October 29, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich

Geoengineering metaphors: 2011 and 2021

I recently saw this call for papers for a Preconference at the 72nd Annual Conference of the International Communication Association on May 25, 2022 “The Science of Science Communication: Mapping the Field”. The invitation starts with this paragraph: “The beginning of the new century’s ‘Roaring 20s’ is determined by global crises around climate change, biodiversity loss, migration, social inequalities, and a pandemic disease. At the same time, it is shaped by the advent of scientific and technological solutions to these problems (e.g. artificial intelligence, genetic modification, geo-engineering). These processes of change emphasize the importance of science communication.”

I was rather taken aback when I read the word ‘solution’ referring to technologies that I would perhaps rather have called ‘problematic and controversial interventions’. I shall here look a little bit into geoengineering.

Geoengineering or climate engineering promises to alter global climate patterns and thereby avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. Implementing various types of climate engineering options is a huge, but still mainly speculative, technological problem. It throws up immense political, governance, social and ethical problems. Geoengineering technologies include proposals to increase solar reflectance, such as raising ground-level albedo, stratospheric sulphur injection, cloud whitening, orbital mirrors and sunshades, and carbon removal proposals, such as carbon burial, ocean fertilisation, biochar production, direct air capture and others.

In the run up to COP26 (happening now) all sorts of options to mitigate climate disaster were again being discussed, including (solar) geoengineering, for example by a new Climate Crisis Advisory Group headed by Sir David King, although absent from a recent IPCC report (which focussed on carbon removal).

Rusi Jaspal and I became interested in geoengineering about a decade ago, when it was first widely discussed following various reports, for example one by the Royal Society published in 2009. This was also around the time that an actual experiment was announced, the SPICE project (which aimed to assess the feasibility of injecting particles into the atmosphere in order to manage solar radiation), which was later cancelled. Interestingly, another geoengineering project by Harvard University, SCoPEx, which should have taken place in Sweden this year, has just been halted, as researchers realised that they should talk to people on the ground about it first. In the case of the SPICE project, public engagement (an early effort to engage in responsible innovation) had, in fact, been part of the project. The cancellation happened for other reasons.

Geoengineering in 2011

For our first foray into geoengineering, we carried out a media and metaphor analysis of a small sample of press coverage between 1980 and 2010, with the majority of articles being published between 2006 and 2009. At the time, the coverage of geoengineering lagged far behind coverage of other geoscientific developments, such as carbon capture and storage and fracking, for example.

Our findings indicated that those trying to promote geoengineering used a series of powerful metaphors circling around one master-argument, namely that if emissions continue to rise we face global catastrophe and geoengineering might be the only option left to avert it. The three main conceptual metaphors supporting this master-argument were:

(1) The planet is a machine (car, heating system, computer), which manifested itself in scientists’ and journalists’ claims that geoengineering can ‘fix’ the planet, that it can be used to manipulate the planet’s thermostat and so on;

(2) The planet is a body, which manifested itself in people talking about building a sunshade for the planet or applying suncream, sunblock or sunscreen to it; and

(3) The planet is a patient, which manifested itself in talk of applying medical treatment to the planet of curing the planet’s addiction to carbon and so on.

The overarching argument was that the earth was seriously/catastrophically broken/ill and could only be fixed/healed by geoengineering. The counter argument (the moral hazard argument) pointed to many uncertainties, both scientific and social, specifically the possibility that going down the geoengineering route might close down more obvious mitigation routes, such as reduction in fossil fuel use.

For this blog post I searched the news database Nexis again (on 27 October, 2021) with the search term ‘geoengineering’. Nexis now provides little graphs of a timeline which was quite interesting.

The timeline stretched from 1982 to 2021. The early attestations were mainly to a firm called Geoengineering Inc, but from the early 1990s onwards people began to talk about geoengineering proper. The National Academy of Sciences in the United States, for example, wrote a report on global warming in 1991 and “urged research into what it called ‘geoengineering’ options for fighting back if global warming develops, such as sending dust or soot into orbit around the earth to screen out solar radiation, or putting iron into the oceans to increase carbon dioxide absorption.” (Associated Press, 10 April).

Things changed radically around 2006, when Paul Crutzen, who coined the term ‘anthropocene’, talked about geoengineering, wrote an editorial in Climatic Change calling for research into geoengineering (we heard him talk about this in 2008). Crutzen died in 2021. After 2006 there was a real jump in articles reporting on geoengineering (see also Royal Society report, mentioned above). Things stayed relatively flat for ten years after that, with another jump in 2016 and a further one just now. In terms of newspaper coverage, The Guardian published most articles on the subject (216), followed by the New York Times (145). I looked at the articles published this year, around 10 relevant ones in each case.

Geoengineering in 2021

This snapshot of press coverage revealed continuities and discontinuities. As before, most of the coverage was provoked by pronouncements from key actors, many of whom had already been active a decade ago.

We have David Keith (essay in the New York Times), who is, for example, involved in the SCoPEx project, Gernot Wagner, a colleague of Keith (his book, “Geoengineering: The Gamble” was discussed in The Guardian); Ray Pierrehumbert and Michael Mann (article in The Guardian; Mann also has a book out) who are rather critical of geoengineering, Holly Jean Buck, who, like Wagner, has recently written a book on geoengineering entitled “After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration”, focussing on carbon removal (covered in The Guardian); as well as Elizabeth Kolbert, a journalist, who published a book entitled “Under a White Sky: The nature of the future”, which was discussed both in The Guardian and the New York Times.

In a blurb for Kolbert’s book, a physicist/solar geoengineer is quoted who is also quoted in the New York Times – a quote that, in a way, sums up the whole discussion around geoengineering in 2021: “’We live in a world where deliberately dimming the fucking sun might be less risky than not doing it,’ says Andy Parker, the project director for the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, to Elizabeth Kolbert. He goes on to compare geoengineering to chemotherapy: you’d never poison your own body if you were healthy, but if you are sick and have no other choice – well.” Here we have an example of a medical metaphor, of which there were quite a few in our sample.

Apart from various books and expert voices (also including both Noam Chomsky, who said he was no expert and one should listen to other experts such as Pierrehumbert, and Bill Gates who also has a book out), the other major input to the press coverage came from the publication of various reports in the United States, such as one by the National Academy of Sciences, the same organisation we have encountered in the 1990s above, which recommends that all options to fight the climate crisis must be explored.

What about metaphors? There is quite a bit of continuity between 2011 and 2021, too. Both medical and mechanical metaphors were used – and there is talk of playing god, of course.

In terms of mechanical metaphors, we hear about dimming the sun (Guardian and NYT), “fiddling with the planetary controls” (Guardian, 6 March) and turning a thermostat (“Solar radiation management, ocean seeding and other efforts to fix the world’s thermostat are no mere tweaks, no simple re-wiring jobs”, ibid.), of a technological moon-shot and putting Apollo on the moon (Guardian, 18 September). In terms of medical metaphors, we hear about geoengineering as not being a silver bullet (Guardian, 8 February), not being a cure but rather a band-aid (David Keith, NYT, 3 October), of it being a crutch (“carbon capture, geoengineering, etc…. a crutch for continuing business-as-usual”, Michal Mann, NYT, 7 September), and most importantly, geoengineering is compared to using methadone which might cause a rebound effect (“if we are ever forced to stop, we are hit with dangerous withdrawal symptoms – a catastrophic ‘termination shock'”, Pierrehumbert and Mann, Guardian, 22 April).

In addition, Pierrehumbert talks about geoengineering as a Damocles sword hanging over climate change negotiations; a critic of David Keith (letter to the editor, NYT, 17 October) talks about a Faustian bargain; in the context of discussing direct air capture, Robert Rohde, a climate scientist at Berkeley Earth, says that it’s “like trying to bail out the Titanic using an eyedropper” (Guardian, 24 September), and Buck points out that solar geoengineering “doesn’t remove emissions. It’s just a blanket of intentional pollution that cools things down.” (Guardian, 26 August) Sort of the opposite to the greenhouse effect that was also called a blanket in the past.

Buck is the only one to establish a metaphorical cross-over between geoengineering and the ongoing pandemic of Covid-19: “Last year, when the planet was convulsing with the arrival of a pandemic, we pinned our hopes on technology – in the form of an mRNA vaccine – getting us out of our crisis. The vaccine was a technological intervention, injected into the arms of billions of people. Could we (should we?) look to technological solutions to our climate crisis, too?” (Guardian, 26 August)

This brings us to the issue of ‘moral hazard’. In their article, Pierrehumbert and Mann point to Mann’s argument in his new book “that geoengineering advocacy is indeed one of the key delay tactics used by polluters” (Guardian, 22 April). This danger is not dismissed by David Keith, who, however, looks at it from another direction: “Research is minimal because geoengineering has influential opponents. The strongest opposition to geoengineering research stems from fear that the technology will be exploited by the powerful to maintain the status quo. Why cut emissions if we can seed the atmosphere with sulfur and keep the planet cool? This is geoengineering’s moral hazard.” (NYT, 1 October)

Current metaphors and talking points seem to be almost the same as ten years ago. What is new in the 2021 coverage of geoengineering is the background against which debates take place, especially the impact of recent extreme weather events around the world, such as the floods in Germany (“….floods in Germany — you must look to carbon removal, solar geoengineering and local adaptation”, Keith, NYT, 1 October).

The increasing impacts of climate change and their consequences, are for example discussed in a report from the National Intelligence Estimate in the United States. The Guardian reports from New York (21 October): “The estimate warns that as the extreme physical impacts of rising temperatures and sea levels speed up, they are likely to ‘exacerbate cross-border geopolitical flash points as states take steps to secure their interests … Geopolitical tensions are likely to grow as countries increasingly argue about how to accelerate the reductions in net greenhouse gas emissions’”. Throw geoengineering into this mix… …

To come back to the beginning of this post: Can one really call geoengineering a ‘solution’? When writing about geoengineering metaphors in 2011 we chose the title “Metaphors We Live by?” All the questions implied by that title still stand, but we need ever more urgent answers. Repeating the same debates year after year is not the way to go.

Image: John Englart, Flickr: Real Solutions Vs. Dangerous Distractions – COP23 – IMG_2454 Day 9 of COP23 found me in Press conferences, an Umbrella group meeting between negotiators and NGO constituency, and a walk through Rheinaue Park to the Bonn Zone.


Posted in Climate ChangeClimate PoliticsMetaphors