It’s only after visiting a natural history museum that you notice that all the most interesting mammals are extinct.
Sure, we’re surrounded by dogs, cats, cows and pigs. And lots of other humans. But what happened to the big guys, the megafauna of the past? Why are there no more giant sloths, Irish elk, woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers?
We got to them. New research is revealing how humans have altered and engineered the earth for millennia—beginning, it now appears, with hunting-to-collapse the large mammals. No need, then, to quibble over our impact today as if it were something new; the Anthropocene, the new name given to this epoch of human influence, stretches back in time much farther than is commonly realized. Our influence has not been isolated to just the last few hundred industrial years.
The more closely we look, the more we must conclude that we have dominated life on earth from our very beginnings. It’s not that extinctions didn’t happen prior to humankind; of course they did. But when we’re around, other things disappear more quickly, in a geologic blink of an eye.
In the case of the megafauna, one recent study published in Science says that if the trend continues, “the largest mammal on earth in a few hundred years may well be a domestic cow.” And that cow may then be living in a much different world as well—a much warmer and climate-shifted world.
It’s becoming plain that not only are we affecting the other living things with which we share the planet, we’re also altering the physical systems of the planet itself. From hogging the freshwater, to converting ecosystems to farms and cement, and—most alarmingly—altering the natural greenhouse effect–global heat balance through the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane gases into the atmosphere, we have in a sense geoengineered the world without even knowing it.
“Now, in the Anthropocene, we have to add nature itself to the list of things that are not natural. In every respect, the world we inhabit will henceforth be the world we have made.”
Today geoengineering, in this case a willful attempt to control global climate, is taking hold as a plausible option. The Royal Society report “Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty” outlined the growing problem a decade ago: “Increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations . . . due to human activities such as fossil fuel burning, deforestation and conversion of land for agriculture, have upset this delicate [heat] balance as the gases restrict the emission of heat radiation to space a little more than usual.”
What happens next is simply that this added heat is distributed across the globe, and temperatures rise. The report continued: “To restore this imbalance the lower atmosphere has warmed, and is emitting more heat (long-wave) radiation, and this warming will continue as the system evolves to approach a new [warmer] equilibrium.”
Much of our impact on the planet has been done without foresight concerning the consequences. It’s a good bet that cavemen didn’t know the giant sloths could become extinct. There were no environmental impact reports, no Royal Society in the Pleistocene. But what about today’s potential for CO2 altering planetary climate—has this been a surprise?
No. We’ve suspected as much for more than 150 years.
Irish naturalist John Tyndall (1820–1893) was the first to explore the heat-absorbing qualities of gases including water vapor and CO2. Back in 1861 he noted that the properties of both would affect climate: “The differential action, as regards the heat coming from the sun to the earth, and that radiated from the earth into space, is vastly augmented by the aqueous vapour of the atmosphere. . . . [And] an almost inappreciable admixture of any of the hydrocarbon vapours [such as carbon dioxide and methane] would produce great effects on the terrestrial rays and produce corresponding changes of climate.”
Almost a century later in 1950, a Saturday Evening Post article examined climate anomalies around the earth and asked, “Is the World Getting Warmer?” The examples it chronicled run parallel to what we read today: disappearing glaciers, record-breaking cold and heat waves, “freak seasons,” melting sea ice, sea-level rise, plants and animals migrating into newly warmed regions, and the list goes on. “The world will be able to plan with certainty on at least several hundred years—perhaps a millennium or more—of balmier climate.”
“The entire earth may not become tropical, but Baffinland [Canada] will be as warm as Minnesota, Greenland as warm as the Carolinas, Vladivostok as warm as Calcutta.”
By 1959 the climate–carbon dioxide connection and our liability were made plain in Scientific American. “During the past century a new geological force has begun to exert its effect upon the carbon dioxide equilibrium of the earth,” wrote physicist Gilbert Plass. He argued that using the new space technology of the day, scientists could now distinguish between solar and atmospheric drivers of climate. The answer to our ongoing experiment of adding CO2 to the air could be decided. “If carbon dioxide is the most important factor, long-term temperature records will rise continuously as long as man consumes the earth’s reserves of fossil fuels.”
A 1965 United States presidential report, “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment,” was apparently the first government document acknowledging that CO2 levels were connected to climate: “Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years. . . . By the year 2000 the increase in atmospheric CO2 will be close to 25 percent. This may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate, and will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the stratosphere.”
In retrospect, the change was less than the report predicted. In 1965, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded 319 parts per million (ppm) CO2 in the atmosphere; in 2000, 369 ppm, not quite a 16 percent rise.
In 1988, however, NASA scientist James Hansen announced that the anticipated measurable change in the greenhouse effect had been detected and was “changing the climate now.” Thirty years later, on the anniversary of his testimony before the US Senate, many climate scientists agreed that “he was right.” By mid 2018, the concentration has risen to 411 ppm, about a 29 percent increase from 1965. And since 1965, as the CO2 concentration increased, global temperature has risen about 1° Celsius. The Royal Society’s geoengineering report noted in 2009, “Climate models generally indicate that stabilisation of atmospheric CO2 at about 450 ppm would be necessary to avoid warming exceeding 2°C.” Yet if CO2 emissions continue on current projections, we will cross that threshold in about 2030.
Implementing the necessary reductions “poses substantial technological, economic, social and institutional challenges,” says the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2014 report. These will only increase “with delays in additional mitigation and if key technologies are not available.”
So noticing that global temperatures are rising alongside increasing CO2 concentrations is not a surprise. Now what? If climate change is a real threat to the continuing existence of civilization (a so-called existential threat), can we do anything about it?
Climate Change on Purpose
Geoengineering the climate was once considered a farfetched, remote Plan B—an array of fantastic schemes to either pull CO2 out of the atmosphere or alter the earth’s reflectivity, or some combination of both. Plan A was supposed to be the easy, obvious, no-brainer way forward: stay below that 2°C-increase ceiling by cutting CO2 production.
As the IPCC report noted, “there are multiple mitigation pathways that are likely to limit warming to below 2°C relative to preindustrial levels. These pathways would require substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades and near zero emissions of CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases by the end of the century.” To do this would require reducing global reliance on burning fossil fuels, the greatest source of carbon emissions.
A wide range of scientific organizations agree: the Royal Society (“it is still physically possible to deliver emissions reductions of the magnitude required by mid-century”); the American Geophysical Union (“deep reductions in these emissions must be central to any policy response to the dangers of climate change”); the Bipartisan Policy Center (“this task force strongly believes that climate remediation technologies are no substitute for controlling risk through climate mitigation [i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases . . .]”); and the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences (“neither solar geoengineering nor CDR [carbon dioxide removal] can provide the certain reduction in environmental risk that is offered by cuts in greenhouse gas emissions”).
“With rising temperatures, increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, and a growing world population, we may be on the verge of a worldwide climate crisis. What shall we do? Doing nothing or too little is clearly wrong, but so is doing too much.”
But again, as the Royal Society noted, getting away from fossil fuels will be difficult. It “would require a revolutionary transformation of global energy production and consumption systems. . . . There is little evidence to suggest such a transformation is occurring.”
The first steps in this change would be global agreement to change course. But from the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 (which the United States would not ratify) to the current Paris Agreement on climate change (on which the United States reneged in 2017), a consensus to limit CO2 emissions has been tenuous at best.
It’s as if coal, oil and gas are the opiate in a growing energy addiction. “Unless future efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are much more successful than they have been so far,” reported the Royal Society, “additional action may be required should it become necessary to cool the Earth this century.”
The next best thing, then, according to scientists such as David Keith of Harvard University, is to begin work on Plan B. We need to shift our approach to slowing down warming in other ways.
“Looking farther ahead,” Keith wrote in 2000, “I speculate that views of the CO2-climate problem may shift from the current conception in which CO2 emission is seen as a pollutant to be eliminated, albeit a pollutant with millennial timescale and global impact, toward a conception in which CO2 concentration and climate are seen as elements of the earth system to be actively managed.”
Embrace Your Monsters
That time of managing the atmosphere has apparently come. Even so, Keith warned 17 years later, geoengineering without CO2 reductions won’t work: “Solar geoengineering is not a substitute for cutting emissions. It is, at best, a supplement. We can’t keep using the atmosphere as a free waste dump for carbon and expect to have a safe climate no matter what we do to reflect away some sunlight.”
Will implementing a technological fix to the climate impact our determination to get to the real task of reducing emissions? That’s the moral hazard of pushing forward with climate manipulation. Clearly the necessary and right thing to do is to reduce fossil-fuel use. Does the Plan B of geoengineering entice us away from doing the right thing? Is Plan B a miracle or a distracting monster that could easily get out of control?
Bruno Latour, senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, argues that using the technology we have is the right thing to do. In his essay “Love Your Monsters,” Latour argues that to deny ourselves access to our inventions is self-destructive. It is the problem, he believes, Mary Shelley warned of in her book Frankenstein. Our invented technology only becomes a monster when we abandon it; when we let it loose without training, bad things happen.
“Dr. Frankenstein’s crime was not that he invented a creature through some combination of hubris and high technology,” Latour explains, “but rather that he abandoned the creature to itself. When Dr. Frankenstein meets his creation on a glacier in the Alps, the monster claims that it was not born a monster, but that it became a criminal only after being left alone by his horrified creator, who fled the laboratory once the horrible thing twitched to life.”
“Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. . . . I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.’”
“Written at the dawn of the great technological revolutions that would define the 19th and 20th centuries,” Latour continues, “Frankenstein foresees that the gigantic sins that were to be committed would hide a much greater sin. It is not the case that we have failed to care for Creation, but that we have failed to care for our technological creations.”
This has a two-part meaning: we should not abandon the ugly world of climate change we have created, nor should we leave it now to its own devices. If our way of living has affected the planet, we are obligated to use our wits to manage the next steps. If the climate is our child, so to speak, we must nurture it, make it well and whole. Likewise, “our sin is not that we created technologies,” Latour says, “but that we failed to love and care for them. It is as if we decided that we were unable to follow through with the education of our children.”
Latour continues the biblical theme, asking, “If God has not abandoned His Creation and has sent His Son to redeem it, why do you, a human, a creature, believe that you can invent, innovate, and proliferate—and then flee away in horror from what you have committed? . . . Has God fled in horror after what humans made of His Creation?”
That certainly refashions the idea of the moral hazard.
If we simply proceed without a change in our collective behavior, we’ll face greater problems ahead. Another biblical theme comes to mind: repentance, which simply means a change of mind or purpose. But it isn’t gaining much traction. Meanwhile NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) continues to report record-breaking temperatures. CO2 emissions are rising, not falling. NOAA’s conclusion? “If global energy demand continues to grow and to be met mostly with fossil fuels, atmospheric carbon dioxide will likely exceed 900 ppm by the end of this century.”
Such levels would obviously bust the theoretical 450-ppm limit to stay below a 2°C shift. At this point we seem to be sitting on a kind of collective Plan C: complacency. Like it or not, from all appearances, whether we are sitting, drifting or acting, our world is moving into a new climate regime. And some form of climate geoengineering is coming over the horizon.
According to philosopher Christopher Preston in The Synthetic Age, we’re crossing a new threshold in our creative intervention in the earth’s functioning and its future. “This would mark a whole new period of history,” he writes, “in which humanity deliberately takes control of the planet’s geophysics.”
“Many aspects of climate change and associated impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are stopped.”
“Climate change presents humanity with a massive economic and moral migraine,” says Preston. Once we begin intervening, it will be almost impossible to stop. If geoengineering works, we will have to continue; if it fails, we will try something else, then something else. “Like a tireless potter eternally shaping her clay,” he warns, “humans would become responsible for perpetually molding climate. . . . People would assume continuous management of everything under the sun.”
These thoughts and those of Latour and climatologist Keith hark back to that 1965 presidential report. There, after acknowledging the “vast geophysical experiment” that we were then and continue to be engaged in, it suggested taking a more proactive approach. As climate changes, the “possibilities of bringing about countervailing changes by deliberately modifying other processes that affect climate may then be very important.”
Recognizing climate change and its relationship to CO2 is not new. Nor is the idea that we might ultimately fix what we broke. That, too, finds its origin in the Scriptures: Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
Preston cogently spells out the steps that will lead us to doing even what seems impossible: “If you take seriously the amount of harm that unchecked global warming will cause, if you recognize that these harms will fall disproportionately on the global poor, if you acknowledge that these populations are not only the least equipped economically to cope with climate change but are also the least implicated in the rise of greenhouse gases in the first place, and if you concede the undeniable reality that conventional strategies for reducing the harms of climate change are not being implemented quickly enough, then there seems to be a strong moral case for doing something dramatic.”
There also seems little doubt that it’s our nature to alter the world to our needs and pleasures. But will geoengineering create a surprising new level of livability? How far can we go before unraveling the planetary systems that sustain us or joining the megafauna we led to extinction? We really don’t know the answer to either question.
We should understand, however, that we will never discover nor create perpetual balance. Nature is never really tamed; as we push and pull, plan and engineer, nature shifts and parries in its own lively and responsive dance.
As Preston concludes, even in a world we believe to be under control, there will be new surprises coming from places we failed to recognize, and things will happen that we never expected: “Remaking the earth will always remain a game of high chance. When we insert ourselves so deeply into the workings of a planet, we are unlikely to be able to predict all of the consequences of our actions. There are serious risks to letting ourselves be seduced by the sublime beauties of technology.”