Geoengineering Will Be Part of a Fossil Fuel–Free Future

The carbon removal industry is coming, whether we like it or not. The Left should seize it as an opportunity to articulate and realize a progressive vision for the future — one completely rid of fossil fuels.

A pod, operated by Carbfix, containing technology for storing carbon dioxide underground, in Hellisheidi, Iceland, on Tuesday, September 7, 2021. (Bloomberg / Getty Images)

For years, commentators on the Left spurned all talk of geoengineering. It’s easy to understand why. Geoengineering, a blanket term that describes large-scale technologies for cooling the planet, evokes the “move fast and break stuff” ethos of Silicon Valley. A quick tour of the latest and greatest in geoengineering technoheroics includes lasers for controlling the weather, deserts retrofitted as solar power plants, and a thousand-mile-long “space parasol” to shade the earth. The world dreamed up by these self-described disruptors is the stuff of leftist nightmares: a venture-capital utopia with no politics, no regulators, and no regard for naysayers. “It’s so easy to save the planet,” as Russ George, an entrepreneur who in 2012 defied regulators by dumping one hundred tons of iron dust into the ocean to seed a giant CO2-sequestering algae bloom, once put it. “You can do it on a 125-year-old wooden schooner, under sail.”

Critics also point to the moral hazard that geoengineering poses: by inventing technologies for cleaning up this mess, aren’t we merely giving fossil fuel companies license to continue in their carbon-emitting ways? Google “carbon capture and storage” — shorthand for industrial-scale technologies for removing carbon at the site of emission and storing it underground — and the first search result is a page for ExxonMobil’s “Energy Factor” project. There you’ll learn about Exxon’s Low Carbon Solutions, a $3-billion division working to bring technologies for carbon capture and storage to a commercial market. Low Carbon Solutions aims to be the corporate boardroom answer to the techno-optimism of Silicon Valley. “I love engineering,” reads a quote from Joe Blommaert, the division’s president. “You get to solve big challenges by combining scientific principles with outside-the-box thinking.”

And then there’s solar geoengineering, the most controversial technology of all. Solar geoengineering involves shooting massive quantities of aerosols into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight and cool the climate. Scientists believe that, among other environmental risks, messing with the sun in this way could permanently disrupt the Asian and African monsoon seasons and lead to catastrophic droughts and food shortages. And if the world ever decided to suddenly stop solar geoengineering, it would run the risk of “termination shock”: a rapid and devastating rise in temperatures. Solar geoengineering also raises a host of seemingly intractable questions about governance and consent. As Naomi Klein wrote in 2012:

By definition, technologies that tamper with ocean and atmospheric chemistry affect everyone. Yet it is impossible to get anything like unanimous consent for these interventions. Nor could any such consent possibly be informed since we don’t — and can’t — know the full risks involved until these planet-altering technologies are actually deployed.

But in one particular corner of leftist climate politics, several figures think it’s time to move beyond a knee-jerk suspicion of large-scale climate tech. Chief among them is Holly Jean Buck. For the past several years, Buck, a social scientist at the University of Buffalo who recently took a position with the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, has argued (including in the pages of Jacobin) that geoengineering should sit at the heart of a progressive climate agenda. Buck is motivated by the sense, increasingly shared by many in the scientific community, that climate change is so far gone that even rapid and radical decarbonization will not be enough to stanch the effects of warming temperatures unless coupled with technological solutions. Too much warming, the saying goes, is already locked in. (This is often described as the bathtub analogy: even if we turn off the carbon dioxide “faucet,” nearly all the carbon we’ve already emitted will remain in the atmosphere unless we open a carbon removal “drain.”)

Geoengineering, then, is a matter not of if but when. In her book Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero Is Not Enough, Buck links carbon capture and storage and direct-air capture technologies — which removes carbon directly from the air — to an audacious project of completely ending the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Our Carbon Capture or Theirs?

Buck first addressed the Left’s technological misgivings in After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration. As she pointed out, oil and gas companies already control the technologies for large-scale carbon dioxide storage in the form of something known as enhanced oil recovery, a technique that involves injecting carbon dioxide into a depleted oil well to extend the well’s life. The carbon removal and storage industry, in other words, was coming whether we liked it or not; if the Left didn’t fight to have a say, fossil fuel companies would simply continue to develop the technology on their own terms. “It is better to meet these prospects head on, in an anticipatory way,” Buck wrote, “rather than pretend we can wave a magic wand and ban all fossil fuels, or vigorously oppose all forms of industrial carbon capture.”

Ending Fossil Fuels offers what Buck describes as a “primer” on fossil fuel phaseout. To date, climate politics have centered exclusively on managing fossil fuel emissions. In policies like the Paris Agreement and the Green New Deal, the goal is a world with carbon emissions brought to “net zero” — a slippery and ambiguous term that, as Buck notes, lends itself equally to a postcarbon world or a continuation of the status quo. “Net zero may be a temporary state on the way toward a fossil-free future, or it may be a permanent condition where fossil fuels continue forever, re-interpreted as part of sustainable carbon management,” Buck observes. Meanwhile, policymakers have neglected the production side of things, leaving an opening for the Left to articulate a program for what decarbonization could look like. Buck sees a politics organized around fossil fuel phaseout as a way to bring about a more just world and believes Big Tech and Big Data have important roles to play in bringing this world into being.

Buck chalks up the focus on emissions, at the expense of discussions about fossil fuel phaseout, to the fact that climate policy wonks have been professionalized to work within a centrist paradigm, in which certain roads for achieving net zero are deemed possible and others are dismissed as too radical. To this end, Ending Fossil Fuels might be read as an effort to appeal to the red-scare sensibilities of these technocrats. Nowhere will you find Buck railing, Naomi Klein–style, against the evils of capitalism — Buck is adamant that the thing in need of dismantling is not capitalism but fossil fuels. She has no patience for climate activists who refuse to work with bastions of capital on ideological grounds. Oil companies already have the deep knowledge and expertise we need to remove carbon on an industrial scale: why reinvent the wheel?

Yet over the course of the book, it becomes evident that Buck wants to use the project of dismantling a fossil fuel-based society as a Trojan horse for bringing about something that looks like a postcapitalist society. What will it take to ensure that control over carbon removal technologies rests in the hands of the people? Nationalize the fossil fuel industry and reinvent it as a publicly owned, worker-centered carbon management industry. Labor unions, Buck notes, have long been clamoring for a massive scale-up of the carbon capture and storage industry and access to the high-paying jobs it will provide. Nationalization will also help when it comes time to impose increasingly strict oil extraction quotas and when it’s time to retire power plants before they’ve reached the end of their life cycle — two key steps in the fossil fuel phaseout process that Buck outlines.

What about the massive amounts of monitoring and sensing data that go into making carbon removal technologies work? Here the focus needs to be on ensuring the data remains publicly controlled and publicly accessible. Recent history is instructive. A 2020 Treasury Department audit found that from 2010 to 2019, fossil fuel companies improperly claimed nearly $900 million in carbon-removal tax credits; the companies claimed the credits without ever submitting the necessary reports proving they had actually sequestered the carbon. Buck believes the companies were able to get away with blatant fraud for so long because none of the reporting data were available for public scrutiny, writing, “It’s a process to get those numbers; you have to be an expert to navigate that process. No one really knows what is going on with the tons of carbon dioxide.”

With the coming commercial demand for ecological sensing data — think of all the municipalities and companies that have pledged carbon neutrality: How will they know when they’ve reached it? — Big Tech will assume an increasingly outsize role in carbon politics. Microsoft, Buck notes, is currently working to literally invent the market for carbon capture with a $1-billion investment fund for climate tech startups. Here again Buck calls for some kind of public control over the future carbon exchange platforms, cloud storage capabilities, and machine learning systems. Social media platforms too need to be made into public utilities to combat climate disinformation campaigns.

At the heart of Buck’s vision for a postcapitalist world is planning: planned transitions, planned phaseouts, planned endings. Planning in the United States has a bad rap, both ideologically — the antithesis of all that freedom-loving Americans stand for — and historically, as in, for instance, the exclusionary planning practices of individuals like Robert Moses or, more generally, the racist housing policies that informed city planning for decades. Buck thinks we can do it better this time. She senses that, in the realms of architecture, urban planning, and economics, the tide is turning toward a more justice-centered approach to planning. It’s a trend that can be helped along by a cultural shift: Buck wants us to make planning cool again.

Indeed, it’s clear that decarbonizing the world will take some mighty planning heroics. Energy infrastructure is the classic example. What will it take to ensure that carbon-intensive power plants are retired at the same time that new plants are brought online? How to pull off this “coordinated dance” without sparking an energy or financial crisis? What will we do with the old plant workers who now find themselves out of a job? Buck thinks Big Data can help here. In March 2021, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NERL), a US Department of Energy lab, completed a study on behalf of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The department wanted to know what it would take to shift Los Angeles to 100 percent renewable energy. The study, which took three years, used NERL’s supercomputing capacities to run 100 million simulations; it identified multiple pathways for a successful transition. Buck points to the study as an example of how publicly funded computing systems and publicly accessible data can be marshaled for a “workable, justice-centered phaseout.”

Making Fossil Fuels Public Enemy Number One

If you had asked me what I thought about geoengineering before I read Ending Fossil Fuels, I would have probably said something about how uneasy I am about technologies that seem to let fossil fuel companies off the hook for the mess they’ve made. But now I’m convinced. The carbon removal industry is coming, whether we like it or not. Why not seize it as an opportunity to articulate — and realize — a progressive vision for the future? Do I think an oil and gas phaseout will happen? Not as long as the Joe Manchins of the world remain in power. Bu I understand why Buck thinks it’s worth organizing a political agenda around the prospect.

What’s compelling about Buck’s work is her insistence that the object of concern is not climate change (which seems to breed a species of technocratic thinking fundamentally ill-suited to meet the demands of the moment) and not capitalism (whose promised demise is often a hard sell for nonbelievers) but fossil fuels. Make an enemy of fossil fuels, she suggests, and you’ll find yourself any number of political allies. Fossil fuels breed corruption and authoritarianism. From bribery, tax fraud, and money laundering to outright theft — on the order of billions of dollars — and political violence, fossil fuels are astonishingly adept at enriching kleptocrats and powerful elites. “We talk of ‘blood diamonds,’ not so much of ‘blood gasoline,’” writes Buck.

Fossil fuels are also potent weapons in contemporary geopolitics (see: the Nord Stream pipeline and Europe’s continuing limp response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). And they wreak havoc on our health. This is especially true for those who live near sites of extraction and refining, where they are exposed to toxic fumes and are at a high risk for contaminated water if something goes wrong at the drill site. And once oil wells are depleted, companies have a terrible track record when it comes to cleaning up: they typically choose bankruptcy rather than pay up, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill. There’s even a free-market argument to be made here. For decades, politicians and economic analysts alike have been heralding the coming solar revolution. That it has never come to pass, Buck argues, is evidence of the fossil fuel industry’s success in stifling technological innovation and blocking the development of the necessary infrastructure.

In other words, fossil fuels are terrible: tools of oppression, exploitation, corruption, and injustice. It’s just that we as a culture haven’t insisted on perceiving them in this way. Buck believes linking fossil fuels with an anti-corruption, anti-monopoly, and anti-elite political agenda at the national level could bolster grassroots efforts to delegitimize fossil fuels already underway via the “Keep It in the Ground” movement, indigenous-led anti-pipeline campaigns, and divestment initiatives.

Ending Fossil Fuels is ambitious. Buck doesn’t always have answers. She knows the project of fossil fuel phaseout is daunting and could easily devolve into a new kind of global inequality, in which wealthy nations achieve net zero (and the self-congratulatory smugness that comes with it), but nations lacking the resources to make the shift to renewables remain utterly dependent on fossil fuels. How will we ever convince Nigeria, a country where oil accounts for 96 percent of total exports, to decarbonize? What about Saudi Arabia, which Buck calls an “archetypal petrostate?” Or Russia, a country that, under Vladimir Putin, has aggressively positioned itself as an energy superpower? “There are a lot of ways that countries are locked into fossil fuels,” Buck admits.

In the last instance, Buck can easily envision the realpolitik version of how this plays out: in the name of peace or appeasement, Russia continues to supply the world with fossil fuels, while other nations compensate by increasing their carbon offsets. This would be a world with an overall smaller global carbon footprint but still based in fossil fuels. Buck doesn’t want us to resign ourselves to this version of the future as necessarily inevitable, though she is admittedly vague when it comes to articulating the geopolitical alternative. But the point is that the Left needs to be thinking seriously about all these thorny issues. If it doesn’t, someone else will step in and define the bounds of political possibility.

Make no mistake: Buck may not demand purity when it comes to ideology. But she is a purist in a least one sense. If we want to bring about the world we want to see, we must insist on complete and total phaseout of fossil fuels. Nothing less will suffice.