Geoengineering – what is it, and why should we be worried?
by David Barker, plus Nabeel Ismeer discusses The Hunter's Walk
I remember reading, twenty-five years ago, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy about the colonization of the red planet. The idea that we humans could, over many decades, terraform an inhospitable, deadly atmosphere into something living seemed very cool. Back then I had no idea that our own planet’s atmosphere might become hostile in my lifetime. If the pioneers in the Mars trilogy could use science and technology to make that planet liveable, can’t we do something about ours?
The Oxford Geoengineering Programme defines geoengineering as the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change. Two main areas are focused on to help reduce global temperatures: the reduction of solar radiation and the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. In case you hadn’t guessed from the title of this article, I’ll be considering the potential costs as well as the benefits of each below. Because guess what, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Solar Radiation Management aims to reflect a small proportion of the Sun’s energy back into space. Methods of doing this vary from the simple – such as using brighter colours or more reflective materials on buildings and roads (also called albedo enhancement) – to the more outlandish ideas such as launching massive mirrors into space. While the latter would surely work, its readiness and cost effectiveness must be questionable, especially with a shelf-life potentially limited by bombardment from micro meteors.
A more pernicious method of reducing sunlight involves stratospheric aerosols – scattering particles into the upper atmosphere or into clouds. We know this method definitely works because history is full of case studies: massive volcanic eruptions spew billions of tonnes of particles into the atmosphere and global temperatures subsequently drop for a year or two. Most famously, the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 resulted in the ‘year without summer’ in 1816, and helped create two of literature’s greatest horror stories: Dracula and Frankenstein. Volcanic eruptions even inspired the plot in the final part of my Gaia Trilogy but, somehow, I doubt that will ever become a gothic classic!
Researchers have been using computer models to stimulate the effects of stratospheric injection to figure out how much would be needed and, importantly, what side effects could arise. These might include changes in rainfall, reduced crop yields, and damage to the protective effects of the ozone layer. And if the global financial crisis or the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that computer models are rarely able to predict the full ramifications of complex systems.
So, if reducing sunlight seems like a risky or very costly method of combating climate change, what about carbon dioxide removal? We’re on safer ground here, since the aim is to reverse what’s been done to the atmosphere in recent decades rather than introducing a radical new effect into the climate. Chopping down fewer trees and planting more saplings seems a pretty obvious starting point but has to work with local land management policies and the economics of our own consumerism.
Helping more phytoplankton grow in the oceans – through iron fertilisation – could also reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and be combined with the dispersal of ground-up rocks such as limestone to help combat oceanic acidification. But research is needed into potential side effects on marine life. While we’re at it, we might have to find a way to maintain the North Atlantic drift – the warm currents that stop Northern Europe feeling as cold as Labrador. Melting North Pole ice is changing the salinity of this conveyor belt of water, potentially shutting it down for good.
Carbon capture grabs the offending gas as it tries to leave polluting power stations or factories. This can be frozen and stored deep underground in a technology already in use by the Norwegians and will surely prove popular as countries struggle to reduce carbon emissions directly. Progress is being made with machines that can suck carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. However, these methods still require huge amounts of energy and, in some cases, water to work so are not yet feasible on a scale large enough to achieve significant progress.
All geoengineering solutions come with a financial cost. As technological advances reduce those costs and the price of doing nothing rises, I’m sure we’ll see more and more of these methods being used in the years ahead. I just hope we keep an eye on those side effects. One consequence that I haven’t mentioned yet is the potential for induced behavioural changes. If we come up with a viable engineering method for combating climate change, will this lessen consumers’ willingness to make lifestyle choices or politicians’ inclination to pursue potentially unpopular legislation in the name of climate change? I hope not.
Whilst progress is being made in reducing carbon emissions, most projections show us failing to hit Paris Agreement targets. I am a big fan of Sci-FI. I’m an even bigger fan of science. Researched properly, used sensibly, I am sure that we can and should adopt some of these geoengineering solutions to climate change as well as continuing to pursue behaviour changes from individuals, companies and governments. Spoiler alert: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy has a happy ending. I hope our planet’s story does too.
David Barker is the author of the Climate Fiction Gold trilogy (Bloodhound Books) – and gives talks on water shortages and climate change. Prior to writing full time, David worked in the city as an economist where his fascination with commodity shortages began.
He attended the Faber Academy in 2014 and, more recently, completed a scriptwriting course with the National Writing Centre. When not writing thrillers or scripts, David likes to create stories for younger readers and joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in 2018.
David participates in Radio Berkshire’s monthly book show, plays tennis & golf and does amateur dramatics (when theatres are allowed to be open). He lives in Berkshire with his wife and daughter, who are both much better at acting than him.
You can find out more about David and his writing at: https://davidbarkerauthor.co.uk
Nabeel Ismeer talks to Claire Datnow about his new upper Young Adult novel, The Hunter’s Walk, which is published by Penguin Random House on 31st August. Generations of prolonged drought and hunger have allowed the harsher voices of the Zarda tribe to set edicts of discrimination against their fair skin members. Ghar, a dark skin cave painter and Dun, his fair skin brother, push back on this discrimination to ensure that Dun and the fair skins can take part in the Hunter’s Walk, a Zardan rite of passage.
Where did you grow up, Nabeel?
I was born in Saudi Arabia, where I spent about half of my childhood before moving back to Sri Lanka. The rest was mainly spent playing cricket in the town of Kandy, Sri Lanka
How did those growing up years shape your perspectives?
The difference in affluence and development really struck me when I used to travel back to Sri Lanka for the holidays. For the longest time I was told that the difference was work ethic. But as I got older, I learned that there were real structural inequalities in place that made it hard to move forward. The struggle between inequality and meritocracy has stuck with me.
What was the first language you learned as a child?
Although my parents were both multi-lingual, I only learned English. I would love to learn more Sinhalese, and Malay and Tamil. I speak a little bit of Sinhalese (Sri Lanka's national language) which was only enough to take the bus around Kandy.
You build solar power plants across Asia. What inspired you to become a writer as well?
I used to write a bit early on in school and university, mostly brooding young emotional prose. I never really intended to become a writer, but then one day I was thinking about how our prehistoric ancestors left Africa and marched on into Asia. Scientists contend as they moved further north that their melanin reduced to help vitamin D production. It struck me there was a possibility that darker-skinned people met their fairer-skinned counterparts. Over the next couple of years, I thought about how intelligent the painters of the Lascaux cave had to be, and how they would have dealt with the declining ice age. I thought this was an interesting story to write, and as I continued over the years the story began to write me.
What influences inspired you to write this particular book, The Hunter’s Walk?
Although I find any kind of discrimination abhorrent, I am quite curious why it is so prevalent in human society. Skin color, race, religion, caste, gender, we seem to find a way to group certain sets of people and then treat them as inferior. Isn't that weird? I am also really concerned about climate change. Is climate change going to expose us to racial and other kinds of discrimination, I felt exploring how climate change might actually influence us down at a human level, was a topic worth spending a decade of writing.
Why did you choose to set The Hunter’s Walk back in the Stone Age?
I was thinking about how our dark skinned ancestors might have met our fair skinned ancestors during their last ice age. Could there have been prehistoric colorism? Could ice age climate change have influenced their interactions?
Did you carry out extensive research about the Stone Age?
The Hunter's Walk premise is that our ancestors have a common origin. It was built around how the out of Africa theory coincided with the last ice age was built around works of Spencer Wells, and Stephen Oppenheimer. The characters, their interactions were based on literature and documentaries on the San bushmen, the Chukchi tribe and the Aborignals of Australia. I imagined these native tribes, almost untouched by modernity, like a window to view our ancestors, their traditions and cultures inherited over generations.
Also I was inspired by the fictional stories from Michelle Paver, Claire Cameron, Jean Auel and William Golding and how they reimagined our ancestors as intelligent, artistic, and soulful human beings.
Lastly, for Ghar, the main protagonist, the Lascaux cave art lead me to imagine this Da Vinci type intellectual who painted the great murals, probably sacrificing time hunting and other tasks. That to me sounds amazing - a caveman Leonardo Da Vinci.
What are the challenges, Ghar and Dun, the main protagonists in your book, need to overcome?
During a time of prolonged drought and hunger, Ghar and Dun challenge the harsh treatment against the fair-skinned members and the women of the tribe, only to get expelled themselves. Ghar finds a new tribe but then sees the same forces of exclusion grow when they are struck by a never seen kind of storm - snow. Will he ever find Dun and the fair skins? Will he ever complete the Hunter's Walk - a rite of passage?
What message would you like your readers to take to heart from The Hunter’s Walk?
I would love for readers to be inspired by this great era or art and invention that the stone age was. Also to question exclusion and discrimination, and maybe renew hope in these fearful times.
What stumbling blocks—or ‘lucky breaks'—did you encounter on the way to becoming a published writer?
I think the biggest lucky break was creating this prehistoric colorism dynamic that seemed compatible with the scientific research. I am lucky (and thankful!) that Nora Nazerene Abu Bakar from Penguin Random House SEA was willing to take on The Hunter's Walk, it is a great privilege. There are so many stories out there that never get the chance.
What is the most difficult part of writing for you?
Structurally I find creating stories that are compatible with documented research is the hardest part, but also the most rewarding aspect. Also prioritizing writing over family and building solar power can be difficult at times, because those are important parts of my life too.
Tell us a little about your plans for the future.
I am working on a book series about justice in the time of war and advanced civilizations. I am also playing with the idea of a group of scientist moms breaking down the spy world, after a spy tries to kill one of their activist children. On the solar power front, I am looking to build more solar rooftops and hopefully be a part of a large scale solar plant in Bangladesh.
Where do you see yourself as a writer in the next five years?
Hopefully still exploring and creating stories while also reaching readers.
Why does fiction matter in a world of real-life consequence like climate change, and racism?
I think contrary to popular belief, scientists and journalists have done a great job of detailing the risks that climate change poses to humanity. I think the problem here is not so much the messenger, nor even the message. I think part of it is how we have been trained to be objective and emotionless with data. We are more likely to be moved by a picture of a little boy dead on the beach than hear about the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing war. Or a burning Notre Dame is far more saddening than hearing about the millions of acres lost in the recent bush fires. Telling the human story of climate change, is one more way of reaching people.
You can find out more about The Hunter’s Walk here.
Nabeel Ismeer builds solar power plants across Asia during the day. He spends his nights writing, centred around the question ‘What if?’. What if the stone age had a Leonardo Da Vinci, was Lascaux her Mona Lisa? What if prehistoric leaders resorted to discrimination when they had no answer to the ice age? What if mitigating climate change can also help reverse inequality and further humanity?
His writings, which include themes of climate change and inequality, have been published in print and online magazines. The Hunter’s Walk is his first book.
You can find out more about Claire’s books here.
Claire Datnow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, which ignited her love for the natural world and for diverse indigenous cultures around the globe. Claire taught creative writing to gifted and talented students in the Birmingham, Alabama Public Schools System. Her published works include a middle grade Eco mystery series, The Adventures of The Sizzling Six. She received numerous scholarships and awards, including, The Blanche Dean Award for Outstanding Nature Educator, the Alabama Writers Cooperative Middle Grade Award, and Monarch Mysteries (Book 6 eco mystery series) long listed for the Green Books Award. During her tenure as a teacher, Claire and her students developed a nature trail, recently named in her honor as the Alabama Audubon-Datnow Nature Preseve.
Climate Change in the News
Stories to save the world: the new wave of climate fiction [The Guardian]
"What can I do?" Anything. [Heated newsletter]