European versus US attitudes to geoengineering
Casual observation suggests that among scientists researching geoengineering technologies there is a marked difference in attitude between Americans and continental Europeans.
The United Sates is the home of the idea of the technofix, so American researchers tend to have more faith in the possibilities for technological intervention to control the global climate. There is a stronger sense in the US that human capacities are realized through the continual extension of our control of the environment.
So our technological power should be celebrated and geoengineering is seen by these early movers as the next human challenge, a kind of ‘manifest destiny’ applied to the Earth as a whole.
The idea of spreading civilization, centered on technological superiority, actually reached a historical zenith in Victorian Britain and with nineteenth century European colonial expansion more generally.
But the self-assurance that lay behind it was severely dented by the savagery of the world wars. The First World War in particular had an enormous impact on philosophy. As that savagery was committed mostly on European soil its impact there was more enduring; it meant that faith in technological mastery projects was hard to defend.
Yet faith in that power was maintained in the United States after the Second World War; indeed, it was enhanced by the role the US played in the war, including its last act in the Asian theatre. It was a faith at the root of the rise of the US as a superpower, and was linked closely to the development of military dominance.
In contrast to American ‘Prometheanism’, European geoengineering researchers tend to adopt a more cautious and sceptical approach to grand technological interventions, and have more modest ambitions, which may see them inclined to back carbon dioxide removal methods like biochar and reforestation rather that sulphate aerosol spraying to regulate the amount of sunlight reaching the planet.
There is a political reading of this difference too. The technofix approach is inclined to see climate engineering as a cheap and effective means of avoiding the need for the economic and social changes that would be required if emissions were to be cut sharply (in accord with the conclusions of climate science). In this way, the established order is defended so that expansion can continue uninterrupted.
This is why, in these early days of the climate engineering debate, we see some conservatives opposed to emission cutting gravitating towards geoengineering and talking up its benefits. We can expect oil and coal companies to take an interest soon.
Europeans, to the extent that I can generalize, are more inclined to draw attention to the risks and dangers of manipulating the climate. And they are more worried about the likelihood of ‘moral hazard’, the way the prospect of climate engineering may reduce the political incentives to mitigate. Although they do believe we need to research geoengineering technologies thoroughly, they see it as a ‘necessary evil’.
So instead of seeing climate engineering as a means of protecting the prevailing economic and political structures, the Europeans have concluded that it may be necessary to deploy geoengineering technologies in order to protect deeper values now threatened by the consequences of endless expansion, that is, viable societies, vulnerable communities, ecological values and life itself. For them, climate engineering is a stop gap measure to be deployed only until we come to our senses.
There are some big claims here, so I am interested in how others see it.