On the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Modification, 22-26 March 2010
Climate science has a long view. The measuring of rainfall, temperature and pressure with instruments made from glass, mercury and copper wire. Scientists have been collecting data for centuries, first in hand-written notebooks, later in vast computer databases. Edmund Halley mapped the trade winds in 1686 and Benjamin Franklin traced the Gulf Stream in the eighteenth century, the first hints of truly global systems. Helmut Landsberg added statistical analysis in the twentieth century, which revealed fluctuation in what until then had felt eternally recurring to the individual. Eventually, models of Earth?s climate emerged from the data, an attempt to grasp the forces that drive the reality of our immediate environment, our world.
But science itself is careful. Its method progresses cautiously through hypotheses and experiments, always inviting their falsification. Yet, there are moments when it gets propelled to the forefront of human affairs, such as it happened to theoretical physics when it enabled the construction of nuclear devices. Over the last fifty years, climate science has been making visible that human activity has had a significant and increasing influence on the Earth?s atmosphere. Now it has been given the place in the spotlight, and it feels quite uncomfortable there.
The public is asking for more confident predictions and science is reluctant to provide them because the models are incomplete. Many things are still poorly understood and hopes and fears oscillate between conflicting hypotheses and scenarios. The planet as a system of great complexity against the simplistic imagery of a thermostat that many invoke when they talk about the choices we will be facing. The Earth as a house that all known life is sharing, precisely what the term “ecology” means in Greek. Man-made climate change is a reality with evidence as solid as it gets in science, but it is a reality which four out of ten inhabitants of the house have not even heard of. Mitigation is the term for lessening our impact on the planet by transforming human activity to first produce less, then no carbon dioxide, but it may well be a euphemism for a challenge which so far has had no precedent in history.
And it?s not really about Earth either. Stewart Brand, a key figure in the history of the American environmental movement recently writes that the planet itself will certainly find a new equilibrium. It is about how many humans it would be able to support in that future. All international negotiations that are going to happen throughout the century will essentially be about ourselves.
Part of our understanding of ecology comes from British scientist Gregory Bateson, who argued that what we are part of communicating regulatory systems, a thought that became very popular with environmentalists. Every single living thing that we know is situated within, a dazzling interdependency of ecosystems in the bottom one percent of the atmosphere, driven by radiant energy from the sun. Bateson was also part of a group of scientists from a great variety of disciplines who after the Second World War convened in New York for the so-called Macy Conferences. Ten meetings to think about whether they could shape an interdisciplinary understanding of the structure of regulatory systems called cybernetics.
It is the application of engineering thinking to the understanding of both artificial and natural systems. Regarding the world as a system of “Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine”, as the book which gave cybernetics its name is titled. The development of computers and computer networks was the first and most direct result, but the cultural impact of “the discovery that man is only a part of larger systems” was in fact greater. Some like the author Matt Webb go as far as to claim that cybernetics has provided a secret narrative for the second part of the twentieth century. Its thinking creates a peculiar bridge between the sciences of the natural and the sciences of the artificial, linking fields as far apart as biology and economics. With Cybernetics? observation of regulatory systems comes, implicitly, the possibility of intervention. A science of agency.
Another participant of the Macy Conferences, John von Neumann, contributed the essay “Can We Survive Technology?” to Fortune Magazine of June 1955. Before the backdrop of the Cold War he speculated about an “abnormal industry and its potentialities”, the control of the climate. It “will come in a few decades ... and will merge each nation?s affairs with those of every other more thoroughly than the threat of nuclear war.”
Trouble is, humans had already been doing so for millennia, however unintentionally, and today the world turns to science again for answers. What is going to happen to the planet at two, three, four degrees Celsius of temperature increase? How can we save the planet? The urgency of the questions has since opened up space again for speculative thinking about our possible, intentional agency within the whole. There is talk of climate emergencies, invisible tipping points after which the system would slot irreversibly into a different mode, such as another ice age. But what would be an unambiguous signal of such an emergency be within the noise of a system as complex as a planet?
It is a challenge almost taken from a book on cybernetics and a situation which contains enough potential for sudden, catastrophic change that many within the climate science community appear to be genuinely scared. Some do remember von Neumann?s ideas and have contributed “forcing scenarios” of their own. Intentional modification of the climate, the greatest intervention. Geo- engineering the planet in order to keep it in what we regard to be “more like a natural state”.
There are two options for geo-engineering that are currently being debated. The first of them, often called “solar radiation management”, is deployment of measures to reduce the amount of sunlight that gets absorbed by the surface of the Earth. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991 and its ash cooled the atmosphere by an average point-five degrees Celsius, Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen welcomed a “natural experiment” and suggested that sulfur aerosols artificially injected in the stratosphere might do the same and provide humanity with a thermostat. Another possibility of solar radiation management is increasing albedo, the reflectivity of Earth, for example through cloud seeding. In one scenario, a fleet of over a thousand robotic ships vaporize sea water in order to increase the planet?s cloud cover by three percent. Enough to offset warming, claim scientists John Latham from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Stephen Salter from the University of Edinburgh. An even more fanciful and fantastically expensive proposal comes from Roger Angel, an optics expert at the University of Arizona, who wants to launch about a trillion mirrors made of foil into space. Positioned between the Sun and the Earth at the so-called Lagrangian point, a cloud twice the diameter of our planet would reflect two percent of the incoming sunlight.
The second approach to geo-engineering is to take carbon out of the atmosphere directly and trapping it, known as “carbon sequestering”. Artificial trees, basically big air filters, as Klaus Lackner of Columbia University in New York proposes, could take a ton of carbon out of the atmosphere per day, which might then be stored in porous ground underneath Oman or the North Sea. Another way of achieving this could be to artificially stimulate the growth of phytoplankton by releasing iron into the ocean as a fertilizing agent. Plankton consumes carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and takes it to the bottom of the sea when it dies. First observed in 1989 by oceanographer John Martin this seems like a good option for removing carbon from the atmosphere, but the effects on the ocean ecosystems are still poorly understood. The U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity recently called for a moratorium on ocean fertilization, while a company called Climos is preparing to launch its first seeding mission in late 2010, hoping to make money from selling carbon credits.
“Nobody came to the field for intervention” says Mike MacCracken the scientific organizer of the Asilomar Conference on Climate Intervention which happened in March near Monterey, California. Yet, things are moving and shortly before Asilomar the Royal Society in London had published the first institutional report on the subject. If the name Asilomar sounds familiar, it may be because another famous gathering was held there in 1975, The Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, genetic manipulation. The rules for intervention at the opposite extreme of scale were made then, and some within the climate community may have been hoping to achieve the same and be able to move on from observation to experiment.
And indeed, the framing could not have been more perfect. A linkage between “technologies that literally change the world” as MacCracken puts it, the ultimate interventions. The field of genetics has since advanced from manipulation to engineering. An ambitious emerging branch called synthetic biology wants more than mere intervention, it wants the re-invention of life within technology. One of its central notions is that we need to look at cells as machines that are incredibly complex but use parts that can be standardized and abstracted to the point where even relative amateurs are able to tinker with the basics of life. Others like the entrepreneur Craig Venter are working to “boot up” the first human-written and certainly patented genome inside a living bacterial cell, already nicknamed “Synthia”. George Church of Harvard University is going even further by taking the first steps towards an entirely synthetic cell.
Geo-engineering and synthetic biology may differ as vastly as their scale, but the shared and somewhat hidden discourse in which they are embedded is about the role we as humans want to assume within the system. How our notions of culture and nature will relate in the future and whether these terms will still work at all. The step from observation to intervention might be where the cybernetic narrative will truly come into its own. Marshall McLuhan said that “after Sputnik there is no nature, only art”, artificiality may be what he meant. In one of the final sessions, climate scientist David W. Keith from the University of Calgary warned, "If we do this, we get an engineered world, it's not a natural world anymore. Why is the sky blue? Because somebody decided so." With true intentionality comes responsibility, and it is a very different kind of responsibility than what comes with man-made climate change.
After wide-ranging debates about the ethics and practicalities of the conduct of experiments, only a few recommendations were finally reached at Asilomar. The final conference statement says that “we do not yet have sufficient knowledge of the risks associated with using methods for climate intervention and remediation ... and their efficacy in reducing the rate of climatic change to assess whether they should or should not be implemented”. It asks for essential further research and discussions which “must involve government and civil society”. It indeed appeared to surprise some participants that things which are scientifically, technologically and economically feasible and maybe even desirable, will require the voice and possibly the consent of the global public to be ethical. The logics of cybernetics apply to social systems as well. Stephen Schneider of Stanford University reminded participants that “the technology is not the limit, social control is.”
Surprisingly yet, there is in fact precedent for intentional human intervention going as far back to the nineteenth century, the eradication of smallpox. In orchestrated vaccination campaigns that ran for many decades, the smallpox virus which killed hundreds of millions of people was effectively removed from the system. After a last known case in Somalia in 1977, the World Health Organization, which later served as the coordinating body of the campaign, officially declared smallpox to be extinct in December 1979. Two stocks of live viruses remain in the United States and in Russia and in 2002 the WHO decided against their planned final destruction, but merely in order to preserve its genetic information. While it was unarguably beneficial to eradicate smallpox, the level of intentionality, scale and orchestration of this human intervention into Earth?s ecosystems has yet to be fully recognized as such and some say that it might well serve as a model for global interventions of the future.
Maybe, quite possibly even, the twenty-first century might then indeed become a century of intervention. ”We are as gods and might as well get good at it”, Stewart Brand wrote famously in the 1969 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog. Fittingly, Jerry Melillo from the Ecosystems Center in Massachusetts opened his session at Asilomar with a slide of a 1934 mural by Mexican painter Diego Rivera. Man, Controller of the Universe.