and effectively ended what might be seen as a first wave of hopes to deliberately modify and control the climate (described in Part II of this book), these hopes were rekindled at the turn of the new millennium. Chapters 5 and 6 traced how climate engineering incrementally re-gained political traction, this time as a potential response measure to tackling the global societal problem of anthropogenic climate change.

Part III of this book described this incremental re-normalisation of climate engineering as a two-tiered process, structured around the official inquiry into these measures, beginning in November of 2009. Chapter 5 followed the controversial political exploration of these measures before the formal congressional inquiry, focusing in particular on the years from 2003 to 2007. Chapter 6 then zoomed in on the assemblage of climate engineering within and immediately leading up to this formal inquiry, covering the years 2007 to 2016.

Chapter 5 suggested how between 2003 to 2007, climate engineering gained political traction as a kind of techno-fix against climate change. Coinciding roughly with the timeframe of the presidency of George W. Bush, climate engineering popped up in highly controversial debates on the role of technological innovation for tackling the issue of climate change during these years. It moved further into the political limelight here by promising techno-scientific control in the face of this issue. The prospect of climate engineering essentially promised to translate the problem of climate change into a straightforward engineering challenge. It opened a managerial gaze onto the climate change issue, a gaze that problematises climate change not as an issue rooted in techno-scientific intervention, but, to the contrary, as one that calls for more of it. As a result, climate engineering mobilised rather heterogeneous and unlikely climate policy constituencies. It became part of an agenda that sought to push technological innovation as a means to stabilise the political and economic status quo in the face of this issue. It appeared as a tool, catering to national-strategic, as well as economic and corporate concerns in tackling climate change.

Chapter 6 then closed the circle and picked up where we left things off in the first part of this book, namely with the years around the official political inquiry into climate engineering, beginning in November of 2009. The chapter traced the subtle, yet relevant shift in tone that defined this formal inquiry back to the Democratic wave of 2007, when Democratic majorities returned to both chambers of Congress for the first time in twelve years. In contrast to the highly controversial debates during the height of the Bush years, climate engineering was not merely discussed as a techno-fix during this time. The political assessment of these measures was more critical and differentiated, even sceptical of their merit as a policy tool.

Presumably in response to a Democratic constituency that expected policy change on the issue of climate change, policymakers continuously emphasised that climate engineering would not, in fact, provide a solution to the issue at hand. The expected solution was a mitigation of the causes, rather than techno-scientific control over the effects of anthropogenic climate change. Instead of promoting climate engineering as a means of technological progress, the focus shifted to climate engineering as being part of a basic climate science agenda. Climate engineering became part of a climate science agenda during these years that saw climate change as a project of cultivation by human rationality, ingenuity, and reason.1 Despite being framed as a ‘bad idea’, these measures became established and institutionalised as a project of climatological cultivation and control.

We saw how science and politics came together in formulating this project of climatological cultivation and control as the chapter zoomed into the kinds of expertise that informed the political exploration of climate engineering. It examined both the defining expert modes of observation, as well as the expert infrastructure that was essential in envisioning and assembling this project. This perspective demonstrated just how deeply interrelated our understanding of problem and response are. In other words, it showed how the rise of climate engineering as a potential policy measure rests on and is embedded in particular modes of observing and problematising the issue of climate change.

Part III of this book thus carved out how the re-normalisation of climate engineering corresponded, once again, to a general shift in the status of climate science for the state. Climate engineering regained political traction in the early 2000s as climate science evolved from a problem-defining to a problem-addressing authority. Climate science, in other words, was not only envisioned as a critical means to understand and decipher, but also to effectively manage and counteract the problem of global warming in this context.

Following this line of reasoning, I suggested that the recent renaissance or re-normalisation of climate engineering can be understood as a kind of synthesis which reconciles two historically conflicting roles of climate science within the state. On the one hand, this renaissance was driven by the hope of political control via scientific expertise. Climate science emerged here – once again – as a critical tool at the hands of the state, somewhat mirroring its status from the first half of the twentieth century. This was more blatantly advertised during the Bush administration but continued to play a critical role in US political assessments of climate engineering during the Obama administration. We also currently see it sprouting up again under the Biden administration.

On the other hand, the current politicisation of climate engineering as a ‘last resort’ or ‘Plan B’ or ‘bad idea’ marks an awareness of the limits of such hopes of control, connecting to ‘green’ notions of environmental safeguarding. The fact that climate engineering has not resonated in recent years as a positive vision of socio-technical innovation points us to the particular societal context in which climate change has been politicised as a societal issue. We get a sense that climate change is not merely an issue of a warming world, but one that marks the limits of control and the potentially detrimental side effects of human interventions in its natural environment. As a techno-political project, climate engineering therefore questions established categories of climate policy programs and seems to forge new kinds of alliances between climate science and politics. Particularly in the United States where climate change has grown into the epitome of partisan issues, climate engineering thus promises to shake things up.2

Since this is an ongoing and highly dynamic debate, I want to end this Part III of my analysis by daring a glance into the future. To get a sense of where we might be headed, I want to point to three rather different versions of the above-mentioned synthesis of climate science and the state that are looming in this recent debate over climate engineering.

To begin with, we can observe efforts to alter the last resort or ‘bad idea’ framing of climate engineering in recent years to emphasise the redemptive power of climate science as a tool at the service of humankind. Apart from invoking sheer urgency in tackling the daunting climate crisis, we can begin to trace a discursive shift: metaphors of rescue, insurance, and medication are joined by notions of repair, restoration, and remediation.3 Such language suggests the need to ‘[…] use humanity’s extraordinary powers in service of creating a good Anthropocene’.4 This, of course, begs the question of what this ‘good Anthropocene’ might look like and at whose service this approach of climate intervention might work.

In one version of the debate, climate engineering furnishes conservative programs of maintaining the economic-political status quo with a language of ecological sustainability, invoking ‘green’ ideals and ethical obligations. Initiatives, such as the Ecomodernist Framework, for example, envision scientific progress as a vital tool for positive control over the natural environment:

[…] now, that we have the curse and blessing of knowing what’s going on, unintentional is no longer an option. […] We’re left with intention, with conscious design, with engineering. We finesse climate or climate finesses us.5

Very much in line with this perspective, David Keith, one of the most prominently received voices on the topic, suggests reframing the debate over climate engineering:

Geoengineering often seems a joyless choice between unpleasant alternatives. […] I can’t wholly embrace this view. It’s an easy way out. About a million years after inventing stone cutting tools, ten thousand years after agriculture, and a century after the Wright Brothers flight, humanity’s instinct for collaborative tool building has brought us the ability to manipulate our own genome and our planet’s climate.6

This narrative of techno-scientific control, of course, has driven political interest in climate science for decades. And it has prepared the arrival of climate engineering in US climate policy since the turn of the new millennium, as we have seen in the previous chapter. Climate engineering appears in this context as an effort to make climate change ‘legible’, and therefore, ‘amenable to containment in a way that preserves the current geo-political and economic order’.7

In a very different version of the debate, critical climate change scholarship and environmental activists have suggested the need to engage with climate engineering measures in a progressive way. Notions of repair, restoration, and remediation especially mobilise moral and ethical concerns, suggesting a human responsibility of restoring what has been disrupted.8 Instead of cementing the economic and political status quo, climate engineering emerges in this context as a potential instrument for environmental and societal transformation. Climate engineering research has been promoted, for example, in the name of global social equity in tackling climate change. Govindasamy Bala and Aarti Gupta argue in this context that ‘[…] when our scientists tell us that the poorest people can be the greatest beneficiaries of solar geoengineering, we cannot dismiss them lightly’.9 This issue of equity, in turn, has drawn attention to the lacking diversity and inclusiveness of the climate engineering research field and promoted calls for a further democratisation. 10 In particular, critical scholarship has suggested how marginal the position of countries from the global South remains in the current debate, emphasising the urgent need to diversify perspectives.11

Finally, and in a particularly striking dynamic of the debate, climate engineering seems to have managed to mobilise a political constituency for climate science who officially rejects the very existence of anthropogenic climate change. A congressional hearing on climate engineering in November of 2017 documents Republican efforts to rid the concept of climate engineering from its reference point of climate change:

I’d also like to take a moment to clarify any mischaracterizations about this hearing. The purpose of this hearing is to discuss the viability of geoengineering …. The hearing is not a platform to further the debate about climate change. We’ve had lots of that this session. Instead, its aim is to explore approaches and technologies that have been discussed in the scientific community and to assess the basic research needed to better understand the merits of these ideas. It is my hope that members will respect this focus so that we can have a meaningful discussion about geoengineering.12

The promise of control brings climate science back onto the Republican agenda here. In this version, climate engineering provides

the potential to provide us with a whole new understanding and approach to atmospheric research. If we put aside the debates about climate change, we can support innovations in science that can create a better prospect for future generations.13

Arguably, this version of the debate is rather a return to 1950’s perspectives than a historical synthesis of the role of climate science in the state. Yet, it demonstrates just how dynamic the political exploration of climate engineering remains. Techno-scientific intervention no longer seems to contradict programs of environmental safeguarding, and as a result, programs of environmental safeguarding no longer seem to contradict conservative political agendas of retaining the economic status quo. While all three of the above-mentioned versions of the climate engineering debate envision climate science as a tool for the state, this tool is fighting fundamentally different battles in each of them.