On the perils of geoengineering by Dr Tony Butt

In 2019 I had the honour of hosting five screenings of the documentary Artifishal. The film itself, and the great discussion sessions that happened afterwards, helped me to clarify something that I’d been thinking about for many years. We are interfering with a complicated system (the Earth) that contains feedback loops, thresholds and tipping points; we know so little about that system that we cross those limits without even knowing we’ve crossed them, and then we wonder why things go wrong. Even worse, we then interfere with the system even more to try to mitigate the problems we have caused.

This not only tends to not work, but it is rooted in the wrong philosophy; a misunderstanding of our place in the world as a species.

I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave… the mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.”


– Francis Bacon (1561–1626)


Introducing domestic animals into the environment because we have caused a decrease in wild animal populations is a classic example of this, and was described beautifully in Artifishal. Building giant barriers across rivers, destroying entire ecosystems and causing such far-flung problems as coastal erosion because we need to stop generating electricity from fossil fuels, is another. (see Patagonia’s Blue Heart campaign).


That second example is, of course, related to climate change: planetary warming caused by us interfering with the chemistry of the atmosphere. Even though we are struggling to understand how it works, people are proposing that we should try to fix it by interfering with it even more.
It’s called geoengineering. Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale human intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to try to counteract human-induced climate change. Some schemes are intended to compensate for global warming by reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth. These include putting giant mirrors in space or introducing zillions of reflective particles into the upper atmosphere. Other schemes are designed to remove the greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to compensate for the greenhouse gases we are putting in. These include dissolving calcium hydroxide in the ocean to increase its ability to store carbon, or building gigantic machines that suck up the CO2 and pump it underground.


Sound absurd? Well, the idea of geoengineering has actually been taken seriously by people with a lot of clout, such as the prestigious Royal Society of London, an organization whose past members include Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. In a 2009 report, the Royal Society suggested that the British government allocate major funding for geoengineering research. They suggested that blocking the Sun “may be the only option for reducing global temperatures quickly in the event of a climate emergency.”


Now, just over a decade later, we are right in that climate emergency. Thankfully, giant space-mirrors are not talked about so much, but people are still considering schemes to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Some scientists are suggesting that since we probably won’t be able to cut CO2 emissions fast enough to reach the targets in the Paris Agreement, the only option is to employ carbon-capturing schemes. These are now known as negative emission technologies (NETs), and include altering the chemistry of the sea or putting thousands of giant gas-sucking machines all over the Earth. In other words, geoengineering.


Even planting trees and ‘rewilding’, which might seem a relatively benign and natural solution, is still a form of geoengineering; at least on the scales needed to make a significant difference. Trees, along with other plant life, are the Earth’s natural CO2 absorbers, and the fact that we have removed so many of them is one of the major reasons for the climate crisis. But the amount and type of trees that we would have to plant would almost certainly cause other problems, such as loss of biodiversity. And don’t forget we are still chopping them down at frightening rates. Planting millions of trees when people are still chopping them down at current rates is like mopping up the bathwater when someone is holding the tap open. In the Amazon alone, deforestation is running at more than three football fields a minute.

We aren’t going to replant our way out of the climate crisis.

These ideas, even the tree-planting one, might give us some short-term breathing space, but they probably don’t have much hope of working in the long run. However, the real problem is not whether they are going to work or not, it is the philosophy behind the whole thing. Thinking that we can engineer the environment to mitigate the problems we caused by engineering the environment is, let’s face it, quite arrogant. It suggests that we still think we are detached from and above Nature.

The belief that we are the dominant species and everything on the planet exists solely for our benefit is called anthropocentricity; namely we are in the centre and rest of the world is revolving around us. According to this viewpoint, we are separate from Nature, and superior to it. Derrick Jensen, in The Myth of Human Supremacy, points out that we, ourselves, have decided we are going to be the master species, therefore we think we are the master species. A kind of self-fulfilling prophesy, or, as Jensen calls it, a tautology.

Anthropocentricity can be thought of as being ‘hard’ or ‘soft. We can think of ourselves as undisputed Lords of the Earth and have no qualms about using and abusing every part of Nature because it is our God-given right to do so. Or we can think of ourselves as planetary stewards, where Nature is important and must be carefully safeguarded. The Earth’s natural systems must be maintained and, if we mess them up, it is our responsibility to fix them again.

The planetary-steward idea is much nicer but no less anthropocentric. It still sees Nature and humanity as separate entities, but this time with humanity the carer and Nature the cared-for. As if the Earth were a giant machine and humans its maintenance engineers, keeping it all running smoothly. Or perhaps a giant hospital, with the atmosphere, ocean and all the animals and plants as the patients, and humans as the doctors. Maybe that is the way geoengineering advocates see our role as humans on the planet.

Of course, we are not the Master Species. In reality we are just one among millions of species and other elements that go together to make up the planet, no more or less important than lions, jellyfish, fungus, bacteria, mountains, waves or low pressures. We are not separate from Nature at all, we are part of it.

As long as we realize we are just a small part of a highly complex system we know almost nothing about, we won’t be tempted to think of ourselves as maintenance engineers or doctors. Therefore, we won’t be tempted to interfere with that system by suggesting pharaonic geoengineering schemes to combat climate change.

Of course, you might argue that I’m living in Cloud-Cuckoo Land. We don’t have a hope in hell of reducing emissions fast enough to reach the Paris Agreement target (see graphic), so you might say that the only alternative is to use geoengineering, even though it will probably get us into more trouble in the long term.

But I think we should try to avoid that at all costs. In my opinion, the best thing we can do at this point is to try and do everything possible to get emissions down as soon as possible; at the same time prepare to adapt our own lives to the inevitable changes that will come as the planet warms, and, crucially, help others less fortunate than ourselves, to do the same.

In theory we can still reach the 1.50C target. Source: Robby Andrew

Tony Butt has a PhD in Physical Oceanography, University of Plymouth.  He has published hundreds articles on ocean and environmental science often relating to climate change and ocean pollution. He has written Surf Science Waves, Coasts and Climates and Sustainable Surfing

Not forgetting is also a big-wave surfer, the only UK surfer to have been pre-selected for the prestigious Eddie Aikau Big Wave contest at Waimea Bay.