(note: Canadian Dr. Keith has published several papers on Geo-engineering, among other topics. The first part of his most recent work is excerpted here.)
Engineering the Planet
Pt. 1 (PDF)
David W. Keith
Forthcoming in “Climate Change Science and Policy” Steven Schneider and Mike Mastrandrea editors, to be published by Island Press.
Humans transform their environment. While global-scale transformations are a recent consequence of industrial civilization, human transformation of nature is ancient.
Some transformations are deliberate, such as the use of fire by aboriginal peoples who altered landscapes to suit their needs, or even the modern use of dams to create new lakes.
Other transformations occur as an unintended side effect of resource use, such as the mass extinctions of indigenous fauna by early hunters in Australia and the Americas, or the more recent threat of climate change caused by our use of fossil energy.
While the scope of human impact is now global, we have yet to make a deliberate attempt to transform nature on a planetary scale. I call such transformation geoengineering (Keith 2000a).
More precisely, I define geoengineering as intentional, large-scale manipulation of the environment.
Both scale and intent are important. For an action to be geoengineering, environmental change must be the goal rather than a side effect, and the intent and effect of the manipulation must be large in scale.
Two examples demonstrate the roles of scale and intent.
First, consider intent without scale:
Ornamental gardening is the intentional manipulation of the environment to suit human desires, yet it is not geoengineering because neither the intended nor realized effect is large-scale.
Second, consider scale without intent:
Climate change due to increasing CO2 has a global effect, yet it is not geoengineering because it is a side effect of the combustion of fossil fuels to provide energy.
Pollution, even pollution that alters the planet, is not engineering. It’s just making a mess (Allenby 2000; Friedman 2000; Keith 2000b).
Manipulations need not be aimed at changing the environment, but rather may aim to maintain a desired environment against perturbations—either natural or anthropogenic.
Indeed, the term has most commonly been applied to proposals to engineer climate, so as to counteract climate change caused by rising CO2 concentrations.
In this context, the primary focus of this essay, geoengineering implies a countervailing measure or a “technical fix”; an expedient solution that uses additional technology to counteract unwanted effects without eliminating their root cause.
In this essay I describe some of the tools that might be used to engineer the planet, and speculate about the ethics of their use.
Before arguing the merits of geoengineering, I summarize some of the more important methods that have been proposed and show how geoengineering is woven into the history of debate about anthropogenic climate change.