We are engineers. We don’t talk about politics.” I heard that phrase many times from my professors at the University of New Mexico School of Engineering. Throughout my engineering education, politics was – and it still is – a taboo topic.
This attitude can even find its way into climate science. According to engineer – and former Secretary of State and Exxon Mobil CEO – Rex Tillerson, climate change is “an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.” But as the climate crisis worsens, science and engineering schools can no longer hide under their anti-political umbrella. Climate change is not a technical issue, but a political issue. And by stripping climate science of its political dimensions, oil and gas companies like the one Tillerson used to run will continue to blind many young scientists and engineers with one absurd idea: geoengineering.
Geoengineering means using large-scale technological interventions to counteract climate change. Ideas range from putting 20,000 tons of sulfuric acid into the atmosphere (yes, believe it or not, sulfuric acid), to creating clouds and developing space shields to reflect the sun’s rays.
Rather than dealing with the root political causes of our environmental crisis, these ideas will just offset the natural cycles and balance of the climate. Geoengineering is the ultimate capitalist solution to climate change – it aims to own and control Mother Earth. But that greed will only worsen our climate crisis.
One geoengineering “solution” that’s especially beloved by the oil and gas industry is carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. The overall goal of CCS is to use technology to both capture carbon emissions from the air and store them in the ground, and to capture carbon before it’s emitted in fossil fuel production. As the Center for International Environmental Law says in their 2019 Fuel to the Fire report, both methods of CCS will only expand fossil fuel production, extending the lifeline of the coal industry and diverting climate change conversations away from the need to end extraction.
Oil and gas companies are investing millions of dollars into CCS – not because it has the potential to address climate change, but because captured carbon can be used for enhanced oil recovery and fracking – methods to optimize fossil fuel extraction. CCS technology will only further carbon emissions and ecological destruction.
According to Fuel to the Fire, “geoengineering distracts from more viable solutions and threatens to exacerbate the climate crisis, while exposing large parts of the world to new and significant risks.” These high tech solutions can also be highly dangerous. Initiatives to capture excessive carbon should be carried out, but by restoring forests – not by large-scale manipulation of natural systems. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, popularly known as the IPCC, 2013 report notes that going down this route will carry a long-term price for the earth’s climate cycles. Geoengineering could potentially throw off the equilibrium of nature, causing unimaginable consequences.
Given all the documented risks, why are young engineers and scientists buying into geoengineering? Unfortunately, oil and gas companies aren’t only polluting our air, water and soil. They’ve injected themselves into our education system as well.
It’s no coincidence that geoengineering was reinforced as the only way to solve our climate crisis as I went through my training. In 2015, the private sector exceeded the federal government in spending on basic research, as Trump’s science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in a speech earlier this year.
Oil and gas companies pride themselves on providing a good amount of that funding for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. As Fuel to the Fire documents, the oil and gas industry has funded several CCS research programs at some of the most prominent educational institutions in the world – including the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton, the Carbon Sequestration Initiative at MIT, the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford, and the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization at Washington University in St. Louis.
The industry’s extension into the education system goes much deeper than funding geoengineering research. Exxon Mobil brags that it alone has invested $1.25 billion on STEM education programs around the world since 2000. Chevron says it’s invested in more than $480 million on education worldwide since 2013.
As the Center for Public Integrity reported in 2017, oil and gas industries have funneled money into developing curricula that teaches kids about the importance of fossil fuels while misleading them about global warming. That includes children’s books like “Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream,” as well as a video series for young kids on oil refining. The investments from oil and gas companies in education should be a big red flag, especially since 30 percent of teachers still reinforce the idea that climate change is due to “natural causes.”
Given how oil and gas money has infiltrated public education, it should come as no surprise that the concept of geoengineering has moved from inner science circles into the mainstream political dialogue. Oil and gas companies like Chevron are trying to portray technology like CCS as a way to combat climate change – and politicians are paying attention.
During the recent CNN presidential candidate town hall on the climate crisis, Andrew Yang firmly situated himself as a strong geoengineering advocate. Yang’s climate plan states that “we should invest resources in large-scale geoengineering measures like shoring up glaciers and reducing solar exposure to counteract the effects of climate change even as we reduce our emissions.” Is this really what engineers and scientists should be focusing on?
Young scientists and engineers have to be vigilant as oil and gas companies try to fool us with false hopes of a technological solution to climate change. The IPCC has clearly laid out the path we need to take to avoid climate catastrophe. We need to stop playing around with fossil fuels. We need to confront capitalism, a root cause of climate change, and advocate for eco-socialist solutions like the Green New Deal. As scientists, and as citizens of this world, we have to address these issues at their political sources.