Geo-engineering is the issue of our lives that can really make one feel like we’re living in the future. The idea is to change global atmospheric and geographical conditions to prevent or counteract the effects of climate change. Simply put, if we cannot reduce emission and therefore our influence on the Earth’s ecosystem, there may be possible corrective actions that would balance out the detrimental effects. There are different tangible suggestions, how this could be achieved: redirecting or reflecting solar light by creating clouds, and capturing and storing CO2 underground are amongst the most popular ideas.
All this sounds a bit Bond-villainy to you? You are not alone! Plans on this scale pop up more and more frequently, and if we think of the more ludicrous ones (like China’s plan to put a “fake moon” in orbit, or the SpaceX enterprise for “planet-hopping”,) it is easy to understand how engineering projects on a global level can immediately trigger ethical debates. No matter how benign and noble the goal of the project or how much hype and enthusiasm surrounds it, putting the fate of galactic travel, or weather systems and global temperatures into the hands of one man, one company, or one country sounds scary enough for many to say: thanks, but no, thanks. But is there another solution to our worries about climate change? What else is there to do, but to trust the scientific-industrial elite with these giga-projects?
5-WORDS & TED Summit 2019
5-WORDS worked hand-in-hand with TED at the 2019 TED Summit to discover what people really think and feel about geo-engineering. We asked the audience to identify themselves as either for or against geo-engineering. 63% of the audience present was in favor of geo-engineering as a concept. It is important to note that the question did not elaborate further, so it reflects the gut-feeling of the room regarding the general concept, rather than a specific policy.
The audience then provided 5 separate words or associations as answers to the following question: What would be, in your mind, the most likely impacts of big-scale geo-engineering? All answers were collected, then 5-WORDS cleaned and analyzed the data (got rid of misspelling, capitalizations, etc) on the spot. The words were organized into a neat word cloud, where the size of the word indicates the frequency of the word.
The answers speak of deep and widespread uncertainty. It seems like the audience, as a collective was not doubting the possible usefulness of the technology, however, the vast majority had worries about possible unforeseeable side-effects. 5-WORDS runs not only a plain statistical analysis, but also linguistic groupings. When 5-WORDS categorized the answers into thematic word groups, the 5 most popular categories were: ‘unpredictable’, ‘inequality’, ‘consequence’, ‘conflict’, and ‘innovation’.
Positive and reassuring words, like ‘collaboration’, ‘safety’, or ‘longevity’ were only used a handful of times, which is surprising if we consider that almost 2/3 of the audience said that they were generally for geo-engineering. The opinion of the audience was largely uniform, 96% of the words were used by both supporters and opposers of geo-engineering (these are the Shared Words in the chart below) and only 4% of all answers are exclusive to one group or another. Words that were used only by supporters were ‘innovation’, ‘survival’, ‘hope’, ‘sustainability’, and ‘solution’.
In other words, if we want to have a constructive discussion about geo-engineering with this specific audience, most of our energy should go into addressing unpredictability. Having the opposers of the technology map out which unintended consequences they have in mind, while challenging advocates on why they think it is an issue of survival could be a way to unpack the issue and invigorate the conversation.
Further readings about this subject:
- What is geoengineering—and why should you care? (MIT Technology Review)
- What is Geoengineering and Can It Save the Planet? (UCTV)
- Geoengineer the Planet? More Scientists Now Say It Must Be an Option (Yale Environment 360)
- Does cloud seeding really work? An experiment above Idaho suggests humans can turbocharge snowfall (ScienceMag)