If you’ve wondered why Geoengineering has not been front-and-center in the prolonged and highly contentious discussion on Climate Change, maybe some past quotes from Rabbi Jay Michaelson will prove enlightening. He suggested in 1998 a new Manhattan Project.
“Geoengineering more than just “feels wrong.” [FN227] The tunnel-vision of geoengineering robs the environmental community of the ability to solve other critical problems at the same time as climate change: deforestation and overconsumption, for example. Surely, it is better to just get used to the idea of “living lightly” [FN228] than to scatter dust in the sky or seed oceans with iron, especially when living lightly is good for all of us anyway.
Moreover, an environmentalist’s distaste for the materialistic ideals that undergird the root causes of climate change does not make attempting to thwart those ideals either practical or morally *133 justified. Conspicuous consumption is deeply entrenched in American self-conceptions, and in conceptions of Americans by people in the developing world who want to be like them. [FN231]
I suggest it is both unwise and counter-democratic to tell billions of consumers that “We Know Better,” and set about changing deep structures without regard to the life-defining goals of the consumers themselves. Such action is unwise because it pins the biosphere’s integrity on the hope of overcoming something deeply ingrained in Western culture. And it is counter-democratic because, until the members of that culture change its constitutive forces, overcoming them in the name of a paternalistic deep environmentalism thwarts their clearly expressed preferences. [FN232]
To take a more familiar example, it would surely be optimal to empower oppressed indigenous people at the same time as we save a tropical rainforest by granting local populations more control over forest resources. But if a simple purchase of land will save more rainforest, and a separate human-rights campaign can help the indigenous people, and if each has a better chance for success than the integrated empowerment solution, then perhaps it is wiser to divide and conquer. Better to divide opponents whose interests differ and reach incremental consensus than fight them all at once and lose. A policy of land rights for indigenous people may offend agricultural interests, governing power elites, present title holders, and a host of other constituencies. A land purchase, on the other hand, offends fewer people, may please some (power elites for instance), and is more likely to succeed. Meanwhile, a separate human rights campaign is unlikely to interest agricultural users or (some) transnational corporations, and it also is more likely to succeed. Killing one bird at a time may be the “right” way to go, because it minimizes opposition and makes coalition-building easier.
Climate change is an excellent subterfuge; it allows environmentalists to “get at” fossil fuel use, deforestation, perhaps even overconsumption itself– in the name of saving civilization as we know it. Geoengineering, in contrast, gets at nothing other than climate change. On the contrary, not only does sowing plots of ocean with iron filings not save the rainforest, it costs environmentalists precious leverage in their efforts to do so because some of the pressure to address the underlying causes is relieved. [FN240] One of the very strengths of geoengineering–that it requires relatively little sacrifice–is thus one of its great drawbacks to political environmentalists. Anyone who wants to use climate change as a way to “get at” some undesirable but politically popular activity will be sorely disappointed by a geoengineering project.
Political sleight-of-hand can engender a certain ambivalence. It is somewhat dishonest, and can be counterproductive, as in the case of a hopeless but photogenic species such as the California condor being saved instead of more needy but less attractive candidates. Sleight-of-hand can also be a tremendous gamble; trying to kill two birds with one stone is often riskier than trying to kill just one. In the case of climate change, using the biosphere’s climatic integrity as a leverage point is quite a risk: if scientists are right, we may be in deep trouble if GHG emissions and deforestation (the “real targets”) are not reduced. When the nominal goal is itself important, sleight-of-hand is a high-stakes game.
In the end, the debate about geoengineering is largely a debate about what sorts of environmental policies to pursue in an imperfect world. It seems almost preposterous to buck the trends of holistic systems management and suggest running like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from symptom to symptom. It may also seem as though driving less or cutting fewer trees is simpler than scattering dust particles in the stratosphere. It is certainly more elegant. But when the Damocles’ sword of massive biotic disruption is hanging over our heads, we should choose what works. And the bottom line is that, though the regulatory strategies envisioned in Kyoto must continue to play out their roles, we need more than a global Marshall Plan of incentives and reductions to avert potentially disastrous climatic change.
We need a Manhattan Project.”
Excerpts taken from: Jay Michaelson in the Stanford Environmental Law Journal
Geoengineering: A Climate Change Manhattan Project Stanford Environmental Law Journal January, 1998 Copyright © 1998 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University; Jay Michaelson geomanhattanproj.pdf
Jay Michaelson also writes about LGBTQ, abortion, spirituality and Jewish issues for top publications.