Hypatia Symposium – Gender & Geoengineering by HOLLY JEAN BUCK, ANDREA R. GAMMON, CHRISTOPHER J. PRESTON

Gender and Geoengineering

Ph.D. candidate, Development Sociology, Cornell University

Ph.D. candidate, Environmental Philosophy, Radboud University Nijmegen

Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Montana




The following is an excerpt, click here to read the full article

Browse the entire special issue here


In the years following Nobel Prize-winner Paul Crutzen’s 2006 landmark editorial essay on atmospheric albedo enhancement (Crutzen2006), the idea of engineering a technical solution to climate change has seen a surge of interest. The suggestion that the “perfect moral storm” (Gardiner 2011a) of climate change might be solved by turning an intractable social, economic, and political problem into a solvable technical and scientific one has created a giddy sense of relief in some quarters and a dark sense of foreboding in others. Although there is a rapidly growing literature on the ethics of geoengineering (Gardiner 2011a; Svoboda et al. 2011; Preston 2012a), very little has been written about its gender and justice dimensions. Given that the ethical considerations pertinent to geoengineering include challenges about participation, potential harm to the marginalized, hubristic attitudes about control, and the emblematic question of “whowould get to set the global thermostat?” it is clear this is an area ripe for gender analysis.

Geoengineering has been helpfully defined as “the intentional manipulation of the earth’s climate to counteract anthropogenic climate change or its warming effects” (Corner and Pidgeon 2010, 26). An early report by the UK’s Royal Society on the main technical and governance issues of geoengineering established what has become a canonical distinction between methods focusing on solar radiation management (SRM) and methods involving carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Whereas CDR would slowly remove atmospheric carbon to restore a safe level of greenhouse gases, SRM would cool the planet more rapidly by reflecting back a portion of the sun’s energy before it has the chance to warm the earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere. Examples of proposed SRM techniques include shooting aerosols into the stratosphere using ballistics, fighter jets, or specially erected hoses and pipes; spraying seawater into the air from ships with tall towers; launching mirrors into space to act as a shield; and wrapping deserts in shiny polyethylene-aluminum sheeting. Examples of the CDR “family” of technologies include afforestation, ocean fertilization, capturing carbon directly from ambient air, and burying biochar to sequester carbon within the earth (Launder and Thompson 2010; SRMGI 2011).

This two-part division of the technologies might already seem gendered for its Freudian imagery: tall spraying devices, nozzles, ejections, dressing up the earth versus fertilizing the oceans, burying things, and sequestering away material. The commonly portrayed risk profiles of the two approaches are also suggestive of a matching gendered slant. SRM gets the attention as a technologically advanced, bold, and risky method. Deployment of an atmospheric shield to deflect solar radiation suggests an Apollonian type of confrontation demanding quick action, steely nerve, and technological prowess. The Royal Society characterized CDR, by contrast, as “a longer term approach to addressing climate change” with “fewer uncertainties and risks” (Royal Society 2009, 54). CDR is usually perceived as slower, gentler, and more natural. Pollution control, if that is what CDR really amounts to, may lack some pizzazz, but it is something almost everyone can get behind, especially if it involves planting trees and engaging citizens.1

Our intention in this paper is not to address this question of whether the SRM/CDR distinction is gendered, though it may be an interesting question in its own right. We plan to look at engineering the climate more broadly in order to examine where gender appears—and where it ought to appear—in the politics, ethics, and science of geoengineering. We intend to suggest areas where the geoengineering discussion should be opened up to issues of gender. Moreover, the need is urgent given that preliminary discussions of geoengineering are rapidly moving toward field-testing and plans for the governance of future deployments.

The Gender Dimensions of Geoengineering

There are a number of compelling reasons to raise gender awareness across several geoengineering axes. From a sheer numbers perspective, half of those who will be affected by geoengineering are women, though women are currently represented at only a fraction of this proportion within the geoengineering community. From an impacts perspective, some women are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of climate change (Dankelman 2002; Cuomo 2011) and in these cases might have more to gain from the benefits geoengineering promises. At the same time, the exact impact of many geoengineering strategies on precipitation and other climate parameters is uncertain and may remain so. Some women may have more at stake in this uncertainty, for example, if they lack access to typical adaptive coping mechanisms, such as migration to cities, access to capital, or educational opportunities to pursue different types of work. From a history of science standpoint, the narrative of masculine attempts to control earth systems introduces many fascinating questions. This means that from a political, funding, and purely pragmatic perspective, geoengineering is particularly vulnerable to an ecofeminist critique, and a failure to acknowledge gender-associated concerns could easily derail the geoengineering agenda. No matter where you sit—as a citizen, policy-maker, natural or social scientist, historian, ethicist, engineer, or lobbyist—to understand what geoengineering means for society in anything more than a superficial sense, the gender-and-geoengineering dynamic must be an integral part of the conversation.

In the discussion below, we consider four contexts in which geoengineering appears to have important gender dimensions: (1) the demographics of those pushing the current agenda, (2) the overall vision of control it involves, (3) the design of particular technologies, and (4) whom geoengineering will most impact and benefit. Our treatment of these areas is intentionally introductory; we aim only to open up discussions deserving greater attention. Following that, we explore three ways the geoengineering discussion could potentially become more gender-aware.

Who Is Pushing Geoengineering?

In an article written in 2011 for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Australian environmental commentator Clive Hamilton lambasted what he called “the geoclique” currently responsible for much of the geoengineering discourse. Using a term coined by Eli Kintisch (2010), Hamilton argued that global debate on geoengineering is dominated by a remarkably short and recurring list of individuals. According to Hamilton, this group is made up of “a very small group of North American scientists”—harboring mostly “Promethean” views of a “science-as-saviour” culture—who have made themselves the “go to guys” on climate engineering (Hamilton 2011). Hamilton suggested this clique lacks an appreciation, more common in Europe, for the “complexity and capriciousness” of the earth.

Although Hamilton’s characterization may be critiqued—some European governments are actively funding geoengineering research—it is beyond question that the geoengineering discussion is not being driven by a representative sample of those with a stake in it.

An early study of media reports on geoengineering counted the assertions made about geoengineering in print and online news articles through mid-2010, and found that women made just 3% of those assertions (15 out of 500). Women were simply not being quoted on this topic (Buck 2013).2 In geoengineering science, women author research less often than men. A look at the top 100 journal articles sorted by relevance in EBSCO Academic Search Premier—a multidisciplinary database—revealed that 17% of authors were women.3 A similar level of representation was found at the IPCC expert meeting on geoengineering held in Lima, Peru in June 2011, where 8 of the 51 attendees were women (15%) (IPCC 2012, 97). Furthermore, when women do appear in the discourse, it is frequently—though not exclusively—within domains peripheral to the “hard science” of geoengineering: social science, policy, and ethics.

Women’s under-representation in engineering more generally has been highly criticized, often out of concerns about women accessing opportunities to succeed in these fields or about lost innovation opportunities. Part of our disquiet about women’s under-representation here, however, lies not so much in the idea that women/society are missing out on geoengineering careers/discoveries, but in the framing and decision-making powers that participation in geoengineering research implies. Women’s under-representation in the early discussions of geoengineering is consistent with a more general pattern of “power inequalities in decision-making” about natural resources (Arora-Jonsson 2011, 749). In a draft report written for the Green Political Foundation, Christa Wichterich notes a persistent glass ceiling and lack of “recognition of feminine expertise” in climate matters:

Only after 14 rounds of negotiations, did the UNFCCC secretariat finally call on the parties to carry out gender-sensitive measures in 2008. When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon assembled an advisory group on Climate Change Financing in 2010, however, he appointed 19 men. Following vehement protests, the high-level body was expanded to include then French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde. (Wichterich 2012, 4)

These low figures provoke all sorts of questions (Denton 2002). Emerging technologies are subject to rapid and contentious framing in the print and electronic media. Exactly how (and by whom) the technology gets framed has broad implications for which of the numerous ethical and political dimensions of geoengineering are seen as most salient (Nisbet 2009; Scott 2012). Women currently have a minority voice in explaining what geoengineering is and in influencing how it is presented in the media.

Of course, the gender breakdown of the participants in these types of discussions does not tell the whole story. Equally important as who is doing the talking and the framing is what are they talking about. Matters here appear to be improving, but progress is slow and still mixed (Dankelman 2002). Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does now consider women and gender issues when considering impacts, adaptation, and vulnerabilities (for example, IPCC 2007), but only in 2011 were efforts to include references to gender throughout the Green Climate Fund finally successful (Wichterich 2012, 14). A submission by the Asia-Pacific Women’s Group to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June of 2012 did add a gender component to the nascent geoengineering discourse, stating that:

Women are greatly concerned by corporate driven technological solutions to climate change that are harmful to the planet and people. Such technologies must be subject to rigorous, transparent and participatory assessments including the implications on women’s and children’s health and well being. (APWMGS 2012, 18)

Yet a meeting held simultaneously in Lima, Peru that discussed geoengineering at the IPCC for the first time did not include the words “women” or “gender” anywhere in its ninety-nine-page meeting report. The report mentioned the word “justice” only once. Although it’s certainly imaginable that these sorts of omissions might be justified by the nature and intent of any one particular meeting, the omissions raise questions about whether decision-making power is already skewed (Dankelman 2002; Arora-Jonsson 2011) and the geoengineering agenda currently reflects only the visions of those who dominate it.

Geoengineering and the Domination of Nature

Path-breaking work in ecofeminism in the 1980s and 1990s found the roots of the environmental crisis in a masculinist approach to nature that favored objectification and domination of the nonhuman world (Merchant 1980; Plumwood 1994). Reductivist and mechanistic trends coupled with a Baconian view of scientific knowledge as “power over nature” led to the idea of science best serving human needs only through complete and total control of the nonhuman, transforming nature “from a teacher to a slave” (Merchant 1980, 169). The image of nature as machine, devoid of animus, ready to be molded to serve a technology-driven civilization was the outcome of a sequence of ideas from European men such as Bacon, Harvey, Descartes, Newton, and Boyle. The machine image asserted a “new confidence in control as well as the narrow and instrumental view of nature associated with a technological outlook” (Plumwood 1994, 109). Faith in the predictability of mechanistic nature reached its apogee in the claim made by Pierre Laplace that, if given the position and the velocity of every particle in the universe, an intellect vast enough could predict all future states. For such an intellect, Laplace asserted, “nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes” (Laplace 1951, 4). The quest for certainty hinged on an understanding of nature as passive, determinate, and entirely predictable.

The old mechanist’s dream of predictability still lives on in much research, from the “hard” sciences to economics, quantitative social science, and geopolitical scenario-building. Carolyn Merchant writes: “the assumption of order is… fundamental to the concept of power, and both are integral to the modern scientific worldview” (Merchant 1980, 230). A growing appreciation of nonlinear dynamics and chaotic systems means that the confidence of early mechanists has today been replaced by a more sanguine approach to the possibility of perfect prediction in certain domains. Climate science offers a powerful example of a case where, despite huge advances in observation and modeling, the ability to precisely predict and control is limited. Although scientists can predict general trends with great confidence (IPCC 2007), the ability to model the exact nature of local impacts remains constrained. The complexity of the climate system provides a distinct caution against the flight to objectivity (Bordo 1987) and the quest for certainty.

These features of climate science spill over into a dilemma about geoengineering. On the one hand, the climate is obviously a physical system subject to the influence of incoming short-wave solar radiation, the composition of the atmosphere, and numerous chemical and hydrological parameters. Mechanistic principles clearly apply. Such a system might invite the “imposition of human purposes and treatment as an instrument for the achievement of human satisfactions” (Plumwood 1994, 110). The flavor of old hopes lingers within the geoengineer’s dream. On the other hand, the nonlinearity in the system makes the exact nature of geoengineering’s outcomes uncertain, especially on local and regional scales (Pongratz et al. 2012). This uncertainty is something almost all contemporary geoengineers are careful to acknowledge, if to differing degrees. Alan Robock thinks that the “inherent risks and uncertainties” are enough to prevent SRM from “ever be[ing] implemented on a global basis” (Robock 2012, 202). Juan Moreno-Cruz and his colleagues suggest that regional inequalities “may not be as severe as is often suggested” (Moreno-Cruz et al. 2011, 649).

In the first article written by an ethicist on geoengineering, Dale Jamieson lamented the hubris in “attempts to manipulate nature in order to make it conform to our desires rather than forming our desires in response to nature” (Jamieson 1996, 331). Jamieson suggests caution with the mechanistic and manipulative metaphors that have informed technological endeavor since the scientific revolution. To the extent that those metaphors can still be found within geoengineering, Carolyn Merchant’s and Val Plumwood’s ecofeminist critiques will apply as much to the age of geoengineering as they have to earlier technological endeavors.

5 thoughts on “Hypatia Symposium – Gender & Geoengineering by HOLLY JEAN BUCK, ANDREA R. GAMMON, CHRISTOPHER J. PRESTON”

  1. Both Holly and I are at the first international Climate Engineering Conference in Berlin (http://www.ce-conference.org/) this week. It is a pretty lively event and is very trans-disciplinary. Of the forty sessions, I don’t see any with gender explicitly in the title. At one session this morning, a participant from the Philippines noted with regret how the discourse is being constructed and shaped by “a group of white men.”

  2. First, congratulations on a sound argument. Readers should read it in it’s entirely rather than just reading the excerpt. I have been waiting for just this critique since I first heard about geoengineering from Homer Simpson. Thank you.

    My question is this: After laying out this amazing critique making the case that geoengineering is an irredeemably masculine project, why do you explicitly avoid your own conclusion?

    By taking an “agnostic” stand and going out of your way to explain you mean no disrespect to geoengineering, I wonder if you do not unwittingly collude in the masculinist standpoint you find at the center of geoengineering. Agnostic isn’t neutral. Like all fence sitting positions, it favors the power structure of the status quo.

    I am curious how agnostic you really are when you speak so enthusiastically about finding ways to “add a feminist sensibility to geoengineering”??

    Given the POWER and resources of the global financial/technological establishment mobilizing right now to “fix” the planet for “good” how you can you NOT take a stand against geoengineering?

    I apologize if this sounds harsh, but I am VERY concerned. Thanks for your reply.

  3. This paper offers a laudable intervention into an arena in which it is particularly challenging to disentangle abstract and concrete axes of a gender-based analysis. It may come as a surprise that in conclusion the authors “avoid the conclusion that geoengineering is an irredeemably masculinist project.” With its grand rhetoric of global themostatic control, militaristic techno-fixes and geek hubris, geoengineering is readily legible as heir to a project of mastery of nature coded masculine by its proponents and its critics alike. And indeed, as the paper points out, geoengineering research is overwhelming conducted as well as analyzed in policy and media circles by men, a situation that is symptomatic of the underrepresentation of women in these areas more generally.

    We must bear in mind, of course, that women do not necessarily expressive feminist or feminine perspectives, and indeed epistemic norms in the sciences and engineering dictate that we should not do so. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to suppose that, other things being equal, individuals are more likely to be attentive to the interests and concerns of groups (plural) to which they belong. If there were more female geologists and engineers, policy analysts, etc., the gendered implications and undertones of geoengineering research might be more likely to be brought to light. The strength of this paper, however, is that it extricates the masculinist overtones of geoengineering from questions about its differential consequences for particular men and women.

    The effects of climate change fall disproportionately on the shoulders of women, who tend to have fewer resources and less power at their disposal to cope with social and environmental stressors. Remediation of and adaptation to climate change is therefore particularly important from a gendered perspective on environmental justice. Drawing feminist ethics into the analysis of geoengineering represents an important first step in placing future technological innovation and policy development on a path towards addressing the concerns of men and women in contexts that render them particularly vulnerable to climate change. The imperative to attend to “concrete others” also directs our attention to who will bear the risks associated with geoengineering experiments.

    The most provocative insight of this paper, in my view, is the authors’ suggestion that “geoengineering has the potential to function not just as climate remediation but also as social remediation.” If the labor and social infrastructure required to implement geoengineering projects was organized in a way that improved womens’ socio-economic conditions, for example, the overarching goal of reducing the earth’s temperature (whether successful or not) could be leveraged to transform social relations that make environmental conditions more or less just or burdensome to particular actors. If we are willing to press past the masculinist origin story of geoengineering, we are left with the questions: what could a feminist geoengineering project look like? Here we are reminded, at least, to remember to ask who–by whom, for whom, and with whose consent are technological solutions sought to the present environmental crisis?

  4. Thanks so much for your response, Amber Katherine. I couldn’t speak for the other authors, but for me personally, I find it hard to dismiss the idea altogether. The main reason is that I honestly don’t know — and I don’t think anyone can say at this point— that geoengineering wouldn’t end up being of benefit to many people if some of the worst climate scenarios come to be. Like most others, I’m really concerned about the lack of political action on climate change. And if this tragic business-as-usual status quo continues, despite the efforts of the climate justice and other environmental movements, what if geoengineering would be something which could help people later on in this century? I don’t think we know enough yet to reject researching the idea. It seems premature, to me.

    To be clear, I don’t see mitigation and climate engineering as separate and competing paths, as some people do; any geoengineering requires mitigation efforts, and there are some scientific reasons for this that I won’t go into here, but I think David Keith’s book mentions them. I can’t think of a single climate scientist who would claim that geoengineering is a substitute for decarbonization. Right now, I don’t see a problem with continuing to devote a very small, almost negligible, amount of the greater climate science funding to consideration of geoengineering. Of course, if in 5 or 10 years convincing scientific work comes up that indicate that geoengineering would in fact not work, I would for sure change that view. I know this wait-and-see, trust in science position is probably disappointing for a lot of people, but frankly I don’t see the risk in careful consideration here.

    I would also add that despite some press reports that claim this issue is gathering momentum, I really don’t think it is, and wouldn’t be surprised to see it go away in another decade. Most of the power interests that some speculate would be interested (fossil fuel companies, defense contractors, whatever) are currently making a whole lot more money doing what they’re doing than they would with geoengineering— capital is not patient, for better or worse.

    1. Thank you, Amber Katherine and Delia Hannah, for your comments. I largely agree with Holly’s position in her response to Amber Katherine. For my part, and perhaps this might have been stated more strongly in the article, I remain skeptical that climate engineering will shake its masculinist origins, especially when conceived of large-scale, top-down, and technologically elaborate undertakings like sulfate aerosol injections. However, like Holly, I remain too uncertain to condemn research in even these kinds of fixes, given the growing possibility of severe future climates. My concern is heightened especially because, to us in the west, such situations seem confined to future decades or centuries but may already be present or imminent reality for others in different regions. (We might get a sense of this urgency through the current PhD research of Wylie Carr, who has been conducting interviews about climate change and attitudes towards climate engineering in countries where changes in climate are already, or are quickly becoming, an emergency. I look forward to his findings.)

      I have struggled with the question of whether climate engineering is an idea I even want to engage, and in this way I am sympathetic with Amber Katherine’s comment about fence-sitting as acceding to the power of the status quo. Still, this paper was written, and I believe we are still, at a stage where ideas of climate engineering are still being formed and argued contentiously. Ultimately, I feel that the questions and critiques feminist philosophy and ethics raises—especially the suggestion of climate engineering as social remediation—would reshape the prevailing climate engineering strategies, that is, if they are taken seriously. The questions we have meant to put forth, and I think Delia Hannah has summarized them succinctly in her response -to who, by whom, for whom, and with whose consent- are crucial questions that should remain at the forefront of any discussion of climate engineering. At least for my part, the agnostic stance on climate engineering is based in a hope that the offerings of this paper and future work on climate engineering by researchers like Holly, Wylie, Christopher, and others will keep these critical questions ahead of the otherwise technocratic and masculinist visions of climate engineering we’d all like to avoid.

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