Follow the Greenbacks?
In recent posts, I’ve gone on at length about geoengineering, largely because there’s a fair chance it will be deployed, in some form or other, in the not-too-distant future. Some of the world’s top climate scientists, including Ken Caldeira of Stanford and David Keith of Harvard, are promoting geoengineering as a “Plan B” for coping with global warming. Sadly, Plan A—slashing global greenhouse-gas emissions—currently shows little sign of succeeding.
Despite scientists’ efforts to secure government support for geoengineering research, funding is sparse, so the researchers have turned to billionaires, such as N. Murray Edwards, Canadian tar-sands magnate; Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of companies (Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Galactic, etc.); Niklas Zennström, co-founder of Skype; and Bill Gates, who needs no introduction.
Some observers, who question the tycoons’ motives, ask: Are these billionaires intent on protecting the ecosphere because they’re altruistic or merely getting in on the ground floor of what could become a leviathan industry because they smell money? And what about their scientist-partners? Are they mercenaries? Are they being co-opted by the billionaires, or are they truly on the up-and-up? As Jane Long, former Associate Director-at-Large of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said in an interview: “We will need to protect ourselves from vested interests [to] be sure that choices are not influenced by parties who might make significant amounts of money through a choice to modify climate, especially using proprietary intellectual property.” Expressing a related concern, Diana Bronson, of the environmental watchdog ETC, told a reporter, “the same small group working on high-risk technologies that will geoengineer the planet is also trying to engineer the discussion around international rules and regulations.”
While I’m skeptical about the moguls’ motives, as far as I can tell, most of the scientists who promote geoengineering would welcome broader public input and would, in fact, prefer we adopt Plan A and bypass the rationale for jury-rigging the climate altogether. “I have been calling for making CO2 emissions illegal for many years, but no one is listening to me,” Ken Caldeira explained to a reporter. Jane Long made a similar point. In an interview for Yale Environment 360, she said: “Everyone I know who works on this is scared to death of this stuff. People aren’t doing this because they think, ‘Oh whoopee! We can change the Earth!’ They’re doing it because they just don’t see any progress [on reducing CO2 emissions] and it just seems to be getting worse and they want options on the table.”
If, until recently, the group of geoengineering advisors has been small enough to fit inside a minivan, the reason might have as much to do with environmentalists’ disdain for geoengineering as with any attempt by the scientists to exclude them. I hardly need to tell you that I’m guilty of this dismissive attitude toward geoengineering myself. I mean no disrespect for the scientists; it’s just that most of their proposals seem to be fraught with unintended consequences and a distraction from attending to the cause of the problem: greenhouse-gas emissions.
And there’s a political consequence: The possibility that scientists and engineers will come up with market-based, technological solutions to global warming gives global-warming deniers another excuse for blocking government action. If record-breaking heat waves or hurricanes as far north as New England and as late as Halloween ever make the refuse-to-acceptniks question the wisdom of continuing to deny the truth of global climate change, they can think: “No problem . . . Plan B. No need to reduce our emissions, the private-sector Superman will come to the rescue!” and then continue with business as usual. Meanwhile, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue to rise.
If All Else Fails: Plan C
Fearing that politicians will fail to summon the political will to implement Plan A and thinking that Plan B is too risky to be implemented, a team of philosophers have come up with their very own Plan C. What is it? Well, Plan C is “a new kind of solution to climate change that … involves biomedical modifications of humans so that they can mitigate and/or adapt to climate change.” The philosophers call their proposed solution human engineering. It would entail using genetic engineering and hormone therapy to create humans that do the right thing for the ecosphere because they’ve been bioengineered with the environment in mind.
Here’s one example: Because cattle release a lot of methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas, the philosophers propose “stimulating the [human] immune system against common bovine proteins . . . [in order to] induce unpleasant [digestive] experiences,” as a way to reduce meat consumption. Less beef on the table would mean fewer cattle raised, which would mean less methane emitted.
What other alterations do the philoso-anthropo-neers envision? Well, they imagine genetically engineering human eyes to have catlike pupils for better night vision. (♫ Jeepers, creepers! Where’d ya get those peepers?) Are you wondering what that would do to reverse global warming? Well, it would improve our night vision and thus reduce our need for electric lights, of course!
And while we’re at it, they say, let’s make human beings smaller. “Human ecological footprints are partly correlated with our size.” Bigger people eat more, their clothes require more fabric, and they use more soap when they bathe. Furthermore, large people use more energy and materials “in less obvious ways. For example, a car uses more fuel per mile to carry a heavier person than a lighter person; . . . heavier people wear out shoes, carpets, and furniture more quickly than lighter people, and so on.” So why not use hormone treatments, genetic engineering, or “preimplantation genetic diagnosis” to reduce average human height? And given that more people use more resources, why not lower birthrates through the use of “cognition enhancements,” on the theory that smarter women have fewer children? And maybe we should think about using hormone therapy to enhance altruism and empathy and thereby create individuals who are more likely to “cooperate for the common good.”
Do these ideas seem, perhaps, a bit outré? Un peu out-there, peut-être? Are the philosophers pulling our legs? Apparently not. They stress that they aren’t arguing that we should start engineering humans. Their “central aim,” they say, “is to show that human engineering deserves consideration alongside other solutions in the debate about how to solve the problem of climate change.” Meaning no disrespect, I doubt their central aim will be achieved. But the fact that they are promoting it just goes to show how desperate some people are to come up with ways to cope with an out-of-control problem that is getting worse by the second.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” a well-worn aphorism instructs. But are times really so desperate that we need to geoengineer the planet and human-engineer ourselves? Doesn’t it make more sense to reduce our consumption of stuff and consequently cut our greenhouse-gas emissions?
It’s time for us to grow up and recognize that Superman isn’t going to swoop down from the sky and save us. We all have to pitch in. Step One is to stop reaching for material goods and start nurturing living things.
 O’Donnell, Erin. “Buffering the Sun: David Keith and the Question of Climate Engineering.” Harvard Magazine. July-August 2013. http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/07/buffering-the-sun
 Vidal, John. “Bill Gates Backs Climate Scientists Lobbying for Large-Scale Geoengineering.” Guardian. February 5, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/06/bill-gates-climate-scientists-geoengineering
 Long, Jane, quoted in Vidal, John. “Bill Gates Backs Climate Scientists Lobbying for Large-Scale Geoengineering.”
 Vidal, John. “Bill Gates Backs Climate Scientists Lobbying for Large-Scale Geoengineering.”
 Liao, S. Matthew, Anders Sandberg, and Rebecca Roache. “Human Engineering and Climate Change.” Ethics, Policy and the Environment. Vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 206-221. http://www.smatthewliao.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/HEandClimateChange.htm