Climate Mitigation in the Land of Shopportunity

A few months before Gamechanger came out, a headline crossed my feeds about the prospect of wild card would-be terraformers launching backyard rockets bearing high-altitude balloons. Their purpose: to spew a payload of particulate intended to work much as a volcanic ash plume might, changing the mix of earth’s upper atmosphere.

Why would anyone do this? Well, plumes can be cool, and I mean literally. In 1991, the eruption of Mount Pintabo created aerosols that lowered average global temperatures by one degree Fahrenheit… for several years.

Which sounds great, right? Just what the Doctor ordered?

The allure of being able to DIY a little global cooling, to play deity in your own backyard, is obvious. We all have moments when the idea of launching a rocket into the teeth of climate change takes on an intrinsic rightness, a sense of being so much better than scrolling through endless retweets about record summer heatwaves. What if you could do something more than just grinding your teeth and reckoning your distance from the seacoast as the oceans rise?

And while it may sound like it, the possibility of lacing the upper atmosphere with sun-reflecting silvery particles, or otherwise simulating the outcome of a massive volcanic explosion isn’t pure flummery. Climate change scientists and experts at NASA have already gathered a lot of data about potentially geoengineering the atmosphere in exactly this way. In the coordinated, upscale, governments-signed-off-on-it sciencey version, high-altitude jets would do the spewing, targeting upwards of 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide gas in service of achieving a Pintabo-scale cooling effect.

(They’d do it in a concerted way, of course, not piecemeal.)

The thing is, geoengineering doesn’t come without trade-offs. Does anything? In fact, it’s pretty dangerous dynamite to be playing with. In this case, that sought after, oh-so-sexy cooling effect on the surface of the planet comes bundled with damage to the ozone layer. That alone is enough to ensure that the idea of solar radiation management (SRM for short) is seen by many scientists as a desperation gambit, a card to be played only when slash if things get really dire. So it isn’t hard to imagine why ecologist blood runs cold at the idea of you and me and everyone’s cousin with questionable judgment being able to order up a backyard balloon kit full of ozone-destroying gas.

Imagine! Click here to upgrade to free-one day delivery! Your neighbor doesn’t believe in climate change… so why not compensate and order two? We’ll even give you a BOGO deal! Amazon would do that in a heartbeat, amiright?

Part of what I love about this news item, despite the fact that it is objectively terrifying, is it’s such a fundamentally science fictional idea. The terrain of our present and our future is strange and hard to survey, but I could write a hundred stories from this single jumping off point. So could, I suspect, every other writer I know.

People ask sometimes where writers get our ideas, so here’s one now: as more and more people become convinced of the severity of the climate crisis—as their anxieties sharpen into outright terror—science fictional-sounding climate quackery, DIY quick fixes for global warming could easily permeate a certain portion of the consumer market.

Imagine—snake oil save the planet panaceas, becoming big business! You too could buy the ecosphere equivalent of the everlasting pill. (Remember the everlasting pill? It was a lump of antimony people used to take in Victorian times, a little bauble of poison that would trigger a purgative round of vomiting and diarrhea. If the patient didn’t die from the cure, they would either barf up or pass the pill, which could be washed and saved for the next family member who needed it. Sorry—make that “needed.”)

Imagine the earth-scale equivalent of an everlasting pill, easily purchased, deployed using easy-to-follow instructions, or even an app. Now imagine twenty competing eco-placebos. Their chief effect? Creating a sense in the buyer of having damnwell done something about the planetary carbon budget. The emotional uplift would come whether they worked or not, and despite the science. People believe what they want to believe—look how long it has taken some of us to buy into the need for social distancing.

In this story I’m spinning, we might posit that buy-in to ecological placebos would be all the stronger in wealthy nations, where we’ve laid the groundwork by creating a culture of remedial consumerism. A certain amount of the environmental message over the past couple of decades has suggested that privileged shoppers—those with the biggest carbon footprint—can A/S/S/U/A/G/E/ O/U/R G/U/I/L/T/ make a real difference to the planet’s feverish future … all by shopping green. Never mind giving up our cars—if our diapers are unbleached bamboo cotton, if our organic foods have been sprayed with naturally derived pesticides, and our lightbulbs are LED rather than incandescent, our carbon footprint will naturally shrink.

Right? We’ve been primed to love a socially conscious shopportunity.

Now, this may seem a little ranty, I know, so don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everyone can or should abandon their motor vehicle, or that intelligent low-footprint consumption is a bad thing. But the ecological value of green shopping has been consistently oversold in recent years. It’s not the answer. Green consumerism exploits all our complicated buyer feels about the environment, extracting the conscience dollars wherever it can.

Those emotions will ever easier for advertisers to play, like an orchestra of violins attached to ApplePay devices, as they get stronger. After all, if the people with the most disposable income perceive that nothing significant is being achieved by our corporate stakeholders and their kept government departments—if the semi-anonymous “they” who rule us aren’t seen to be doing anything substantial to keep the planet and our grandchildren from frying—why shouldn’t we buy a hundredth of a volcanic plume online?

The part of this that really bites my toenails is that I love the idea of widespread buy-in to climate remediation technology. I heart a clever gadget. I have a weakness for eco-tech Kickstarters. And in Gamechanger, there’s a lot of this: one small change, repeated a billion times over, by people actively working to roll back the carbon clock. Emissions are down, but a certain amount of geoengineering is in play.

Pretty much everyone comes out of my future equivalent of high school, for example, knowing how to grow and bank a ton of carbon, how to recycle a suburban ranch house for land reclamation efforts, and how to build a low-end freshwater harvester out of an old wine bottle and repurposed nanotech.

I like this vision of the world, which is why I created it. I want to think it’s not impossible that one day everyone with a yard or even patio space may willingly give some of it over to devices that turn air pollution directly to propane. (Yes, that tech is under development!) Maybe water recapture-unsexy as it sounds-is something that could be installed, one conscientious household at a time, to create bulwarks against desertification.

But how to get there in a world where you’re just as likely to buy a volcano balloon as a water recycler? If inventions come along that actually could work a change when deployed in a widespread, one-in-every-home distribution pattern, it’ll matter whether we can distinguish between them. How can we know which items that might be worthwhile and which will be ineffective, ill-advised or even downright harmful?

See? The problem is never having story ideas. It’s choosing.

And that’s before we even move from individual buyers to super-consumers. Think about the great white mostly-males. The Bruce Waynes. What happens when a mega-philanthropist buys into a backyard balloon volcano paradigm? What happens when their billionaire rival goes for the climactic everlasting pill?

Here’s one real world geoengineering idea, a big high-concept pitch, that’s shopping for a moneybags sponsor. Like the volcanic plume stuff, there’s real research behind this one. We could conceivably make it happen.

In 2018, The Atlantic ran an article by Ross Andersen, “Welcome to Pleistocene Park.” The story tells about a conservation park created by a father and son team, Sergey and Nikita Zimov, whose plan, for decades now, has been to increase the density of wildlife in Siberia’s tundra to 8000 BCE population levels. This is a serious project. The park has been crowdfunding an effort to rewild bison, sourcing the animals from North America and moving them to Siberia. Other ecological niches have been filled with muskox, wild horses, and reindeer. The endgame for this intriguing experiment is to simulate ecological conditions in the muskeg 10,000 years ago. If the Simovs and crew pull it off, the tundra will revert to a type of grassland that is colder and more resistant to melt. And why is this desirable or important? Because, as you probably know, melting tundra releases methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
Again, potentially sexy science on the literal hoof this time!

There’s one big problem here, too. The keystone animal in that ecosystem is the woolly mammoth. And it turns out we are fresh out of those.

So what’s the plan at Pleistocene Park? It takes us back to SF rather handily. Are they dreaming, a la Michael Crichton, to find wooly mammoth DNA in amber or old fossilized tusks? Oh, no. This is a go CRISPR or go home scheme—they’ll bioform existing Asian elephant genomes to make their offspring hardy enough to survive the Siberian winter. What we get, if we do this, isn’t Wooly Mammoth 1.0. It’s a reverse-engineer, a reasonable facsimile. A gene lab in Harvard, under the direction of geneticist George Church, is already working on making it a reality.

Boggle at it! Editing the genes of an elephant that might otherwise become extinct (because of humans) to make it more like a distant relative that did become extinct (because of overhunting, in other words because of humans) so that it can occupy a landscape in a way that increases collective human longevity. This is both way out there science fiction stuff and it’s real. What’s more, the biggest roadblock to giving it a try may be money.

So imagine that Bruce Wayne type, getting the hard-sell from Harvard rewilding guys, and throwing a few of his hard inherited billions at a project to build a better elephant. Should he do it? Pleistocene Park has some pretty good researchers in the mix, and they’ve been working on this and thinking about it for a fair while. Maybe the question is: Can it hurt? Maybe the follow up is: Sure, but how much? Perhaps they can throw an extra billion at finding a way to ask the elephants what they think of the whole deal… but let’s be honest, we don’t really want a pachyderm veto to nix the whole thing.

The present is always scary, the future always uncertain. What’s alternately exciting and frightening about climate change is how much effect humanity can potentially have on the landscape. We have a strange simultaneous sense of being powerless, whilst still coming up with ways to radically change the survival game, whether for better or for worse.
One of the best things about being a futurist in the now is getting to see all these possibilities, flawed and freaky though they seem, as people scramble for inventive answers. Geoengineering is just the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg. If you’re anything like me, you’re just waiting—and hoping—for the next headline to erupt across your screens, raising some hopes, dashing others, and either way melting your worldview to slag once again.