Simon Nicholson – Bill McKibben’s analysis of Obama’s climate action is right. Will decision makers turn to geoengineering?


Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013

Bill McKibben has an important new article in Rolling Stone that looks at the Obama administration’s record on climate change. McKibben’s analysis is damning. He points to some fine speeches made by Obama and his team, but then vacillating and obstruction when it comes to actions that would really make a difference.  “Even on questions you’d think would be open-and-shut, the administration has waffled,” he writes.

McKibben takes some solace from the grassroots movement that has grown up during the Obama years in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. The broader climate change movement in the United States and elsewhere has been invigorated by the actions that McKibben cites — actions that McKibben himself, and the group he co-founded, have spearheaded. Yet as McKibben’s article makes clear, the movement has been forced to work around the Obama administration, rather than to prompt the kinds of transformative government-led actions on climate change that Obama’s election was thought by many to herald.

The US government will need at some point to take strong action on climate change. Ignoring or denying the challenge does nothing to impact the basic chemistry and physics of the earth’s climate system. At the moment, the government is taking rearguard actions — cleaning up after hurricanes, floods, and wildfires.

When the government finally decides to throw its weight behind proactive responses, my money is on geoengineering being high in the mix of preferred options. Why? Because geoengineering can readily be sold as a sacrifice-free form of response. With sulphate shields in the sky and iron filings in the oceans, our lives, we may be told, can continue as they have since the advent of the fossil fuel age. Politicians will likely promise that we can have our high-carbon cake and eat it, too.

There is no such thing as a sacrifice-free form of response to climate change.

The physical and social scientists studying geoengineering know better. There is no such thing as a sacrifice-free form of response to climate change. Certain geoengineering technologies may well have an important role to play in a reasoned and thoughtful climate strategy, but there are serious risks and downsides attached to geoengineering options that demand consideration. This is why civil society and the broader public must engage with the geoengineering conversation, to ensure that all relevant benefits and costs of geoengineering development and deployment are considered.

You can find a video statement on geoengineering that Bill McKibben sent to us here. We have also just uploaded a video statement recorded for us by geoengineering critic Clive Hamilton (the WGC will be hosting Hamilton for a debate with Dr. Michael MacCracken in January, 2014, in Washington, D.C.).  Statements from other noted researchers and commentators, across the full range of views, will appear in the on our youtube site over the coming weeks and months.