Hey, Geoengineers. A Word of Warning. Schlimmbesserung
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
You know how sometimes when you put your foot in your mouth and say something really stupid, you try to recover but only stammer out something even dumber and you wind up making it worse? That’s schlimmbesserung.
You know how scientists replaced flammable and poisonous refrigerants with less dangerous chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs), only they leaked out and helped erode the ozone layer that shields life on earth from deadly UVb and UVc radiation? Yup. Schlimmbesserung.
You know how kudzu was introduced in America to prevent soil erosion (in Pennsylvania, 1876), only now it’s spread across 7 million acres in the Southeast, destroying power lines, buildings, and smothering native vegetation? D'OH! Schlimmbesserung.
Schlimmbesserung is the German word for ‘a solution that tried to make things better but ended up making things worse’. We do it all the time, in all sorts of ways. We jump to the solution that we think will work, in the arrogant belief that we’re smart enough to figure things out, only to discover later that we weren’t as smart, or as careful, or as prescient, as we wish we had been. The geoengineers considering massive tinkering with the earth’s natural systems as a way to combat climate change should all be sent big red SCHLIMMBESSERUNG stickers to put up at work. A schlimmbesserung with the biosphere could be an all-time whopper, with potentially existential consequences.
There is research into spraying microscopic particles of sulfur or aluminum oxide into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and keep it from heating the earth. This is how large volcanic eruptions occasionally cool the climate, most recently Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, which cooled the global climate about a degree centigrade for the following two years. What could go wrong with that, right? Oh. Turning the oceans more acidic than vinegar when the stuff rains out of the sky!? OOPS! Schlimmbesserung.
There is talk about cloud seeding, also to reflect sunlight away from the earth’s surface where some of it is absorbed. What could go wrong with changing the precipitation patterns of the entire earth? That one’s got schlimmbesserung written all over it.
So do schemes to suck all the extra human-made carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, so it can’t heat things up, by fertilizing wide swaths of the ocean so more algae grow (plants consume CO2). I mean, what could go wrong with messing with the food chain of the oceans, right?
There are all sorts of other geoengineering ideas; stirring up part of the Pacific Ocean to bring deeper colder water to the surface, thickening the arctic ice cap so it doesn’t melt and it’s whiteness reflects more radiation back into space, even the idea of creating a ring of particles around the earth, out in space, like the rings of Saturn, kept in place by a fleet of spacecraft, that would dim the sunlight hitting the earth. Honest to God! Smart people have seriously proposed all of these geoengineering ideas, and more.
To be fair, most of these are theoretical suggestions as we grope for any ideas that might stave off the potentially cataclysmic effects of climate change. And to be fair, lots of smart people have said that most of these ideas are, well, dumb. And when research on these projects even gets close to reality, the public fear of schlimmbesserung rises up and puts a stop to things. Some British researchers wanted to float a trial balloon, literally, to test a method for ultimately spreading particles into the stratosphere. They didn’t even get to launch their balloon. (They probably shouldn’t have called their project SPICE, for Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering)
But the larger point isn’t just about geoengineering. It’s about the human arrogance that leads to schlimmbesserungs all over the place. Ethanol from corn as a source of fuel for vehicles? Oops. How’s that going for the price of food? Introducing voracious asian carp to clean the bottoms of aquaculture ponds in the South? The U.S. and Canadian governments are now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the asian carp that escaped from those ponds from spreading into and decimating the natural habitats in the Great Lakes. Environmentalists opposing nuclear power, ostensibly to encourage more solar and wind generation, but contributing instead to the expansion of coal power? How’s that climate change thing going, eh, Greenpeace?
Time and again we try to solve our problems but end up creating new ones, or try to undo our mistakes in ways that turn out to be mistakes all by themselves. We do this because we think we’re smarter than we actually are, and that we can figure things out more than we actually can. We think we are more powerful and more in control than we actually are. Hubris = schlimmbesserung.
Climate change is a huge, complex problem that will require novel and daring solutions, and some of those solutions will undoubtedly have negative consequences of their own. Business as usual is unacceptable. But given all the evidence we have of how many times we’ve made things worse as we’ve tried to make things better, and all we have learned in the past couple decades about human cognition and the limits of our ability to reason, we better hope that the geoengineers keep two words of warning in mind as they ponder potential climate change solutions; humility, and schlimmbesserung.