Global Climate Change and the Anthropogenic Earth
BRADEN R. ALLENBY
So long as we do not, through thinking, experience what is, we can never belong to what will be. . . . The flight into tradition, out of a combination of humility and presumption, can bring about nothing in itself other than self-deception and blindness in relation to the historical moment.
At this point in the evolution of our species, we appear to be deeply afflicted with a failure of perception precisely as Heidegger described it, and the lack of vision that results makes us increasingly dysfunctional and even dangerous. The most evident example of this failure of thinking and vision is our profound reluctance to understand precisely what we have done to our Earth (Allenby, 2002). I recently had a fascinating conversation with a planetary geochemist who was explaining what we would have to do to terraform Mars. It sounded futuristic and exotic, and somewhat speculative, until I realized that, in fact, terraforming on a planetary scale is exactly what we have done to our own planet. Terraforming planet Earth has not been the work of the twentieth century but of many centuries; and it is a project that has now come to fruition (Derr, 1996; Grubler, 1998; McNeill, 2000). Try this thought experiment. Think of an alien surveying this sector of space and suddenly coming upon our planet. It would see landscapes of invasive species, urbanism and agriculture, the chemical composition of the atmosphere and surface waters, and the dynamics of the grand cycles of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorous all affected by, in many cases determined by, human activity. Biological structures at all scales, from the genetic to the regional, would similarly reflect the choices, impacts, and activities of humans. It would be difficult for an alien to avoid concluding that Earth is a planet designed to support a single species—ours. This is a monoculture, a profoundly human planet, the anthropogenic Earth.
But we do not admit this, even to ourselves. I think there are at least two reasons for this. First, if we admit that we have “designed” Earth for our own
purposes, we must also admit that we have some moral responsibility for what we have done—and that is really frightening. Second, many of us, for reasons that can be traced back in history, have learned to regard “Nature” as sacred (Abrams, 1971; Allenby, 2002). Thus, if we accept that we have terraformed the Earth, we will feel as if we have blasphemed—disturbing a powerful feeling, largely on an unconscious level. These very intense feelings may indeed, in Heidegger’s formulation, lead us to “flee into tradition” to try to avoid “experiencing what is” and encourage us not to realize what we have actually accomplished. But the time is coming when denial will no longer be acceptable. For we do have a responsibility, and we must exercise it rationally and morally.
To be sure, the world is not simply a human artifact. Not everything on Earth is a human creation or intentionally designed as we now think of that activity. The Arctic and the rain forests are not human artifacts, but their dynamics are influenced by humans in ways that we are just beginning to appreciate. Even in the Amazon, for example, evidence increasingly demonstrates that humans long ago constructed large earthen structures. Even more impressively, up to 10 percent of the soil area in the Amazon rain forest—an area the size of France—is covered by a rich, dark loam known as terra preta do Indio (Indian dark earth), the intentionally created product of generations of indigenous humans (Mann, 2002).
Earth is thus “engineered” in the same sense that a city or the Internet is engineered. “Though human made, the Internet is not centrally designed. . . . the Internet is closer to an ecosystem than to a Swiss watch” (Barabasi, 2002). Earth is a highly complex, self-organizing, interactive system with components, from agricultural systems to genetic structures, that are increasingly anthropogenic. Given the scale of human technological and economic systems and human demographic patterns, this trend will intensify in the future unless there is a catastrophic collapse of the species.
Approaching the current global climate-change negotiating process, which I will call the Kyoto process for short, with this perspective, it is apparent that the real question is not simply how to withdraw the human presence from the globe, by presuming, for example, to reduce all carbon emissions to preindustrial levels. That approach is indeed a “flight into . . . self-deception and blindness,” for human population levels and economic dynamics make such a path highly unlikely, absent massive systems collapse. The real question is slightly different and far more challenging. If the effect of our activities has been to create the anthropogenic Earth, including, of course, elements of the carbon cycle that, through atmospheric dynamics, can have effects on the climate system, don’t we have to take real moral responsibility for that? If so, we must begin not by fantasizing a utopia we wish to perceive, but by struggling to shape the path of very complex and coupled systems—which means that we must assume responsibility for choosing a path. That is a very different proposition.
The Kyoto process is a wonderful learning process, in part because of its flaws. Begin with a simple observation that the global climate-change negotiating
process, like virtually all international negotiations, is being conducted entirely by nation states. Indeed, under international law, nation states are the only entities that have sovereign power. This governance structure is, however, both increasingly obsolete and increasingly dysfunctional. It may have made sense in 1648 when it was institutionalized by the Treaties of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War, but nation states are clearly no longer the only relevant actors in international governance systems. Their authority, while still significant (especially in determining local cultural and institutional structures), is being increasingly eroded by the growth of large transnational firms and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) (Cooper, 1996; Mathews, 1997), global patterns of technological evolution and management (Grubler, 1998), the evolution of transnational standards of human rights, often enforced by pressure from NGOs rather than governments (Sassen, 1996), and the growth of communities and groups across information networks, which are not limited to geographic boundaries (Castells, 2000; Barabasi, 2002). Thus, the very governance structure that underlies the Kyoto process is obsolete. It is like trying to design a modern jet airliner while limiting oneself to using the tools and methods available to sixteenth-century shipwrights.
Another very interesting aspect of the Kyoto process—something it has in common with other global negotiations, as well as technological developments now going forward—is that the process takes systems that were previously relatively separate from human systems and embeds them deeply into human systems. This “commoditization” process means that the natural dynamics of these “natural” systems are augmented with the dynamics that characterize human systems (such as economies), particularly contingency and reflexivity. Thus, we can interpret the Kyoto process in a Marxist way as the “commoditization” of the carbon cycle. When companies buy chunks of the rain forest in Costa Rica so they can emit carbon dioxide from a generating plant, that is commoditization— a previously “natural” system has become monetized and can now be bought and sold like any other commodity.
In fact, this is not a new phenomenon. A major feature of the anthropogenic Earth, however, is the commoditization of vast swathes of natural cycles, beginning with agriculture, and now accelerating into genetic engineering, carbon cycle management, and the like. Humans inherently change natural systems by importing into them the dynamics of human systems; indeed, this is a principle effect of cultural and technological evolution.
In The Communist Manifesto (1872), Marx said something else relevant to our discussion. He said that continued expansion of the market structure is inherent in the nature of capitalism. In his view, that was a major reason for colonialism and imperialism, but we can just as easily apply it to the relationship between humans and their environment. As humans and our technologies, societies, and economies have matured, we have also increasingly dominated the environment (Marx, 1872):
In place of old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence.
The combination of commoditization and the globalization of commerce is extremely powerful. Both have significantly changed the fundamental structures of “natural” systems as they increasingly become coupled to human systems, such as the economy. Absent economic or social collapse, this process does not appear to be reversible
From a postmodernist perspective, the Kyoto process raises more subtle issues. For example, many of the ideas or cultural constructs that participants bring to the debate are stable in the short term but very unstable in the long term simply because they are cultural constructs, and cultures change, relentlessly and powerfully, over time (Hacking, 1999). For instance, when the New World was first settled, people took it for granted that they should go out and turn forests and jungles into Gardens of Eden. This was reflected in the way they regarded the concept of “wilderness,” which was considered evil, satanic, ungodly, and full of demons. Contrast that with the way we now think of wilderness—as sacred space. In just 200 years, the concept of wilderness has changed completely. The same is true of many concepts underlying environmental discourse (Allenby, 2002). It used to be, for example, that “natural” was considered the opposite of “supernatural.” Now, partly as a result of environmental discourse, “natural” is considered the opposite of “human.” Whatever is built or made by humans is considered unnatural—despite, of course, the obviously oxymoronic structure of this mental model. Humans are so far incapable of creating anything that cannot be explained by physical, chemical, or biological principles and laws.
However, the rates of change of cultural constructs are irrelevant for most environmental projects. Cleaning up a hazardous waste site, for example, or implementing regulations regarding clean air and water does not take long enough for cultural constructs to change during the process. But if we are talking about establishing future evolutionary paths for the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, or the climate cycle, we can predict with certainty that all of our current cultural concepts will change during the relevant time period. We don’t know how they will change—but we know that they will change and that, thanks to an increasingly information-intensive economy, they will most probably change faster than they have in the past. Thus it is highly likely that the cultural constructs we implicitly treat as fixed for purposes of the climate change negotiations are, in fact, variable and that by treating them as if they were fixed, we may be unintentionally mischaracterizing both the problem and its complexity. Rather than implicitly assuming that in the future preference structure will reflect ours (e.g., by restricting economic growth now in a speculative effort to reduce global climate change forcing), perhaps we should try to develop policies and regulatory
structures that can evolve as cultural constructs and preferences change. But that would require understanding our preferences as contingent, not absolute, and that is unlikely, especially in such an ideologically charged environment.
Another interesting aspect of the Kyoto process is cultural homogeneity. Environmental discourse, almost by definition, leads to homogeneity. Has any of us heard anyone at Kyoto express opposition to the concept of sustainable development? Of course not, because only people who believe in sustainable development have been included—more accurately, have chosen to participate—in the process. That means the Kyoto discussions do not take into account many other voices.
If we were dealing with a bounded environmental problem, such as the kind of technology to use for a treatment of end-of-pipe effluents, limiting the discussion to an environmentalist discourse in this way would be entirely appropriate because that’s where the expertise is, and the decision is not likely to have broad economic or cultural impacts. But if we are discussing how to reconfigure the potential pathways for human economic development for the next 300 years or the energy technologies that will be available for development in Asia, Latin America, or Africa, which is what the Kyoto process implicitly involves, we need a very different kind of discussion. Environmental issues that have enormous cultural and economic implications require a discussion that goes beyond environmentalist discourse and a much more transparent process.
Thus, for example, even though developing countries are sensitive to the potential impacts of climate change on them, when the subject of establishing quotas for renewable energy technologies came up at the Johannesburg World Conference on Sustainable Development, they were virtually unanimous in their opposition. They are also sensitive to the possibility of implicit cultural imperialism in the climate change negotiation process. A dialogue that purports to affect the potential evolutionary pathways of much of humanity, and, for that matter, much of the biosphere, requires a transparent process that is open not just to the powerful but also to the powerless (Habermas, 1975). There are no existing institutions that can provide such a broad forum, but the principle is apparent.
Even linguistic patterns can make a difference. A few years ago, I watched a televised debate sponsored by Resources for the Future about climate change between an environmentalist and a representative of the American petroleum industry. I found the debate rather unsatisfying, but only later did I understand why—there was a complete disconnect between the language used and the underlying, very different realities each side represented. Knowing that the appropriate language for an environmental discussion was scientific and technical, the participants expressed their arguments accordingly. Therefore, there was no indication in the dialogue that, in fact, the essence of the discussion was religious not scientific. The participants spoke as if their positions had been rationally derived from the data, but they were clearly based on different foundational beliefs about what the world was, is, and should be. Therefore, nothing scientific or factual
that was said by either could affect the other’s position. This is a common phenomenon in the environmental arena.
The problem of linguistic dissemblance occurs when ideologies, or even theologies, are driven underground. In the Kyoto process, for example, the discussion is really about how society, culture, and, indeed, the world that increasingly reflects our activities should evolve over the next 300 to 400 years. Self-evidently, that is a very profound challenge in a multicultural world. But it would be far more productive to accept that challenge and address the real issues than to keep up the pretense that these ideological differences are not important. The Kyoto process is, perhaps, the first unrecognized, but explicit, attempt to develop policies intended to design the world of the future, and it cannot succeed, even if a policy is ratified, unless we accept the reality and the attendant moral responsibility for what we create.
Moreover, there is a perception, especially among some groups in the United States, that the global climate-change negotiations are as much about social engineering as anything else. These critics cite as proof European insistence that the United States should not be allowed to use purchased carbon credits or other mechanisms to meet its treaty requirements in full but be required to reduce substantially its own emissions. Obviously, the carbon cycle does not “care” where emissions reductions, if that is the chosen measure, occur.
The impression, reinforced in statements by European negotiators and environmentalists, is that the real issue is that the pattern of consumption, especially in the United States, is inappropriate, or even evil, and, since it cannot be controlled directly, it must be changed indirectly. The Kyoto process then becomes a means for doing so. Obviously, this is a complex issue. Environmentalists, for example, would argue that developing countries are more likely at some point to participate in the process if developed countries have also had to make sacrifices. But the perception of unfairness complicates the negotiating process, and the failure to address it will not dispel it.
The Kyoto process, and the Montreal Protocol process before it that eliminated emissions of chlorofluorocarbons that were decreasing ozone concentrations in the stratosphere, have been wonderful learning experiences. But we must be sensitive to the differences between the two. The Montreal Protocol has indeed been effective, but, in retrospect, it is apparent that it was a manageable extension of traditional environmental policy. The Kyoto process is about something much more fundamental. The current approach to global climate change carries within it not just policies, but also a vision, a teleology of the world that is, in important ways, both unexpressed and exclusionary (Allenby, 2002). Perhaps for this reason, the role of technology has been relatively ignored throughout the negotiating process and, when it has come up, has been quickly marginalized.
In fact, there are many possible technologies that might reduce carbon loading in the atmosphere, but many of the most important ones are out of favor. For example, nuclear energy has been excluded by general agreement, and
geoengineering (e.g., aluminum balloons in the stratosphere to reduce incoming energy to the atmosphere) has been shunted aside, regarded as the dream of a few eccentrics (Keith, 2000). Biotechnology to improve agricultural efficiency and biological carbon sequestration are clearly not acceptable to many participants in the Kyoto process, and to many environmentalists generally. The rejection of these and other technologies tends to reinforce the impression that the Kyoto process is an exercise in social engineering by Europe targeted at the United States. Regardless of the truth, this impression is obviously conducive to conflict and deadlock (as indeed has happened).
Unfortunately, we cannot afford the luxury of not acting. The issue of global climate change cannot be solved by freezing everything where it is. The shifts in climate patterns and the complex cultural, economic, and technological evolution of a world of six billion people will not stop while we try to figure out how to manage the world we have created or pretend that burying our heads in the sand is an effective and moral response (as, indeed, Heidegger warns). Thus, workshops like this one that focus on existing and potential technological options and pathways have great value.
What happens if Kyoto fails? What happens if we try the social engineering route and it fails? Proponents of the Kyoto process have created the sense that, if it fails, we have collectively somehow failed as well, that all forward progress has been stalled. Making the Kyoto process the only game in town is a very high-risk tactic, and it seems to have misfired. The pressure generated by such a position may help it to succeed, but if it does not, we may have dangerously limited our options.
There are some grounds for hope, however. The Kyoto process may or may not continue without the participation of the United States, but complex systems —and the integrated human/climate system is arguably complex beyond our current understanding—do evolve, and they do so in ways that are difficult to predict. Moreover, once the ideological blinders have been removed, a number of potential mitigating technologies—from active carbon sequestration at fossil fuel plants to carbon sequestration through ocean fertilization with iron to industrial-scale scrubbing of the ambient atmosphere to geoengineering options—can be explored. Not all of these technologies are well understood, and even a cursory glance at some of them raises significant concerns, but there are technological options. And technologies are also evolving.
A useful process that would contribute significantly to the rational, ethical management of the future would be to categorize technological possibilities and determine, as objectively as we can, their risks and benefits and the optimal scale for each. We could then develop a portfolio of options for future negotiations. Technology, especially in emotionally and ideologically charged environmental debates, almost never provides complete answers. But an array of technological options enables choice and thus increases the chances that we will be able to balance the disparate values, ethics, and design objectives and constraints implicit
in the climate change discourse. Technology may help us respond to the world we are creating in responsible, ethical, and rational ways.
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The Century-Scale Problem of Carbon Management
ROBERT H. SOCOLOW
There are six important things to remember about the greenhouse problem and carbon management.
1. The greenhouse problem is a century-scale problem.
The greenhouse problem is not a decade-scale problem or a millennium-scale problem. It cannot be solved in the short term, but it does not require an extremely long view either. This observation is based on a simple quantitative estimate of when the greenhouse problem will become dangerous. It won’t be next year—but when? If we assume the greenhouse problem will become serious when the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere reaches twice the preindustrial concentration, it will happen sometime in the second half of this century, if current trends continue. Is doubling the right place to locate the yellow flashing light warning us that we are entering the danger zone? Some have proposed a lower figure. The 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change gives no guidance on how to decide when human interference in the climate system becomes dangerous.
It is hardly surprising that, faced with a century-scale problem, the tendency is to postpone taking action. Moreover, if we wait, the argument goes, we will no doubt be smarter about the science, the risks, and the technologies.
Can we justify acting now? One argument for acting now is that it would leave us room to maneuver. We are currently unsure of future damage from higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. At a later time, when we know more, we may decide that today’s estimates of damage are underestimates and that tougher
concentration objectives are warranted. Acting now will make adjusting to such knowledge less painful. Another argument for acting now is that we are ready now. In many cases, all we have to do is combine already commercialized technologies in new ways.
2. From a one-century perspective, the characteristics of fossil fuel production look complex and unfamiliar.
Today, two of the most debated issues are the geopolitics of oil and competition between coal and natural gas. But by midcentury, conventional oil and natural gas are not likely to be as prominent as energy sources. Coal will still be very much in evidence, but unconventional fuels, like tar sands and shales and methane clathrates, may also be major sources of energy.
We must understand the importance of coal. Relative to oil and gas, coal is abundant, and it has a low feedstock cost. China and India, as well as the United States, are certain to be using a great deal of coal far into the future. But coal has a terrible legacy—danger to workers, acid runoff, subsidence, air laden with particulates, acid rain. A great deal of interest is being focused on “clean coal,” which usually means coal burned with greatly reduced emissions. But to earn the attribution “clean,” coal must meet other criteria as well.
Coal comes out of the ground contaminated with elements other than carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen . Many of these contaminants require management. Work is now being done to capture the carbon in coal as CO2. Might we be able to co-capture and co-store (“co-sequester”) some of these nasty contaminants along with the CO2? Today, in Alberta, Canada, and elsewhere, CO2 and hydrogen sulfide are routinely removed together from natural gas and co-stored below ground. Could that practice be extended and generalized? A complete answer will require working out the effect of impurities on the components of power plants (which could be redesigned), on pipelines to disposal sites, and on storage reservoirs.
3. Hydrogen is intimately connected with carbon management.
About half of the fossil carbon we use today is distributed to small users (e.g., vehicle engines, furnaces in buildings, etc.) before being burned. It is unlikely that we could collect CO2 out of the tailpipes of cars and out of the chimneys of home furnaces the way we collect aluminum cans. Once these fuels are dispersed, the cost of carbon retrieval is probably prohibitive. Electricity is a carbon-free form of energy, but an all-electric economy is unlikely. Fuels are likely to continue to be preferred for many applications. The most likely carbon-free system will involve the distribution of both electricity and hydrogen, which would be used either in fuel cells or in combustion devices.
Hydrogen can be produced in many ways. One way is from natural gas or
coal, with co-product electricity and with a stream of concentrated CO2 ready for transport and storage. Hydrogen produced from either natural gas or coal, with CO2 captured and stored, may be cheaper than hydrogen produced from renewable or nuclear energy. If hydrogen is produced from coal, probably the first step will be oxygen-blown gasification.
If we were to begin right now to implement a hydrogen-plus-electricity economy, one benefit would be that we would confront, rather than vaguely worry about, hydrogen safety. Today, hydrogen is handled only in specific industries by trained workers, with, I believe, a low accident rate. But could the general public be given a hydrogen system that is safe and, in some sense, idiot proof?
4. Early action on the permitting of CO2storage sites will reveal many difficult, largely unresolved issues.
What level of storage integrity should be required in the permitting of a CO2 storage site? Clearly, no catastrophic releases that present substantial risks to human health can be tolerated. But should we be relaxed about the loss of 1 percent of the stored CO2 each year through slow leaks? What about the loss of 1 percent a year from 10 percent of the sites? Probably, the level of leakage allowed during the first few decades of storage can be higher than in later decades, not only because we will learn as we go and make improvements, but also because the total quantities stored will increase over time.
Other questions arise. Should we strive to develop a storage system that future generations can undo? What techniques are available for monitoring a storage site and responding constructively to evidence that the behavior of stored materials is deviating from what we expected? How will we keep the overall costs of storage from escalating to the point where the prognosis for the whole strategy becomes bleak, as has happened with nuclear power.
There are two obvious precedents for storage of CO2 in the United States, and both of them are poor. These precedents are the underground injection of hazardous waste and the storage of nuclear waste. The underground injection of hazardous wastes is governed by a permitting process regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. As best I can tell, the process involves absurdly detailed modeling intended to prove that nothing serious will happen below ground after injection, followed by little, if any, postinjection monitoring and verification of what is actually happening below ground. The program to store nuclear waste began with great hubris; the public was promised leak-proof, very long-term storage. But under close scrutiny, these promises could not be met. If the nuclear community had admitted from the start that containment in waste repositories might occasionally lead to small leaks, long-term nuclear waste disposal facilities might already be operating.
The public will understand that carbon storage has imperfections. Only
some, not all, of the carbon brought out of the ground will be captured. And some additional carbon will be brought out of the ground to provide the energy necessary to capture and store carbon.
5. Carbon management is not a winner-take-all strategy.
We have a whole portfolio of options for achieving major changes in the global energy system. And we will need many of them. Two options, at opposite ends of the spectrum in readiness for deployment, are: (1) improved energy efficiency; and (2) the direct capture of CO2 from air.
Those of us who have worked on improving energy efficiency have been frustrated that many good ideas have not been implemented. We still build buildings as if energy were practically free. Most of the relevant institutional issues were identified back in the 1970s but have still not been addressed.
David Keith and Klaus Lackner are investigating ways to pull CO2 directly out of the atmosphere and concentrate it (e.g., using the reactions CaO + CO2 → CaCO3 and CaCO3 → CaO + CO2). Could machines, located wherever we wish, remove CO2 from the atmosphere as fast as we put it in, or maybe even faster?
6. Carbon management confronts us with ethical issues.
Carbon management is intended to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system. “Dangerous” to whom? To what? Carbon management is, simultaneously, environmental technology and survival technology. As environmental technology, it is directed toward minimizing the impact of human activity on the biosphere. As survival technology, it is directed toward maximizing human welfare. The two objectives are not necessarily at odds, but they are distinct.
Engineering is the profession most closely associated with maximizing traditional measures of human welfare. Earth systems engineering is a name often given to attempts to take charge of the Earth and organize its processes for human benefit. “Stabilization,” our newly articulated goal for future CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, is a word borrowed from engineering, specifically from control theory.
Trying to take charge of the planet via Earth systems engineering is rather like trying to take charge of our own bodies via genetic engineering. We need rules for both activities. One difference is that we can choose not to modify the human genome, but we are already changing the planet week by week.