It’s no coincidence that industrial civilisation has flourished during a time when the climate has been in a relatively benign and temperate state. Compared to the natural climate calamities of the past, whether glaciation or a volcanic winter, this favourable setting has allowed rapid population growth through intensive agriculture, along with growing global prosperity through a mix of hydrocarbon energy consumption and innovation-driven economic growth. Such is human progress.
However, recent concern associated with human-driven climate change has brought into sharp focus the fact that the climate is not static. It’s clear that the Earth is a dynamic and not an equilibrium system, and that the popular view of nature as being perpetually in equilibrium is only due to the narrow slice of human history through which we view the past. Addressing both human-driven, and indeed long-term natural climate change, will therefore be an essential requirement for the sustainability of the human enterprise into the deep future. Concerns over human-driven climate change merely bring these issues to a head.
While the focus of mainstream thinking is on sharpening policy instruments to deliver a steady decline in global carbon emissions, some are considering a rather more ambitious set of tools. These include geoengineering, defined as active human intervention in the climate system to offset the radiative forcing due to growing carbon emissions. As would be expected, geoengineering has been met with howls of outrage from mainstream greens. But if we insist on setting the global thermostat at the twentieth-century average forever, it implies some rather serious engineering. In fact, over the very long term, by calling for firm action to ‘stop climate change’ even the most technophobic deep greens are implicitly backing planetary engineering on both the largest of length-scales and longest of time-scales.
Although it’s an idea now prominent in the media, the idea of geoengineering is nothing new. For example, during the American War of Independence, Benjamin Franklin reportedly proposed changing the course of the Gulf Stream to inflict a new ice age on Britain. Later, with the turn-of-the-century optimism, noted US engineer Carroll Riker published rather detailed plans in 1912 for a 200-mile jetty at Newfoundland. Riker again proposed to manipulate the Gulf Stream, but this time to improve the climate of Arctic Europe. And of course, the inventive Dutch have been busy macro-engineering their environment for centuries, to the extent that some 26 per cent of the land mass of the modern Netherlands lies below sea level.
One of the first serious thinkers on geoengineering was Mikhail Budyko, a remarkable Soviet-era founder of modern climate science. The idea of geoengineering was appealing in the Soviet Union. The Marxist philosophy of man over nature provided the political context for this radical, large-scale thinking. Indeed, the prospect of deliberately engineering a warmer world was greeted enthusiastically by some in the Soviet Union with thoughts of greening Siberia.