On Solar Geoengineering and Kim Stanley Robinson

by Oliver Morton on May 5, 2021

The solar-geoengineering effort in The Ministry for the Future takes place shortly after the book’s harrowing opening. It is presented as part of a continuum of responses to that extraordinarily lethal Indian heat wave, one which stretches from domestic politics—the full nationalisation of the electricity industry—to transnational armed struggle by means of support, at a level never fully revealed, for the revolutionary violence of the “Children of Kali”.

The solar-geoengineering effort, which takes the form of the injection of tens of millions of tonnes of sulphate into the upper atmosphere, providing a cooling effect similar to that of a large volcanic eruption, is represented as a unilateral measure explicitly contrary to international law, and one that carries with it the risk of military reprisal: in effect, an act of war. It is also represented as, broadly, benign and/or beneficial and justified. This is an unusual position in left-wing discussions of climate action where views of solar geoengineering along the lines of Naomi Klein’s—“a doubling down on exactly the kind of reckless, short-term thinking that got us into this mess”—are much more common.

It is hardly surprising that an author whose most celebrated achievement is an account of the terraforming of Mars might have things to say about geoengineering. The fundamental novum of the Mars books (Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996)) is the engineered transformation of Mars from a barren and inhuman planet to a fertile, productive and human world replete with forests, flowers and oceans. The process is central to the books’ story and to their generation of meaning; the ways in which their long-lived characters come to understand themselves, their changing relationships, that which they have lost and forgotten and that which they may yet reclaim or mend are bound up in the transformation of the world they inhabit. Terraforming is also central to the books’ aesthetic. The sublime energies of the planet’s fictive transformation inform its representation in prose, from the delicate plants of its alpine meadows to the great shafts dug to release its mantle’s heat. An author who has written this way about Mars could clearly not leave aside ideas of geoengineering when looking at the Anthropocene on Earth.

Crucial as it is to the plot and aesthetics of the novels, terraforming is not simply accepted: it is represented as a contested process, opposed by “Reds” who endow the purely mineral status quo with a surpassing intrinsic value and promoted by “Greens” with motives that range from the pragmatic to the extractive to the spiritual. The conflicts between them take place within both an economic context—Mars as an arena for the deployment of terrestrial capital—and a political one. The political and economic self-actualisation of the Martian people as they struggle for independence from the trans-national capitalism of Earth requires the geophysical/biogeochemical transformations provided by terraforming not just in practical ways but also to provide them with the subject of a common life and a distinct history. At the same time, the terraforming renders a would-be-independent Mars less its authentic self. The links and contrasts are made manifest when the extreme violence of Mars’s first political revolution proves to be a powerful act of terraforming in and of itself, its spindly mushroom clouds heating the atmosphere, its destruction of landscape amplified by the unleashing of subterranean seas.

The conflicts between the Red and the Green are to some extent reconciled in Blue Mars through an inspired manoeuvre which has something of the feeling of a “spatio-temporal fix” (though, given that the economy is in the process of becoming post-capitalist at this point in the narrative, not quite in David Harvey’s sense): the constitutional regulation of atmospheric pressure. The heightened surface relief of Mars allows air pressure in the lowlands to be high enough to support a somewhat Earthly ecology while the air of the highest mountains is kept thin enough for their above-the-weather surfaces to retain some approximation of the original Mars, islands rising out of the atmosphere into space as the mountains of Hawaii or the Canaries rise out of the ocean into the air. Green, even blue, below: a remnant of red above.

Solar geoengineering can be imagined as a similar way of allowing sustained contradiction; and that is, for many on the left, fundamental to their distrust of the idea. Climate geoengineering, either through interventions in the planetary energy budget—solar geoengineering—or its carbon cycle—carbon geoengineering, also known as carbon-dioxide removal or negative emissions—represents an attempt to decouple climate outcomes from cumulative emissions. If you view the climate crisis primarily as a crisis in the relationship between capitalism and the planet, as Klein and many others do, such an ahistorical “decoupling” obscures both the roots of the issue and the nature of the necessary responses. As Kevin Surprise argues, solar geoengineering provides a spatio-temporal fix to the contradictions of green capitalism, effectively increasing the amount of room for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is, in Surprise’s Gramscian terms, a tool of “passive revolution to ensure the continued hegemony of the ruling classes and capitalist states by maintaining the prevailing political and economic relations currently under threat.”

Robinson reverses the assumption that solar geoengineering is to be realised as a way of defending the capitalist status quo. In the chapter following that in which the geoengineering effort is introduced, the newly unified Indian people are identified as “formerly the working class of the world” bringing their “long post-colonial subalternity” to an end. The Indian actions, as a whole, are not intended as a way of sustaining the world as it is, but as the beginning of a new world to come, and the geoengineering is a part of that—part of a new and intended relationship between political economy and the climate. The violence of geoengineering is imposed not by the hegemons, but by the victims, and justified in their eyes by their recent experience of the normally slow violence of climate upping its tempo in the most shocking way to deliver a war’s worth of casualties in a matter of weeks. The martial nature of the undertaking is reinforced by the harassment which the geoengineering effort suffers at the hands of enemy air forces.

This conceptualisation of solar geoengineering is not unlike that outlined in a recent paper by Marcus Hedahl and Kyle Fruh which looks at the subject in the context of the just war tradition, and the resonance is deepened by the fact that the consideration of other acts of potentially unjustifiable violence in the service of emissions reduction is another of the ways that The Ministry for the Future goes against the norms of most narratives of climate action. Hedahl and Fruh argue that the incursion into the essential affairs of other sovereign nations that is a seemingly unavoidable aspect of solar geoengineering might under some circumstances be defended in this way, taking from that the conclusion that greenhouse-gas driven climate change can be seen as unjust war. Geoengineering, like terraforming in the Mars books, thus becomes part of a political struggle in a way that goes beyond (though does not necessarily outrank) the politics of economic structure.

Remarks Robinson made in an interview in 2019 reinforce a reading of The Ministry for the Future which sees it endorsing the Indian solar geoengineering effort as at least compatible with a narrative of system change and possibly as part of a greater turn. However the rest of the novel somewhat undercuts this picture. The solar geoengineering is effectively a large pulse of aerosols injected into the stratosphere and then allowed to dissipate (it is also logistically highly improbable, but that is not structurally relevant). Almost all academic discussion of plausible solar geoengineering initiatives imagines efforts which are both much slower in their ramp up and much longer in their duration, thus serving as a long term check on either the rate of warming or its maximum extent. If the Indians had taken this approach The Ministry of the Future would be a very different book; one which went beyond endorsing the idea of solar geoengineering to having it embedded throughout the narrative.

This is in some ways salutary. A frequent criticism of solar geoengineering research is that real-world deployment would come about as a result of specific political pressures on and within the nation or nations doing the deploying. As my friend Pablo Suarez has pointed out to me, thinking that the first use of solar geoengineering would be “really” about reducing climatic harm is like thinking that the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands was “really” in defence of a legal point of principle as to sovereignty. To think that the deployment of solar geoengineering would not be the product of a complex conjuncture of disparate political factors is to misunderstand the difference between the world and the world as represented in climate models.

Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the idea that The Ministry for the Future’s carbon geoengineering is much dearer to Robinson’s heart, and more central to his politics, than its solar geoengineering. The way that carbon is, over the course of the book, reincorporated into the lived practices of the peasantry, turned into a tool of development and built into the world’s monetary system is far more richly detailed than the treatment of solar geoengineering, fundamental to a realignment of the human economy and the economy of nature, top-down and bottom-up, distributed yet particular. In the terms of the Mars books, the transformation described in The Ministry for the Future is more aligned with the viriditas of Hiroko Ai than the soletta and orbiting mirrors of the transnationals.

This seems reasonable. It is in the relationship between the global economy and the carbon cycle that the roots of the climate crisis lie, whether you see those roots as fundamentally structural, in the way, say, of Andreas Malm, or something more like a happenstance to be corrected, in the way of green capitalists. Solar geoengineering seems at best an adjunct to the realignment of the two, at worst a way to keep that realignment from happening. Central as the Earth’s energy balance is to earthsystem science, its variation by political fiat does not fit into a structural story about the way humans, their economy, their rights and their planet should act on each other in the way that the changing political economy of the carbon cycle does. It is a tool for reworking the climate, but not one which can, in its implementation, reciprocally rework political economy to a desirable end. It is thin, insubstantial, airy, where the politics of carbon are thick, reactive and earthy. Andreas Malm warns us that to hope for any utopian substance in such thin technocracy is to partake in “one of the more remarkable” psychopolitical bourgeois pathologies.

This may explain why, though solar geoengineering turns up early in The Ministry for the Future, the political system needed to govern solar geoengineering as a long-term project is not available until close to the book’s end, or even, perhaps, beyond it. Only when the revolution in the political economy of the carbon cycle has run its course—when we have reached, as it were, the Blue Mars phase—is a just form of sustained global action truly possible, at which point the now-governable option is no longer needed in the same way as it was before.

The problem is that if it is to play a role in averting horrifying scenarios such as that with which the book opens, solar geoengineering would be needed before the transformation that its critics on the left fear it could forestall. And no one has, as yet, plausibly outlined in fact or fiction a way in which the politics which lead to and follow from a deployment of solar geoengineering could in themselves help bring that transformation about. As this reading of The Ministry for the Future seeks to suggest, it is a question which deserves further examination.

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Hedahl, Marcus and Fruh, Kyle “Climate Change is Unjust War” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 57 (2019)
Surprise, Kevin “Gramsci in the stratosphere: Solar geoengineering and capitalist hegemony” in Has it Come to This?: The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering on the Brink, J. P. Sapinski, Holly Jean Buck and Andreas Malm, eds, Rutgers University Press (2021)



Brett 05.05.21 at 4:12 pm

It’s a virtue of solar geo-engineering that it makes the threshold of change required to deal with the effects of climate change lower. The more wrenching change that is required for climate change mitigation, the less likely that it will be done – especially in a democratic society where you might be asking people to make massive adjustments to their living and working conditions.

But of course that’s also less appealing to the folks hoping for a left version of the shock doctrine – the wrenching transformation is the point.


John Quiggin 05.06.21 at 8:44 am

Klein’s point that this is a continuation of the thinking that got us into this mess can be given a weak and a strong interpretation

(Weak) burning carbon for energy was a high-risk gamble with the environment that has turned out badly, and geo-engineering is another experiment aimed at cancelling the first one. Implication: let’s try rapid decarbonization first, and keep geo-engineering as a last resort.

(Strong) consumer society has shown itself to be unsustainable and this is a last ditch attempt to push it even further. Implication: without a radical change in our way of life we’re doomed. This is pretty much what Brett refers to in his final sentence.


reason 05.06.21 at 3:54 pm

I thought the argument against geo-engineering (and there are different possible approaches with different effects) is that it is like an addiction. You can’t stop doing it because the underlying problem is not solved and will come back worse if you stop. What you can do is buy you time to make a proper transition, the danger being that you don’t.


David Keith 05.11.21 at 12:33 am

Suppose a new technology or policy provides a partial and imperfect fix for some problem. (Let me know if you find examples of a complete and perfect fix to a serious public policy problem.)

Does the fix supplement existing solutions, reinforcing the idea the problem is solvable and so strengthening commitment to address the problem? Or does it substitute for or distract from existing actions and so reducing political commitment?

Supplement or substitute? It’s easy to think of examples that go in both directions.

Some people seem quite confident that solar geoengineering will be distracting substitute. A few seem confident that it will be a supplement.

There is interesting individual behavioral data on recycling and other green actions, but they seem of little relevance to predicting collective political outcomes.

I doubt that it is possible to make a meaningful prediction in advance. For me, the challenge is to think of ways to nudge the outcome towards supplement.

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