Discussion of Climate Engineering in Social Science Literature: Technofix, Plan B or Ultima Ratio – Judith Kreuter

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This post is the distillation of one section of a more comprehensive review by the author of social science literature on climate engineering technologies.  The more comprehensive review (including sources) is available at here. 

In public discussion, scientific publications, political debate and economic analysis alike, climate engineering is always presented in a certain way which alleviates the importance of some aspects of it and neglects others – climate engineering is framed.1 Frames are considered very relevant for this issue in social science literature. The aim of this paper is to discover which representations of climate engineering (CE)2 are considered most salient, and how they are approached. The author argues that the understanding of climate engineering as (part of) a solution to the political problem of climate change is the dominant frame in the discourse on the issue. On the basis of this frame, other, more specific frames are analyzed in the literature.3

The wide, in some cases global scope of effects of climate engineering technologies as well as their deep implications for human society make CE technologies prone to analysis and evaluation by social sciences as well as humanities. While some monographs and anthologies have been published which attempt to give a comprehensive overview over a number of representations as well as implications of CE (Shepherd et al. 2009; Kintisch 2010; Rickels, Klepper, Dovern et al. 2011; Amelung, Dietz, Fernow et al. 2012; Burns and Strauss 2013; Hamilton 2013a; Keith 2013; Hulme 2014), most social science literature on the topic focuses on very specific issues and questions. The author finds that most researchers agree on the understanding of CE as part of a proposed solution to the political problem of climate change – even though there are widely differing opinions and arguments on whether or not it is a good or viable option. Even among the researchers who find CE a policy option worth thinking about, the great majority analyzes those technologies not as a full-blown solution to climate change in their own right, but rather a necessary evil to supplement (neglected) mitigation and adaptation efforts. In some publications, the policy option frame is the main focus of the study (Barrett 2009, 7; Victor, Morgan, Apt et al. 2009, 75; Schellnhuber 2011, 20277; Heyward and Rayner 2013b; Michaelson 2013, 81; Gawel 2014, 2), but in most, it is more or less implicitly assumed. In those latter studies, based on the idea of CE as a policy option, other, more specific frames and their implications are moved into the focus of analysis: for example with regard to its role for society, its relevance for political conflict or its perception as a social technology.

With reference to social processes, CE technologies are analyzed either in their framing as a safeguard for society against disruptions due to unmitigated climate change (see, for example, Kintisch 2010, 39), or a driver of detrimental social dynamics in its own right. The idea of a safeguard is specified particularly in the representation of CE as an emergency measure which could be developed now, but only applied in the case of a climate emergency. This frame is analyzed by a number of studies (Victor et al. 2009, 64; Burns 2013, 218; Gardiner 2013b, 11; Gardiner 2013a, 28; Güssow, Oschlies, Proelss et al. 2013, 243; Hamilton 2013a, 13+153; Heyward and Rayner 2013a, 28; Asayama 2014, 89). Particularly the dangerous implications of the use of this frame have been the focus of analysis. Among those are the implied notion of necessity (Corner, Parkhill and Pidgeon 2011, 13), the question on how to define an emergency (Hulme 2014, 23), the creation of a self-fulfilling prophesy (Hulme 2008, 5) and the loss of room for public deliberation (Markusson, Ginn, Ghaleigh et al. 2014, 281). A similar framing is that of CE as a plan B, i.e. an option to be pursued if the more preferable option of mitigation and adaptation fails (Davies 2010, 262; Bodansky 2011, 5; Luokkanen, Huttunen and Hildén 2014, 972; Weili and Ying 2014, 1). When CE is analyzed in its representation as a driver of social dynamics, one focus is on the idea that the technologies might be inherently supportive of more or less authoritarian forms of social organization and thus have detrimental effects on democratic decision-making procedures (Buck 2012, 253+256; Wainwright and Mann 2012, 4; Hamilton 2013a, 91; Szerszynski, Kearnes, Macnaghten et al. 2013, 2809). Another focus is on how CE might reduce efforts into mitigation and adaptation, commonly referred to as the ‘moral hazard’ or ‘risk compensation’ problem (see, for example, Bunzl 2009, 2; Shepherd et al. 2009, 37; Corner and Pidgeon 2010, 30; Heyen 2012, 43; Burns 2013, 209; Lin 2013; Michaelson 2013, 100; Corner and Pidgeon 2014, 2; Rayner 2014, 6; Reynolds 2014, 2). Both readings of the problem are contested in the literature, empirically (Bunzl 2009, 2; Shepherd et al. 2009, 39) as well as theoretically (Hale 2012, 115; Wiertz 2012, 52; Michaelson 2013, 101).

With reference to political conflict, studies focus on frames of CE as a driver or source of transboundary conflicts as well as a power tool in political negotiations. Similar to climate change itself, CE is considered to potentially have effects on political conflict and security on the global, regional, national and local scale directly (Brzoska, Link and Neuneck 2012, 191; Maas and Scheffran 2012, 193; Scheffran, Brzoska, Kominek et al. 2012; Cairns 2014) and indirectly (Nightingale and Cairns 2014, 3). Several authors discuss one particular aspect of the security question: the danger of unilateral action made possible by the technological character of CE (in opposition, for example, to high social demands of mitigation) (Victor 2008, 324; Barrett 2009, 15; Shepherd et al. 2009, 40; Rickels et al. 2011, 69; Brzoska et al. 2012, 191). Some authors criticize the notion for lack of empirical evidence (Horton 2013, 168; Weili and Ying 2014, 1). The frame of CE as a tool of power in political negotiations represents CE as a location of struggle of conflicting political interests (Schellnhuber 2011, 20278; Wiertz 2012, 53). In this skein, the strategic implications of CE between states (Moreno-Cruz 2011, 20; Ricke, Moreno-Cruz and Caldeira 2013, 7) as well as between different units of society are analyzed (Egede-Nissen 2010, 1; Fleming 2010, 167; Kintisch 2010, 8; Sikka 2012a, 173; Belter and Seidel 2013, 417; Fleming 2013, 4; Hamilton 2013a, 72; Hamilton 2014, 19; Oldham, Szerszynski, Stilgoe et al. 2014, 17).

With reference to technology studies, the frame of CE as a technology is analyzed. This frame, albeit seemingly straight-forward, is fraught with implications on the way man perceives himself in the world and on how problems should be dealt with. These implications are a focus of scrutiny in the literature, for example in the analysis of ‘technological thinking’ (Hamilton 2013b, 56), ‘technofixes’ for social problems (Corner and Pidgeon 2010, 30; Borgmann 2012, 189; Scott 2012, 151; Scott 2013, 2; Hulme 2014, 1) and the controllability of nature (Kiehl 2006, 227). Negative effects of these notions are considered to be loss of public deliberation and ethical norms (Sikka 2012b, 112; Heyward and Rayner 2013b, 3; Szerszynski 2014, 22), scientific uncertainty regarding the consequences of CE (Banerjee 2011, 23; Amelung 2012, 5; Michaelson 2013, 101), the possibility of catastrophic failure (Baum 2014, 1). A very prominent notion dealing with the frame of CE as a technology is that of the ‘Anthropocene’, which suggests that Earth has entered a new geological epoch which is characterized by humankind’s force to alter Earth’s systems (see Steffen, Grinevald, Crutzen et al. 2011). CE is analyzed as a potential indicator that the Anthropocene has arrived (Galaz 2012, 25; Schäfer, Stelzer, Maas et al. 2014, 239).

This review investigated which representations of CE are considered relevant in the social science literature. The author draws two conclusions. First: The dominant frame is that of climate engineering as (part of) a solution to the political problem of climate change. Differing opinions exist on whether it is a good or a viable option. On the basis of this frame, investigations are launched into more specific issues. Second: Below the level of that dominant frame, a number of frames of climate engineering and their implications are subject to analysis in the literature.

The review has also indicated the relevance that social sciences grant frames in the discourse on geoengineering in general (see, for example, Bowden 2010; Nerlich and Jaspal 2012; Sikka 2012a; Cairns 2013; Markusson 2013; Porter and Hulme 2013; Szerszynski and Galarraga 2013; Anshelm and Hansson 2014a; Anshelm and Hansson 2014b; Bellamy 2014; Corner and Pidgeon 2014; Huttunen and Hildén 2014; Luokkanen et al. 2014; Uther 2014): Many authors stress how the ways in which geoengineering is talked about is important for the ways in which it might be dealt with in the future (see, for example, Fleming 2010, 182; Wainwright and Mann 2012, 5; Hamilton 2013a, 91; Szerszynski et al. 2013, 2809; Hulme 2014, 136; Markusson et al. 2014, 281). The framing of climate change in terms of a climate emergency, for example, could lead to the application of geoengineering technologies without democratic deliberation. The issues of potential loss of democratic mechanisms are touched upon in the social sciences. However, there is no systematic and empirical study to date on how this might come to pass.



Judith Kreuter, M.A., is a research assistant and study program coordinator at the Political Science Institute of the University of Münster, Germany. Her research focuses on discourses on emerging technologies, such as solar radiation management, and their political implications. She is an associated member of the German Research Foundation (DFG) Priority Programme “Climate Engineering: Risks, Challenges and Opportunities” (http://www.spp-climate-engineering.de/news.html).’



Sources for this post can be found here.

  1. Here, to frame is understood as “to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.” (Entmann 1993, 52) Accentuations are taken from the original.
  2. The terms “climate engineering” and “geoengineering” were considered to be interchangeable, and both are here defined as “deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming” (Shepherd, Cox, Haigh et al. 2009, ix). For a critical discussion of a number of definitions used in the literature, see Bellamy, Chilvers, Vaughan et al. (2012).
  3. The paper is based on a qualitative review of social science and humanities literature on CE published between 2006 and 2014. The data was generated by first searching for relevant literature on “climate engineering” or “geoengineering” through the digital library JSTOR, and then widening into a snowball search. The conclusions presented here are drawn inductively and qualitatively; further quantitative analysis would be needed in order to conclusively test them.