New Dr. Strangeloves and the Prospect of Geo-Engineered Climate "Adaptation"

This year's Tallberg Forum asked: "How on earth can we live together, within the planetary boundaries?" Some scientists and energy policymakers posed a different question that made my hairs stand on end.
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For four days in late June, I covered the Tallberg Forum, which could be described as a Swedish version of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, except more laid-back, inclusive, and creative.

Bo Ekman, the mildly eccentric chairman and founder of the Tallberg Foundation, was formerly on the executive board of Volvo. Since 1981, the Foundation has hosted business-government-NGO gatherings of one kind or another in the picturesque village of Tallberg, Sweden, with the compassionate aim of encouraging participants to question business as usual in an age of converging economic, political, social, and environmental crises.

The U.N. Global Compact is among numerous initiatives inspired by the Forum.

This year's Tallberg Forum asked: "How on earth can we live together, within the planetary boundaries?"

Some scientists and energy policymakers at Tallberg posed a different question, an implicit one that made my hairs stand on end.

It could be phrased like this. "How might science 'geo-engineer' or 'climate engineer' solutions to cool the planet if the global community remains unwilling to radically reduce carbon emissions to a level that might preserve the planet we know?"

So, here are two brief anecdotes to illustrate how the global political and economic impasse around carbon emissions in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, is building significant momentum behind the dangerous science of "geo-engineering" or "climate engineering" -- a series of attempts, some relatively benign, others more brazen and potentially catastrophic, to intervene in the climate system, regionally and globally, to cool down the planet. One such example is the idea of dropping bombs into volcanoes, which would, in theory, send ash clouds into the upper atmosphere, dimming the sun.

At a dinner table at my hotel one evening was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who told me we could limit the impacts of climate change by sending "clouds of mirrors into space" to reflect the sun away from Earth. He stated we could plug the ozone hole by releasing large balloons filled with ozone into the sky, the way a plasterer might patch a hole in a wall.

Although his considered view is closer to the scientific and political mainstream than ever before, I said the idea was crazy and wouldn't work; a discussion ensued, in which the Swedish scientist, who looked slightly hurt, made a case for geo-engineering as a last resort, despite undeniable risks.

Dinner complete, I thought I'd heard the last of geo-engineering at Tallberg.

Not to be. The next day, during the Forum's final plenary session, Ged Davis, current co-president of the Global Energy Assessment Council, former managing director of the World Economic Forum, and former head of scenario planning at Royal Dutch Shell, spoke.

Much like the member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Davis opined we might have to turn to geo-engineering to prevent scenarios in which our planet becomes increasingly inhospitable to humans.

He said, "We may have to do the impossible and the unforgivable to address the unavoidable." (Watch.)

"Impossible." "Unforgivable." "Unavoidable."

I let those words percolate. And then I pondered.

The problem wasn't that Ged Davis, facilitator of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emissions scenarios, might be an arrogant scenario planner, a crazed energy policy wonk, or both. Were that the case, he'd be easy to marginalize. The real problem is that Davis's views are gaining credence and are now essentially normalized. Informed by some of the world's most influential institutions, including the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, they're entering the core of the climate adaptation and mitigation debate.

Even more problematically, geo-engineering approaches and theory enshrine a false sense of control over the uncontrollable, while simultaneously institutionalizing desperate measures. They play into the agendas of business-as-usual proponents, holding out a mechanistic hope that science and engineering schemes to cool the planet would extend the shelf life of entrenched economic, political, and corporate structures.

Anyway, after Davis had uttered his reckless speculations, he addressed the question of love: "Who do you love?" he asked. "Yourself? Your partner and yourself? Your family? Community? Do you have a passion for the planet? When you find out who you love, then you can decide what you want to do. That's the starting point."

To my surprise, there was mild applause after Davis flipped from being a technocrat to being, what, an inspiring New Age guru?

It reminded me of Stanley Kubrick's film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which revolves around a Soviet "Doomsday Device" that would destroy all life on Earth upon U.S. attack. Played by Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove, a German scientist hired by the U.S. military after World War II, has the unnerving ability to rationalize megalomania.

In Ged Davis and his ilk, Dr. Strangelove lives. Except rather than targeting the former Soviet Union, the new Dr. Strangeloves are targeting increased solar radiation and poorly understood atmospheric, oceanic, terrestrial, and geophysical processes that could reinforce one another, thus accelerating climate change even further.

A few days before Davis's plenary remarks, Chief Oren Lyons, an Onondaga faith keeper and a distinguished service professor at University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, shared some relevant thoughts with the Forum's New Leader Program. Lyons's people are members of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy -- also known as the Haudenosaunee. Descendants of a matrilineal democracy, the Iroquois Confederacy introduced the democratic concept to the United States' founding fathers.

In reference to climate change, Lyons said, "Our traditional [Native American] teachings tell us that once the Earth takes over, we won't win."

Nourished by hubris, enthralled by a cold rationality, geo-engineering advocates live comfortably in flats in London, Stockholm, or Palo Alto. They work at Royal Dutch Shell or the Royal Swedish Academy of Science or the Royal Society, or some equally reputable academic, corporate, or scientific institution. They think they're qualified to talk about love and hope, when their real experience centers on attempting to influence business outcomes via scenario planning or, even more implausibly, planetary and civilization outcomes via the climate system's non-existent thermostat.

It's a battle they won't win.

That's because our civilization, whose institutions are founded on competition and power to a greater extent than cooperation, could only be safeguarded by a radical humanitarianism -- a complete devotion of the Earth's increasingly scarce material resources to the service of humans' most basic, and humble, needs.

And that would require the institutionalization of kindness and compassion, a psychological, social, and organizational adaptation of a completely different order.



At Tallberg, I interviewed Grace Akumu, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change author (IPCC, fourth assessment report) and environmental activist of Climate Network Africa in Kenya; President Emanuel Mori of the Federated Republic of Micronesia; Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, and contributor to Our Common Future (the 1987 report that proposed the term "sustainable development"); Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and founder of campaign to bring carbon emissions down to 350 parts per million (ppm) from the current 392 ppm; Mario Tokoro, head of Sony Computer Science Laboratories; and last, but not least, Chief Oren Lyons, a professor and Onondaga faith keeper, whose Native American people were part of the Iroquois Confederacy that practiced democracy, and introduced the notion of democracy, to the United States' founding fathers.

In the lead up to the December 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations, look for a series of HuffPost articles based on these interviews.

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