The Star Wars solution to climate change that will crash back to earth

Strategies to deal with global warming must embrace all disciplines and approaches, not merely the technological, says Mike Hulme

June 26, 2008

In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced a new Strategic Defense Initiative to use space-based systems to protect the US from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. Subsequent protests against the "Star Wars" plan, combined with political events, conspired to limit the execution of such a vision. But 25 years later there are new moves afoot to demonstrate, again in the cause of security, a similar technical mastery - this time over climate.

The new perceived security threat comes not from military adventures but ourselves - from our fears that we are changing the climates of the world to the extent that human livelihoods, political stability and, at the extreme, our entire civilisation are at risk. One response to such fears is to contemplate the mother of all solutions to the mother of all problems: geo-engineering the temperature of the planet. Mirrors in space, giant carbon-dioxide-sucking machines in our deserts and injections of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere and iron into the oceans. This is the ultimate in climate control.

But do we know what we are doing? As with the Star Wars initiative, we should be concerned about who is setting this agenda, what their motives are and, most importantly, upon what knowledge and value systems they rest their case. As with military security, so with climate change: it is too easy for scientific and technical knowledge and its associated hubris to be allowed to set the pace. We need to mobilise a much richer array of human knowledge and insight - science, technology, local knowledge, human values and wisdom - to understand the phenomenon of climate change in its many physical, social and psychological manifestations. If we do not, we risk being led down paths that offer great Procrustean promises of human control in the name of climate protection but, as with nuclear and biochemical weapons, end up further destabilising our world.

Geo-engineering our response to climate change is just one example of the potential dangers of taking too narrow a view of the phenomenon. It illustrates that the dangers of implementing hubristic solutions for climate change may carry as many risks as the primary dangers that we are seeking to avoid.

The emergent phenomenon of climate change presents an extraordinary challenge to the research community. The past and the future are interacting in quite new ways in the spaces opened up by the idea of climate change and this interaction is providing a novel motor for cultural change. What started as a rather esoteric research question for natural scientists in the middle decades of the past century is now entraining researchers of all shades, together with politicians, entrepreneurs, celebrities, campaigners, inventors, priests and citizens, in an enlarging search for understanding, security and solutions.

Climate change is having to be understood both as a physical change and as a constructed idea that is changing society and how people think about the future. And researchers have to understand the way these two realities are shaping each other. Social actions are changing the physical climate of the future, just as climate - real climates and the way we invent, talk about and fear simulated virtual future climates - is changing society in the present.

Nature and culture are entangled.

The research task of understanding such complexity and offering robust insights back to society is made still more difficult by the differing research cultures and approaches among the contributing disciplines. Recent controversies over the validity of the assumptions built into the latest economic assessments of climate change or the ways in which climate modelling uncertainties should be characterised and communicated, emphasise the urgent need for stronger interactions between the social sciences and the humanities on the one hand and the climate sciences and economics on the other.

The contributions of the former are now probably more important to the debate. A new report from the World Wide Fund for Nature, for example - Weathercocks and Signposts: The Environmental Movement at a Crossroads - emphasises the need to understand and engage directly with people's values. And engagement of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with the full spectrum of human knowledge remains too limited. Anthropologists, sociologists, ethicists and the humanities are not invited to the high table of institutionalised climate-change knowledge. This deficiency in what is allowed to constitute legitimate knowledge about climate change may be the Trojan horse that will let in the geo-engineers and their frightening promise of a masterful climate utopia.

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