13/03/2021

Governing (dominating) the climate

Whilst carbon dioxide levels are the highest they have been in human history, trust in institutional regimes to solve this global issue is at the lowest. Recent climate change models have warned that an increase of 1.5°C may already result by 2030. Solving the problem simply through mitigation strategies —changing habits, adopting renewable energy, etc— seems infeasible; we probably need stronger interventions.

Scientists started to investigate other means, besides mitigation approaches, to stabilize the climate and stay within the 2°C. Two solutions gained much attention: the production of bioenergy combined with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and sulphate aerosol geoengineering (SAG). Should we favor one of the two? It might help to answer this question first: would you be the slave of a nice slave-owner?

BECCS diagram —Image PNA

Firstly, we need a basic understanding of the technologies. BECCS combines carbon capture and storage technology with an electric plant fuelled with biomass, including crops and forests; biomass is both used to absorb carbon and replace the use of fossil fuels. In particular, this approach allows the reuse of the land where the biomass is grown and the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere as long as the biomass is harvested sustainably. The captured CO2 can be stored under the soil, for instance in the deep ocean.

SAG diagram —Image China Dialogue

SAG, on the other hand, works by introducing sulphate in the atmosphere. These injections will reflect a part of the radiation coming from the sun back to space and counterbalance the warming influence of greenhouse gasses (GHG). This approach mimics the effects of volcanic eruptions whose fine dust and sulphuric droplets help cooling the planet. Sulfate aerosol could be delivered by high-altitude balloons, artillery guns, high-level aircraft, tall towers, or space elevators. The cost of this technology is very limited compared to mitigation approaches and the results could be seen in a matter of decades. At first glance these technologies look promising, but a closer look shows their shortcomings.

Both technologies could cause enormous damage to humans and the environment in case they would not work. BECCS could lead to food and freshwater shortages since it will use portions of the land devoted to agriculture. SAG might disrupt precipitation patterns. Therefore, a great deal of discussion has accompanied the emergence of these technologies. Most of the concerns around these technologies focus upon implementation and technical issues: Many scientists judge these technologies morally impermissible due to the detrimental consequences that can derive from them. These judgments are important, but they might neglect an even more important aspect of the story.

Is technology neutral?

In this article, I want to assume that these technical and implementation issues had been solved and ask whether there is an inherent feature of the technology itself that should lead policymakers to prefer the adaption of either SAG or BEECS. Simply, if there were no issues with these technologies, is there some intrinsic aspect of the technology itself that should make us favor one over the other?

First of all, we need to understand how some aspects of technology could lead us to choose one over the other. Technology, differently from what you might believe is not neutral. In fact, certain technologies, in virtue of their design, uphold certain values. Technology can hold a specific value if, in its widespread usages, it tends to promote rather than violate that value. For instance, a gas-engine car can be used in many ways, but its central uses remain transportation. Consequently, when a gas-engine car is utilized certain consequences —for instance pollution— occur, which promotes or deters certain values —i.e. sustainability—. Every technology, thus, has certain embedded consequences manifested in their central uses. Apart from economic values, technology can systematically promote or deter cultural and moral values —democracy, justice, cultural practices, etc—. Does SAG or BECCS uphold or deter certain specific value due to their specific design/implementation mechanisms?

This image shows which part of the world is warmed the most by human action —Image NASA

The capacity to yield power

Under the assumption that both SAG and BECCS work fine, the latter is praised for its capacity to capture carbon and store it under the terrain with the possibility of reusing the captured carbon. On the other hand, SAG does not allow to capture CO2 from the air but only reflect solar radiation. Once SAG is employed the process should be continuous and accompanied by mitigation strategies. Halting the process of injection will lead to sudden warming of the climate, known as the ‘termination shock’. We cannot see SAG as a one-off strategy but rather as a temporally extended process. SAG imposes its long-term adaption. In this sense, it can be said that SAG has an inherent tendency to be dominating.

When we use the word domination, we generally refer to its descriptive meaning: someone who dominates someone else. Domination can have a normative meaning. In this sense, domination is not simply associated with superior power but rather with the capacity to exercise one’s superior power without any external constraints. To put it simply, a slave-owner, no matter how nice he treats his slaves remains still a slave-owner. The slaves have to live with the fear that one day he might change his mind and has the capacity to threaten them. With this meaning, domination inevitably clashes with the concept of freedom: the ability to choose one’s path. Specifically, how and towards who is SAG more dominating than BEECS in virtue of its design?

The subjects of domination

Firstly, SAG is dominating towards future generations. It is normal that humans dominate future generations since they are not present yet. SAG, however, increases the magnitude of current domination over future generations because its deployment will inevitably impact the entire globe. Furthermore, SAG changes the nature of this domination. SAG makes it possible for the current generation to escape external checks on their power over future generations. Whilst the deployment of BECCS is constrained by the fact that its implementation will forcedly harm the interests of the present generations, for instance by driving the price of food up or diminishing reserves of freshwater, the deployment of SAG will just benefit the current generation by lowering global temperatures. SAG, thus, lacks any intra-generational checks. Finally, SAG results inherently dominating toward future generations since it forces them in a specific direction. As we have said, in contrast to BECCS, SAG does not eliminate GHG from the atmosphere, it simply halts the process. This, thereby, imposes future generations to comply with the technology. But SAG is not only more dominating than BECCS towards future generations.

SAG, indeed, is even more dominating towards the natural environment and non-human species than BECCS. The implementation of SAG does not meet external constraints since, up to now, there is no evidence that there is an upper limit of sulphate that can be injected in the atmosphere. On the other hand, nature presents clear limits on where the biomass can be cultivated; besides, carbon can be stored safely only in particular conditions. Similar to the case of intergenerational domination, SAG does not seem to have external checks and thus it enlarges the scope of domination over the natural environment —we have to remember that domination is not simply associated with complete control but the capacity to yield greater power—. This, in turn, could raise the bar of artificial solutions humans can adopt to shape the environment. Furthermore, as we have seen, SAG cannot be a single-shot strategy but has to perennially maintained. This means that SAG would expand the timeframe of domination over nature.

It is clear that we are warming the planet. Can we do something to avoid it? The answer is yes, of course, we can —Image Unknown Author

Ye shall not dominate

As we have seen certain technologies hold specific political, cultural, and/or moral values that make it clear that once chosen certain consequences will be more likely to happen. Certain technologies, specifically, might change the way we see the world and/or change our cultural practices. For instance, when using the gas-fueled car we experience the world in a different way than when we walk or use the bike; we see the world proceeding fast. Seemingly, technologies can change our relationship with the environment. When trying to solve climate change, choosing among the current designs of SAG and BECCS may signify choosing a particular relationship we want to have with the natural world. Still, this does not mean that the current design of SAG must be a definite one. In considering future designs, however, we must be aware that specific designs embody different values, and that satisfying all of them at the same time is not feasible. When designing we inevitably make trade-offs between the values we find most important. In order to make an accurate choice, we must make sure that the value of non-domination enters into the dialogue; because no one wants to be a slave, of not even a nice slave owner.