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Book Reviews

Can Science Fix Climate Change?

Pages 420-424
Received 08 Jul 2014
Accepted 05 Aug 2014
Published online: 05 Sep 2014

Professor Mike Hulme is one of the most distinguished academics writing about climate change science, policy and culture today, so when he has something to say about this subject, his peers, politicians, policymakers and the general public should sit up and take notice. The title and subject matter of his latest book, Can Science Fix Climate Change? is no different. In fact, everyone should stand up and take notice and be extremely vocal about the subject matter of this book because the decisions that stem from this will have profound and significant physical and socio-political temporal repercussions. The core argument of this book revolves around a simple, but $64,000 question that many academics researching climate change constantly ask themselves … can science, in this case geoengineering, fix climate change?

The reason why everyone needs to be vocal about the subject matter of this book is because Hulme thoughtfully delves into what would have been thought of up to a few decades ago as (climate) science fiction. That is, should the human race use stratospheric aerosols to artificially induce global cooling—hence mitigating and reversing the warming effects of emitting too many greenhouse gases (principally carbon) into the atmosphere. But as Hulme argues, this is not the stuff of science fiction any longer. Inducing global cooling by injecting sulphur dioxide and/or hydrogen sulphide into the atmosphere is being discussed as a potential solution to human-induced climate change by prevalent scholars, politicians and policymakers. If we continue trying to solve our current climate mitigation crisis using the same politically inept approach we have used for the last two decades, then this type of geoengineering may be a reality more sooner than we think. Hence, this book has mass readership appeal, not only because Hulme discusses an issue that affects everyone of us, but also because of the style in which the book is written. What is a complicated and uncertain science is explained in a straightforward, easy to read manner. This book can be enjoyed by academics, students and the lay general public alike.

In Chapter I, Hulme introduces the reader to the variety of ways in which the climate can be engineered, defining and distinguishing between two types of geoengineering technologies: those that reflect sunlight back out to space leaving atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide unaffected and those technologies that remove carbon from the atmosphere or locks it up into carbon sinks. The technology that is the main focus in this book is the former of these technologies with an explanation as to why sun reflection technologies such as stratospheric aerosol injection may have wider appeal: according to Hulme, it is simple, fast acting, economically viable, can help us achieve a low carbon economy and we should explore all possibilities if we need immediate climate mitigation action. On the face of it, this technology ticks all politicians' checklists. After all, it is politicians who will ultimately decide the fate of whether this technology is utilized and political decisions are made first and foremost on what is best for the economy. Hulme quotes a figure of around $250 billion to offset climate change for the rest of the century. The latest figures from the summary for policymakers in the WGIII Fifth Assessment Report estimate that to reduce net GHG emissions and/or to enhance resilience to climate change and climate variability, the cost will be between $343–385 billion per year globally (IPCC, 2014 IPCC. (2014). Summary for policymakers. In Climate Change 2014, Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. [Google Scholar], p. 27). Hence, it is easy to see why sunlight reflection is an attractive option for politicians.

But does it tick the general publics' entire checklist? Using the work of the sociologist Calhoun (2008 Calhoun, C. (2008). A world of emergencies: Fear, intervention and the limits of cosmopolitan order. Canadian Review of Sociology, 41(4), 373395. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-618X.2004.tb00783.x[Crossref] [Google Scholar]), Hulme soberly contextualizes this technology as part of a ‘climate emergency’ discourse that has shaped international policy and relations in recent decades. He asks a fundamental question: who makes the decision to define what makes a climate emergency? This is the key question that prefaces the rest of Hulme's argument in the remaining chapters. This question does not just concern the governance of solving the potential environmental repercussions of human-induced climate change which is an important enough issue; the ramifications are much wider and could jeopardize global and regional physical and natural processes as well as the global political system with which we base our social, economic and environmental policy decisions upon. Changing the latter would not be so bad because current global climate governance, which is based on liberal democracy and multilateralism (what Hulme describes as Plan A), has been far from adequate in solving the effects of human-induced and natural climate variability (Kythreotis, 2012 Kythreotis, A.P. (2012). Progress in global climate change politics? Reasserting national state territoriality in a ‘post-political’ world. Progress in Human Geography, 36(4), 457474. doi: 10.1177/0309132511427961[Crossref], [Web of Science ®] [Google Scholar]; Prins & Rayner, 2007 Prins, G., & Rayner, S. (2007). The wrong trousers: Radically rethinking climate policy. MacKinder Programme for the Study of Long Wave Events, LSE and Institute for Science, Innovation and Society. Oxford: University of Oxford. [Google Scholar]).

In Chapter II, Hulme begins by citing examples of how humans have historically attempted to create the perfect climate to suit their own ends and how the metric of surface air temperature now offers a framework to manage the climate to ensure that temperatures do not exceed the arbitrary 2 degrees Celsius that was adopted by the world's nations at the Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen in 2009. For Hulme, regulating the climate cannot be reduced to a simple calculation of how much sulphate to inject into the atmosphere based on temperature levels or the radiation balance. This, he argues, will just exchange one set of human antagonisms for a variety of others and raise a multitude of questions. Who would decide what global temperature to regulate at? Is 2 degrees Celsius the correct figure? What about the physical effects at regional levels? What are the legal-governance ramifications of all these decisions? We would be just spatially redistributing the uneven public goods and evils associated with climate change. In Chapter III, Hulme examines more closely the governance implications of stratospheric aerosol injection citing how it would be impossible to gain the degree of trust and cooperation amongst nations of the world to practically implement this geoengineering technology. For Hulme, a post-political world governed on technocratic principles that uses science as a means to further consolidate a climate emergency discourse is an anathema. Whilst I am in total agreement with this, arguably our current governance systems by which political decisions on conventional mitigation and adaptation measures are made already have these post-political technocratic governance elements within them (see Swyngedouw, 2010 Swyngedouw, E. (2010). Apocalypse forever?: Post-political populism and the spectre of climate change. Theory, Culture & Society, 27, 213232. doi: 10.1177/0263276409358728[Crossref], [Web of Science ®] [Google Scholar], 2013 Swyngedouw, E. (2013). The non-political politics of climate change. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 12(1), 18. [Google Scholar]). Either way, both systems are practically untenable in terms of successfully governing them. They are both based on the absurd notion that the lay public believe that scientific and engineering experts assume infallible knowledge of the various feedbacks in the climate system, therefore we can successfully manipulate and engineer the physical aspects and manage the socio-political consequences of our actions within a closed-system. For Hulme, such arrogance is empirically highlighted in Chapter IV in his case study analysis of previous climate experiments like Biosphere-2. Ultimately, he argues that a trajectory of implementing stratospheric injection will result in an ‘infinite regress' of contingency plans arising to rectify the previous foibles of preceding plans (pp. 100–101). Like Hulme, I believe that humankind must look for alternative ways to ensure that the physical processes of the earth remain untainted by human experimentation to the degree that implementing a global programme on stratospheric aerosol injection would entail.

As a starting point to do this, Hulme reframes the climate problem in Chapter V, suggesting a different role for science and technology. Rather than science being used to promote Plan B, a ‘global thermostat in the sky' (p. 113), science he argues, needs to be utilized in a new framework of climate pragmatism. Hulme argues that climate change is a wicked problem, which is nothing new in terms of insight as Hulme professes, but the realization that wicked problems are constituted by ‘complex system interdependencies' (p. 120) that cause further intractable problems holds the key to finding alternative solutions to Plan A and B. Hulme argues that we need to be wise about which issues we tackle. His suggestion is to firstly decouple the energy question (how do we meet the growing demand for energy reliably, cheaply and sustainably?) from the climate change problem so they are viewed as two distinct problems. Secondly, he suggests we need to recognize the ‘different ways in which human activities alter the composition and functioning of the atmosphere—and that each of them produces different welfare risks and hazards at different scales' (p. 124). By grouping anthropogenic climate change as one problem within the context of a global thermostat we are intimating that there is one ‘golden egg’ solution. This is not the way. Rather, climate pragmatism separates this one problem into three: reducing weather risks; improving air quality and innovating in the search for cheap, reliable and clean energy.

Hulme argues that to reduce weather risks we need to enhance resilience and adaptation measures to extremes in weather which is a public good. His approach is human-centred, rather than trying to alter the physical climate in any profound way. What politicians and decision-makers need to understand (and where this book is successful in its persuasion) is that weather risks are socially produced rather than attributed to meteorological factors. This for me (and Hulme) is the crux of why humankind has so far failed miserably to find any meaningful solutions to climate change. Increases in population size and infrastructure results in increased exposure to weather risk. By utilizing science to produce new technologies and evolving institutions and management, Hulme claims we can minimize these risks. I agree with this wholeheartedly, but newer technologies have to neatly converge with appropriate spatial governance (Kythreotis, Mercer, & Frostick, 2013 Kythreotis, A.P., Mercer, T.G., & Frostick, L.E. (2013). Adapting to extreme events related to natural variability and climate change: The imperative of coupling technology with strong regulation and governance. Environmental Science & Technology, 47(17), 95609566. doi: 10.1021/es4014294[Crossref], [PubMed], [Web of Science ®] [Google Scholar]). Place and scale matter in planning appropriately for climate change risks.

Hulme then argues how other pollutants other than carbon dioxide need to be removed from the atmosphere by using new technologies, and this could be governed through sectoral, regional or bilateral agreements rather than through the sole index of warming properties of pollutants used by the UNFCCC. The third of his suggestions regard energy demand. Given energy demand will grow 50% by 2035, Hulme argues none of the energy plans we have in place at the moment will be sufficient enough to cope with this increased demand. His suggestion is a hypothecated carbon tax that would start low and would gradually rise, making energy cheaper, not fossil fuels more expensive as is the current state. These three issues would make the global thermostat idea obsolete. Arguably, there is traction in his suggestions, especially the first two. However, on the latter idea of a carbon tax I remain dubious because when you reduce environmental processes to economic conditions, it is always the environment that loses out to neoliberal (ir)rationality, the costs are ultimately passed on to the consumer and are spatially uneven in distribution, and this is not a public good.

Ultimately, Hulme suggests that public and political deliberations need to be introduced further upstream, before research related to stratospheric cooling is given the go ahead. The very fact that the Royal Society (2009 Royal Society. (2009). Geoengineering the climate: Science, governance and uncertainty. London: Royal Society. [Google Scholar]) has already produced a very lengthy report and researchers are being commissioned by national environment agencies to examine the governance of climate geoengineering (e.g. see Bodle et al., 2014 Bodle, R., Oberthür, S., Donat, L., Homann, G., Sina, S., & Tedsen, E. (2014). Options and proposals for the international governance of geoengineering. Umweltbundesamt, Dessau-Roßlau, June 2014. [Google Scholar]) does not bode well for Hulme's suggested climate pragmatism.

To conclude Hulme has purported that pluralism and pragmatism are two of the virtues needed to ensure that climate pragmatism can become a practical reality. Yet we already see pragmatism in current global politics of climate change—a myopic pragmatism defined by the economic interests of ten or so major industrial nations that rely heavily on fossil fuels, pollute the most whilst paying lip service to a human-centred climate justice rationale. Mary Robinson of the Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice recently quoted, ‘Climate Justice is, I believe, not just an issue of atmospheric science; it is also about human rights.' Like Hulme, she believes that pluralism is also central to achieving more equitable human rights that will start to erode the climate injustice we see around the world. Both Robinson and Hulme do have the moral high ground, but only until the politicians realize the type of pragmatism needed should be based around human culture and social needs rather than economic expediency, science will never realistically get to grips with fixing climate change.

    References

  • Bodle, R., Oberthür, S., Donat, L., Homann, G., Sina, S., & Tedsen, E. (2014). Options and proposals for the international governance of geoengineering. Umweltbundesamt, Dessau-Roßlau, June 2014. OpenURL University of Lincoln
  • Calhoun, C. (2008). A world of emergencies: Fear, intervention and the limits of cosmopolitan order. Canadian Review of Sociology, 41(4), 373395. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-618X.2004.tb00783.x OpenURL University of Lincoln
  • IPCC. (2014). Summary for policymakers. In Climate Change 2014, Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. OpenURL University of Lincoln
  • Kythreotis, A.P. (2012). Progress in global climate change politics? Reasserting national state territoriality in a ‘post-political’ world. Progress in Human Geography, 36(4), 457474. doi: 10.1177/0309132511427961 OpenURL University of Lincoln
  • Kythreotis, A.P., Mercer, T.G., & Frostick, L.E. (2013). Adapting to extreme events related to natural variability and climate change: The imperative of coupling technology with strong regulation and governance. Environmental Science & Technology, 47(17), 95609566. doi: 10.1021/es4014294 OpenURL University of Lincoln
  • Prins, G., & Rayner, S. (2007). The wrong trousers: Radically rethinking climate policy. MacKinder Programme for the Study of Long Wave Events, LSE and Institute for Science, Innovation and Society. Oxford: University of Oxford. OpenURL University of Lincoln
  • Royal Society. (2009). Geoengineering the climate: Science, governance and uncertainty. London: Royal Society. OpenURL University of Lincoln
  • Swyngedouw, E. (2010). Apocalypse forever?: Post-political populism and the spectre of climate change. Theory, Culture & Society, 27, 213232. doi: 10.1177/0263276409358728 OpenURL University of Lincoln
  • Swyngedouw, E. (2013). The non-political politics of climate change. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 12(1), 18. OpenURL University of Lincoln
 

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