Oliver Morton, The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, Granta Books (2015). 

What if geoengineering were envisaged as a utopian project of care? Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade is a call for enlightened readership and expanded debate on “imagining geoengineered worlds that might be good to live in.” It provides a tour through technological interventions in the Earth system, some of which lead to possibilities for altering the climate deliberately in the future. With the knowledge of how such interventions could work, but not shying from discussion of the accompanying risks, Morton is aiming to extend engaged consideration of geoengineering beyond the ‘geoclique’ – to which he admits belonging – that has been the limits of debate.

There is much to learn from this book if, like me, your engagement with the idea of geoengineering has been built on instinctive political opposition. Some will be familiar with Philip Mirowski’s take on neoliberal approaches to global warming, which simplified is: step one, denial; step two, carbon markets; step three, geoengineering. All the while market solutions (often calling for the state to socialise upfront costs) maintain primacy, and democracy, as well as substantial action on emissions, are held at bay. It makes a lot of sense in light of the Trump presidency – which is putting us back at step one – or the slow build-up of geoengineering start-ups seeking investment. Morton, though, guides us through the scientific basis, taking the reader from the discovery of the stratosphere and ozone layer to the dynamics of solar radiation in the Earth system and the finding, or confirmation, with the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 that large enough volcanoes can have a cooling effect through belching sulphur dioxide into the sky. The body of evidence that geoengineering possibilities exist builds upon an argument that claims they will be necessary; the overwhelming focus on mitigation rather than adaptation has yielded poor results, the attempt to shift to renewable energy will supposedly not in itself deliver the desired decarbonisation.

This skepticism about the prospects for tackling global warming within the existing international system without planetary techno-fixes has become more pervasive among climate scientists.[1] It has also had significant influence on policy understandings. If you haven’t yet read much about geoengineering, it may also come as a surprise that governments across the world already presume it will be happening at great scale in the future. Almost all of the scenarios which inform existing international agreements on climate change assume that not(really)-yet-existing negative-emissions technologies will work to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, so that the 2°C target might be met. The urgency and size of the problem, the target of negative emissions by 2050 and our lackluster responses to the challenge all point toward a reliance on geoengineering.

Andreas Malm has talked about global warming as the revenge of time – carbon taken out of the earth two centuries ago comes to haunt us today as the cumulative sum of CO2 emissions. Morton sees in geoengineering the possibility “to unshackle, even if only to a very limited extent, the future from the past.” This feat, he argues, might best be understood as a ‘breathing space’ for humanity, within which decarbonisation can continue to proceed. Gradual but prompt introduction of and experimentation with technologies that alter the Earth system is also the best way of evading the critical issue of moral hazard. If goengineering is forever understood merely as an option-of-last-resort, he says, it retains the promise of distant salvation and encourages inaction in the present. If it is taken up immediately and actively developed, it avoids this charge.

Critics of geoengineering point to its delusions of mastery over the Earth and the questionable motives of some of those who advocate for it. The Planet Remade, by contrast, unabashedly lauds the scientists who dream big and involve themselves in “Promethean science”, which combines “vaulting ambition” with the “troubling hazards” potentially inherent to such scientific enterprises.[2] There are echoes of the conquering spirit that characterises the ‘eco-modernist’ vision of a ‘Good Anthropocene’. Against the lure of total control that geoengineering seems to offer, though, Morton advocates for limited experimentation. Volcanoes make for enticing subjects, of course, because they cannot be held accountable for their actions. Yet modelling is showing that interventions such as cloud brightening, or a stratospheric veil composed of reflective aerosols, could be effective both in cost terms and in their impact on global temperatures.

At every turn the book seems candid about the risks of intervention. For example, cloud brightening in one region may affect precipitation and lead to drought in another. Iron fertilization of the ocean and carbon capture and storage (CCS) are treated with more caution. Efforts at engineering the Earth system in the past also serve as warnings; the ‘dead zones’ that have resulted from overproduction of reactive nitrogen are striking cases of ecological collapse. The imperial violence of the New World’s ‘discovery’ that marks the origins of the Anthropocene – or Capitalocene as some argue it should be called – highlights the dark history of genocidal exploitation in the name of enlightened civilization. But less evident is how geoengineering as an enterprise might be marked by inequality and violence – are we to believe that it won’t? Utopias should not be seen as simply tending to violence, but as Ruth Levitas and Fredric Jameson argue, the best kind of utopian thinking will return us to a critical reflection of present circumstances.

The idea of deliberate intervention is key to the definition of geoengineering Morton espouses. Throughout the book he points to science that intentionally drove humanity out of doomsday predictions, as the development of artificial fertilizer did for Malthusian forecasts of food supply straining under growing population. Ingenuity and ambition in science are essential ingredients for a utopian, geoengineered world. But the other meaning of deliberate (as a verb) – to engage in thorough consideration – is on the periphery of this vision. It is often suggested that authentically democratic institutions must incorporate citizens’ deliberation and assent. The Planet Remade tries to give readers the tools for considering geoengineering and its risks – to expand the debate – but does not focus in much depth on questions of power in regard to these risks and is not fully clear on what vision of ‘care’ it subscribes to beyond a less warm planet for all.

The problem, undoubtedly, is that in light of its required scale and the need to consider formidable complexities, geoengineering appears as an inherently elite, expert-led project.[3] It also demands that trust be placed to some extent in still developing climate models. Models that suggest, Morton tentatively points out, that an ‘Engineered Planet’ would experience less climate damage in aggregate than a ‘Greenhouse Planet’ based on business-as-usual scenarios of global warming and that “the winners might greatly outnumber the losers.” There is an inescapably utilitarian feel to the argumentation, and geopolitical concerns are immediately evident. It is essential to face the fact that a Geoengineered Planet in the not-so-distant future would be riven by existing international inequalities. Should we not consider how these might manifest themselves in efforts to veil the planet? We might turn around geoengineering advocates’ existing cynicism about climate mitigation and ask as Clive Hamilton does, “If a just global warming solution cannot be found, who can believe in a just geoengineering regime?” [4]

The Planet Remade is an informative and carefully argued text on the science and history of geoengineering, which makes compelling arguments about how we might embrace such technologies for a future that allegedly needs them. It is a demanding challenge to fears and anxieties concerning humans ‘playing God’, but does not advocate for, or believe possible, anything like gung-ho control of the climate. It will likely sharpen the arguments of those opposed to engineering the planet, which must also be considered as extending the debate. Formidable questions remain around the social and political consequences of Promethean Science and how they are imbricated in complex ecological systems. This book will remain important for asking those questions within an informed public debate.

[1] Morton and others credit an article in 2006 by Paul Crutzen – the atmospheric scientist credited with popularizing the term ‘Anthropocene’ – as a defining intervention for expanded discussion of geoengineering.

[2] Promethean science is a concept Morton borrows from Simon Schaffer, see http://publicism.info/science/further/7.html.

[3] For a skeptical take on the relationship between geoengineering and democracy see the open access piece by Szerszynski et al. (2013), ‘Why Solar Radiation Management Geoengineering and Democracy Won’t Mix’, Environment & Planning A: Economy & Space, 45(12): 2809-2816.

[4] Hamilton, Clive (2013) Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, London: Yale University Press, p.182.