March 2013

Arts & Letters

‘Earthmasters’ by Clive Hamilton

By David Ritter

In July last year an operation headed by American businessman Russ George dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean. The objective was to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, which would be used to sequester carbon. Acting unilaterally, George claimed his intentions were noble, and not merely aimed at making a buck on the carbon-offset market. Diplomats and lawyers expressed their outrage, but the entrepreneur was upbeat, proclaiming, “good news, all around, for the planet”. As ethicist Clive Hamilton writes in his new book, Earthmasters: Playing God with the climate, the “era in which judgements must be made about geoengineering has begun”.

Hamilton defines geoengineering as “large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects”. The two prominent ideas so far are “ocean fertilisation” (as illustrated by George’s maverick effort) and the proposal to pump sulphur into the atmosphere to ward off the sun’s heat. Hamilton’s informed, if lay, assessments of both are scathing, as neither appears to him to be much easier than cutting emissions, and each comes with calamitous risks and unknown consequences. Hamilton believes geoengineering exemplifies the Promethean urge to dominate nature, and prefers a cautionary Soterian ethic (Soteria being the Greek personification of safety and preservation), implying renewed commitment to conventional proposals for reducing carbon emissions.

Hamilton nimbly sets out the personal and institutional connections among prominent geoengineering advocates. Paradoxically, doubters of global warming are among the most enthusiastic supporters of extreme intervention in the world’s climate. He explains the apparent contradiction by suggesting that both positions stem from a deeper belief in the mastery of humankind over nature. The critical analysis of players and proposals is undertaken with Hamilton’s characteristic lucidity and directness, yet at times the debunking may have been better served by greater stylistic restraint. Hamilton also elects to embed his repudiation of the promise of geoengineering within a wider critique of contemporary consumer capitalism, when the linkage is not necessarily intrinsic.

The brute background to Earthmasters is Hamilton’s conclusion that “dramatic and long-lasting changes in the Earth’s climate now seem unavoidable”. There is a gulf between the emissions cuts that are necessary and the global commitments that are currently on the table – and the time for bridging is slight. Hamilton disentangles the grave and urgent question of whether there is any feasible “plan B” to cutting emissions from the “utopian techno enthusiasm” that geoengineering presents “good news all around”. In the face of dire projections, it is indelibly human to crave easy solutions or magical deliverance; Hamilton’s warning is that we must be resolutely careful of what we wish for. 

David Ritter
David Ritter is the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific and a columnist for Global Policy. @David_Ritter

‘Earthmasters’ by Clive Hamilton, Allen and Unwin; $24.99
Cover: March 2013

March 2013

From the front page

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