Allen&Unwin, 2013, 247 pages, $24.99 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ seems to be the philosophy, says Clive Hamilton in Earthmasters, of the fossil fuel companies, the World Bank and the billionaire ‘techno-entrepreneurs’ like Bill Gates and Richard Branson who are funding research into geo-engineering schemes for “large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming”.
Geo-engineering advocates are coming in from the ‘mad scientist’ fringe to plug “the yawning gap between the urgent response scientists say is needed and the timid measures governments are willing to take”, says Hamilton, including Australia where coal exports over the next decade will be eleven times greater in CO2 emissions than any reduction due to the carbon tax.
“If Plan A (persuading the world to cut emissions) is failing, shouldn’t we have a Plan B?”, plead the Earth engineers fondling their blueprints to manipulate cloud cover, change the ocean’s chemical composition, install a solar shield of sunlight-reflecting sulphate particles, sequestering carbon in the soil, and other even more exotic proposals.
Hamilton makes short work of such ideas, diagnosing their many technical defects, unintended consequences and the expensive and vast industrial infrastructure required to implement them. Pursuing these “highly speculative technologies fraught with political and scientific uncertainties and risks” when “we could just stop burning fossil fuels” is a particularly fraught version of environmental roulette based on unjustified technological hubris.
There is, says Hamilton, something “increasingly desperate about placing more faith in technological supremacy when it is the unrelenting desire to command and control the natural world that has brought us to this point”. This faith is particularly marked amongst the leading geo-engineering advocates whose “common institutional and ideological origins” in Cold War nuclear weapons programs has primed them for further big technological schemes to defend free market capitalism.
Conservative politics explains the apparent paradox of fossil-fuel-friendly climate change deniers supporting a solution (geo-engineering) to a problem (anthropogenic global warming) they say does not exist. For if the science of climate change were to win out against their best efforts at delay and denial, any policy response must involve no “infringement of economic freedom, or require social change which challenges the structure of economic and political power” of the market economy. Those who made the climate change mess are to remain in charge to profit from the (illusory) geo-engineering clean-up.
Hamilton cites Naomi Klein’s observation that climate change deniers ‘understand much better than liberals the political implications of accepting the science’, namely the revolutionary changes which would be required to ‘the underlying logic of our economic system’ which is based on continued material growth and consumerism.
Although such radical social transformation is routinely dismissed as utopian, Hamilton notes that it has been part of the “daily discourse of western society from the French Revolution to the 1980s when the neoliberal revolution brought about the ‘end of history’” and that today’s political quietude represents a pause in revolutionary history rather than a finale, a temporary stasis that climate change has the potential to dramatically upset.
In the end, Hamilton doesn’t take the plunge into anything as specific as a socialist solution to human and environmental crisis (he is more comfortable, and highly proficient at, philosophising) but his book sets up a useful platform for others to take the leap into changing the world.