Blue sky, a plane leaving white vapour trails
(Photo: Tobias Titz, via Getty)

Systems control: Introducing a new way of thinking about the climate crisis

Seven years ago Elizabeth Kolbert wrote The Sixth Extinction. In her new book about climate, Under a White Sky, she finds a middle ground between optimism and apocalyptic bleakness. 

“Soon it would be too hot” – J G Ballard, The Drowned World (1962)

The real problem is the sun. It warms the earth – which is nice, the basis of all life – but over the past 200 years we’ve altered our planet’s atmosphere so that it captures too much warmth. And we’ve failed to reduce our carbon emissions, or even slow their rapid growth, and it seems obvious that we’ll continue to fail, that the problem defies our economic and political systems. So the atmosphere will continue to capture more and more warmth with increasingly dire consequences.

The solution is obvious. Dim the sun.

Elizabeth Kolbert is the climate reporter for the New Yorker. She won the Pulitzer prize for her 2014 book The Sixth Extinction, a collection of essays describing the accelerating mass extinctions of the modern era, comparing them to previous large scale extinction events in our planet’s remote past, caused by super volcano eruptions and meteor strikes. The book helped popularise the term “the anthropocene”, an informal description for our current geological era, a period in which human activity is the most significant actor on the planet’s ecosystems.

Most climate writing takes an activist approach. It wants to influence politics and policy, and it does this by warning people what might happen if humanity doesn’t change our ways “in the next six months” or 18 months, or three years or 12 years. Those warnings are usually apocalyptic. But the public has remained unpersuaded, and even elected politicians who described themselves as progressive on climate delivered very little action, preferring to set emissions targets for dates decades in the future, which would then get pushed even further out by their replacements.

So The Sixth Extinction wasn’t an activist book. It was journalism; calmly and objectively describing a global mass extinction event that was already well underway when it was published seven years ago. Under a White Sky is Kolbert’s equally detached attempt to imagine the future in a climate changed world; a future that is now inevitable. And she does this by reporting on the present.

In 2019 the journalist David Wallace-Wells published The Uninhabitable Earth, a book that “peered beyond scientific reticence” by outlining the most dire imaginable consequences of climate change: a planet that is incapable of sustaining human life, a state that Wallace-Wells predicted we’d arrive at very soon. No matter how frightened you are of climate change, he warned, you are not nearly frightened enough. Then, in late 2020 the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson published The Ministry for the Future describing the next stages of the climate apocalypse – millions dying in heat waves, vast coastal cities flooded. But he then imagined the progressive/activist response, which leads to the transformation of the global economy into a Piketty-esque zero carbon egalitarian post-nation state techno-utopia.

Robinson’s book is dedicated to Frederic Jameson, the literary theorist who claimed it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Robinson imagines both, ending on a vision of wild optimism. (Along the way he wonders why the world’s central banks don’t do carbon quantitative easing, printing money to pay people to sequester carbon instead of using QE to inflate their share markets and metropolitan house prices – which is what most western governments are currently doing, including ours. Which might be the most important question in the world right now.) His solutions are partly political, partly economic, mostly technological; the heroes use distributed ledgers to invent new carbon currencies and drone swarms to assassinate the heads of energy companies.

For some climate activists – Naomi Klein is the most prominent – opting out of the carbon economy is easy. The problem is ideological, and we solve it by waking up and accepting that economic theory is wrong and economic growth is bad. Climate change is useful, in Klein’s view: it’s the catalyst for realising that our real problem is capitalism. The radical transformation of our economy that the climate crisis forces upon us is the path to a better world.

Klein’s logic found its way into the degrowth movement of the mid to late 2010s, championed by the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, in which the consequences of climate change are prevented by halting and then reversing economic growth. But it’s hard to imagine a political climate in which citizens of developed nations willingly dismantle most of their energy infrastructure to reach emissions parity with the developing world. And it’s even harder to imagine states like China, India, Brazil or Nigeria scaling back their economic development to meet a global carbon budget that was almost entirely blown out by western nations over the previous hundred years.

For the novelist and former environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth – whom Kolbert quotes in Under a White Sky, and who became a harsh critic of the environmental movement for its obsession with carbon accounting and tendency to see the natural world as an engineering challenge and not a sacred entity – both technology and degrowth are illusions. There is no way out. Climate change is not ideological but systemic. Humanity has created a trap it cannot escape, a machine that sustains eight billion lives, more every day, who all will fight to keep it running. But it’s a machine with no pause, and no off switch. Economists merely describe this machine, which will continue to consume the planet and everything on it until the collapse of the ecosystem causes the destruction of our civilisation. Kingsnorth’s advice: move to the country. Buy a compost toilet. Learn to use a scythe.

Under a White Sky suggests a middle ground between the utopian optimism of writers like Robinson and Klein, and the apocalyptic bleakness of Wallace-Wells and Kingsnorth. Although there’s a way in which her conception of the future is more depressing. There is, after all, something romantic about Kingsnorth’s vision: the terrifying chaos of modernity comes crashing down and the wise survivors live contemplative pastoral lives in the ruins. But what if modernity – all the capitalism, globalisation, technological transformation – doesn’t stop? What if it keeps going? What if the apocalypse never comes? Or, what if it comes but nothing really changes? Kolbert sketches out what I’ve come to think of as the boring apocalypse.

Two book covers: Under a White Sky, and The Sixth Extinction

(Images: Supplied)

She starts with a river. Back in the 1960s Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a foundational text for the modern environmental movement. It described the devastating impacts of synthetic chemicals on the natural environment. As an alternative to industrial chemicals, Carson suggested, we should be using natural solutions. Instead of spraying a waterway with toxic chemicals to wipe out insects, turning them into “rivers of death”, we could merely introduce a new species that would consume the insects. It was in this spirit that several species of Asian carp were introduced to lakes in the American south, to control the aquatic plants, algae and molluscs causing problems in the waterways.

The carp were aquafarmed in China for centuries, but when transported to US waterways they found themselves in a new environment with abundant food and no natural predators. They spread rapidly, either eating or outcompeting almost every other aquatic species they encountered. Which was bad for the rivers and lakes of the US south and midwest, but would be disastrous if they reached the great lakes ecosystem of the Atlantic northeast.

For millions of years the Great Lakes basin was separated off from the waterways of the rest of North America, but in the late 19th/early 20th century these systems were linked by the US Army Corps of Engineers, who were charged with redirecting the Chicago River. At the time the river carried Chicago’s sewage directly into Lake Michigan, which caused routine outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. The Corps dug a gigantic canal and used it to reverse the river’s flow, carrying the effluent south into the Mississippi river delta. One hundred years later, it became the entry point for the endemic carp, moving upstream, to access the great lakes.

The same Engineer Corps that created the canal were given the job of preventing this, but they couldn’t dam or block the waterway because it was still a vital part of Chicago’s infrastructure. They looked at a variety of solutions: dosing the canal with poison, irradiating it with UV light, zapping it with ozone, superheating it, turning it anoxic by flooding it with nitrogen. In the end they decided the simplest solution was electricity. Kolbert, inspecting the canal on a “pleasure craft” called City Living, captures the surreal creepiness of floating down a deliberately electrified river: the dire warning signs, the flights of birds gathering to consume any fish that have been stunned or killed. If a human fell into the river, an engineer informed her, they’d probably die.

It’s easy to say that it’s crazy to electrify an entire river, or that invasive new species shouldn’t have been introduced to the US ecosystem, or that the Chicago River shouldn’t have been reversed. But Kolbert’s book is about path dependency. All of those things happened. They’re locked in and can’t be rolled back. Rachel Carson’s alternate title for Silent Spring was The Control of Nature, an idea Carson was firmly against. It was grounded in arrogance, she argued, in a worldview in which nature existed for the convenience of man. But what if relinquishing control is no longer an option? What if the attempt to control is already there, and all you have left is trying to control the control, in an endless layering of improvisations and feedback loops?

What will happen to the world’s coastal megacities when the sea levels rise and they begin to flood? Climate stories are often illustrated with drawings of drowned cities; the streets transformed into lagoons beneath the skeletons of abandoned skyscrapers. Kolbert suggests they might look like New Orleans, already a flood-prone city, already below sea level and sinking a little lower every year.

Some of the hydrologists and geologists Kolbert interviews no longer refer to the Mississippi River delta around New Orleans as a landscape, or a natural environment. Instead it is a “CHANS”: a Coupled Human and Natural System. The scale of the engineering works – the levees, floodgates, canals and pumping stations needed to keep the city dry – are so vast, so denaturing, the results require a new acronym, a new framework for thinking about humanity’s relationship with nature. The section of the Mississippi running through the CHANS is so regulated it can no longer be thought of as a river, in any meaningful way. And, of course, these attempts to control nature have unintended consequences, requiring further interventions.

Some of this is simple. Relatively. Because most of New Orleans is below sea level, any rain falling on it needs to either evaporate or be pumped away by the massive network of pumping stations and canals distributed across the city. But marshy soils compact through dewatering so the city itself is sinking even deeper as a result of all the pumping. Which increases the danger, both from flooding and storm surges, which requires more levees and more pumping. The city is trapped in a loop, each iteration of which escalates both the problem and the solution required.

But the real headache is the river. The Mississippi is regulated to prevent it from drowning the city but its annual flooding once deposited millions of tons of sediment across the delta, and in its absence the land around New Orleans is eroding. It is, Kolbert informs us, one of the fastest-disappearing places on Earth, with the government officially retiring the names of its bays and bayous because they’ve been consumed by the Gulf of Mexico. Kolbert flies over the area, observing the roads and fields still visible beneath the slowly rising waters.

Of course there is a plan to fix this, with the Engineer Corps and other agencies dreaming  up grand plans to sledge vast amounts of sediment and divert it to the coastline. More control. The coastal cities of the future might not drown but they’ll be radically transformed, with pharaonic flood control infrastructure rising to join the skyscrapers and motorways. It will fail, sometimes, as New Orleans’ does. Residents will get used to storms that scatter fishing boats across the roads and hang dead cows in the branches of trees. And the regions of the landscape that can’t be saved – because they have no economic value and their residents have no political capital – will gradually disappear.

Aerial shot of a flooded city

30 August, 2005; New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina (Photo: Michael Appleton for the New York Daily News Archive, via Getty Images)

The best way to dim the sun – to turn down the heat it casts onto our planet – is by scattering vast amounts of small reflective particles into the stratosphere. Tiny (manufactured) diamonds are a strong candidate: they’re non-reactive and won’t absorb any energy at all; the light scatters harmlessly back into space. But once you spray them into the atmosphere they’ll eventually fall back to earth, and no one’s quite sure what would happen to any or all of the planet’s lifeforms when we start inhaling – or otherwise metabolising – diamond dust.

The scientists Kolbert talks to at the Harvard Solar Geoengineering Research Program like calcium carbonate. It’s natural: the main component of eggshells, snail shells, pearls. The air is already full of it; the ecosystem is saturated with it. And it has the right optical properties. Build enough specialised planes, dump enough of it in the atmosphere and it’ll reduce the energy of the incoming sunlight enough to offset the increased warmth from the greenhouse effect.

This was, Kolbert explains, almost the first technological solution proposed to the problem of climate change. Way back in the 1960s, when American and Soviet scientists first diagnosed the consequences of increased atmospheric carbon, they grimly predicted that nation states were highly unlikely to reduce their emissions, so you’d have to counteract the warming some other way, and this seemed like the best answer.

Is it, though? Climate systems are famously hard to model so no one knows what will happen when you dump hundreds of thousands of tons of reflective particles into the atmosphere. The main concern is that it’ll disrupt rainfall patterns causing droughts in Africa and Asia. It will probably make solar panels less effective – so it might increase the demand for fossil fuels. It will probably turn the sky white: that empty, bleached-out colour you already see in skies over megacities like Cairo or Delhi on a hot clear day.

But the biggest problem with solar geoengineering is that unless your atmospheric CO2 drops you have to keep doing it. It doesn’t solve the climate crisis; it just addresses one of its symptoms. Imagine the heater in your house is broken: it keeps getting hotter and hotter. You can use an air conditioning unit to cool the rooms down but you haven’t fixed the heater. So you need to keep turning the air con up, and up, and up, just to maintain a stable temperature.

All those particles – diamonds, or calcium carbonate, or whatever – gradually fall to earth, but if CO2 levels continue to rise you need more particle dispersal; more flights. And if those flights are powered by fossil fuels you need even more flights to offset the emissions from those flights. And if you stop doing it, for whatever reason, the compounded heat hits very quickly – a scenario that climate modellers refer to as a “termination shock”. So solar engineering is another trap; another loop. Another path dependent attempt to control a system that’s too complex to adequately predict or control.

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The Harvard physicists understand all of these problems. In most cases they’re the ones who figured them out. Their argument is that we’ve already blown past the CO2 level that would see a 1.5C increase in global temperature. We’re already locked into a trajectory that will see catastrophic climate change. And emissions aren’t going down. It’ll take decades for the planet to transition to renewable energy economies, even if every country in the world starts now, which most of them won’t.

Many of the IPCC pathways that see emissions reduce over the 21st century rely on widespread adoption of an industrial process called BECCS: Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage. In the simplest implementation: you grow a forest, chop it down, burn the wood for energy and separate out the CO2 as it’s emitted. Then you store this captured carbon by injecting it deep underground, where it soaks into rocks deep in the planet’s crust. Climate modellers and economists love BECCS because it lets us have things both ways. We generate the energy that powers most economic growth and remove carbon from the atmosphere at the same time.

As of 2019 there were five BECCS facilities around the world, sequestering roughly 0.0004% of the world’s annual carbon emissions (my calculation; not Kolbert’s). So it needs to scale up by many orders of magnitude, at the same time that we’re transitioning the world’s 1.5 billion combustion engine vehicle fleet to electric and all the coal plants to solar and nuclear and wind.

The argument for solar geoengineering is that it buys the world time to carry out the transition to carbon neutrality: the transition we should have been working on for the last 30 years. Critics of the idea wonder if humans even have the right to do this. We’re already geoengineering, its advocates reply: That’s what climate change is. But right now we’re geoengineering in this completely unplanned, uncontrolled way. Is it really worse to do it in a planned way to try and correct that? Kolbert quotes Lampedusa: “Everything must change for everything to remain the same.”

Towards the end of the book Kolbert contrasts three very different environmentalists on the subject of godhood. The technophile Stewart Brand, who said of humanity, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” the biologist EO Wilson who responds, “We are not as gods. We are not yet sentient or intelligent enough to be much of anything”, and Kingsnorth who commented, “We are as gods but we have failed to get good at it. We are Loki, killing the beautiful for fun. We are Saturn, devouring our children.”

In one of his most famous essays Kingsnorth wrote:

When I was young, I thought that the world was divided into good and bad people, and that I was one of the good ones. Later, slightly older, I thought it was divided into informed and ignorant people, and that I was one of the informed ones. Older still, though still not nearly old enough, I thought it was divided into Bad Elites and Good Masses, and that since I had no money or power, I must belong to the second category.

Now I think that humans like ease, material comfort, entertainment, and conformity, and they do not like anyone who threatens to take these things away. I think that even the people who say these things should be taken away in order to prevent the collapse of life on Earth do not really mean it … The collapse of the industrial economy is, in all likelihood, the only remaining way to prevent the mass destruction of life on Earth.

Some people love this strain of fatalistic nihilism; they relish the prospect of humanity being destroyed for its sins. But I’ve met more people who’ve read Kingsnorth or The Uninhabitable Earth, or other climate doom literature and found themselves overwhelmed with despair. They’ve abandoned environmentalism – because what’s the point? – or decided not to have children, because why bring new life into a world that is about to end?

Under a White Sky points towards a vision of the future that is far from utopian – but there is still a future. And it is a future that looks a lot more like the IPCC’s higher probability “intermediate pathways” than the rapid extinction scenarios which have captured so many imaginations, but which we’ve been steadily moving away from over the last 10 years. It’s a future where problems have been caused by people who aren’t bad, or ignorant or addicted to material ease; they’re smart and well intentioned but working with systems that were too complex for them to predict the consequences of their actions, which are now irreversible. And those problems are partly solved by that same class of people, who are creating further problems downstream. It’s a future in which some things are better while others are horrible (the rivers are electrified, the skies are white, Elon Musk is the world’s first carbon currency trillionaire) but both the terrible and miraculous have become banal to those who live in it. A future we still have agency to influence, for better or worse.

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bodley Head, $37) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

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