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Should we experiment with the climate?

By Oli Usher, on 13 March 2014

The SPICE experiment (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The SPICE experiment
(credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For a lecture which focused largely on Heath Robinson-esque contraptions made of hosepipes and helium balloons, Jack Stilgoe’s public lecture on climate experimentation (11 March) featured surprisingly frequent references to Frankenstein. For one with a question mark in its title, it had surprisingly few answers. Neither of these is a bad thing.

Stilgoe sets the scene with a story about four friends holidaying together by Lake Geneva. The summer’s a total washout, and the friends spend their time writing and talking instead of hiking and walking. But these aren’t just any old friends, and this isn’t any old summer.

It’s 1816, a volcanic eruption in Indonesia has dimmed the sun, and Mary Godwin – soon to be Mary Shelley – has just written what will eventually be published as Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Mary Shelley’s classic story is a widely used parable in sociology of science and technology: the theme of what happens when you create a new technology you can’t (or won’t) control is such a fundamental issue in the field. In the case of climate engineering, Stilgoe says, the parable is particularly apt since the power of the technology is so huge and the questions of how to govern it are so intractable.

So how could we control the climate?

Geoengineering systems fall into two broad categories. You can either try to suck carbon dioxide out of the air, for instance by fertilising the oceans so they grow more carbon-munching algae. Or you can reduce the amount of sunlight that passes through the atmosphere, putting a sun shade on the greenhouse effect.

Neither, it seems almost blindingly obvious to say, is without its problems. Fertilising the oceans, for example, could have dramatic effects on ocean life. Making the atmosphere more reflective, by spraying it with particles such as sulphur dioxide, would affect weather and climate worldwide, and not always in predictable ways. The very act of experimenting with these technologies – rather than reducing emissions – is risky to some.

Of course, Stilgoe says, one problem is that the only successful emissions reduction seen in recent decades was the result of the global recession – which can hardly be described as a policy. Climate engineering is increasingly visible in policy discussions, even earning a place in the most recent policy summary report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Which is the context in which the SPICE experiment was proposed a few years back. On one level, it was a simple combination of tried and tested technologies – a blimp, floating 1000m up in the sky, a flexible tube leading down to the ground, a pump sending water up it, and a gentle mist of water being sprayed from a device attached to the balloon. Hardly controversial when seen in those terms.

But it was also the first explicit UK test of a geoengineering technique to be proposed, and it was designed as a scale model for a fleet of vast airships spraying sulphur dioxide high into the atmosphere – replicating the atmospheric effect of the volcanic eruption that ruined Mary Shelley’s holiday and launched her literary career. Seen in those terms, the newspaper headlines about a ‘Trojan hose’ (sic) seem slightly less hyperbolic, and the eventual cancellation of the experiment looks like less of an overreaction.

The SPICE experiment, scaled up to full size Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The SPICE experiment, scaled up to full size
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For what happens once we start engineering the climate, Stilgoe asks?

For one, there’s no going back – the moment you stop, the Earth would warm catastrophically, with decades’ worth of climate change happening in months or years. And if the climate becomes something that humans consciously control, how do we treat the winners and losers when weather events are no longer ‘acts of God’? Could politicians from the Arctic and the Sahara ever agree on the ideal temperature? Who gets to adjust the thermostat?

“Scientists!” cries out an audience member – but would scientists be able to give a single answer either? Probably not, Stilgoe thinks.

Stilgoe ends, like he began, with talk of Frankenstein’s monster. The sociologist Bruno Latour argued that Dr Frankenstein’s crime in the novel isn’t that he created the monster, but that he abandoned him. And whether or not we choose to experiment with the climate, the worst we could do would be to research and develop these technologies without having a proper conversation about how they might be governed.

And on this note, he concludes, the science is far too important to be left to the scientists alone.

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