The Planet Remade

The Planet Remade, a book by Oliver Morton, explores the possibilities and implications of geoengineering – that is, the intentional modifications of the earth’s climate.

The argument in the the book can be summarized as follows:

  1. Climate change represents a risk. Depending on one’s position on climate change, the risk might be bigger or smaller, but there is a risk nevertheless. We ought thus to address this risk.
  2. Reducing carbon emissons, as a way to mitigate climate change, is way harder than most think. There are two challenges with reducing carbon emission. The first is that the benefit is delayed for a long time – decades. This makes it hard to create a momentum. The second is that that we don’t have good a “lever” where to act. Reducing carbon emissions substantially also requires substantial pervasive investments. For these reasons, the following known approaches are hard to pull off:
    1. Direct Air Capture (DAC)
    2. Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS)
    3. Ocean pH decrease
    4. Reforestation
  3. A high level of CO2 in itself (that is, if we omit the greenhouse effect and its impact on climate) is not a bad thing. Plants and photosynthesis have evolved billions of year ago when the air had much more CO2. High level of CO2 actually benefits vegation significantly. Models show that such a planet might be greener.
  4. Geoengineering technology to negate the greenhouse effect and cool down the planet should be considered on our way to a sustainable planet. Several geoengineering approaches could be envisonned to achieve such a cool down:
    1. Stratospheric veil
    2. Increased cloud brightness
    3. Increased plant reflection
    4. Increased ocean reflection
  5. The stratospheric veil is the only technology that offers a good “lever”. With a small fleet of airplanes, enough material could be injected in the stratosphere to achieve a significant effect. Also, the effect comes relatively quickly.
  6. We do have some understanding of such veil through the observation of volcanoes. It doesn’t mean that we have enough understanding now to use it without risk, but it means, this approach has potential. It requires more research and if possible, experiments. The best substance for the veil is for instance unclear. Volcanoes emit sulphure, which has some drawback.
  7. Veils have some negative effects. It is still a better option than the negative effects of an uncontrolled global warming. Effects of the veil isn’t homogeneous – some region might benefit but some might be hampered by it. A minimal veil with regionally either a positive effect or at worst zero effect, should be doable.
  8. Reducing carbon emissions and geoengineering a veil are not exclusive. Many people dismiss geoengineering out of fear to lose the focus on carbon reduction. But both are complementary and the best angle to look at, is the research geoengineering to create a “breathing gap” for the transition to zero carbon emissions. The veil isn’t a permantent solution, only a temporary one. With this strategy, we also reduce the risk of the “termination shock” – the risk of forced stop of the veil in the future should we not be able sustain it. Morton warns that researching stratospheric veils as Plan B, in case of emergency, will not lead to solutions that work when needed.
  9. A planet-wide transformation of natural cycles raises moral challenges. As a matter of perspective, we must consider that
    1. we have already transformed the planet at a global scale. For instance, the extensive and systematic use of fertilizer is akin to geoengineering of the nitrogen-cycle.
    2. we actually do already have a veil with a cooling effect because of pollution. As policies to reduce polution stengthen, this veil will disappear, possibly “unmasking” more warming due to greenhouse gases. A geoengineered veil could be seen as a replacement for this polution veil.
  10. Geoenginering belong with nuclear to technologies with powers beyond the human scale. Both could wreak havoc on the planet, or be used for better goods. The justified fear of nuclear technology in the context of nuclear wars doesn’t mean we should put geoengineering in the same basket.

The book doesn’t follow strictly this order – this is my summary after reading. Instead the book is organized in three parts – energies, substances and possibilities – and explores several tangents. The first part expains the basics of climate science and sketches the argument. The second part goes deeper in the various approaches to geoengineering. The third part gives perspectives about the fate of the world and how things could play out. This structure did sometimes feel like meandering, but it worked for me.

Where this summary of the book doesn’t do justice to the book at all is about its coverage of history. I read on wikipedia that Morton has a degree in history and philosophy of science. This penchant for history is clearly visible in the book, which reminded me of books like Energy and Civilization or Stuff Matters. The book retraces the history of many scientific discoveries, which I found entertaining and informative. Moreover, it also addresses the political and moral side of climate mitigation and geoengineering, as well as the shifts in perception of technology over generations. The current “mainstream” perception of technology could change again for topics like geoengineering or nuclear energy.

Books of this kind are usually either written by scientists or journalists. The former might lack storytelling, the latter might lack depth. Morton is a journalist, but also himself active in this “geo clique” since many years. Morton has a great command of the topic but also a good storytelling.

The book left me unsatisfied about two points, though. I would have liked that Morton better explain the view of people against geoengineering and provides a better rebuttal of their points to back up his argument. I also wished he had better explained why stricter policies around carbon emissions are so hard to set up. We successfully did this for CFC and are doing it for sulphuric emissions, so why not carbon? If the answer is that carbon emissions originate from a lot more place, why not start first with strong policies specific to certain industries?

Knowing little about climate science, I certainly learned many things about it reading the book.

  • the difference between stratosphere and troposphere
  • the ozone layer (nice complementary to the ozone story in Limits to Growth)
  • the fact that the stratosphere isn’t homogenous
  • the role of oceans to reflect sunlight but also evaporates water
  • the albedo-effect
  • the Trenberth diagram of energy flows
  • the role of temperature difference as the source for weather
  • the effects of carbon, nitrogen, sulphate, methane, NOx in the air
  • the effect of light diffusion on photosynthesis
  • the geological times
  • the explanation for ice ages
  • levels of CO2 over time
  • the climate is defined by more than a temperature: wetness, dryness, temperature cycles define the climate too

Coming from computer science, “the cloud” means for me internet. Now, the term has for me regained its original meaning with great interest.