Hacking the Earth

Showing cover of Skyseed novel on geonegineeringCurator and writer Rob La Frenais interviews scientist and fellow ClimateCultures member Bill McGuire about Skyseed. McGuire’s novel explores geoengineering — the ‘fix’ proposed by some as global heating’s global solution. What on Earth could possibly go wrong?…


1,930 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


As COP 26 in Glasgow approaches, there’s a new thriller, Skyseed by scientist Bill McGuire which is aimed at drawing our attention to the growing lobby of industrialists, fossil fuel producers, politicians and scientists who want to explore the idea of geoengineering — what is called in the novel the ‘Fix’ — using novel, large-scale, engineering solutions to global heating.

Showing cover of Skyseed novel on geonegineering
Skyseed, by Bill McGuire

In a tense drama set in 2028, the world’s scientific community — astronomers, volcanologists and climate scientists — slowly becomes aware there is a conspiracy of ‘bad actors’ who are secretly unleashing synthetic biology-inspired ‘nanobots’ to eat up the carbon in the atmosphere. Without spoiling the plot, there is an unexpected volcanic eruption during this process which sends the world hurtling towards a new ice age, where ironically we have to go back to dirty coal technologies like steam trains to try to reverse runaway cooling. This is probably the first thriller based on the climate emergency as it is unravelling right now and certainly the first based on geo-engineering. As the book’s cover suggests “hacking the earth might be the last thing we ever do”.

The ‘bad actors’ are — wait for it — Britain and the USA. It’s a story that mirrors the unthinkable alliance between Blair and Bush to launch an illegal war in Iraq based on non-existent weapons of mass destruction, based on a ‘dodgy dossier’. In the book, the UK Prime Minister has already bought a dodgy dossier on geoengineering from the US President, while at the same time testing the water with a climate scientist he had previously campaigned with before getting elected and back-pedalling on climate pledges, Jane Halliwell. Here she responds to his suggestion that a ‘fix’ might be possible.

Jane looked at the PM for a long moment, then shook her head. ‘Prime Minister, you know what needs to be done. Nothing’s changed. Our priority has to be slashing emissions, not (increasing) GDP growth. Nothing else will do…Kickstarting the stalled renewables and transport decarbonisation drives, a crash programme in energy efficiency. It’s the same old stuff. I’m afraid there’s just no silver bullet.

Moving from science fiction to reality?

Geoengineering with a space lens
Space Lens. Image: Mikael Häggström – Including the image ‘The Earth seen from Apollo 17’, also public domain licensed, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_geoengineering#/media/File:Space_lens.png

Bill McGuire: “Extreme geoengineering measures include building colossal mirrors or lenses in space to cut the amount of solar radiation reaching the planet.”

McGuire knows his territory. When he’s not writing novels he’s Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at UCL, London and contributing author to the IPCC 2012 SREX report on climate change and extreme events. I asked him how he became aware of the dangers of geoengineering as portrayed in his thriller.

“Well the idea’s been around since the Cold War really, people like Edward Teller brought it up. So it’s always been at the back of my mind. Over the last couple of years, there’s been a UN moratorium of geoengineering; open-air experiments anyway. Despite that, people have started to bugger around, if you like, and try things out. It’s the fact that it’s growing in terms of credence and involvement that has sparked my interest in it. People are getting into it in all sorts of ways. For example there’s a project designed to brighten the clouds over the Great Barrier Reef. It’s aimed to preserve the Reef, but it’s pretty clear they are developing a technology that can be used around the world and make large amounts of money out of it. It’s moving from pages of science fiction to what potentially is reality.”

There are already documents circulating about a ‘soft’ version of geoengineering, for example a group led by Sir David King called the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge. What was his response to that? Was ‘climate repair’ also another excuse for inaction on climate?

“In Skyseed I talk about direct interventions that try and cut out incoming sunlight. Those are pretty drastic ways of doing things. The technology in Skyseed is actually a form of carbon capture. The ‘bots suck the carbon directly out of the atmosphere, which is that cause of the devastating cooling. However there are geoengineering techniques based on carbon capture which can be done in all sorts of ways. One that doesn’t sound too bad is spreading basalt dust on farmland. Basalt dust reacts with carbon — it locks it away and does a good job in that way. But when you look at these things, whatever they are, at scale they are huge projects. It would involve spraying basalt dust on half the world’s farmland, just to reduce the emissions by about a 20th of what we produce every year. This is the big problem with geoengineering, it has to be at a massively huge scale if it’s going to do anything at all.

“The other thing I have an issue with is, if you think geo-engineering is a solution waiting to be utilised, then you’re never going to spend as much time pushing as hard as possible for cutting emissions, because you’re always going to think: ‘doesn’t matter, there’s a backstop — we can always resort to that’. If, for example, you’re protecting a city with your loved ones you fight a damn sight harder if you’re in the last line of defence than if you’re in the second line of defence. This is a systemic problem with geoengineering as a whole.”

Geoengineering with iron sulphate
Photograph: NASA (Public Domain), 2006 http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NewImages/images.php3?img_id=17189

Bill McGuire: “This shows a plankton bloom off the coast of Argentina. Some geoengineers want to dump large quantities of iron sulphate into the ocean to promote more plankton growth, the idea being that more plankton will suck up more carbon dioxide.”

With regard to the speech by Jane Halliwell to the Prime Minister above, had he come across any politicians taking the idea of geoengineering seriously?

“I think the UK government is taking it seriously. There are people in government keeping up to speed on what’s going on. It’s certainly not being ruled out. Of course, the fossil fuel companies and others are pushing this. If they can keep temperatures down they think they can keep pulling oil and gas out of the ground. There’s a lot of lobbying in various countries.”

In his book, could the rogue geoengineering activity have been spotted from space, for example from the ISS?

“The sort of scenario I talk about in the book, which is extreme and which we don’t have the technology for at the moment, in terms of these self-replicating nanobots; firstly it was detectable because of the density of the atmosphere. The astronomers were complaining they didn’t have decent observing conditions in the Canary Islands. Certainly, if somebody was pumping, for example, tens of millions of tons of sulphur into the atmosphere, illicitly, that would be picked up, because there are monitoring instruments up there.”

Geoengineering - overview of the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project
Image by Hugh Hunt, 2011: SPICE SRM – overview of the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project. Creator. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SPICE_SRM_overview.jpg

Bill McGuire: “So-called solar radiation management includes mimicking a volcano by pumping millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. This blocks incoming solar radiation leading to cooling of the lower atmosphere (troposphere) and surface. This is especially risky, as cooling due to large volcanic eruptions – e.g Tambora (Indonesia) in 1815 – is typically accompanied by extreme weather, reduced crop yields, widespread harvest failure and famine.”

Geoengineering — to what end?

With the Arctic ice melting at an alarming rate would that be a legitimate reason for engineering solutions, like re-icing the Arctic with giant mirrors, for example?

“It depends on your point of view. The natural way would be to allow it to heal itself, really. ‘Re-wilding the climate’, I call it. If we decide as a society that if we have brought emissions under control we now want to reverse things, you would use geoengineering schemes to refreeze the Arctic, etc. Or we might argue that we brought emissions down, let’s just let the Earth get back to where it wants to be. Before we started influencing the climate the global average temperature was on its way down towards the next ice age. If we talk about ‘repairing the climate’ we don’t even know what that means. Does that mean getting back to 280 parts per million carbon dioxide, which it was in the interglacial period, because if it is, we will end up in an Ice age again? At a higher level nobody knows. It’s not an issue that’s been addressed yet. Once we get emissions under control, knowing what we do next is a big issue.”

Photograph: Simon Eugster, 2005: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cirrus_fibratus_and_Cirrocumulus.jpg

BillMcGuire: “Thinning of cirrus clouds by means of spraying them with chemicals is proposed as a means of increasing heat loss from the Earth and human activities into space.”

Had he been in a room where people were seriously fanatical about geo-engineering?

“I haven’t been in a room with them, no, but I keep track of things and I know there are individuals who are fanatical about it as an agenda, certainly. There are people like that about. Not many so far, thank God.”

So for example?

“Well the chap (David Keith) who runs the SCOPEX experiment, for example, at Harvard. They already designed an instrument that will go up into the stratosphere and test, first of all spraying water, then calcium carbonate then sulphur dioxide as a means of testing pumping out millions of tons of sulphur. There’s also the Great Barrier Reef project I referred to before. People like Bill Gates are involved in these, they funded some of these studies. Tech billionaires need to have these big shiny projects, don’t they? They can’t keep their hands off. “

In the novel, the whistleblowers who draw attention to the effects of geoengineering (like him) get assassinated by dark forces of the State. How real was this? McGuire: “Well it’s a thriller isn’t it!”


Find out more

Skyseed by Bill McGuire was published by The Book Publishing Guild in September 2020, and you can read more about Bill’s work on the novel and thoughts on geoengineering in his piece for the ClimateCultures Creative Showcase — including a link to a podcast interview.

You can find out about plans for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021 and Pre-COP activities at the official COP 26 website.

In his article for The Guardian (16/4/20) — Scientists trial cloud brightening equipment to shade and cool Great Barrier Reef — Graham Readfearn describes experiments to use a modified turbine to spray trillions of nano-sized salt crystals into the air from a barge. And this article by Jeff Tollefson in Nature (27/11/18) reports on researchers’ plan to spray sunlight-reflecting particles into the stratosphere, an approach that could ultimately be used to quickly lower the planet’s temperature: First sun-dimming experiment will test a way to cool Earth.

Rob mentions the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, which was founded and is chaired by former UK Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King. The Centre’s research themes include deep and rapid emissions reductions, greenhouse gas removal and restoring broken climate systems, and it also develops policy.

Climate Emergency – a New Culture of Conversation, Rob’s previous interview with another fellow ClimateCultures member, discussed ClimateKeys, composer Lola Perrin‘s ground-breaking global initiative to ‘help groups of people tell the truth to each other’ about the ecological and climate emergency.

Rob La Frenais
Rob La Frenais
An independent contemporary art curator, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions, directly engaged with the artist’s working process as far as possible.
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Climate Emergency – a New Culture of Conversation

Photograph showing Lola Perrin at the piano for ClimateKeys at Sheffield Festival of Debate in 2019Independent curator and writer Rob La Frenais interviews fellow ClimateCultures member and ClimateKeys founder Lola Perrin about her ground-breaking global initiative to ‘help groups of people tell the truth to each other’ about the ecological and climate emergency.


2,300 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes


Before you founded ClimateKeys you had a long career as a contemporary classical composer and musician. Could you tell me something about the kind of music that you compose and play?

I compose almost exclusively for solo and multiple piano and my sound relates to Debussy and Ravel, but it touches on jazz harmony and also has some kind of processing within it that you get in minimalist composers like Steve Reich. When I was launching myself as a composer I was asked to categorise my sound so I described it as ‘Rave Music for Butterflies’ — that to me was a good description in that it’s imaginative music. I usually seek specific triggers for my works, paintings for example, or correspondence. For example, my sixth suite was composed from emails with a neuroscientist about the speed of thought in the brain — this to me was so interesting, how thought travels at around 200 miles an hour and jumps across spaces between the nerve cells as electrical charges.

So, slowly in the last decade, mentions of references to the coming climate emergency and global heating started to emerge in your titles and content of your work. Can you tell me something about how this took place?

My children were very young and I was becoming aware of something called climate change but I was really too scared of it to look into it much. As they got older I became braver and I started to read a little bit and understand that we were in a very, very serious problem. This was in 2005. I began to wake up to the problem. So gradually, from that point on, I found I was unable to just carry on writing music as if all this great threat wasn’t just all going on around us. Increasingly I was unable to detach my compositional life from the emergency, as we now call it.

Nowhere to talk about Climate Emergency

Climate emergency - underwater signing: Maldives Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Ibrahim Didi signs the declaration of an underwater cabinet meeting, 2009. Photograph by Mohamed Seeneen
Underwater signing: Maldives Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Ibrahim Didi signs the declaration of an underwater cabinet meeting, 2009. Photographer Mohamed Seeneen (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Can you give me some examples of some of the titles of the work that started being affected by the climate emergency?

One title is quite long, it goes like this. We are playing with fire, a reckless mode of behaviour we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on ourselves. This is a quote from Chris Rapley, a senior scientist in the climate world. I’ve used other Rapley quotes — We are the crew of a large spaceship for 9 billion. If we were on a smaller spacecraft it would be unthinkable to interfere with the systems that provide us with air, water, food and climate. Another title is Imagine better, create — which relates to that well-known saying in climate activism, ‘If we don’t imagine a better world, we won’t create it.’ The title Collective Compulsion was drawn from writing by Paul Allen — it’s about our over-consumption causing our problem. If you look at a map of where the emissions are coming from, they come from the areas of massive consumption, i.e. the rich economies of the world.

And then your feelings about the climate emergency started to actually affect the methodology of your concerts and out of this came this thing called ClimateKeys. Can you tell me about how that happened and how the shift between your titles and content then moved on to actually performing in a format that reflected your activism?

Actually my activism grew out of that shift, it’s not that shift came from activism. It was simply that there was such a silence everywhere. I was picking up what seemed to be just snippets about this terrible thing called climate change but there weren’t major warnings being announced or places to talk — we were all just walking around as if in a dream. I would be doing my daily life, I would be taking my kids to school, I would be going to the bank, going to the shopping centre, walking down the street, going to work, coming back, doing normal day-to-day things and there was nowhere to talk about this existential threat.

This troubled me so, so much, I couldn’t figure out where I could have the conversations I felt we all needed urgently to be having as part of our daily lives. So I thought, OK, I will put this conversation into my own concerts. I will create a piece of music and there will be a space within the music for a climate change expert to give a talk so we could all learn more, and then for the audience to have a conversation. At least I can put the conversation there. So what happened was I started doing these concerts, inviting amazing speakers to join me — economists, futurists, scientists — and then I started to tell other musicians what I was doing.

Several other musicians put their hands up and said they wanted to do the same thing, so I created a format for helping other musicians around the world who also wanted to engage their own audiences in dialogue about action: what we can actually do about our heating world. I realised this was becoming an initiative so I gave it a name — ClimateKeys — and made a website.

An intimate space for deep discussion

Showing Tessa Gordziekjo, ClimateKeys guest speaker on climate emergency, Heptonstall 2019. Photograph by Lola Perrin
Tessa Gordziekjo, ClimateKeys guest speaker, Heptonstall 2019
Photograph: Rob La Frenais © 2019

The climate emergency is a really serious topic but are ClimateKeys concerts enjoyable?

Yes, it’s serious and a very, very scary subject and it’s really still quite a taboo subject. The majority of the population may now be aware of it and concerned about it, but the majority is still not engaged. Day-to-day life as usual continues. I believe if you use the arts you can draw people into engaging in this emergency through appealing to their emotions. But if you just hold a public meeting or a political meeting no one’s going to come; it’s going to be boring and it’s also going to be quite alienating and quite scary.

But if you have a concert that’s been carefully thought through it eases people into this sort of sense of being together, listening deeply to music that’s been specially chosen by the musician because of how it connects with climate issues. That sense of intimate sharing that the musician has set up extends into the way the audience has its conversation. People talk on an intimate level, it feels non-threatening despite the threatening subject matter. So you make a particular atmosphere that makes facing our threats head-on a little easier and you have a deep discussion — all together. The concerts end with final music as well, symbolic, to show that discussion and action on the emergency need to be at the centre of whatever we do. So, to answer your question, the concerts are emotional, yes — some of that emotion is enjoyment!

Photograph showing Lola Perrin at the piano for ClimateKeys at Sheffield Festival of Debate in 2019
Lola Perrin: ClimateKeys at Sheffield Festival of Debate, 2019
Photograph: Rob La Frenais © 2019

So we’ve heard a lot about popular music getting involved in the climate emergency and people like Radiohead or other groups such as Fatboy Slim mixing the lyrics from Greta Thunberg’s speeches, but it’s a bit unusual to find classical musicians getting involved in this. Are you the only one?

I’m definitely not the only one but we are few and far between. We’re not joined up as one movement. I don’t know of any other global initiatives like the one that I’ve established which has triggered literally thousands of new conversations about action. I know of musicians who are definitely as worried as everybody else but I don’t know how many are actually drawing their audiences into these conversations about action and about the climate emergency.

Transformation emerging

Showing audience discussing climate emergency at a ClimateKeys concert in Heptonstall in 2019. Photograph by Lola Perrin
Audience discussing climate emergency at ClimateKeys in Heptonstall, 2019
Photograph: Lola Perrin © 2019

It’s now not just about people protesting is it? It’s people like Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, and Christine Lagarde, the CEO of the International Monetary Fund, who are all making these statements, because the economy is going to be profoundly affected by extreme global heating and climate change. So can you comment a little bit about how ClimateKeys can help those in industry who are concerned about this?

I just find it incredible that 11,000 scientists can make a statement like the one that was made in November 2019 saying that we are in a global emergency and we need widespread change to happen to help protect ourselves from the worst threats and then everybody carries on going to work the next day as if this statement hasn’t been made. There have to be devices in place so that we can tell the truth about what’s happening. 

What ClimateKeys can do is help groups of people tell the truth to each other, whether it’s a random concert audience or an entire business — help tell the truth about these very disturbing issues. Because yes, the economy, is definitely going to suffer; surely it already is with the massive fires, droughts, floods and wars related to heating. The form of economy we have now has brought us to this place; we have an extractive economy and this has led us to this place of danger. To me, evidently what we need to do, all of us, is to remove the divisions between activism and business and just see us as the same level playing field. And all of us, whatever we do, need to work out how to live within the planetary boundaries.

How can businesses change so that their operations are living within planetary boundaries? How can you persuade these businesses whose bottom line is essentially to make money for their investors that indeed some of the activities that those industries are participating in are actually causing global heating? For example the fossil fuel companies? How can you persuade them that they’re not going to be shooting themselves in the foot if they take on these issues?

We need massive change. Intrinsic within that is the ending of the fossil fuel economy, Urgently. Either we self-elect to enact these changes as a matter of life or death, or collapse will force this change upon us. And collapse means exactly that — collapse of all we know, including the economy. How is that going to happen without a culture of getting people together much, much more regularly — I would say daily — to face all of this head-on?

Because it’s very clear from the science that the changes that elected policymakers think they’re going to bring in are going to be way too late to avoid catastrophic warming. It’s now down to people to gather together, from small community groups right up to major businesses to have these in-house discussions right across the country. The whole world needs to be fully informed and engaged. In ClimateKeys concerts we’ve recently started splitting audiences into small groups after the guest speaker’s talk — and then pulling the strongest ideas from each group together for a group discussion later on. It’s proving to be an immensely powerful sequence of conversation, because agreements and actions are produced and decided upon. A transformation occurs; a couple hours earlier people were less engaged and by the end, they’ve become armed with information and increased agency. What we’re doing is helping to normalise a long-overdue culture of engagement with the emergency that, quite frankly, we just need to get on with dealing with.


Find out more

You can find more of Rob’s writing on cultural and climate change issues at the Makery website: She can see land! Cross the Atlantic Like Greta; COP24: how artists commit to the climate; In London, scientists, artists and activists surge to save the Humans ; and Traincamp, or why go by train to Green Culture festival in Montenegro

Lola Perrin is a ClimateCultures member, and in her first post for us, A Razor-sharp Fragility, she discussed a tension between isolation and creative responses to climate change: to create, we need to be alone (physically or mentally) and this can be an unpleasant process, and yet we carry on creating because suppressing that creativity is even more unpleasant.

You can follow the new programme of activities from ClimateKeys — which exists to “help normalise telling the truth about the planetary emergency” — and access its archive of synopses of talks from a great range of guest speakers at previous concerts. Poet and climate activist Tessa Gordziejko (pictured above) spoke at a 2019 ClimateKeys concert and has published the text on her own site: Why on Earth make art about climate change? You can also find out more about Lola’s work as composer, performer and climate activist at lolaperrin.com.

You can find the full statement signed by 11,000 scientists — World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency — published in the journal BioScience on 5th November 2019. It begins: “Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is.’ On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”

Culture Declares Emergency, Music Declares Emergency and Business Declares Emergency are among the new wave of initiatives bringing people and organisations together around declaration as a means to bring about transformation.

Rob La Frenais
Rob La Frenais
An independent contemporary art curator, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions, directly engaged with the artist’s working process as far as possible.
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