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.

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4 Responses to European versus US attitudes to geoengineering

  • Wayne Yuen says:

    Being an American, and against Geo-engineering, I don’t fit the stereotype…. Moreover, I think americans in general reject Geo-engineering, but don’t reject the technofix attitude…. Geo-engineering is rejected since there is something monumentally epic in scope to the endeavour. Being rather religious, there is something unethical about changing nature whole heartedly and actively in this manner.

    Instead our technofixes that we’re much more willing to accept are things like solar and wind power, maybe even carbon sequestering (I’m not sure if that would count as geo-engineering). We want artificial trees that will scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere more efficiently than real trees (but we should keep our real trees too).

  • David Frame says:

    I agree the American political machine is more sanguine about geo-engineering than is the European political machine, but I think you’ve missed a really important diference. As well as differences regarding technological optimism, I see the Americans as being *far* more pessimistic about the strategic dimensions than Europeans are. Works such as David Victor’s Global Warming Gridlock, Scott Barrett’s Environment and Statecraft, pretty much anything by Schelling, etc are all very pessimistic about the odds of Kyoto-like structures succeeding in any meaningful sense. Yet the European policy community (who have invested considerable reputational capital in this approach) remain far more positive regarding international institutions. If you don’t think the odds of securing meaningful buy-in from players like the G20 emerging markets are good – and these guys matter: more than half of atmospheric *stocks* of CO2 by 2100 under BAU are expected to come from G20 emerging markets – then it’s natural to look for BATNAs that you can do on your own.

    But I don’t think this bit is fair:
    “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 folks like me, “prevailing economic and political structures” are the best guarantee of protecting those “deeper values” and “viable socieities, vulnerable communities, ecological values”, so I don’t see much difference between Europeans and Americans here. Plus, I think it’s a bit rough to say that the Americans are only interested in protecting the status quo because they want to protect privilege, while European motivations for the same policies are somehow nobler. That seems a bit gratuitous, to me. (I can – and do, occasionally – make up lots of stories that impugn European motivations on climate change to make them look like the bad guys. It’s a fun pub game, but I’m not sure it’s very constructive.)

    By exploring the alternatives to successful mitigation, geo-engineering can expose interesting differences regarding the relative attractiveness of possible futures. I don’t like the solar radiation management flavours of geo-engineering at all (though I very much like the carbon dioxide removal work that’s going on). But if it came to a flat out choice between SRM geo-engineering and “the revolution” as described by lots of the greens I’ve met, I’d go with geo-engineering every time, on (liberal and) consequentialist grounds. I hope neither come to pass.

  • JBW says:

    While I agree that Americans are, on average, more enthusiastic about technologies than Europeans, this blog post is based on four deeply misleading generalizations.

    Who do you mean by this: “geoengineering is seen by these [American] early movers as the next human challenge, a kind of ‘manifest destiny’ applied to the Earth as a whole.” ? Let’s take the two most prominent American geoengineering researchers. Ken Caldeira: “Only fools find joy in the prospect of climate engineering.” David Keith (with Granger Morgan and Ted Parson): “It is a healthy sign that a common first response to geoengineering is revulsion.”

    On the European side, you write “European geoengineering researchers tend to adopt a more cautious and sceptical approach to grand technological interventions, and have more modest ambitions.” The UK is arguably the leader in geoengineering research, starting with the Royal Society report, then the House of Commons report, then the first public funding of geoengineering research, and then the first (planned) field trials of SRM.

    Third, you assert that “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.” Apart from anthropomorphizing an approach as having preferences, you mischaracterize nearly all serious geoengineering researchers, who almost universally emphasize the primacy of serious emissions reductions.

    Finally, you write “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.” Again, the conservatives and opponents of emissions reductions are a very small fraction of those who advocate for geoengineering research, and oil and coal companies are completely inactive in the field. So while these two sentences are factually true, they are misleading.

    Such statements are an unfortunate pattern among those who wish to reduce our options to respond to the serious threat of climate change.

  • Joe Bonar says:

    I think much of the issue comes from a problem with the American populace in general; you don’t see moderates out screaming about their position on, well, anything. American media only shows polar opposites with brief displays of a sensible moderate position, and so the extreme views get more exposure leading to not as accurate generalizations. I’m all for reducing emissions, and I’m all for geoengineering, I want the human race to get the hell off this rock and out into space, so I’m all for just about every technology (yes, even nuclear weapons, call me crazy, I really don’t care, nukes have uses that are not related to military use), but again I’m for reductions as well. I don’t think that you’ll really find any sizable population that is really all that well informed on the issue in the states either because the trend is to show extreme opposing views in a kind of psuedo-intellectual duel with the winner being determined by the network broadcasting the “debate” (MSNBC? Liberal is the “winner”, FOX? Conservative is the “winner.”) and so I think that your article expresses a view that while I can see being quite common, is factually incorrect in its generalization of the american populace, especially the populace that has actually bothered to consider the issue from all perspectives (personally, I’m a fan of Bjorn Lombourg’s general stance in that it should be a combination of realistic reduction goals coupled with emerging technologies to further offset emissions in order to get the most bang for your buck). I mean, I certainly could say that all British people have bad teeth, and a large amount of Americans would probably laugh and agree, but we all know that it’s not actually true (and really, I don’t know where the idea came from because I’ve watched a lot of british tv, old and new, and I haven’t noticed any more screwed up teeth than I have on american tv, but it’s a popular misconception). The problem with this article as I see it is the generalizations, and while the population that would view an ethics blog is certainly slanted, I find it kind of hard to believe that your view could be both correct, and that you would have no comments that agreed with your generalizations (at the time of this writing anyway, maybe someone else will come along and post who agrees with you). If you replaced Americans and Europeans with Conservatives and Liberals (in that order) I think you’d have a much more accurate article insofar as the conservative sides of both continents seem to be in agreement, and the liberal sides of both continents is also in agreement. Interesting read though, definitely.

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