The sunflower
It bows down to the Sun
The image of resilience.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Desperate Measures: Geoengineering as Humankind's Last Climate Gamble


Those who can read the writing on the charred walls of Lahaina's houses are starting to understand that the climate situation has taken a turn for the worse. Nevertheless, the public reaction has been mainly that of the guy with the red tie on the left of Tol's illustration. We could call it "Tol's paradox:" People hate the things that are good for them. And yet, that kind of reaction is dominating the debate on social media and in right-wing political circles. Given the situation, it is possible that the Powers that Be will switch to a new plan of action. "Plan C," based on geoengineering, may be coming.

During the past decades, the idea of acting to counteract the damage done to the ecosystem by humankind's activities has moved along at least two planning stages. 

"Plan A": Global agreements. Already in 1972, "The Limits to Growth" study proposed a possible procedure. It consisted of finding global governmental agreements to implement actions to reduce emissions. The imprint of these early ideas was visible in the COPs (conferences of the parties), which started in 1995 in Berlin. But, after almost thirty years, we see that this approach just can't work. Governments tend to act according to the instructions of their sponsors, typically industrial lobbies who have no intention of allowing their representatives to sign their death sentence on their behalf. And that's exactly what the attempt at zeroing emissions is: a direct attack on the fossil fuel lobby. Consider that the oil&gas industry has a budget in the range of several trillion dollars, about 3%-5% of the world's GDP. No lobby is powerful enough to overcome them easily. Even bombing them into submission would be impossible because the engines of bombers run on fossil fuels. Nothing can be done without the approval, or at least the neutrality of the fossil fuel industry. As you would expect, they fought back with a strategy of delaying, minimizing, and occasionally demonizing their opponents. So far, they have been successful. There is no evidence that the various treaties negotiated at the COPs significantly affected emissions; at most, they generated widespread greenwashing that hurt nobody but did nothing useful.

"Plan B" The Transition. The idea took shape in recent times when the dramatic reduction of the cost of renewable energy led to the idea that phasing out fossil fuels was not a dream for hippies but a real possibility. The incredibly fast growth of renewable energy production over the past few years gave substance to this idea. So, the plan was (and still is) that we don't need to worry too much about what people think about climate change. They may believe it is a hoax, but they'll welcome low-cost energy, clean air, pure water, etc. So, we eliminate fossil fuels, and all will be well in the best of worlds. 

We now realize that even though Plan B is perfectly possible, it has fundamental problems. The first is the same as that of global treaties: replacing fossil fuels means destroying the fossil fuel industry, and you can't expect them to take it meekly, to say the least. They seem to be taking the threat seriously and one of the countermeasures is a PR campaign against everything that can be defined as "green." 

The success of the denigration campaign is based in large part on how the public lost trust in science after the mismanagement of the Covid crisis. The result is a whole ecosystem of memetic maggots festering on the corpse of what once was the credibility of the meme called "science." It also gave life and substance to "Tol's Paradox" as expressed in the image at the beginning of this post. If you follow the debate on social media, you'll see the widespread white-hot rage against everything that can be seen as "green." Proposals that seemed to be wholly innocent up to a few years ago, from home insulation to induction stoves, are now seen as devilish tricks designed to enslave or kill us.

The most optimistic scenarios show that renewables could bring emissions to zero by 2040-2050, but only for a concerted global agreement to dedicate large amounts of resources to the transition. Given the strong backlash against renewables and green things in general, it is unlikely that such an agreement can be obtained in the near future. On the contrary, it is perfectly possible that some governments will actively work to slow down or even reverse the penetration of renewable energy in the world's energy mix. We are already seeing that happening, for instance in Texas. Even if it were possible to phase out fossils by -- say -- 2040, that may still be too late to save the ecosphere as we know it.

Plan C. Geoengineering. It is a growing idea that's gaining space in the memesphere, even though it is still looked at with great suspicion, often considered tantamount to a sacrilege against the Goddess Gaia in person. Yet, we can't forget that humans have been engineering the ecosystem from when they learned how to make fire; a few hundred thousand years ago. So we are not doing anything different from what we have been doing, except that geoengineering is a last climate gamble because there are many ways in which it could fail, for instance, by arriving too late or by causing more damage than benefits. But it has an enormous advantage: it does not go against the interests of the fossil fuel lobby. They may actually embrace the idea or, at least, keep a neutral stance.

In addition, it may be possible to act on climate by technologies such as solar radiation management (SRM) for costs that may be inferior to 100 bn$ (See Sovacool 2021) (2). This is a cost smaller than that of the war in Ukraine. Hi-tech lobbies, such as the aerospace industry, may be able to obtain this kind of financial support from the government. 

This "Plan C" has several advantages over the previous plans. One is that it doesn't have to be international. It is akin to starting a war; you need only one side to decide that it should start. In the same way, a single country could start a global SRM plan. Imagine that China, alone, were to decide to place mirrors in space to reduce solar irradiation. Hard to imagine that anyone could stop them. The same is true for the US or even for just California. Even Elon Musk or Bill Gates, alone, could engage in such a plan.  

Finally, note that Plan C has the same advantage as Plan B in that there is no need to convince people that climate change exists and is a bad thing. It could even be implemented without telling anything to anyone except the highest government levels. Suppose the sun's luminosity decreases by about 1%-2% (it is all that's needed). Could you detect it? No. So, what proof do you have that someone is placing mirrors in space? 

Note that I am NOT saying that geoengineering, and SRM in particular, will save us (and I am NOT saying that chemtrails exist and are a government's plan to exterminate us! (2), (3)). The climate system is part of the ecosystem and is a complex system that's hard to fix with simple measures. Some forms of geoengineering are akin to jumping out of a window to escape from a building on fire. Your probability of survival goes from zero to a little above zero. But who knows? You might land on something soft. (4)

What I am saying here is the door is open for a major push in the direction of geoengineering on the part of some determined national or international lobbies. And I believe we'll see it happening soon. If it happens, it will be unstoppable, for sure not by anything ordinary people can do. It is a Hail Gaia effort that could badly backfire, but it is where we stand. As always, the future has ways to create itself without considering what puny humans think it should be. 



1. There are several geoengineering technologies. A relatively low-cost one is reforestation. It would do a lot to cool the planet, even though we have no quantitative data to tell us whether it could compensate for the increasing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. It has the advantage that it doesn't directly harm the fossil lobby and it could be coupled with an expansion of renewable energy that would make wood useless as fuel. It goes without saying that a major push for biofuels supposed to be "green" (as advocated by some governments) would spell death for the world's forests and probably for humankind as well

2. It is remarkable how the geoengineering idea has generated some weird memes on the Web, with the one about "chemtrails" being especially resilient. It is so stubborn and so silly that one wonders whether it may be part of a plan to discredit the opposition to geoengineering. If that's the case, it would confirm that a major push in that direction is in preparation. Or, maybe, that a geoengineering plan is already in progress: who knows?

3. Some people are worried about "climate lockdowns" coming enacted by the evil elites. It seems unlikely to me. Lockdowns turned out to be ineffective for almost everything, including affecting the CO2 growth curve. Besides, nobody makes money on lockdowns, so why bother again with them? 

4. Could there be a "Plan D" if even Plan B fails? Maybe, but you have to think of something like a real-world Gotterdammerung played on the tunes of Wagner's music. 


  1. Geoengineering is inconsistent with capitalism. It produces no profit. Imagining a planet which has not outlawed war cooperating to implement geoengineering is crazy. Toy geoengineering projects might be built to justify business as usual. Built as smokescreens.

    1. Sorry, k-dog, but that's not true. Think of a war: it produces no profits if you sum up all the costs. But some people profit handsomely from it. It is enough to make wars common.

    2. Shale oil produces no profit either...

    3. I'm open to being shown wrong, but you will have to show me a solid mechanism by which a profit is made through geoengineering.

      Weapon makers do make great profits from war, but I don't see a good comparison here. Too many differences. Weapons unlike geoengineering components have great use value to the buyer, who has no choice but to buy weapons in a war. In a war a weapon makers have captive buyers. Geoengineering unlike fighting a war once it starts, remains an optional activity. It can always be shut down.

      Geo-engineering is a project without any end. Once begun wars actually do end. Wars are unstable arrangements. They don't end quick enough, but wars do end.

      Geoengineering is a project without any end, and I don't see that anyone has seriously considered this implication.

      Geoengineering is not like a Manhattan Project or the Moon Landing. The atom bomb was demonstrated at Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project ended. Niel Armstrong set foot on the moon. Mission accomplished.

      What if a requirement of the Moon Landing were to return every year for a hundred years and missing any year meant that something terrible would happen on Earth. An impossible thought experiment that would have made the moon landing foolish.

      But this foolish every year requirement directly applies to Geoengineering. Once started people will become dependent on geoengineering and such projects can thus NEVER be suspended. But a point will come when changing politics will shut down any geoengineering project that has begun. Then a world which that now DEPENDS on geoengineering to keep cool goes hot at a speed that will startle even Guy McPherson.

      Geoengineering makes the climate of the world DEPENDENT on human wisdom and good judgement. Mature states of mind, which in a world now going populist can not possibly be maintained.

      Near me a very large apartment complex is being built. Wood frame construction. Years ago cinder block fire walls would have been required to divide the huge square buildings internally for fire protection.

      Now with modern fire alarm systems cinder block fire walls seem not to be required. People are now going to live in giant wood boxes that have no firebreaks because the fire alarm circuitry and a fast fire department response will keep them safe.

      And it will, until it does not. When someone does not maintain the system the way it is supposed to be maintained. When a wire comes off, or a battery goes dead. When somebody has too much on their mind to be responsible. Then there will be a huge fire that will burn a hundred people to death.

      Depending on technology is dangerous.

      Technology created the climate/resource crisis. Medical technology facilitated overpopulation. People fetishize technology and consistently ignore the externalities of its use. Geoengineering is technology. The same oversights will be made.

      Geoengineering will intensify the crisis we already have, there will be no pressure to change the way we live with its use. Geoengineering can create all new problems.

      Geoengineering can justify a shale oil revolution of low EROEI fossil fuels. Governments will pledge to clean the air as fast as they pollute it, claiming there is now no need to abate CO2 emissions since we have 'technology'.

      Geoengineering will be used to maintain business as usual. Until a war comes along to shut Geoengineering down, cooking everybody.

      Promises will not be kept.

      * Shale oil will become profitable when other fossil fuels are gone. Poking holes in whales to keep lamps burning was once profitable, until kerosene came along. Cooking rock for lamp oil will be profitable too. Shale oil is not profitable yet. Only because we still have fracked oil for a few years.

    4. He explained that being shoeless is a very serious fault. When there is war, two things must be thought of first of all: first of all, shoes, and secondly, the stuff to eat; and not vice versa, as the vulgar believes: for he who has shoes can go about finding food, while the reverse is not true. - But the war is over, I objected: and I thought it over, like many in those months of truce, in a much more universal sense than we dare to think today. - War is always, - Mordo Nahum memorably replied. [...] His life had been one of war, and he considered those who rejected this iron universe of his to be cowardly and blind. The Lager had come for both of us: I had perceived it as a monstrous upheaval, a secular anomaly in my history and the history of the world; he, as a sad confirmation of things notorious. "War is always," man is wolf to man: old story. Of his two years in Auschwitz he never spoke to me.
      Primo Levi "La Tregua" 1963

    5. k-dog,
      Any engineering project, if bid correctly, produces profit for someone. Usually a large number of someones. The designers, the engineers, and those who actually produce and operate whatever physical hardware is involved.
      Not to mention the sales teams, the lobbyists, the financiers, the lawyers-----and that list is just off the top of my head.
      On the scale that such a project would require, the money and resources that the project would consume is massive.

    6. Wornsmooth - This is a 1954 progaganda clip about how good it is to build roads. The video suggest cities take on debt to build roads because the investment pays itself back. So what actually happened?

      Years later roads need to be replaced. But original funding is long gone and the cost to maintain roads, now under local control, often exceeds the original cost to build the roads.

      Bankrupting some cities.

      And the roads are now stroads. Places unfit for man or beast. Roads WHICH HAVE CHANGED the way people live. And not in a good way.

      Geoengineering is different. Geoengineering is a project that will NOT CHANGE the way people live. And that is not a good way.

      Geoengineering is an ongoing project. A project with immense costs that must be paid every year.

      Calling geoengineering an engineering project, while correct, suggests incorrectly that geoengineering is a one time thing. Like building a great pyramid or the London sewer system. Projects with an end date. Projects that are completed. Engineering projects generally have an end date. A date which is often overrun, when unexpected costs and other issues halt progress.

      Geoengineering is a different animal. Geoengineering is a project without an end date. Geoengineering sucks money every year.

      Geoengineering is a project that will encourage bad behavior. Geoengineering justifies unnecessary use of fossil fuel, increasing fossil fuel addiction.

      Change thy ways is better advice. Why set up a train wreck?

    7. I think we can discuss these subjects until the gulf stream dies. But what we think is not very important. What's important is that there is a lot of money to be made on geoengineering for some people, and that's a big stimulus for doing it. About a project without an end date, think about taking blood pressure lowering drugs. Once you start, you have to take them forever, actually until a certain end date, but from your POV there is no end date.

  2. I had a similar reasoning Ugo in this LinkedIn post/rant of mine earlier this year:

    Have you already watched the Apple TV series Extrapolation? There's two episodes about geoengineering.

  3. Replies
    1. One way to achieve depopulation will be to go full steam ahead with geoengineering.

      Then when the world is full of dirty coal and shale oil factories are everywhere busy crushing rock, let draconian control spark a revolution. Workers will have more to lose than chains. Their revolution will turn up the thermostat to trigger Permian Extinction part two.

      Depopulation will be everywhere, and so will sand.

      If a furnace and air conditioning system are BOTH going full blast and the air conditioning is turned off what happens?