Monday, 23 April 2012


I read with great interest James Cameron's comments on the Titanic story and its use as an analogy to climate change:

He's right of course, the class of ticket you held dictated your likelihood of survival, a key point often missed in climate debates until recently. I regularly get asked if I am worried for my grandchildren - I often answer simply 'no'. This is, of course, not really true - we are stewards for the planet our grandchildren will inherit and we are making a horrible mess of that job. However, my grandchildren will probably be in a much better situation than those who are less able/cannot afford to adapt.

Some key questions/observations emerge - and these have been pondered a great deal already:

Have we (or are we definitely going to) hit the iceberg?
I'm not the person to answer this, but my colleagues responses could be collectively summed up as 'Not yet, but we will'. Their meaning is that if we cut carbon dioxide emissions to zero tomorrow we'd stay below two degrees of warming, but that's not going to happen is it?

Your value, and definition, of nature drives how far you are willing to go to sustain and protect it. Earth Day passed virtually unnoticed in the news yesterday. The simple truth is that people don't care that much. Why shouldn't today be an Earth Day too?

How will our relationship with nature (or what we take for nature) change if we invoked SRM?
Does it matter if our skies are less blue? Personally, I think, were that the only side effect, it might be a price worth paying BUT I've started to realise that our perception of nature must ultimately change if make tangible, intentional, global scale changes to climate. Nothing will be natural, nothing will be wild - I'm not sure I can live with that?

Does that make 'geoengineers' lifeboat designers?
A far too soft an analogy - pushing what is already discomfort in positivity far beyond my limits. For starters it was better to be in a lifeboat than not - we can't say that's true for CE.


  1. Hi Matt,

    On your third point, in my view nothing is "natural" now, if by "natural" we mean the absence of anthropogenic influence. That's one of the great implications of climate change, and a defining feature of the anthropocene. The same goes for "wild." The struggle to come to grips with this animates a lot of the debate about geoengineering. I think this sort of reckoning is unavoidable in the postmodern world.


  2. Hi Josh - sorry to have missed you at PUP12. I really enjoy your writings and it would be great to chat sometime. In the interim this will do!

    I broadly agree with the above and I do not like the use of 'natural' as a defence against CE as per here:

    The definition of nature above, as I'm sure you'd agree, is a massive oversimplification. The essence of nature is a difficult idea because it is bespoke. Also, there is no bright line between 'natural' and 'not natural'. The post was an attempt by me to communicate a slight change of heart. My original position was based on a discussion with Steve Raynor about Alan Robock's '20 reasons'. I felt that the 'blue skies' argument was a red herring (actually I said he had about a dozen good points and was aiming for a round number). The debate got pretty heated and culminated in him asking me whether I could comprehend how important blue skies might be for others. My response, 'that's our choice, blue skies or death?' is something I am of which I am not hugely proud but conveyed my point.

    After some thinking however, I've realised something. Steve was asserting that blue skies had some economic value I could not comprehend (I thought this argument was bullshit). What I now think is that SASRM might not change our relationship with the planet (we have been inadvertently been engineering climate for hundreds of years) but it would drastically change the perception of our relationship with the planet. I think this is important.
    You may, of course, feel my ability to look upon the world and perceive nature (or the impression of nature) as a little like looking out of the window on Christmas Eve with my kids looking for Father Christmas. Maybe I do allow myself to see beauty in the world and feel that it is 'natural' or 'part natural' (whatever that might mean).

    These thoughts are, admittedly, not well formed and could even be described as vacillatory. My defence is as per your comment - it is a struggle and the essence of nature suffuses all discussion of CE.

    As an aside I'm really interested in the ramifications of SRM on democracy/plurocracy/plutocracy. I suspect you're much better placed that I to think about these things but I've heard two things recently that really interested me:

    (1) What would SRM do to democracy as it would have to be 'undemocratically' invoked. [I am not sure about this, elected officials often do things without our express permission because we elect them to do so]

    (2) It will take a global catastrophe to permit SRM.

    I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts, on here or elsewhere...

    1. Interesting questions, I'll take an initial stab.

      On democracy, I'm not sure I agree with the premise, i.e., that SRM could only be implemented "undemocratically." It depends on which type of SRM you're talking about, and there's no a priori reason why any given technique would be opposed by voters (imagine your catastrophe scenario). Then there are any number of cases where good but initially unpopular laws, policies, and treaties have been implemented by democratic governments--for example, civil rights in many parts of the US during the 1960s and 70s. We live in representative as opposed to direct democracies, and part of this entails deferring to leaders with a (hopefully) more comprehensive view of things, at least until the next election!

      On catastrophe, I think there's a good chance you're right. Doing something like SRM involves major changes in sociocultural orientation (like our ideas of nature), and these often require galvanizing events. Usually when we talk catastrophe we mean tipping points and climate emergencies. I think one of the big problems with the tipping point dialogue is that, by definition, once a tipping point has been crossed it is already too late, yet emergency SRM schemes typically ignore this essential fact and propose a quick response that due to the nature of a nonlinearity cannot work. I think a lot more work needs to be done on early warning systems for precisely this reason. I know Tim Lenton's doing some work on this, and I've proposed some policy work on this here in the US.

      Feel free to use my email address: - I'd love to catch up on SPICE offline.