Geoengineering is the bogeyman of climate policy, a word that calls to mind skies bleached sulphur white, dessicated crop fields, and dead zones expanding across the oceans. Humanity has a garbage track record when it comes to manipulating the environment so it’s not as if these fears are unfounded, but the reality is a little more complicated.
The conversation surrounding geoengineering can be divided into two broad categories: carbon capture and storage (CCS), which sucks carbon out of the air and stores it as liquid or rock, and solar radiation management (SRM), in which reflective particles known as aerosols are injected into the sky to reflect sunlight. Both of these are extremely nascent technologies, and SRM is by far the riskier proposition. We don’t know for sure how injecting aerosols into the atmosphere would affect different parts of the globe and if we began it would be very difficult to stop. Studies have shown that a halt in aerosol release could cause temperatures to rise too quickly for plants and animals to adjust, which would in turn cause a massive die off and inflict more damage than the baseline climate change SRM is meant to counteract.
CCS is, at least upon first glance, more straightforward. Large machines would suck carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it away. The longstanding opposition to this mitigation method from the environmental left isn’t based in fear of the technology, but rather distaste for the people advancing it. CCS research has long been a pet project of the fossil fuel industry, a last ditch effort to buy themselves some time and maximize their profits. Another argument against it is that it doesn’t really exist on a meaningful scale at this point. The International Energy Association recommends that 3,500 CCS plants be operating by 2050 in order for the world to stay within 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, but at the moment only 22 facilities are expected to be operational by 2020.
Geoengineering has begun to move further into the mainstream, though. Andrew Yang has made carbon capture a central component of his climate plan and Harvard recently began an experiment that will test the way aerosols interact with the upper atmosphere in what could be the first geoengineering test outdoors (albeit it will be on an incredibly small scale). Holly Jean Buck, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA who studies emerging environmental technologies, believes that geoengineering strategies are being too quickly dismissed by environmental activists. Although Buck focuses primarily on CCS she believes that solar geoengineering deserves more publicly funded research as a fail safe measure, too.
“There is sometimes a hope among environmentalists and social justice advocates that confronting climate change will itself bring about social transformation—that it will flip us into a new narrative that could take on the climate pollution challenge,” Buck writes in her new book, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration. “However, I think there are plenty of scenarios where we deal with climate change in a middling way that preserves the existing unequal arrangements, leaving us not with a new dawn, but with a long and torturous afternoon.”
After Geoengineering offers up a best case scenario for geoengineering, an argument for why the left should engage with carbon removal technology, and a few ways we might avoid that “torturous afternoon,” by reclaiming the direction of tech from industry executives and coupling it with large scale social change. Earther spoke to Buck over the phone about her book and vision for the future. The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rebecca McCarthy, Earther: Your book combines very deep research and reporting with speculative fiction that imagines different scenarios under climate change. How did you land on that as a structure?
Holly Jean Buck: I guess there’s a couple answers. One is that way back when I was doing an MFA in writing and poetics I did a class about hybrid forms, basically forms that are trying to bring together two things that might seem like they fit awkwardly but end up being able to accomplish something that you couldn’t accomplish with one genre alone. So I guess I still had that in the back of my mind all these years. But the other thing is just that, if you really imagine what it would be like to live in some of these futures when you’re just looking at all these graphs that come from modeled calculations of what that future will look like—even if you’re used to seeing these graphs it’s just really hard to imagine how that translates into lived experience, so I think fiction is really the only tool to begin to do that.
Earther: The stories are honestly very affecting because you pick these brief stories like the one about this guy Jack who’s sort of a crotchety, old Oklahoman guy that you could imagine today, but he’s running a carbon sequestering farm essentially. The scene focuses on the moment the farm is powered down, at which point he’s captured 406,781,200 tons of carbon “almost all of Texas’s emissions from the year 1980.” How did you choose those specific scenarios?
Buck: I think that it really has to be character driven because if it’s just a description of a future world I think it just falls flat or it’s more like a scenarios exercise. And that kind of underscores that in whatever future [we land in] people are people, right? They’re dealing with some of the same dilemmas we have now.
Earther: You make a point at the beginning of the book that basically any climate mitigation scenario at this point looks like a utopia. Even us sort of messing this up—you used the words “muddling through”—is a utopian world.
Buck: Yeah, I mean 2 degrees Celsius [of warming] is bad on one hand, and we have all these small island states [that would be submerged] campaigning to get 1.5 degrees Celsius as a target. But then if you think about the range of possibilities, even 2 degrees would be pretty good compared to a lot of the other ones.
Earther: You’re not exactly a proponent of geoengineering in that you say that you’re hoping that it will just be “a weird artifact of the early 21st century way of seeing the human relationship with nature,” but throughout the book it becomes increasingly clear that it could be necessary, even with broad social change. Do you think that’s important to foreground? You point out that the worst case scenario for geoengineering is if it’s implemented much later, when governments may be starting to fray.
Buck: So, I should say that I think some types of carbon removal will be required, I’m not convinced that solar geoengineering will be required. My hope is that we can get social movements and momentum for a Green New Deal and implement a lot of policies that could limit warming to, I don’t know… 2.5 degrees maybe? With a lot of effort? And that, combined with adaptation, that would be enough to make the case for solar geoengineering less relevant. The worst case scenario in terms of solar geoengineering in particular is if it was implemented in ways where there was no exit strategy or plan for what happens after geoengineering. If it’s just kind of this emergency measure, for example, I could imagine it being used in a case where there’s a lot of discourse about migration and a lot of fear about that [on the part of] some politicians—[if] people buy into that and then you have this hysteric, emergency response—that would be my worse case scenario.
Earther: There are ways that we can repurpose carbon, like using it to carbonate soft drinks or make shoes, but you explain that it doesn’t really scale. That kind of industry accounts for only about one percent of our total output.
Buck: Yeah, so a lot of attention is being paid to what’s called carbon capture and use or carbon capture and utilization in terms of creating industries that use carbon to make other things. Which is this kind of cool, circular type of recycling concept, right? [But] the scale of our emissions are so huge that we could never productively use all of that carbon, and the argument is that it’s a stepping stone to a greater scale industry. I find it really hard to see how one thing leads to the other, so I’ve been arguing that we need to take these things as two different things. If there’s a carbon tech industry that’s using carbon, great. But that’s a different project than putting all the carbon in the air back underground.
Earther: Do you think that’s part of the problem with carbon capture, the fact that the conversation is being driven by the oil industry primarily?
Buck: Yeah, definitely. For industrial applications—things that are energy intensive like steel and cement and some of these industrial processes—carbon capture could really help decarbonize those, and I see a huge role for that. Another thing is using carbon capture in oil recovery which is what some people in the oil industry are really interested in because currently in the United States, the oil industry has been using carbon mined from natural deposits and piping it to places like West Texas and using it for enhanced oil recovery, which means getting more oil out of depleted wells. Some of the natural sources, after several decades of this, have been running out, so they need a new source of carbon dioxide for the process. So it’s problematic for a number of reasons.
Earther: What do you think is the best way to shift the conversation around geoengineering away from the oil industry? Is it just a matter of activists sort of latching onto that or do you think it has to happen on a policy level?
Buck: I think that those interrelate, so I’m not sure if it’ll happen on a policy level without activists pushing that conversation a bit more. For that to happen there has to be some public imagination of an alternative way that carbon capture and sequestration at a large scale could proceed. Because nobody’s really calling for it, except for a few climate related NGOs and activists that have seen the math on this. Even if we could sequester all that carbon through land use, that might not be the best thing either, because the land demands are so huge and it would have all kinds of impacts on ecosystems.
But to get back to your original question, I think that activists need to demand a different version of carbon capture that’s not articulated by the oil industry. And that policy analysts and other people can help figure out how to communicate that and make it work. I think we need a lot more visions of ways to go forward. And you know, people might reasonably say, ‘Well we have these visions and they’re visions of this agroecology,’ like often it’ll be these agrarian pastoral visions, visions that aren’t necessarily accessible to everybody or that might not even be what people in other places want. We need an exploding diversity of good visions, so I threw out a few in my book but my hope is that everybody sketches out and communicates what theirs is too.
Earther: You talk about how austerity ecology is not necessarily helpful, that “green anti-modernism actually commits us to catastrophic change,” because even if we go carbon neutral, we’re not removing anything from the atmosphere. Do you think part of it is committing to publicly funded technology? I guess I’m asking the same question which is, how do you wrest this technology away from industry, in this case the tech industry?
Buck: Part of the problem is we don’t have a vision for how these technologies can be developed outside of capitalist frameworks because in most cases they never have been. So in a way it’s a little bit starting from scratch, at least in a U.S. context. It’s very hard to imagine what some of these things look like under an alternative form of social organization and alternative forms of people designing and controlling them. So it’s not just like purely market driven calculus.
Earther: Is a move away from capitalism the inevitable conclusion of any workable climate change mitigation plan?
Buck: I mean definitely [away from] neoliberal capitalism. But I’m not sure if there is any form of capitalism [that can enact] carbon removal at this kind of scale, because it’s a pure public benefit. It’s a clean up project, it’s cleaning up waste, and so it’s not a generative activity, you know? It’s a remediative activity so it’s hard to see how that is turned into something that a capitalist can extract an extra profit from.
Earther: Right, because so much of the problem with carbon removal plans is just money—either the world ends or we admit that money isn’t a structure that is going to work for the future. You make a point about climate reparations. Basically, wealthy countries should be the ones to pay for this, and what that might look like in the future. You present a scenario in which a pop-up at the end of your Amazon order would ask you if you’d like to pay for grandfather’s carbon use. I guess all of this is very speculative under a Trump administration, but do you think that should become a bigger part of the conversation around climate policy, how to really implement those reparations?
Buck: Yeah, I personally do. I think there’s a deep moral obligation. You know if you are in a position where you’ve benefited from these emissions and enjoy a high standard of living because of this legacy of emissions, then it’s incumbent upon you to pay for the cleanup of it. Now would that be the most politically popular position? Probably not. I mean in this current climate I don’t know if, strategically, it would my first proposition, just because of the politics of this country but I believe that’s part of the moral case for it.
There are also issues in terms of intergenerational justice, too. I mean, we heard Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN a few days ago where she called out for negative emissions and said your plan is these negative emissions using technologies that barely exist. Well A, she’s right that’s not a great plan and B, it’s her generation and the next and the next that would be doing this labor. So I think all of that needs to be part of the conversation, too.
Earther: On the subject of reparations, how do indigenous groups feel about geoengineering? I feel like we talk about the U.S.’s carbon debt a lot, which kind of overlooks the fact that there are a lot of disenfranchised groups within the U.S. that obviously have not benefited in the same way and really had no choice in the sort of petrochemical industrial complex that was created.
Buck: I would say we should be having those conversations in a deeper way that’s not only about informed consent, but that takes into account the current context of settler colonialism. That’s why the policy matters so much, because you don’t want to end up taxing everybody in the population and then worsening the situation of people who are already vulnerable. My recommendation for carbon removal is not a blanket one, [for people] who are already dis-benefited to continue to suffer would be terrible.
Earther: What do you see as the best case scenario for geoengineering?
Buck: I think best case, mitigation is pursued with a lot more vigor than it has been. I think that we need a really frank conversation about the future of the fossil fuel industry, one that’s more nuanced than just putting these companies out of business because most of the fossil fuels produced in the world are by national oil companies and so they’re entwined with governments and societies in really complex ways.
So we need to be thinking about a phase out or managed decline or a transition for the fossil fuel industry and including workers as a big part of that conversation and thinking about what opportunities there are in carbon removal for workers, for rural communities, for farmers, for the people who are really in the landscapes where this carbon removal is imagined to take place. The best case scenario is we develop a robust debate and start to work out some of those questions.
Rebecca McCarthy is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.