Vexed Natures: Geoengineering in the UK Media

By Martin Mahony

The idea of human control over the weather is certainly not new; neither are many of the accompanying anxieties. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Geoengineering – or “deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming” (as defined by the Royal Society) – is a topic which always divides opinion in debates about how to tackle climate change. As levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continue to rise at break-neck speed, many insist that efforts to de-carbonise our economies will not be sufficient to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. The only solution, the argument goes, is to counteract humankind’s alteration of the atmosphere’s chemistry with similarly large-scale – but planned – interventions in the operation of the earth system.

The technologies conventionally captured under the label “geoengineering” can perhaps be more usefully thought of in terms of solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR). SRM technologies range from the mundane to the fanciful: from painting roofs white to reflect more sunlight, to the deployment of giant mirrors between the earth and the sun to intercept solar energy before it even reaches earth’s atmosphere. Other suggestions include the artificial fertilisation of the ocean to encourage it to absorb more carbon dioxide, and the injection of reflective sulphate aerosols into the high atmosphere. The CDR category contains slightly less vaulting technological ambition; technologies here would seek to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (with things like synthetic trees and carbon ‘scrubbers’ in power stations) and squirrel it away in underground stores.

For advocates of geoengineering research and deployment, it is essential that we prepare the way for technologies which could deliver us from a full-blown climatic catastrophe. For opponents, geoengineering is another example of the kind of hubris which got us into the environmental crisis in the first place, and the technologies will simply lead us into a vicious circle of unintended consequences and even more risky and uncertain remedial actions. The geoengineering debate thus takes us to the core of deeply ideological debates about the relationship between humans and nature, about technological progress, and about the democratic governance of risk and the environment.

New research from the Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Group at the University of East Anglia has shone some light on how these diverse normative, ideological and technological assumptions have played out in media coverage of geoengineering debates. In a paper in The Geographical Journal, Kate Porter and Mike Hulme explore the dominant framings of UK newspaper coverage of the issue. Questions of innovation, risk, governance, economics, morality, security and justice are all identified as framings which direct – implicitly and explicitly – the ways stories about geoengineering are assembled and presented to the reading public. Risk framings, for example, tend to emphasise the trade-offs between the avoidance of serious climate change and the uncertain outcomes of large scale geoengineering interventions. Morality framings, by contrast, tend to translate these calculations into a Biblical language of guilt, blame, judgement and punishment.

What will perhaps be of most interest to geographers is Porter & Hulme’s account of the different conceptions of ‘nature’ which can be traced through these diverse framings. Nature emerges, variously, as a powerful self-regulating system in need of palliative care; as something much bigger than and outside of human agency against which dreams of total knowledge and control are futile; and as something more ephemeral which is inherently threatened by geoengineering. This latter conception stands close to Francis Bacon’s notion of natura vexata – a nature once free and unconstrained, which is now oppressed and frustrated by human action. These different understandings of the relationship between the human and the nonhuman have deep roots. Any attempt at a deliberate, global modification of the planet’s energy flows will have to negotiate these competing visions. How to do this in a way which is robustly and justly democratic is a question which we are yet to come to terms with.

Any discussion of geoengineering is freighted with normative assumptions and political preferences (you’ll probably have noticed some of mine). Porter & Hulme’s work offers a preliminary guide to the rhetorical resources and ideological frames which populate the geoengineering debate, and raises further interesting questions. How do these debates play out differently in different places and cultures? Who is trusted as a source of information on geoengineering? How do different conceptions of ‘nature’, ‘risk’ and even ‘democracy’ shape the debate? These are important discussions which geographers are well-placed to contribute to.

books_icon Kate Elizabeth Porter and Mike Hulme, 2013, The Emergence of the Geoengineering Debate in the UK Print Media: A Frame Analysis, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12003

globe42 Rogue geoengineering could ‘hijack’ world’s climateThe Guardian

globe42 Carbon dioxide levels show biggest spike in 15 yearsTimes of India

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