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.
Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *