4th November 2008 | Draft
Geo-engineering Oversight Agency for Thermal Stabilization (GOATS)
- / -
Geo-engineering remedies for global warming
Misapplication of complex technology to narrowly defined closed systems
-- System framing | Caricature | Asystemic thinking | Downstream focus
Avoidance of intractable problems
Misapplication of "firefighting" strategy used for financial "meltdown"
Technocratic arrogance and untrustworthiness?
Evaluating geo-engineering proposals for vulnerability to past failures
-- Unforeseen technological disasters | White elephants | Introduction of species
-- Unforeseen combination effects
Conclusion: Application of irresponsible science and technology on a planetary scale?
-- Failure of collective learning | Arrogation of authority and insight | Mobilization for war
-- Systemic neglect | Resolving the human conflict with climate | Compounding misconception
-- Oversight by GOATS
An editorial in the journal New Scientist (Time to rank the best ideas to engineer the climate, 29 October 2008) has just echoed the proposal of Philip W. Boyd (Ranking Geo-engineering Schemes, Nature Geoscience, 2008, 1, 26 October 2008, pp. 722 - 724) who argues:
The New Scientist editorial notes that by coincidence, the UK's Royal Society had just launched such a study. The editorial also cites Boyd to the effect that: "We will reach a tipping point, and none of the schemes will have been tested".
Boyd proposes that an international body, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, rank the schemes according to risk, cost, effectiveness and how quickly they could get off the ground.
Such framings of the challenge imply that the problem has been well analyzed by a selection of natural science disciplines, who are now prepared to assess and recommend solutions supplied by technologists in a period when wider society has every reason to be extremely concerned about the trustworthiness of experts regarding global systems. It implies that, as with the crisis of the financial system, a "tipping point" will provide the political justification to ensure that the best ranked technical solution will be rammed through as a form of technical "bailout". This will presumably be effected by a policy group claiming to act wisely in the best interests of all -- despite views to contrary.
After reviewing a selection of proposals, the following argument focuses on the blinkered perspective which is being brought to the analysis of climate change and actions considered appropriate, especially in the light of the track record of projects of equivalent global scope.
From that perspective the following argument recommends the establishment of a Geo-engineering Oversight Agency for Thermal Stabilization (GOATS) as an appropriately named body within which to focus on such geo-engineering solutions and to be appropriately tracked in turn.
As summarized in December 2007, in a BBC interview (Molly Bentley, Guns and sunshades to rescue climate, 2 March 2006), the chief scientist for climate change projects at the Climate Institute in Washington DC indicated that:
A number of technically radical solutions have been proposed to achieve rapid reduction of such problems as global warming.
Such "geo-engineering" and related options -- labelled by some as "wacky ideas" -- are considered to be largely speculative and with the risk of unknown side-effects. Nevertheless the Technology Quarterly of the Economist (Plan B for global warming? 8 March 2007) also presents them as the only alternative to cutting carbon emissions -- without envisaging any other. It notes that
As noted with respect to separate discussion of one genetic alternative (Challenge of Nonviolent Population Decimation: reducing effects of overpopulation on resources and climate change by major reduction in the height of people, 2007), it is appropriate to compare proposals in terms of technical feasibility, risk, political acceptability and long-term remedial consequences.
System framing: It is useful to raise the question as to whether each of these is an example of framing the system, whose "pathology" it is considered necessary to address, as simply as is credible -- to those assembled to provide a credible, feasible solution. Within that frame it is then possible to call for, and apply, highly creative thinking that calls upon sophisticated, leading edge technological innovation. Any questions regarding the framing of the system are then framed as irrelevant and an irresponsible waste of time -- especially given the resources available for the preferred solution.
The increasing extent to which the response to climate change is framed as a "fight" or a "war" calling for "mobilization" might be seen as a reflecting just such a strategic understanding. Is it indeed appropriate to undertake a "war" to "combat" climate change? Is this "hammer" the only tool available -- as implied by the many other strategic "wars" undertaken (ineffectually?) in response to global issues (Review of the Range of Virtual Wars: a strategic comparison with the global war against terrorism, 2005)?
Current approaches to halting climate change, especially rising sea levels, have already been variously compared to the legendary tale of King Canute commanding the seas to go back (Coastal erosion: the wisdom of Canute, The Economist, 22 May 2008; Restoring the Wild Coast of King Canute, Innovations Report, 8 October 2007; Climate Change: we need the 'Canute factor', OneClimate.net, 11 February 2008; Paul Newby, Climate change, sea level, King Canute and the sacred flame, The Photogrammetric Record, 22, 2007, 117, pp. 3-9; Paul Brown, Canute's tidal warning finally sinks in, The Guardian, 25 January 2003).
Is modern global civilization to be remembered as having gone a step beyond the posturing of King Canute before the tide by engaging in a "combat" with the climate? How does such a framing compare with the necessary subtlety of the resilient adaptive response articulated by Thomas Homer-Dixon (The Upside of Down: catastrophe, creativity, and the renewal of civilization, 2006)?
Asystemic thinking: Such approaches are an exemplification of irresponsible asystemic thinking in the guise of highly responsible systemic thinking -- the best of "thinking small" while claiming to be "thinking big". They are reinforced by the widely recognized aversion of disciplines and their specialists to take into consideration perspectives from disciplines other than their own -- or those within their cognitive comfort zones, however these have been defined.
This irrational aversion is then disguised by application of considerable expertise specific to the disciplines accredited by this process. However it is not the expertise that is taken into consideration that merits attention, it is the disciplines ignored by those process as irrelevant -- and the questions formulated within their frameworks.
The challenge goes to the heart of the failures of interdisciplinarity, carefully disguised by collaborative arrangements between some disciplines to the exclusion of others -- perhaps stigmatized as non-disciplines, pseudo-sciences or otherwise irrelevant. These patterns of behaviour are institutionalized in academies and university faculties so as to preclude a more universal approach to any challenge.
Through careful exclusion of the "soft" (so-called "non-scientific") disciplines, such "serious" hard science approaches avoid any feedback on the unacknowledged agendas associated with such geo-engineering proposals. Excluded therefore is any insight from:
Downstream focus: In the analysis of the challenge, geo-engineering exemplifies the focus on "downstream" consequences that can be assiduously treated on the assumption that the upstream causes, and their progressive increase, can be ignored -- an approach possibly to be understood as an exemplification of nonscientific causal reasoning (termed magical thinking). The case has been strongly argued by the former Permanent Head of the Department of Science of Australia, John L. Farrands (Don't Panic, Panic: the use and abuse of science to create fear, 1993). The current volume of remarkable discussion of the technicalities of emissions and carbon trading is then to be seen as a measure of the lack of ability to apply that degree of focus to the engendering process of population growth, for example (cf Institutionalized Shunning of Overpopulation Challenge: incommunicability of fundamentally inconvenient truth, 2008).
Much is made of the estimates by economists that economic development will lead to a "peak" and manageable "plateau" of population in decades to come. The proposals of geo-engineering buy into the implication that if global warming can be constrained through that period then all will be well. Unfortunately the majority of the economists associated with those estimates would appear to have been implicated in assumptions about the stability of the financial system -- proven to be seriously ill-founded by the financial crisis of 2008, and to follow. Should their assumptions regarding population stabilization now be held to be equally questionable?
What disciplinary expertise would usefully explore the degree of groupthink and silo thinking associated with the arrogant assertions of the financial community that so effectively denied the vulnerability of the financial system and ensured the complicity of a spectrum of authorities in this belief (cf Dynamically Gated Conceptual Communities, 2004)? To what degree might it be assumed that those making geo-engineering proposals are similarly constrained and how might this be determined? Do such proposals exemplify the challenges of tunnel vision syndrome -- described as "Sin #5" by John Collis (The Seven Fatal Management Sins: understanding and avoiding managerial malpractice, 1997, pp. 147-158)
Because of the narrow framing of the system and its pathology -- as "global warming" -- the problematic system dynamics of more complex systems are (systematically) avoided. This avoidance is framed as legitimate and appropriate because of the need to gain leverage where this seems possible with current thinking. However:
It is appropriate to note in this context the awe-inspiring problems to which the technology basic to geo-engineering proudly claims competence in addressing (satellites, aerospace, military, dams, tunnels, surveillance systems, telecommunications, etc) in comparison with the "simple" problems of the planet on which technology has so far proven to be incompetent:
Perhaps the most intractable problem is that of the continuing growth of the world population and its effects on climate change. A fruitful outcome to the associated debate is not only beyond the capacity of technologists to facilitate but allows them to assume that its issues can be ignored in the simplistic focus on a "technical" solution which they may be able to implement without wider consultation.
From such a perspective there is a case for recognizing geo-engineering as the epitome of what might be termed "avoidance engineering".
Given the framing of global warming as the problem to which an urgent response is required (ignoring upstream challenges), it is useful to examine by what society will be inspired in organizing its response. Examples include:
It is the last which offers an example of a crisis recognized worldwide -- in which economies and societies worldwide had more than a token interest. Given the extent to which this was framed like a natural disaster -- a "financial hurricane" -- and the manner in which remedial measures were consequently initiated, the question is whether the financial disaster itself is now a template through which the response to global warming is likely to be framed, as argued elsewhere (Systemic Crises as Keys to Systemic Remedies: a metaphorical Rosetta Stone for future strategy?, 2008).
Major learnings of the global financial crisis have included:
Using the financial crisis response as a template, the question is whether:
Is technocratic enthusiasm for geo-engineering to be compared to the promotional activities and shoddy implementation of door-to-door vendors of house maintenance (double-glazing, etc) -- knowing the dependence they create on their skills to remedy inadequatre workmanship, which may well have been exacerbated by the skills of their profession when the house was first constructed? Was it not the unchecked and widespread use of technology, following the "industrial revolution", that rapidly accelerated the process of global warming?
Of particular interest is the framing of the construction of the RMS Titanic, using some of the most advanced technology available at the time -- leading to the recognition of a spectrum of oversights in that construction following its sinking in 1912. The dangerous level of arrogant over-confidence exhibited by those involved, and its effects on decision-making, has since been highlighted.
White elephants: Of related interest are mega-projects that have proven to be ill-conceived "white elephants" (or are alleged to be so), including (from Wikipedia: Examples of notable alleged white elephants)
A range of examples in Europe have been documented by Konrad Tobler and Christian Helmle (White Elephants, 2007). An extensive analysis of "white elephants" is made by James A. Robinson and Ragnar Torvik (White Elephants, Journal of Public Economics, 2005) who offer the following introduction that is presumably of some relevance to geo-engineering proposals:
Introduction of species: Of particular interest are the dramatic consequences of the introduction of species (or their deliberate destruction), typically framed as a well-thought out logical remedy for some other inadequacy. Examples that have engendered disasters include:
Goats in prarticular, despite their value to human settlements, are well-recognized as a cause of environmental destruction, especially when inappropriately introduced into fragile, degraded environments, where they are often the main cause of subsequent desertification (itself a major cause of poverty) through their capacity to eat almost anything
As with the banking community, subsequent to the immediate drama of the financial crisis, the question is whether there has been any collective learning or whether such crises are simply seen as an unfortunate anomaly in a continuing cycle of "business as usual".
Unforeseen combination effects: The problems which arise from the introduction of species -- whether existing species, genetically modified species or their product analogues -- have been extensively documented. The major difficulty lies in their unforeseen consequences, perhaps with accumulation of effects over time.
Especially relevant, given the probability of unilateral, secretive implementation of geo-engineering remedies, is when two such implemented remedies have combined effects with truly disastrous impacts. This is the principle underlying binary chemical weapons. More probable, however, are the "binary" consequences of lack of coordination as illustrated by the failure of the mission to study the climate on Mars in September 1999 (Mars Mission's Metric Mixup, Wired News Report, 09.30.99):
The metric mixup which destroyed the craft was caused by a software error back on Earth. The software was used to control its rate of rotation, but by using the wrong units, the ground station underestimated the effect of the thrusters by a factor of 4.45. The spacecraft thus drifted off course during its voyage and entered a much lower orbit than planned -- to be then destroyed by atmospheric friction on Mars. The problem arose partly because the software had been adapted from use on an earlier Mars Climate Orbiter, without proper testing before launch, and partly because the navigation data provided by this software was not cross-checked while in flight.
To what areas of strategic concern for the future of the planet is the human capacity to "sometimes make errors" currently being assiduously applied? Following the Mars Climate Orbiter failure in 1999, would the Iraq war constitute such an example? What about uncritical complicity in the risk management associated with the derivatives market? What about population overshoot?
Failure of collective learning: It is most regrettable that the majority of the theoretical and applied sciences spent so many decades denying the relevance of global challenges resulting from human activity. It is even more regrettable that they have ignored the conclusions of systemic studies dating from the 1970s. Especially interesting is the manner in which efforts to analyze the evolution of the world problematique, as pioneered for the Club of Rome in 1972, are themselves undermined in an academic context. As shown by Graham Turner (A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality, CSIRO 2007), the original study provoked many criticisms which falsely stated its conclusions in order to discredit it. Despite the repeated substantiation of its conclusions, including warnings of overshoot and collapse, recommendations of fundamental changes of policy and behaviour for sustainability have not been taken up. One of its principal areas of focus was population.
The question is whether there has been sufficient collective learning to allow simplistic geo-engineering solutions to be applied on a planetary scale in the light of the track record of the interested parties, their disciplines, the institutions who may claim some mandate in the matter, and the policy-makers responsible in some way for the priorities of governance and resource allocation. It is such issues that are systematically ignored in the sober arguments offered by such as Thomas Homer-Dixon and David Keith (Blocking the Sky to Save the Earth, The New York Times, 20 September 2008) -- despite the former's arguments for an adaptive response (mentioned above).
Is it not appropriate to ask whether "blocking out the sky" is not the ultimate symbol of denial for any civilization -- exemplifying the arguments of John Ralston Saul (The Unconscious Civilization, 1995)?
Arrogation of authority and insight: With unseemly haste, the focus is now on geo-engineering solutions convenient to certain mindsets averse to complexity and the behavioural challenges of society -- of which the haste and blinkered focus is but one striking example.
Who is capable of making such a judgement and with what inputs? What is the probability that a narrow blinkered evaluation of the possibility will lead to the kinds of consequences so well-mapped by the track record of introduction of species -- whether cane toads, rabbits, or goats? Or perhaps by the combustion engine as a form of technological "species"?
Mobilization for war: Already the "fight against climate change" is being framed as a "war" calling for "mobilization" (Dennis Bartels, Wartime Mobilization to Counter Severe Global Climate Change, Human Ecology, 2001; David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action, 2008) -- and the creation of an international secretariat for civil society mobilization to that end. Is this approach to be compared with the efficacy of the "mobilization for development" promoted by the United Nations over decades?
This follows from the war psychosis that has been used in framing the response to terrorism and other issues (Review of the Range of Virtual Wars: a strategic comparison with the global war against terrorism, 2005). It would appear that little has been learnt from those experiences relating to what was then so confidently "known" in relation to one such war -- in which no expense has been subsequently spared -- despite the learnings famously articulated by the US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld (as articulated at a Department of Defense news briefing, 12 February 2002):
Systemic neglect: How might such learnings relate to total mobilization in a "war" against climate change and its use of geo-engineering? Was it not the "unknown unknowns" that resulted in the sinking of the RMS Titanic? Are the collective learning patterns of past "wars" simply to be repeated despite analyses such as that of Christopher Daase and Oliver Kessler (Knowns and Unknowns in the 'War on Terror': uncertainty and the political construction of danger, Security Dialogue, 38, 2007, 4, pp. 411-434) or the insights of the former chief defence scientist of Australia, John L. Farrands (Don't Panic, Panic: the use and abuse of science to create fear, 1993)?
Geo-engineering could then only too readily be taken up by technocrats of the kind caricatured as the Cold War's secretive "Dr Strangelove" (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964) -- a term already used in an early assessment of such approaches from an environmentalist perspective (Dr Strangelove saves the earth, The Economist, 15 January 2007) and in other commentary. As originally highlighted in the exploration of that caricature, reservations are readily set aside in the interests of "security" -- a perverted application of the precautionary principle. Indeed a war footing, as demonstrated in the case of terrorism and the initiatives of Donald Rumsfeld, allows all too many considerations to be set aside.
Resolving the human conflict with climate: Framing the human relationship to climate change in conflictual terms justifying "war" is consistent with current strategic responses to any perceived threat to "business as usual". A more systemic understanding might "re-cognize" the appropriateness of insights and processes from conflict resolution. These have already been considered with respect to the conflicting factional and stakeholder views about climate change (International Crisis Group, Climate Change and Conflict, 2008; Mark J. Spalding and Charlotte de Fontaubert, Conflict Resolution for Addressing Climate Change with Ocean-Altering Projects, Environmental Law Institute, 2007).
But a strong case could be made for applying such understanding (whether through metaphor or otherwise) to humanity's conflictual (and conflicted) relations with climate in particular and with the natural environment more generally ("Human Intercourse": "Intercourse with Nature" and "Intercourse with the Other", 2007). This would be especially beneficial in reframing the relationship to enable other possibilities of interaction to emerge -- especially where there is any sensitivity to the need to adapt to changing climate, as with the challenges of reconciliation in any evolving relationship (possibly involving "domestic violence"). The case is perhaps reinforced by the metaphoric recognition, with respect to any form of conflict resolution, of the need to create an appropriate "climate" for it (eg David Strutton, The Influence of Psychological Climate on Conflict Resolution Strategies in Franchise Relationships, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 1993). Curiously, given the challenge of global warming, conflict resolution normally seeks to address conditions of "overheated" relations between social groups -- and might therefore be said to have expertise with respect to "climate change" amongst groups -- whether expressed as "warming" or "freezing".
Compounding misconception: It is readily assumed that the crisis of global warming is quite unrelated to that of the financial system and the associated implications for the economy and its growth -- and despite the vital learnings from the responses they evoke (Systemic Crises as Keys to Systemic Remedies: a metaphorical Rosetta Stone for future strategy?, 2008).
Without mentioning "climate" in any way, Paul Krugman (What to Do, The New York Review of Books, 55, 20, 20 November 2008) argues that, with respect to the financial system, "what the world needs right now is a rescue operation". He focuses on the merits of a well-tried massive programme of public spending to restore confidence in the financial system. It is not difficult to foresee the creativity and leadership with which "massive public spending" will shortly be framed in terms of a massive geo-engineering project -- avoiding underlying issues in both cases under the banner of urgency -- and "killing two birds with one stone". As Krugman puts it:
In the arguments he makes for a classic Keynesian approach he however most helpfully notes:
Unfortunately Krugman only draws a superficial lesson from his Keynesian insights. As a metaphor, the "magneto trouble" is more relevant to the manner in which creative insight is elicited, developed and applied generically to vigilant systems management -- including the ecosystems ignored in his argument. The "blundering" is obvious in the latter respect, for it is indeed a "delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand." However it is Krugman's conclusion that obscures the systemic learning which would enable the "magneto trouble" to be addressed. The environment has indeed been conceptually "redesigned...so that we understand it" -- by oversimplifying it to match the need for "business as usual". Geo-engineering proposals then fit neatly into that framework as a remedy.
Of course, given that the financial system faces a massive crisis of confidence (engendered by conventional conception of a viable economic system), it is unclear why massive confidence should emerge to sustain any geo-engineering proposal (engendered by the conventional conception of viable use of technology that has contributed so significantly to global warming). The generic challenge for leadership -- business, political, military, academic, technical, religious, media and intelligence services -- is the credibility crunch they have engendered (Credibility Crunch engendered by Hope-mongering: "credit crunch" focus as symptom of a dangerous mindset, 2008; Emergence of a Global Misleadership Council: misleading as vital to governance of the future? 2007).
Oversight by GOATS: Given the pressures towards an urgent solution to the misconceived challenge of "global warming", and the pressures for an international agency to rank geo-engineering proposals, it would appear that what is required is a Geo-engineering Oversight Agency for Thermal Stabilization -- suitably acronymed as GOATS -- recognizing that the blindspot of "oversight" is the principal challenge that it faces. This recognizes the merit of concentrating oversight within one agency rather than increasing the risk by depending on oversight within a multiplicity of bodies. Such an agency is appropriately symbolized by a goat, given the propensity (as well-demonstrated by the recent financial crisis) to ram through solutions regardless of other considerations.
Is the Manhattan Project then likely to be considered the most appropriate model for surreptious unlateral decision-making regarding development and implementation of a geo-engineering solution (Jay Michaelson, Geoengineering: a climate change Manhattan Project, 1998)? Will the execution of such a project then be framed heroically, as with the flight of the Enola Gay -- which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 (criticized long after in the Enola Gay song)? Or will the framing take the form of the urgency and heroism of the response to fictionalized NASA destruction of an asteroid on collision with Earth (Armageddon, 1998; Killer Asteroids and Comets in the Movies) or that of Space Cowboys (2000)? If only global warming could be "nuked" as in such scenarios -- perhaps with a combination of cold fusion and nuclear fusion to engender a permanent nuclear winter?
For further information on this topic, follow: GeoEngineering Watch
Glen Barry. The Folly, Egoism and Dangers of Climate Geo-engineering. Earth Meanders, October 2007 [text]
Dennis Bartels. Wartime Mobilization to Counter Severe Global Climate Change. Human Ecology, 2001, 10. pp. 229-232 [text]
Juan Gabriel Brida, et al. Rationality of Investment on White Elephants: the case of public investments in tourist facilities in Mexico. November 2006 [abstract]
John Collis. Tunnel Vision Syndrome In: The Seven Fatal Management Sins: understanding and avoiding managerial malpractice. CRC Press, 1997, pp. 147-158
Christopher Daase and Oliver Kessler. Knowns and Unknowns in the 'War on Terror': uncertainty and the political construction of danger, Security Dialogue, 38, 2007, 4, pp. 411-434 [text]
Economist. Global Warming: a changing climate of opinion? The Economist, 17 November 2008 [text]
John L. Farrands. Don't Panic, Panic: the use and abuse of science to create fear. Melbourne, Text Publishing Company, 1993 [excerpts]
Kristina Gjerde. Hold Back the Geo-engineering Tide. BBC News, 11 December 2007 [text]
Thomas Homer-Dixon. The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Knopf, 2006 [summary]
Thomas Homer-Dixon and David Keith. Blocking the Sky to Save the Earth. The New York Times, 20 September 2008 [text]
International Crisis Group. Climate Change and Conflict. 2008 [text]
International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Is Marine Geo-engineering a Solution to Climate Change? IUCN, 9 October 2008 [text]
Brian Launder and Michael Thompson (Eds.). Geoscale Engineering to Avert Dangerous Climate Change. Royal Society, 2008 [text]
Jay Michaelson. Geoengineering: a climate change Manhattan Project. Stanford Environmental Law Journal, January 1998 [text]
Lewis Page. Raptor and Eurofighter go Head to Head: battle of the supersonic white elephants. Science, 14 July 2008 [text]
Doug Parr. Geo-engineering is No Solution to Climate Change. The Guardian, 1 September 2008 [text]
Konrad Tobler and Christian Helmle. White Elephants. Jovis, 2007
James A. Robinson and Ragnar Torvik:
John Ralston Saul. The Unconscious Civilization. House of Anansi, 1995
Mark J. Spalding and Charlotte de Fontaubert. Conflict Resolution for Addressing Climate Change with Ocean-Altering Projects. ELR News and Analysis (Environmental Law Institute), 37 ELR 10740, 2007 [text]
David Spratt and Philip Sutton. Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action. Scribe Publications, 2008 [summary]
Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable. Random House, 2007 [contents]
this work is licenced under a creative commons licence.