A review of Earthmasters by Clive Hamilton

Of particular concern is that, regardless of any potential damaging impacts, geoengineering solutions – the “quick-fix” appears to be politically easier to handle than emissions cutting and other much safer mitigations. In addition, our efforts to find an “easy” solution have caused us to lose precious and limited time that could have been spent reducing emissions.


Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Playing God with the Climate
By Clive Hamilton
Allen & Unwin
AUD $24.99, Paperback, 264pgs, ISBN: 9781743312933, March 2013

Despite all the best efforts of those that have taken a political stance as “climate deniers,” it has been generally recognized by scientific communities around the world that the climate system is warming due to greenhouse gases produced through human activities. We are rapidly entering the Anthropocene era: a new geological epoch that takes its cue from the activities of humans. This has created a major, species-threatening problem that requires the kind of urgent governmental response that doesn’t appear to be happening on anything like the scale necessary. Into what looks to be a hopeless collective failure to act, comes a series of proposed solutions presented under the banner of climate or geoengineering. At first glance, geoengineering solutions seem to be an easy way out of the environmental crisis, and the range of possible solutions have been attracting significant funding from oil companies like ExxonMobile, billionaires like Richard Branson and Bill Gates, and governmental research organisations like Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. However, our understanding of the total impact of these technologies is embryonic, and there is no way to safely test most of them without full scale deployment.

Clive Hamilton is a member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government, as well as Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, and the Vice-Chancellor’s Chair in Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, and he’s well placed to explore both the potential technological and ethical issues inherent in the geoengineering technologies presented in Earthmasters. Hamilton provides a clearly presented picture of the context into which geoengineering has arrived, the technology itself, and the ethical issues that our rapid move towards acceptance has created. Earthmasters covers the processes involved in the two most well-known and “viable” geoengineering techniques: those that aim at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and depositing it elsewhere, and solar radiation management, a technique designed to cool the planet by reflecting radiation into space. Although many of the processes that fall under these headings are complex, both in terms of the processes involved and in terms of the potential impacts and how we can trace them, Hamilton’s descriptions are clear and easy to follow for the non-scientist. For the carbon removal methods, Hamilton describes ocean iron fertilisation and liming as well as land based storage in trees, crops, agricultural wastes, soil, and algae. My one minor gripe about the book is that there is very little information on mineral carbonation, a relatively safe and promising process that is dismissed later in the book, grouped with other carbon capture and storage processes as having presented a “false promise”. “Soft” geoengineering options are not necessarily either/or solutions like ocean fertilisation or solar management techniques, but they are important tools that might be able to be used along with abatement techniques and even though they don’t quite fit the thesis of Earthmasters, it would have been useful, I think, to see these options presented in less stark terms.

The chapter on solar management techniques includes such methods as cloud brightening: a method of making stratocumulus clouds more reflective through the use of various substances ranging from silver iodide to sea water, and simulating the impact of volcanic eruptions through the spraying of sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere to cool the earth – a process also known as the solar filter. The point that Hamilton makes is that none of these methods are really testable in anything other than a very small scale or simulated way: there’s no way to see what implications of these techniques would be without actually doing it. Another point, and this is perhaps the most worrying of all, is that this kind of weather control could be used for political purposes.

The key players in climate engineering all seem to have links to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the funding is often being provided by large companies in an effort to justify continued growth or line the pockets of patent holders who stand to gain considerably from both implementation and from taking the pressure off the more appropriate solution, which is cutting carbon emissions and changing our reliance on fossil fuels. The technological ownership of many geoengineering solutions is a frightening one, rife with vested interests and their efforts to control, and perhaps tame, nature in order to serve their needs. Hamilton creates the mythological tag of Promethian to characterise this approach to subjugate the environment to human (and political) ends. He contrasts the Promethian character to the Soterian one, that is, a character type that, in the name of safety and preservation, aims to work with nature as we know it. Though at times this distinction seems strained – a fact that Hamilton himself admits, it’s a useful way of framing the issue and the inherent ethical dilemmas:

the complexity of the Earth system is almost inconceivably deep. Even with leaps in understanding over the next decades, a cascade of unanticipated consequences from intervention seems inevitable. And we return to the disconcerting fact that, despite the enormous advances in climate science over the last two to three decades, each advance opens up new areas of uncertainty. While advances in climate science ought to be teaching us to be more humble, advocates of schemes aimed at regulating sunlight or interfering in Earth-system processes seem to draw the opposite conclusion. (116)

The ethical dilemma of geoengineering forms the basis for the later chapters, and as one would expect, Hamilton does a superb job of drawing out the more subtle implications of environmental implications. Of particular concern is that, regardless of any potential damaging impacts, geoengineering solutions – the “quick-fix” appears to be politically easier to handle than emissions cutting and other much safer mitigations. In addition, our efforts to find an “easy” solution have caused us to lose precious and limited time that could have been spent reducing emissions. We risk subsuming the ability to work with the environment and curb our outrageous hunger and desire for growth to “a lobby that unites fossil fuel corporations opposed to carbon reduction policies with investors in geoengineering technologies”. Earthmasters concludes by suggesting that geoengineering may well be inevitable. Though this is, as presented by Hamilton, a frightening prospect, he advocates that at the very least, we go forward with our eyes wide open. Earthmasters goes a fair way towards that. Though there is certainly no ease from climate fear or sugar coating of the dangers that the future holds, what Hamilton has written is an important book that brings the general public into a hitherto ‘science and corporations only’ debate. The sooner the general public can see beyond the lobbying of politically charged interest groups, the more balanced those debates will be, and the more likely we are to find a solution that won’t leave us in more trouble than we are already in.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.

Article first published as Book Review: Earth Masters: Playing God with the Climate by Clive Hamilton on Blogcritics.