A recent report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) ((http://www.imeche.org/about/keythemes/environment/Climate Change/MAG)) boldly declared that the UK had already failed in its quest to prevent dangerous climate change:
“With only four decades to go, the UK is already losing the climate change mitigation battle. The greenhouse gas emission targets set by the Government require a rate of reduction that has never been achieved by even the most progressive nations in the world. If the UK is realistically going to reach an outcome equivalent to a reduction of 80% by 2050, we need to start mapping out an alternative solution using all engineering methods possible and not only relying on mitigation.”
Can you see where this is going yet? Yes, despite (or maybe because) of the imminent Copenhagen negotiations – still the world’s best chance at initiating a package of mitigation measures to prevent dangerous climate change – the engineers have written off the prospect of the UK achieving its targets. The only way, say the engineers, of remedying this situation is to consider ‘all engineering methods possible’. They might want to modify that to read ‘all engineering methods possible and not yet possible’, because what they mean is geoengineering, advocating what they call a Mitigation, Adaptation and Geoengineering (MAG) approach to climate change.
Geoengineering is the large scale, intentional manipulation of the earth’s climate. Several different approaches have been suggested, ranging from the blasting of trillions of tiny mirrors into space, to the depositing of nanoparticles of iron filings in the sea. The hope is that these arch-industrial strategies will reduce temperatures by deflecting sunlight (space mirrors) or absorbing CO2 (iron filings in the sea). All the technologies are as yet unproven, and there are significant and considerable concerns about the social and ethical implications of geoengineering. Who will decide what gets geoengineered and when? What about the potential for international conflict? Will it act as a giant distraction from mitigation? Is it a massively lucrative form of geopolitical dominance?
While it is no surprise to find the IMechE offering a gung-ho endorsement of the prospect of a planet covered with climate change-fighting machines, what is worrying is the way in which they make their argument – we have already lost the fight against climate change, and so There Is No Alternative (TINA).
TINA was last seen adorning Margaret Thatcher’s pale blue suit like a lapel of honour. According to the free market ideology she endorsed, there was no alternative to neoliberal capitalism – and so we might as well open wide and glug it down like the well behaved non-society we were. TINA sometimes masqueraded as the Washington Consensus – the now discredited economic imperialism of the United States. In whatever guise TINA appeared, however, she had a similar effect – to draw artificial boundaries around the acceptable lines of debate. The IMechE have made good use of its falsely dichotomous appeal – do you want dangerous climate change, or do you want geoengineering?
The TINA argument is all the more concerning given the outrageous back-peddling on climate policy currently being exhibited by the UK and the US. With both Miliband and Obama issuing dismissals of the possibility of legally binding agreement at Copenhagen, the TINA argument for approaches like geoengineering becomes stronger. Just like the neoliberal enthusiasts of the 1980s, advocates of geoengineering can point to the failure of the alternatives and conclude that draconian measures are needed. This is all the more reason for politicians such as Miliband and Obama not to frighten the horses by declaring the December negotiations (legally) dead in the water.
Of course, TINA was always a fallacy. But the simple act of repeating it helped to ensure that it became prophetic. Similarly, the gradual mainstreaming of the notion that ‘Copenhagen is already dead’ or the idea that ‘UK climate change targets have already failed’ will make them more likely to become true. What is ‘impossible’ is constantly and continually redefined by society. It is absurd, not two years into the UK climate change targets, to write them off as ‘impossible’. What could that possibly mean?
The engineers say that meeting the targets would require emissions reductions on a scale not yet achieved by any industrialised nation. But what did they think it was going to require? Of course preventing dangerous climate change will take us into new, uncharted, unprecedented waters: The challenge is to ensure that global and national agreements on climate change are equitable and fair. Arguing that the UK cannot possibly meet its mitigation targets without geoengineering is like refusing to stop gorging on a cake while demanding that a machine is invented that can perform colonic irrigation as we continue to eat.
We don’t have to keep eating the cake. There Is An Alternative.