Restoring a safe climate: Impossible dream or dangerous distraction?

November 19, 2015
Geoengineering 'quick fixes' will not create a safe climate.

Should the climate movement call for the restoration of a safe climate, rather than just zero emissions?

According to a recent paper, Striking Targets, by climate writer Philip Sutton, greenhouse gas concentrations are already too high to avoid dangerous global warming, so the zero emissions goal is inadequate.

Sutton calls for a rapid transition to a zero-emissions economy and geoengineering: a massive drawdown of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, if needed, solar radiation management to restore a “safe climate” by returning greenhouse gases, ocean heat content, global surface temperature, ocean acidity and sea levels to pre-industrial levels.

Sutton says society should adopt “emergency mode” based on a “supermajority of strong support”, including non-fossil fuel elites, to ensure these measures are taken.

This political strategy is inadequate and concerning. It seems to rely partly on an appeal to elites to save us and fails to mention the huge global inequalities in resources and power.

We are also concerned about the false assumption that a safe geoengineering fix can be created, and the absence of any alternative plan should it prove impossible — as seems likely — to restore the pre-industrial climate.

Is restoring a safe climate even possible?

Atmospheric carbon has reached 400 parts per million and global average temperatures have risen about 0.9°C since 1880, due to greenhouse gases from human activity. Consequences already include disappearing Arctic sea ice, melting Antarctic glaciers, warmer oceans and more extreme and variable weather events creating chaos.

There is a time-lag between greenhouse gas emissions and their associated warming, mostly due to heat absorbed by the oceans. Warming will continue for some time, approaching 2°C, even if emissions stop immediately. This warming will persist for centuries to millennia: whatever we may wish, it is here to stay.

The future impacts of our existing warming commitment are very serious, even with less than 2°C warming. Sea level rise will flood coastal cities and farmlands. This, combined with drought and other extreme weather events, will potentially create both a refugee and a food crisis in large parts of the world. Severe pressure on natural ecosystems will make the pre-existing biodiversity and extinction crisis worse.

Restoring a safe climate sounds desirable, however unlikely. Visions of a better world can be important motivators, but impossible visions can be a distraction. Calls for a safe climate restoration may embolden geoengineering proponents, undermining the more immediate need for zero carbon emissions. The promise of a massive technological fix may also demobilise climate activists.

But a “safe climate” is inadequate anyway. The climate has never been “safe” for the world's poor. The world faces other severe environmental problems, too. Our goal is to meet human needs in a way that does not perpetuate environmental damage.

A truly sustainable system cannot rely on continual exploitation of resources and people. Capitalism, based on perpetual economic growth, is the main driver of environmental destruction and global inequality, and must go. But we do not advocate “waiting for the revolution”.

As Naomi Klein recounts in This Changes Everything, environmental destruction and inequality are made worse by neoliberalism, the latest stage of capitalism. But victims are resisting in rapidly growing numbers. Klein urges climate activists to form alliances with people fighting for social justice across all areas — building a movement of movements. The fight for basic reforms to the system can mobilise the forces that may eventually have to replace capitalism itself.

Since dangerous climate impacts are now inevitable, our goals must reflect demands for climate justice and ecological debt repayment, that rich countries — those historically responsible for most emissions — must provide support to poorer countries to enable them to cope.

Emergency ultimatums are counterproductive

Climate activists have used the phrase “climate emergency” to highlight the severity of climate impacts and the need for urgent action, often citing irreversible “tipping points”, which would take our climate into a new state. Undoubtedly, some impacts of climate change are irreversible. However, “tipping point” is a poorly defined concept in science and not necessarily accurate or useful.

Emergency framing has led to claims that “we must stop climate change within X years or we're doomed”. Since we have not stopped climate change yet, “climate emergency” is now used to justify geoengineering research, large-scale meddling with the earth's climate portrayed as a seemingly obvious response to an emergency situation.

Emergency framing and advocacy of geoengineering have also been linked to a justification of authoritarian rule. How would Sutton's planned “emergency mode” be introduced and managed and would it entail people and nations surrendering any democratic voice? How could any global governing body be established that would act for the common good and uphold the interests of the global poor when, up to now, global leaders have not even been able to agree on emission cuts?

Geoengineering fact and fiction

Striking Targets calls for zero emissions plus geoengineering solutions even though no technologies exist to do that. There are two main hypothetical geoengineering categories: carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM).

The simplest CDR proposal is regrowing cleared forests and enhancing soil carbon. This does absorb carbon dioxide, but it is a very slow process and is vulnerable to drought and fire. Not all land can be restored, as farming remains necessary to feed and clothe the world. Restoring forest and soil carbon absorbs only emissions from past land clearing anyway; emissions from fossil fuels are extra above that. Striking Targets assumes industrial scale artificial CDR, but no realistic method exists to achieve this. Moreover, carbon dioxide might be sequestered underground in disused gas and oilfields, but how long and how safely these can store large amounts of compressed carbon dioxide is unknown.

Carbon dioxide is naturally removed from the atmosphere over time by ocean plankton, which capture carbon by photosynthesis and eventually sink to the ocean floor. Schemes have been proposed to increase this by “fertilising” the oceans with iron or other mineral particles, but once again it is not known to work and the side effects could be disastrous for marine ecosystems.

While there is no easy CDR techno-fix available, restoring and protecting natural vegetation such as forests can remove some carbon and also protect biodiversity. If the world's ecosystems are to have a chance at adapting to warming, giving back some space for migration and adaptation of species is needed.

The main SRM theory involves continually dumping sulphate particles into the stratosphere. This may cool the planet, but would not remove greenhouse gases or reduce ocean acidification. Moreover, the predicted side effects on health and ecosystems are very serious.

Recent modelling suggests SRM will destabilise regional climates, with profound changes in rainfall affecting billions of people.

Ending SRM would also lead to a rapid rise in temperatures, with devastating consequences. Implementing SRM entails huge social and environmental trade-offs. It is doubtful whether a system of global governance could be achieved to manage such a dangerous technology for the common good; more likely SRM will lead to global conflict.

Many environmentalists do not discuss SRM because of the “moral hazard” argument: that SRM will become regarded as an alternative to slashing carbon emissions. Indeed, as Naomi Klein reports, companies associated with fossil fuels have a long track record of advocating geoengineering.

SRM discussions are dominated by an elite group, mostly scientists working in the area. The voices of vulnerable people, mainly in poorer countries, who may supposedly be saved from dangerous climate impacts, or perhaps exposed to new dangers, are rarely heard.

Environmental leaders from the Global South are concerned with the possibility that SRM promotion would undermine the moral argument that rich countries owe an ecological debt for causing climate change. They are also concerned that what a scientist might classify as an “uncertainty” could mean major local impacts to impoverished communities.

A safe society in an unsafe climate

If a safe climate ever existed, we have now left it behind. There are no technologies that can return the earth to such a state. We need to rapidly end greenhouse emissions to stop things getting even worse, but at the same time we need to accept that, for now, we know no way of reversing the warming to date — only managing and adapting to its consequences.

With rising sea levels, droughts and crop failures, how can we manage? Do we want a society that treats the emergency like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with the rich driving out in their SUVs and leaving poor people to drown, or be shot for looting while trying to survive? Or run by warlords like ISIS?

Even in the face of great disaster, a system that maintains democracy, participation and equality provides our best hope. We can draw on the example of Cuba under blockade in the 1990s, or the Kurdish region of Rojava in Syria, trying to build an egalitarian and ecological society, even while under siege from ISIS. We do not have to accept authoritarian rule and abandon the most vulnerable. We would be better to plan for these achievable aims, than to pin our hopes on a science fiction, technocratic saviour in the form of geoengineering.

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I agree with the authors that geoengineering is a worrying proposition (extra especially under the socio-political status quo) but this article contains a lot of false arguments. Most worrying about it is the cavalier attitude to the goal of a safe climate. "Restoring a safe climate sounds desirable, however unlikely." Restoring a safe climate doesn't *sound* desirable. It *is* desirable. (The alternative to a safe climate - an *unsafe* climate - is not just a few extra skin cancers and increased risk of storm damage, it is a fundamental threat to the survival of our species!) Of course there is a real question now about whether it is possible or not. The authors say this is "unlikely" but if there is *any* chance, that should be our goal. Of course the best way to achieve that is by reducing emissions to zero ASAP. No geoengineering should even be considered without zero emissions. However, drawing down carbon is possible (at least to some extent) and we should not be afraid to have a discussion (and even to conduct research) about how to do this safely.

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