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  • Subject area(s): Engineering
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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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During 1997 and 2009 climate change was seen as something than can be contained and solved. With the Kyoto Protocol industrialised nations agreed to reduce their greenhouse gases by 5 % over the next 15 years, which was perceived as being enough to completely solve the issue of climate change. However, climate change continuously increased as global emissions of greenhouse gases have soared rapidly causing the Kyoto Protocol to fail. This resulted in impacts such as artic sea ice shrinks and sea level rises. Facing the continuous fail of solution to tackle climate change, more and more scientists argues for a ‘Plan B’ that emphasise a more direct way to fight climate change by reducing the rate of future warming through reflecting sunlight back to the atmosphere. But can this ‘climate engineering’ fix climate change? This is the thesis the author tries to assess in his book, while his position towards this topic is clearly pointed out in the preface: “I make my position clear I don’t want to live in this brave new climate-controlled world”. The overall ambition of the book is to highlight the possible result of a “totalitarian engineering of the planet would likely to be” and provide an alternative.

The assumption that engineering the climate is undesirable, ungovernable and unreliable, are the basic arguments the author present and should convince the reader that climate engineering is a flaw. The so called stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) tries to reproduce the phenomenon that is visible in cases of volcanic eruptions. To mime this phenomenon, the injection of millions of tonnes of sulphur gases would be required, that reflects the sunlight and thus reduce global temperature, that then work as a thermostat for global temperature. Supporters argues that it “is the only opinion if we want to avoid planetary catastrophe” and “save the planet”. This is plausible with the vision of Stead & Stead, that climate change due to the humans’ mismanagement can’t be ignored anymore. To make these technologies work supporters use the variable of global surface air temperature, which is the “favoured metric around which the goals of climate policy have been debated”. Hulme brings numerous discourses to try to understand the justification for such a technology. The most convincing one is the discourse of emergency, which “cannot be ignored” and requires a “response, often quick, often radical”. No time can be wasted evaluating the potential consequences that may arise. The importance of the thesis of Hulme is that he does not change the conditions, that the “Anthropocene” is responsible for climate change Steffen (2011), but understand them differently. He thinks that climate change is a “wicked problem” that “obscures a more diverse range of welfare goals – Sustainable energy, human health, food security, ecosystem integrity – for which (…) a global thermostat is mostly irrelevant”.

He advocates that SAI is undesirable because regulating global temperature is different from controlling regional climate systems and thus local weather. For Hulme the vision of the IPCCC and the variable of temperature is too weak as “it raises a multi-dimensional control problem (…), in which not all manifestations of local weather can be optimised let alone controlled”. This may result in destabilising regional climate, through which the climate would “improve” in some areas and “worsen” somewhere else. Secondly, it is ungovernable because this proposed climate-engineering technology is not limited (..) “unlike nearly all other novel technologies, where the scales of testing and deployment are either territorially limited of bounded in some other ways”. The royal society (2009) suggested that in order to be governed geoengineering technologies requires a multilateral United Nation process that is based on application, modification and extension of existing treaties and institutions. However, Hulme is completely against this idea, since the questions that SAI would raise in front of a United Nations multilateral process are too politically complex. All people living on the planet becomes subject to the experiment, “which puts enormous responsibility upon those who would finally take the decision to implement”. Moreover, he argues that geoengineering is an “open source for unilateral action by a single nation”. This simply recognises that certain political entities may act being motivated by self-interest, leading to a national climate emergency rather than a global one. This is linked to the discourse of ecological modernisation discrepancy between different countries, that emphasise that this will “open up a new frontier in the sky for inter-state rivalry, conflict and disagreement”. Thirdly, it is undesirable because with every experiment the outcome is “unknown and unknowable”, thus the claimed goal of stabilising the climate and defusing a climate emergency is unattainable. In contrary to fossil energy that provides benefits against costs that are measurable, SAI puts a benefit against a range of possible risks and unintended consequences, most of which are “incalculable”.

One of the unique argument of the book is seeing the problem in the lack of “virtue” in “human values”, that is “inspired by a desire for controlling a system on the basis of knowledge”. But for Hulme “there are simply limits to acquiring the knowledge that is necessary if one is to foresee all consequences”, which is linked to vision of Descartes that we are not “masters and possessors of nature”.

The solution to reframe the problem of climate change is the thesis the author support, as climate change is a “wicked problem”, that is not solvable through a universal strategy. Hulme suggests the use of climate pragmatism, “that allows a proliferation of diverse solutions, since these solutions should attend to different problem elements”. It bases on two principles, that undermine the conventional framing of climate change. The first, is to decouple the energy question, whereas the second one is to recognise the many different ways in which human activities alter the composition and functioning of the atmosphere. Each of the produces different welfare risks at different scales. According to the principles, a response to climate change would be an increasing social resilience, mitigating all hazardous emissions and seeking more sustainable energy production and provision.

The book’s thesis is supported by several scientific and empirical concepts, such as the governmentality principle of Michel Foucault that explains why so many of the “high-modernist projects of the twentieth century, (..) ended in failure and disillusionment P.43”. Together with practical examples related to historical events, for example the failure of SPICE, that highlight the concern about the governance of geoengineering and about the existence of patent and applications or Churchill’s Mediterranean strategy in 1943, that should support the argument “that there may be more effective ways of achieving the goal of minimizing the risks of a change in climate”. Notably, even though the author is completely against the idea of engineering the climate he is not scared to develop on alternative ways of arguing that may weaken his arguments, such as the “governance principles or rules” suggested by Oxford. However, this is especially because, as it seems at least in his book, his arguments completely outweigh the counterparts. He even designed a scenario, which “illustrate, in the imaginary world around the year 2032, the set of undesirable governance issue of climate engineering”.

Pairing the reframing of the problem of climate change, with new tasks as the primary solution, the author proposes possibilities how they can be implemented and thus raises topics for further discussion. Firstly, so as to minimise the damage brought by weather and climate, “new technologies, institutions and management practices are required”. Secondly, to reduce emissions the need to “develop and harness new and more efficient technologies for the reduction of these health-harming and climate-altering emissions” is necessary. Thirdly, to meet the growing demand in energy, “political commitment to innovation policies and delivering massive new investment in energy science and technology” is needed. The high dependence on technologies highlights that although Hulme is opposed in implementing SAI, he is not “antagonistic to the idea of science and technology being used in more modest and less ambitious ways”.

Despite being well elaborated and objective, the arguments of the author creates a case with two perspectives, the first one being a society that has no values and virtue, that does not understand the real problem of climate change. On the other hand, a society with rational thinking people that realize that the solution of climate change cannot be provided by a unique solution. In reality, this is not the case, the position of the author regarding climate engineering is too one-sided, arguing it to be a “silver bullet” solution to tackle to problem of climate change. Indeed, a lot of scientists that advocate for climate engineering, do not see it as a silver bullet solution but rather part of a bigger solution. This is the position represented by David Keith in his book a case for climate engineering. Climate engineering can work along with the recommended solution of Hulme, giving the possibility to buy more time to elaborate new technologies required to effectively reduce emissions. This is a crucial point because, in case of the proposed solution to reduce emissions, the past showed that especially on the individual level it is very easy to escape the responsibility of mitigation.

What seems clear is that our contemporary society is facing an urgent-call to tackle climate change. The two solutions proposed in this book are just two of a wider range. A different one can be for example the one proposed Funtowiscz and Ravetz (2001), that propose the concept of Post-Normal Science as a methodology for managing issues under uncertainty. For now, none of the proposed solutions were able to convince the whole society. If there is a point, in which Hulme cannot be contradicted, is that “since no one on the planet can opt out of an implementation of the thermostat, procedural justice demands that everyone’s voice should be hears”. So before a possible solution to climate change can be implemented this issue needs to be addressed.

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