Atmosphere of Hope reviewed- Holly J. Buck


Saturday, Dec. 05, 2015

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Is staying below a 2C rise in temperature is a realistic or fantastic target?  There’s been talk about this lately, in Nature and on this forum.  Beneath this question lies another question: Is there hope?

Politically, there are opposing ways of viewing hope.  Hope is a radical act of imagination and vision, asserting a way forward through a stagnant quagmire.  Alternatively, hope is a damaging delusion invoked by those status quo vested interests — according to this school of thought, it is the loss of hope and the gravitas of the new territory that provide impetus for action.

In his new book, Atmosphere of Hope, paleontologist and acclaimed science writer Tim Flannery is explicit about offering hope which leans towards the first view, but is grounded in realism: “If we are to have real hope, we must first accept reality.  We must cut through the dense and complex debates about climate that leave many feeling lost and paralysed.”  The aim of this book seems to lie in warding off a kind of climate depression — the “feelings of hopelessness” cited in the DSM-5’s definition of chronic depression, along with their stay-in-bed numbness and inability to make decisions.  This hopelessness is a foggy, closeby danger, less colorful than climate catastrophe, but possibly just as deadly in the long-term.

This project of steering away from hopelessness is one I’m sympathetic towards, and Flannery has a degree of success at it at times, especially in his coverage of renewables.  Climate scientist Michael Mann, writing in the LA Review of Books, states that “What Flannery provides — a convincing defense for the position that a path to averting catastrophic climate change still exists — is invaluable.”  The book, in many ways an update to his 2005 version of The Weather Makers, is divided into three sections: the first is an update of recent science on climate change impacts, and the second reviews progress in clean energy.  These sections are the straightforward surveys you would expect from a seasoned science writer.  It is the third section of the book, covering adaptation, geoengineering, and other technologies, which has some notable flaws.

“Third Way” technologies: Geoengineering redefined (again)?

Flannery’s move in this book is to redefine how geoengineering is conceptually organized.  By his definition here, geoengineering is “using a poison to fight a poison”, which he dismisses as not useful nor likely to be publicly accepted.  Hence, he focuses on what he calls the “third way”: “a new concept, encompassing proposals and experiments that shed light on how Earth’s natural system for maintaining the carbon balance might be stimulated to draw CO2 out of the air and sea at a faster rate than occurs presently, and how we might store the recovered CO2 safely.”  These approaches are “qualitatively different” than geoengineering: “Instead they look to restore or learn from processes that are as old as life itself.”  Specific third way approaches discussed include biochar, terrestrial and marine carbon storage, silicate rock weathering, direct air capture, carbon negative cement, and carbon-negative plastics; there is also a chapter on “The New Carbon Capture and Storage.”

Those familiar with geoengineering might say that these approaches already have a collective name or two— CDR, carbon dioxide removal, or NETs, negative emissions technologies.  Still, the move here to divorce these approaches from “geoengineering” could be useful in garnering investment and public R&D funding in these approaches to draw down gigatonnes of carbon.  Flannery is also careful to point out that third-way technologies and measures that reduce fossil-fuel use have been previously been conflated in international negotiations, with disastrous results — third-way approaches “should not be regarded as equivalent to cuts in emissions from fossil fuels”, but a “potentially valuable complementary series of options.”

This isn’t the first effort to linguistically break down the Royal Society’s two-family definition of “geoengineering”— previous attempts included “climate remediation”, or the National Academies two-volume report on “climate intervention.”  “Third way” is rather vague, and might not be lexically catchy enough to become a thing, but it probably lends itself to public discourse better than acronyms like CDR or NETs do.


Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis by Tim Flannery. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015.

While attempts to break down binary constructions and articulate “third ways” are generally laudable, this one has a few problems.  Firstly, as Mann also points out, they require a price on carbon to work, whether through carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, or other arrangements.  This will require the same amount of political willpower as mitigation does, and the same degree of creating new policies and institutions.

Secondly, assuming these approaches would be implemented through normal market means is problematic, because these would be time-limited industries.  If the eventual goal is to quit fossil fuels completely, carbon capture infrastructure will only be in operation for limited time periods.  Oil and gas pipelines are a typical analogy for the scale and nature of infrastructure required, but have significant differences: the science of fossil fuel reserves was limited when much of the industry was created, and under business-as-usual the price of oil can be expected to rise as reserves go down, thus stretching out the time in which the investment is worthwhile. The difficulty of mitigating emissions can be seen through one lens as the difficulty of getting vested interests to give up on their infrastructure, investments, and stock prices.  Standing down whole industries is incompatible with the fundamental growth-oriented logic of capitalism, and so setting up these industries is better suited to state intervention (for which the climate is not good, after several decades of neoliberal government-trimming).  As a report from the Global CCS institute points out, financing this new infrastructure will be difficult to accomplish using debt because of uncertainty as to CO2 revenues — the report suggests that the World Bank and international lending institutions could finance CCS projects, and “the role of national governments can be as guarantors, equity partners or financial supporters.”  At any rate, the how of setting up vast infrastructures and industries, including who pays and what the opportunity costs are, deserves far more discussion.

Thirdly, the focus on technologies (or measures, or proposals, or experiments) is problematic, though not for the techno-optimist reasons usually cited (I believe a great deal of technological development is necessary). The questions here swirl around: What do we ground our hope in?  Where is hope sourced from?  Flannery’s introduction promises “news of exciting tools in the making” — yet a shortage of tools isn’t really the problem.  An audience member at a recent climate engineering talk asked a question about “these devices.”  As Olaf Corry has astutely observed, there is a contraption fallacy” when it comes to climate engineering.  The “basket of technologies” way of talking about geoengineering puts the focus on “technologies” as “devices” or things, objects, rather than where the focus should be: upon activities or practices.

This is important, because once you start viewing an activity, you have to put the people doing the activity in the picture.  Then you’re talking about who is managing their livestock differently (and how they are educated / convinced to do this); about what kind of new jobs seaweed farming would produce (dismal hard labor or well-compensated data-driven farming?); about who is dealing with processing all these silicate rocks and how, etc.  This focus on practices — actions repeated by human beings — helps illuminate which activities are most likely to benefit communities, not to mention which are more likely to produce results relevant to carbon management goals.

Once you start viewing an activity, you have to put the people doing the activity in the picture.

Atmosphere of Hope does a decent job of talking about geoengineering in a broader climate policy context, but at times seems poorly researched.  Rather than gather primary data, Flannery draws from Gaia Vince’s worldwide trek, uses documents about the SPICE project which fail to discuss the cancellation of its testbed, and relies on N’Yeurt’s 2012 paper about macroalgae without discussing the broader context of the Ocean Foresters work or the history and present state of macroalgae research.  Two errors in the references jumped out at me while only giving a casual read-through.  Interviews with the original researchers, in-text pointers to them to honor their work rather than footnotes, or even having employed a research assistant keep up with the latest news in this field would make the whole text a more convincing read.  Instead, it seems sloppily compiled, though as it was written with an eye towards the Paris talks one can assume some haste in completing the manuscript.  The result is a third section that reads as if new ideas were being grasped at with some mania, rather than seriously considered, which diminishes the idea that we can source hope in any of these technologies.

Grounds for hope?

Is there hope? is probably not even the right question.  Climate change and hope is a tricky intersection, since the idea of hope is often bound up with waiting.  I was reminded of this the other night, on a street corner in Baltimore, when a man stopped me.  “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”  A migrant from Africa, he began telling me of his triumph in his deportation case and his experience sleeping outside on Charles Plaza — using words like “prodigious” naturally in his sentences, a tale far more eloquent than I could ever produce.  “What’s the question part?” I interrupted. “The question is,” he raised his hand and looked theatrically into the night sky, “on days as dark as today, how can one continue to have hope?”

“I guess you just have to wait for the sun.  It always comes back around,” I offered, thinking of Ecclesiastes and all that The sun also rises stuff.  It was pretty lame.  “Sorry, I know that’s not quite satisfactory.”

“The answer, or the situation?”

“Well, both,” I said, thinking — telling someone sleeping on the streets of Baltimore to just wait it out is not sufficient.  With climate change, waiting it out is absolutely insufficient.

And yet this idea of hope as waiting is encoded in Spanish (esperar  – to wait, to hope)Bruno Latour writes about how French differentiates the theological virtue of hope, espérance from the more everyday espoir, adding that Clive Hamilton suggests we jettison espoir: “as long as we rely on hope, we still expect to escape from the consequences of our action.  It is only once we have radically changed our relation to time – what is called living in apocalyptic times – that we might be spurred into action without delay.”  I’m not quite convinced of this, but it remains that there’s no hope in waiting, in delay.  Strike out hope in technologies as tools or objects, as pointed to above.  Jeff Tollefson in Nature points to the 2C scenarios in the fifth IPCC report as a source of hope for policymakers, yet their unreasonable reliance upon negative emissions technologies like BECCS — a systemic bias, as Chris Mooney in the Washington Post reports — suggest there’s limited or distorted hope in models.

Where, then, does one look? Flannery states that “digital connectiveness has brought new opportunities: for divestment, effective dissent, encouraging uptake of new technologies, and for legal action”; yet digital connectivity can also contribute to constantly-refreshed despair.  Glimpsing a stream of anecdotes evidencing human depravity every time one looks at one’s phone isn’t fertile ground for hope.  The gaps left in our tools, models, and networks leaves us with little choice but to put an unreasonable faith in the goodness of our fellows — the idea that no one really wants this climate catastrophe, that expecting the right thing of humans helps them to do it.

Buck-post featured imageHolly Jean Buck is Faculty Fellow at FCEA, and a PhD candidate in Development Sociology at Cornell University, where she is also a Research Fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.  Her research interests include agro-ecology and climate-smart agriculture, energy landscapes, land use change, new media, and science and technology studies. With regards to climate engineering, she has written on humanitarian and development approaches to geoengineering, gender considerations, and media representations of geoengineering. As a geographer and creative writer, she approaches social science analysis with both spatial and narrative lenses: meaning that space and environmental geography matters, but so do storylines, imagery, and performance.  She holds a MSc in Human Ecology from Lund University in Sweden.

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