Beijing wants to cut emissions without hindering growth and avert a revolt from a population under extreme climate stress
The political dilemma over geoengineering – deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects – will perhaps be most acute in China.
In December, the country listed geoengineering among its Earth science research priorities, in a marked shift in the international climate change landscape noticed by China specialists Kingsley Edney and Jonathan Symons.
On the one hand, China’s rapid economic growth has seen a huge escalation in its greenhouse gas emissions, which on an annual basis overtook those of the United States five years ago. Sustained GDP growth provides China’s Communist party with its only claim to legitimacy, its “mandate of heaven”. China’s efforts to constrain the growth of its emissions have been substantial, and certainly put to shame those of many developed nations.
Yet neither China’s efforts nor those of other countries over the next two or three decades are likely to do much to slow the warming of the globe, nor halt the climate disruption that will follow. Global emissions have not been declining or even slowing. In fact, global emissions are accelerating. Even the World Bank, which for years has been criticised for promoting carbon-intensive development, now warns that we are on track for 4C of warming, which would change everything.
China is highly vulnerable to water shortages in the north, with declining crop yields and food price rises expected, and storms and flooding in the east and south. Climate-related disasters in China are already a major source of social unrest so there is a well-founded fear in Beijing that the impacts of climate change in the provinces could topple the government in the capital. Natural disasters jeopardize its mandate.
So what can the Chinese government do? Continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions is a condition for its hold on power, but climate disruption in response to emissions growth threatens to destabilize it.
Geoengineering has immediate appeal as a way out of this catch-22. While a variety of technologies to take carbon out of the air or to regulate sunlight are being researched, at present by far the most likely intervention would involve blanketing the Earth with a layer of sulphate particles to block some incoming solar radiation.
Spraying sulphate aerosols could mask warming and cool the planet within weeks, although it would not solve the core problem of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans.
Scientists and policy-makers in China have been watching the debate over geoengineering unfold in the US and Europe where there has been a boom in discussion and research since the taboo was lifted in 2006, following an intervention by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen calling for investigation of “plan B”.
In the US, there have been several high-level reports arguing for more research into geoengineering — the National Research Council, the House of Representatives’ committee on science and technology and the Government Accountability Office. Influential Beltway think-tanks, like the Bipartisan Policy Center, have joined the fray. Plan B is being discussed in the White House, and the military is keeping a watching brief, and maybe doing more.
China’s decision to initiate a research program could be motivated by no more than a desire to develop a national capacity to keep abreast of what is happening in the rest of the world. Certainly, there is a good deal of skepticism about geoengineering within China’s scientific community.
Yet as the world remains paralyzed by the scale of the warming crisis, and watches while it becomes locked-in, the capacity to implement an emergency response will become ever-more attractive. And in a global emergency — a crippling drought, the Amazon ablaze, Greenland collapsing — the gaze becomes focussed on the urgent to the exclusion of all else, including the interests of other, less-powerful nations whose plight may be worsened if a major power decided to regulate the Earth’s climate system.
While western nations are not ruled by one-party states determined to maintain power at all costs, in truth the tyranny of the economic system is no less absolute. The 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath demonstrated that the structures of power that underpin the system — the banks, the markets, the major corporations and their ties to the political system — are extremely resilient, perhaps every bit as resistant to change as China’s Communist party.
After all, when it comes to responding to climate disruption every report and recommendation — from the Stern report to the IPCC — assumes that measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must accommodate the first imperative, maintaining the rate of economic growth, even though it is GDP growth that escalates greenhouse gas emissions.
So here is a plausible scenario for 2035. Facing a revolt from a population under extreme climate stress, the Chinese government seeks the US government’s consent to cool the planet by spraying sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere. Popular protests prevent Washington endorsing the plan but it tacitly agrees not to shoot down China’s planes. That would be enough, and from that point there would be no going back.
Clive Hamilton professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra and the author of Earthmasters: The dawn of the age of climate engineering, just published by Yale University Press.