One of the papers in the Royal Society Geoengineering special issue is by James Lovelock. The Guardian excerpted it on Monday to generally incoherent effect.
As far as I understand him Lovelock is saying that a) catastrophic disaster is pretty much inevitable b) some adaptation may well be the best we can hope for – and those places which are spared the coming disasters (like Britain) will need to make sure they continue to behave in a civilised way c) this will be a shame because in losing the human species earth will lose the planetary equivalent of a nervous system, the only way it might have of forestalling future calamitous change d) except that – errr – in fact we should maybe accept that we’re too incompetent to even attempt to enact any kind of engineering strategy although e) we have been involved in inadvertent geoengineering – changing the climate – ever since the first forest was lit. What he says about being trapped in a cycle where each solution we come up with creates additional problems – as a reason possibly not to even make the attempt – I don’t understand at all (the suggestion is that if we tried to use – say -stratospheric aerosols then we’ll end up acidifying the oceans and need a solution for that, an ingenuity trap without end) because that’s clearly the situation we are already in with, say, oil, which has solved all sorts of problems but which is causing quite a few as well.
The reason I find this last point so bewildering is that, in the full version of his paper, Lovelock actually says something a bit more interesting. He’s discussing an idea he and Chris Rapley had in 1997 of “a system of large pipes held verticaly in the ocean surface to draw up cooler nutrient-rich water from just below the thermocline.” (The thermocline being the part of a body of water which is transitional between the cooler deep water and the warmer surface water), The details of this proposal I’ll look at later. What interests me is something Lovelock says in passing about it:
“We do not know whether the proposed idea would help restore the climate, but the idea of improving surace waters by mixing cooler nutrient-rich water from below has a long history: indeed, it is at present used by the US firm Atmocean Inc. to improve the quality of ocean pastures.”
The apparently radical piece of geoengineering is really very close indeed to something which already routinely happens. (The same is true to some extent with cloud-seeding).
Now it’s a part of Lovelock’s rhetoric that we’ve ignored the systematic nature of the earth’s climate and disregarded the significance of his analogy between it and a sick living organism (The Earth’s “behaviour resembles more the physiology of a living organism than that of the equilibrium box models of the last century”, he says.) This is interesting, but for the purposes of evaluating those pipes is surely excessive, when what you’re talking about is a practice which is performed anyway, and which you want to adapt to a new strategic end. In other words, the desirable climatic effects is only radical and earth-shattering as long as the technology is regarded as earth-shattering and for that purpose alone. But if it isn’t, the carbon dioxide budgeting should (hopefully) just be a part of the way that its efficiency and risks are evaluated. I suspect this is true of a lot of what’s described as geoengineering – though of course the case needs to be made in detail. (It should also suggest that Greenpeace’s objections to the geoengineering research – that it’s a distraction from the real business of energy efficiency – may be slightly off-base).
But I certainly think there are strong reasons to be suspicious of the claim that all these proposed technologies are unprecedented, or that they’ll shatter the sky. All Lovelock’s “planetary medicine” is asking for is that we understand the effects of our practices, from mixing waters to setting fires, and prefer the ones with benign effects. Which is enough of a challenge, even without the metaphors!