My personal moral hazard

My values and principles are shifting faster than I'm comfortable with

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In 2015 I wrote a play called Kill Climate Deniers, a gleeful black comedy set in Australia's Parliament House. The inciting incident of the story is a press conference in which a hapless politician launches a project to spray billions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Her aim is to create a milky white ceiling around the planet, blocking sunlight and thereby cooling the earth down.

The scene reliably got a few laughs, both from the people who thought it was comically surreal ('we're going to create a sort of home-made volcano') and from the people who knew that it was very real - that these 'Solar Radiation Management' projects are being seriously discussed by scientists and governments right now.

I first heard about ‘Geoengineering’ - the idea of artificially managing the earth's climate - in 2008. Journalist Gwynne Dyer sketched out a semi-apocalyptic future scenario in which a nation like Bangladesh might attempt to slow down devastating sea level rise by sending planes to spray cargo-loads of sulfuric acid into the stratosphere. This would mimic the effect of large volcanic eruptions, which dim the amount of sunlight reaching the earth. Famously, the Mount Pinatubo eruption of 1991 is estimated to have cooled global temperatures by half a degree over the following two years.

For something that sounds so weirdly science fiction, the technology required is actually very feasible - in fact, many people think the problem is that it's too feasible. We have the tools, and we can be reasonably confident that it would work to cool our planet down. What we don't know is: what would the side effects be?

This has led to one of the most intense (and heated) debates in climate science. For over a decade, researchers, activists and funders have argued - not about whether to deploy the technology, but about whether to even study it. Is it a 'a terrifying solution whose time has come', or a hubristic techno-fix which will do more harm than good?

The fear is that even knowing how to do it will inevitably lead us to do it. This is the 'moral hazard' of argument of geoengineering (what a phrase). Critics argue that funding the research will give governments and fossil fuel companies an excuse to continue burning fossil fuels, by offering the suggestion of a quick fix. In other words, given the prospect of a medicine that could abate some of our symptoms, governments and businesses will choose to continue making us sick.

On the one hand, that seems absurd. On the other hand, as someone who's lived through the last thirty years of climate politics, that seems... pretty plausible to me?

Many climate activists feared that governments would develop these tools in secret, then present them in times of crisis as a fait accompli. One of my motivations in writing Kill Climate Deniers was to discuss these issues in a public forum before they could be sprung on us by surprise. At the time of writing the script, I was half-certain that solar radiation management projects would be first introduced by stealth, and if that happened, I would be furious.

It turns out that I was complete correct about the introduction by stealth, but completely wrong about my own reaction.

In March 2020, Southern Cross University carried out a trial of a solar radiation management project over the Great Barrier Reef. Over four days, the team experimented with spraying clouds of seawater droplets into the sky. The water evaporated, leaving tiny particles of salt, around which other water vapour particles condense, forming brighter and more reflective clouds.

This 'marine cloud brightening' is a local version of the larger-scale solar radiation management endeavour. Instead of blocking sunlight from the planet as a whole, it's targeted at smaller areas (reefs, polar ice caps) to protect them during heatwaves. This first trial in 2020 will be followed by larger scale tests covering 400km2 of the Great Barrier Reef in 2022-23.

This is big stuff, and yet because it took place during the first few weeks of the pandemic, it flew almost completely under the radar. One of the only organisations to publicly criticise the project was environmental NGO the ETC Group, who said:

'The “geoengineering clique” that is trying to push these dangerous technologies forward has been trying to conduct open-air tests on solar geoengineering for years, and now they did it – during a pandemic. Their spin about helping coral reefs is totally unproven and the data they may gather with this experiment is minimal, but the story they’re telling is that there is a technofix for climate change that could let fossil fuel companies keep extracting and even create new opportunities for them to profit.'

At one level, I completely agree with this critique. How dare these researchers push this risky technology out into the world under the cover of the pandemic? I wanted to feel outraged about this experiment. I tried to feel outraged. But I just... couldn't.

What happened? This is one of my worst climate fears come true, and yet I find myself weirdly fine with it. What's going on?

Partly my response is because this project is about 'saving the Great Barrier Reef' - an iconic natural heritage area which is on the edge of collapse. The trial took place during the Reef's third mass bleaching event in five years. Of course shading the Reef from sunlight does nothing about other reef killers like ocean acidification and fertiliser run-off, but if it helps...? If this was a cynical ploy to win support for this controversial new technology, then I'm afraid it worked on me.

Another factor in my response is that the conversation around geoengineering has shifted since 2015. The last few years have seen new arguments for these undertakings from a Leftist perspective. In 2018, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson put forward a 'socialist utopian case for geoengineering':

'If a heat wave kills a hundred million people in some country, and that country decides to imitate a Pinatubo-sized volcanic eruption artificially to cool temperatures for five years...  They will defend themselves to the world, and I don’t know what the world could say or do at that point. It would be a case of desperate measures for a desperate time.

If democratically elected representative governments were to agree with each other to do it, using existing treaty systems and the U.N., the Paris Accords, etc., and it kept millions of people (often the least culpable when it comes to fossil fuel burning) from dying, then I guess you could say it was equitable.'

Robinson goes further in his 2020 novel Ministry for the Future, provocatively describing pilots flying sulfur-spraying missions as national heroes, fighting to save their country from runaway heating.

More concretely, the last few years have seen organisations such as the Carnegie Climate Governance Institute and the Solar Radiation Management Governance Institute working to expand the conversation around geoengineering to include people in the most vulnerable countries. The goal is to make sure that those most affected by the outcomes are the ones making the decisions.

But most of all, my lack of outrage at the Great Barrier Reef marine cloud brightening project is simply a sign of how much things have shifted for me personally in the last six years. In 2021, I've realised that I am willing to countenance far more desperate measures than I'd ever imagined in 2015. That doesn't mean those measures are right - I think it just means that I'm more desperate.

It's hard to tell, subjectively, whether my values are changing as I age, or whether my values have remained constant but the situation has shifted. What it does suggest to me is that, as the crisis continues to escalate - in ten, twenty, thirty years time - I'll be willing to accept measures that right now I'd find utterly unacceptable. And that's a scary thought.

But then, if there's one constant in the 21st century, it's that our morals, beliefs and ideals are forever out of date, always struggling to catch up with a crisis that won't stand still or slow down. What we're certain of today will look laughably naïve a few years from now, and as the ground keeps shifting under our feet, so will our hopes and principles.

I still think I was right in Kill Climate Deniers to depict solar radiation management as a maniacal government power trip. But like everything else in the climate era: you can be right, but you're never right for long.

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NEWS AND PROJECTS

I'm excited to announce that Break into the Aquarium, my solo show about the future of nature, is now available to watch as part of Nesta's digital FutureFest. It's free to view all the FF content, you just need to register with an email.

For everyone who’s ever dreamed of pulling off a heist on a major tourist attraction.

David has worked with biologists, zookeepers and activists to plan a game-changing raid on London’s Sea Life Centre. In 25 minutes, you’ll learn how to shape the future of nature that you want by carrying out your own high-risk guerilla rewilding activity.

This show does not endorse criminal activity. But it does, it does, it does.

With huge thanks to designer Becky-Dee Trevenen, Silverfish Films, Suzie Curtis & Petra Perjesi.

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As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.

Peace!