Making War on the Planet

Geoengineering and Capitalism’s Creative Destruction of the Earth

by John Bellamy Foster
Sep 01, 2018

A short fuse is burning. At the present rate of global emissions, the world is projected to reach the trillionth metric ton of cumulative carbon emissions, breaking the global carbon budget, in less than two decades.1 This would usher in a period of dangerous climate change that could well prove irreversible, affecting the climate for centuries if not millennia. Even if the entire world economy were to cease emitting carbon dioxide at the present moment, the extra carbon already accumulated in the atmosphere virtually guarantees that climate change will continue with damaging effects to the human species and life in general. However, reaching the 2°C increase in global average temperature guardrail, associated with a level of carbon concentration in the environment of 450 ppm, would lead to a qualitatively different condition. At that point, climate feedbacks would increasingly come into play threatening to catapult global average temperatures to 3°C or 4°C above preindustrial levels within this century, in the lifetime of many individuals alive today. The situation is only made more serious by the emission of other greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide.

The enormous dangers that rapid climate change present to humanity as a whole, and the inability of the existing capitalist political-economic structure to address them, symbolized by the presence of Donald Trump in the White House, have engendered a desperate search for technofixes in the form of schemes for geoengineering, defined as massive, deliberate human interventions to manipulate the entire climate or the planet as a whole.

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Not only is geoengineering now being enthusiastically pushed by today’s billionaire class, as represented by figures like Bill Gates and Richard Branson; by environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council; by think tanks like the Breakthrough Institute and Climate Code Red; and by fossil-fuel corporations like Exxon Mobil and Shell—it is also being actively pursued by the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and Russia. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has incorporated negative emissions strategies based on geoengineering (in the form of Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS) into nearly all of its climate models. Even some figures on the political left (where “accelerationist” ideas have recently taken hold in some quarters) have grabbed uncritically onto geoengineering as a deus ex machina—a way of defending an ecomodernist economic and technological strategy—as witnessed by a number of contributions to Jacobin magazine’s Summer 2017 Earth, Wind, and Fire issue.2