Can Geoengineering and Planetary stewardship be combined?

Should we deliberately intervene in the Earth system to counteract the negative impacts of climate change? Certainly not, if we ask prominent Earth system scholar Will Steffen. In a recent article published in Ambio , Steffen and colleagues argue that geoengineering and Planetary stewardship are opposing extremes because the former deal with “symptom treatment” rather than the reduction of anthropogenic pressures on the planet (Steffen et al. 2011:752).

In my view, this very much depends on what particular technology you focus on, and on what scale. In a recent article in Ecology and Society “Geo-engineering, Governance, and Social-Ecological Systems: Critical Issues and Joint Research Needs” , I argue that there is an interesting, and unexplored interface between some types of geoengineering technologies, and Planetary stewardship.

One important detail that tends to get lost in the public debate about geoengineering, is that the concept not only includes technologies that intend to counteract warming through the regulation of solar radiation (e.g. injection of stratospheric aerosols, cloud brightening), but also a suite of proposals that build on ecosystem-based approaches such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), long-term storage of charcoal in soils (biochar), and reforestation and afforestation.

Once this wider spectrum of proposed and future technologies is acknowledged, a whole different set of poorly explored issues emerge.

Earth stewards could play a key role in various phases of geo-engineering research, ranging from theory and modeling, to technology development, and subscale field-testing. […] Two issues will prove critical. One is to secure that geo-engineering experiments explore technologies that not only address climate stresses, but could also bring multiple social-ecological benefits to communities. […] Second, participatory and co-management processes always play out within an institutional context. Hence, the creation of institutional mechanisms at the national or international level that support consultation, the disclosure of information, provide ombudsmen functions, and endorse integrated assessments of social-ecological dimensions will provide a critical underpinning for participatory processes (from mentioned article in Ecology and Society).

Is this really geoengineering? Well, if you follow the conventional definitions of the concept, I would argue that it is. But it is geoengineering in a different way. As Mark Stafford-Smith and Lynn Russell so elegantly summarizes it in a recent article in Carbon Management

Instead, the geoengineering debate should urgently be reframed as, “what combination of many smaller geoengineering options could be resilient, least harmful and yet effective in mitigating global environmental change?”

Time has come for the resilience community to think more creatively about technology, and seriously engage with the geoengineering debate.

Additional resources of interest:

Lynn M Russel et al. (2012). “Ecosystem Impacts of Geoengineering: A Review for Developing a Science Plan”, Ambio

STEPS Centre (2012). Biochar: “Triple Wins”, Livelihoods and Technological Promise, STEPS Working Paper [PDF]

Oxford Geoengineering Programme (Oxford University)

Stockholm Seminar with Jason Blackstock on Solar Geoengineering

4 thoughts on “Can Geoengineering and Planetary stewardship be combined?”

  1. If technology works wonderfully to “solve” the problem, will our attitude/mentality change? If not, another larger bubble in the making?

  2. Victor, fantastic post. Thanks for that.

    Massive micro-scale engineering! Just as how we as a species grew into a geologic force through a seemingly infinite number of small decisions – house by house, farm by farm, community by community, zoning law by zoning law – my gut sense is that the only way to salvage a livable Holocenic Panarchy is to work as literal ecosystem engineers at scales we understand. House by house, farm by farm, etc…framed within an overlay of a holistic resilience law, policy, design framework.

  3. Perhaps it would be useful to distinguish between approaches based in scale and how situated they are within specific ecosystems? For instance, the work of John Todd, Allan Savory, Paul Stamtets and others are already being implemented at appropriate scales for prototypes designed to increase resilience within specific ecological niches. So instead of lumping them in with one-size-fits-all geoengineering grand strategies, it seems clarity could be gained by distinguishing these more situated approaches as eco-engineering:

  4. David, you cite great references. We try to functionally mimic the role of an ecosystem engineer, to modify the structural ecology to do at least as well as the living system in which we’re immersed. As example, our current project includes a Todd Ecological Restorer, as a key ecological “technology” to repair and enhance a 500+ acre wetland.

    Ecological engineering shares a common foundation, but becoming a true ecosystem engineer is something both different and deeper, I’d humbly argue.

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