A Response to “The Uninhabitable Earth”


Tuesday, Jul. 11, 2017

David Wallace-Wells’ new article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” suggests that it’s game over for the planet. He tells us that climate change will render large swaths of the planet uninhabitable, and that life for all will, far faster than we typically allow ourselves to imagine, become brutish and precarious. The article has generated debate on whether its depictions of economic collapse, devastating conflict, and mass suffering in a warmer world are alarmist. There need be no debate on that point – this is an alarmist piece of writing. Wallace-Wells paints a near-future hellscape, born of human ignorance and hubris.

To call the article alarmist, though, is not to say that Wallace-Wells is wrong. His projections from available understandings of climate change are, some important factual inaccuracies notwithstanding, entirely within the bounds of the possible. It is important to have our collective minds and energies resharpened and refocused by these kinds of analyses. When it comes to climate change, Wallace-Wells reminds us that the stakes are unbearably, almost incomparably, high.

But there are also some dangers in the picture that the article paints. While climate scientists debate the accuracy of Wallace-Wells’ description of potential climate futures, there has been little discussion of the article’s unique framing of potential climate responses. Introduced briefly after a long and vivid discussion of the worst-possible impacts of climate change, climate engineering or geoengineering is positioned as a “moon-shot” technological fix to these existential threats. Wallace-Wells devotes little attention to the risks and feasibility of these imagined technologies, yet, framed by his apocalyptic description of climate catastrophe, climate engineering appears both futuristic and inevitable.

In reality, climate engineering is neither futuristic nor inevitable. Significant research on climate engineering, including, for some technologies, outdoor experimentation, is already occurring, and climate engineering pathways are already being considered seriously by scientists and policymakers. But deployment of these technologies is by no means certain, in part because the technical hurdles associated with their relatively safe and effective use may be insurmountable, and in part because the risks attached to their development and deployment may render them socially and politically unpalatable.

At the extreme, climate change threatens the ability of the planet to support life. Such suffering is difficult to contemplate, and articles like this focus our attention on the stakes. By only giving the most catastrophist of possible outcomes, though, and by largely glossing over the complex politics and social arrangements that underpin the problem and are at the heart of effective response, we get a skewed sense of what climate change really is. Wallace-Wells summarizes the majority opinion of climate scientists by claiming “we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it.” This framing is remarkably similar to that of Rex Tillerson, who characterized climate change as “an engineering problem” with “engineering solutions.” This narrative of climate change as a technological problem that is only really amenable to technological response is the kind of thinking that pushes us on the path to climate-engineering-as-standalone-solution. Something must be done, so we reach for the magical technological-fix.

Climate engineering technologies may well prove to be an important and effective component of an overall climate change response strategy. But climate engineering is not a Plan A, nor a Plan B. Intentionally intervening in the earth’s climate at large-scale carries its own burdens of physical, political, and existential risk. Tackling climate change ultimately means developing forms of social organization that are compatible in the long-term with ecological realities. Sucking carbon from the atmosphere or reflecting sunlight back into space does nothing useful if it’s not accompanied by work to transform the social arrangements that put the carbon there in the first place. The climate catastrophe described by Wallace-Wells is not inevitable, nor is climate engineering; both are outcomes derived from political and social choice and contestation.

Simon Nicholson is the Co-Executive Director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment

Engineering Our Way Out?

David Wallace-Wells’ dire picture of climate change rattled a lot of people as it ricocheted around social media yesterday. Like an environmentalist version of the Ludovico Technique from A Clockwork Orange, Wallace-Wells’ piece forces us to the catastrophic climatic changes that we could see by the end of this century. There’s value in this; the specter of extreme climate change should weigh heavily on our minds as we formulate climate policy. What easily slips from the reader’s mind over the course of the article, though, is that the apocalyptic future that Wallace-Wells envisions is not preordained. We can prevent it. The question is: How?

We have “found a way to engineer our own doomsday,” writes Wallace-Wells, “and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another.” I agree. Engineering will play a crucial role in responding to climate change.

As someone who studies geoengineering, though, I can’t help but wonder whether Wallace-Wells means that we will geoengineer our way out of the problem. If so, then I disagree. Both kinds of geoengineering—the carbon-removal kind and the sunlight-reflecting kind—might someday prove helpful in fighting climate change as a supplement to mitigation and adaptation. My own view is that society should continue researching them for precisely that reason. Geoengineering is not a silver bullet: even carbon removal and solar geoengineering together cannot solve the climate problem on their own. Carbon removal is too slow and too expensive to do much good without aggressive emission reductions. Solar geoengineering becomes excessively risky in the face of rising carbon dioxide concentrations, especially without an exit strategy. So if, as Wallace-Wells says, “the alternative [to stopping climate change] is simply unimaginable,” then there is simply no alternative to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Even then, we will still need to adapt to the changes we have already wrought.

That is where most of the engineering comes in: mitigation and adaptation. When it comes to climate action, the most important feats of engineering will not come from geoengineers. They will come from engineers who develop better ways to generate, store, and transmit clean energy; from engineers who figure out how to do more with less, energy-wise; and from engineers who find innovative ways to cope with the climatic changes that we cannot prevent. With or without the help of geoengineering, these are the people who will “engineer our way out of” the catastrophes that Wallace-Wells describes.

David Morrow is a Faculty Fellow with the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment