Climate Intervention Lexicon

Authors: Eleanor Peres, Tatiana Lyubimova, Vlad Afanasiev, Iani Zeigerman

An unorthodox lexicon of climate intervention instruments speculates about the future of the Russian territory and offers a vision of how emissions can be brought down beyond zero.

The foreseeable future of Planet Earth will unfold in response-ability, or an ability to respond, not only to reverse global warming but to design and embrace life beyond a countdown to ecological collapse. Atmospheric insulation is accumulating from the energy infrastructures of human activity, calling for a recomposition of instruments already in place. This Climate Intervention Lexicon assembles seemingly unrelated instruments that collectively demonstrate how to bring these challenges back down to Earth, mitigating future emissions and rewriting historical ones. And the Russian territory, a vast and complex landscape, sets a precedent of how instruments can be imagined in composition.

 

Planet Earth Today

The atmosphere encircling Earth’s perimeter has kidnapped gaseous emissions radiating from human activity on the surface, increasingly insulating the planet to a temperature predicted to reach a point-of-no-return within the next two decades. How to limit global warming within 1.5 - 2°C, as deemed necessary by the IPCC, might be the most divisive challenge of this century. Individuals, institutions, nations, and intergovernmental panels have long been deliberating on who let their offspring—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbon gases—unsupervised into the atmosphere. Who should pay the ransom for their return? The variety of effects that these emissions have on the specific territories they hover over can be disproportionate to origin. But once they reach the atmosphere, gases become geographically agnostic—and as time passes, the window of opportunity for improvement diminishes.

 

Everyday Geoengineering

Momentum is building around the idea that it will not suffice only to mitigate and adapt future emissions. It is also necessary to address historical emissions by designing drawdown interventions. This is what the planet-hacking field of geoengineering has been exploring with space mirrors, ocean fertilization, and cloud seeding interventions at NASA and the UN, and at Cambridge and Harvard Universities. Geoengineering is defined as a deliberate, massive intervention in the Earth’s climate system to mitigate the adverse effects of global warming. Though the intention of colossal drawdown interventions is tangible, it remains unanswered who could execute them, how and when. Rather than a silver bullet for climate collapse, climate intervention lexicon reframes planet-hacking as the careful recalibration of tools already in place as a collective network speculating a common future.

 

Return to Deep Time

Humans emit 50 gigatons of C02 equivalents per year and have emitted fifty times that since the Industrial Revolution. The detailed metrics of climate change are both too minuscule and too massive to comprehend. At the rate humanity is living, the IPCC predicts a limit of emissions will be reached by 2040 and has imagined five pathways to possible futures through to 2100. To remain beneath a 2°C ceiling, annual emissions must peak immediately, then fall incrementally until they tip beyond zero around 2070. Large-scale negative emissions interventions are a non-optional factor of any favorable scenario. Though the climate has always been shifting, the recent ascendo of global warming reveals itself as unprecedented when overlaid on geological, deep-time over thousands of years. The facts become stranger than fiction.

 

Euphony or Cacophony

Humans have been unintentionally intervening with Earth’s climate system for thousands of years. We have designed marvelous and terrifying instruments to transform—solar power, photosynthesis, magnetism and minerality to support human habitat on Earth; from indigenous land management to agriculture, manufacturing, architecture, infrastructure, gardening, and the countless ways in which Earth has been terraformed. Artificial or natural, active or passive, intentional or unintentional, the Earth’s surface temperature is warming in response to the collective outcome of interventions we already have. The practical infrastructure to enact large-scale effects already exists, but Earth’s instruments are out of tune, rendering perfect conditions for natural disasters to take hold and thrive.

 

Lexicon of Everyday Geoengineering

As “lexicon” describes the unique vocabulary of ancient languages or particular fields of study, this resource collects a plethora of seemingly unrelated instruments under the common goal of Earth-cooling. Its entries are deliberately dismembered from the scale and application from which they originate; cultural and economic institutions, green new deals, laboratories, or climate agreements. Each one a component of a potential orchestration at a planetary scale of effect, of not only lowering emissions and Earth temperature but also imagining and designing holistic systems that support an ecological balance in which human life is considered an integral component. The everyday is a heterogeneous and complex interweave of interconnected systems harmonizing. The challenge is to coordinate composition to a scale of effect as an intentional outcome that enables the enactment of future imagination.

 

Instruments that Rewrite History

The unifying factor of all lexicon entries, what renders them comparable to and interactive with one another, is their contribution to a scale of effect. Lexicon entries are arranged by several metrics that indicate their ability to cooperate toward lowering temperature, at scale. First, each is categorized on a timeline either side of now. White entries represent mitigation instruments that alter emissions from this moment forward, and yellow entries describe beyond zero instruments that reimagine the capture and storage or use of historic emissions that have entered lands, oceans, and the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Mitigation instruments will not suffice to limit temperature increase within 1.5-2°C. Each entry is assigned a value of 1-4, indicating its scale of effect*. Solar Radiation Management (SRM) is coded separately, for it is widely understood as a last resort. Explanations illustrate the limitations and potentials of each, appropriate moments of intervention, where it will be most instrumental, who could implement it, and who it could affect.

 

Unorthodox Geoengineering

This lexicon has been curated to expand the concept of geoengineering from a scientific niche of behemoth instruments to embrace existing infrastructure. Its entries imagine new earthly habits for a post-collapse perspective. Can leisure be considered geoengineering? The Three-Day Working Week expands on the current real-time condition of COVID-19. The unexpected rupture in business-as-usual has already recorded a 4 percent reduction in annual emissions. Data from a UK Labour proposition indicates that a 20 percent reduction in work could reduce emissions by 24 percent. What if construction is reimagined? Sink Cities confronts that 8 percent of current emissions derive from cement and investigates methods of sequestering carbon emissions in concrete. Surprisingly, the combined emissions reduction of realizing female education and contraception as basic human rights on a global scale would be 7.2 percent. Almost half of all pregnancies are unplanned and if all women had an opportunity for education there would be 843 million fewer humans on Planet Earth by 2050.

 

Single Intervention to Collective Effect

For whom is this lexicon designed? Asking what to work towards instead of asking who should “get to work” enables meaningful connections to be made between instruments of climate futures. And speculative yet logical collaborations can unfold between governance, corporations, and cultural institutions. Where does the potential for symbiosis reside? Can emissions be reimagined as valuable resources to be recirculated as commodities rather than waste let loose? Movement on emissions is not happening at the rate that would make a meaningful contribution toward commitments set at an international level in the five years since the Paris Agreement. Conceptions surrounding response-ability are being dissolved under the guise of COVID-19. Planning for the future has suddenly become the reality of the present. For example, Universal Basic Income is being implemented in Spain as a recovery mechanism. Entire industries and educational institutions engineered virtual offices and classrooms overnight. Rerouting, reverse-engineering, and reformatting the models and platforms that are already embedded on a planetary scale is the proposal of everyday geoengineering, not a set of restrictions or obligations to individual behaviors.

 

Russian Composition

What if we take to a particular geographical territory with this lexicon to see what combination of techniques might apply? The Russian territory holds a unique mixture of opportunity and necessity. Hosting wild variability—from megacities, permafrost, forests, nature reserves, and vast minescapes to the Arctic and the Bering Sea—the world’s largest country is also heating 2.5 percent faster than the global average and suffers ongoing threats from its enormous dependency on extraction economies. For the fourth-largest polluter to go beyond zero, it would need to prevent and extract 1.86 Gt of CO₂ annually, a monumental task which begs for monumental interventions that could set the precedent for climate reversal on a global scale and inspire international cooperation at a level of planetary consciousness.

 

Forest Watch

Sustainable forest policies aided by technology for one of the largest net-carbon sinks

The Russian territory hosts the world’s largest forest cover, totaling 19 percent of reserves that serve as carbon sinks. Russian forests’ ability to sequester carbon is predicted to reach zero by the mid-2040s due to logging, fires, and a lack of sustainable policies. Opportunities to reverse this trend, including reforestation, afforestation, trophic cascades, and payment for ecosystem services, are estimated equal with abatements derived from the power industry. These natural climate solutions would allow forests to continue sequestering emissions. Recording and accounting carbon sequestration is a challenge that undermines the political importance yet lack of attention on Russian boreal forests during UN climate negotiations. Breakthroughs in machine learning algorithms, satellite imagery, and LiDAR welcome innovative methods of tracing forestation and emissions that could transform and amplify the planetary significance of Russian boreal forests. A robust international tracking platform for carbon offset based on technological verification is a market ripe for development. A prime candidate for the opportunity is Yandex. A provider of over seventy platform services, the Russian-based company is well placed to leverage government influence in order to expand the carbon-sequestration market and advocate for its international value. Given the physical constraints of land availability, maturity timelines, and appropriateness, further agency is required.

 

Siberian Carbon Traps

Reverse-engineer an extraction machine to mine air and bury carbon in basalt

The vast landmass, the oil and gas industry, and the hydro- and nuclear power infrastructure of the Russian territory place the country in a unique position to implement Direct Air Capture (DAC) at scale. The technology essentially uses large machines to remove C02 directly from ambient air prior to its storage elsewhere. Though still in the early stages of development, estimates suggest that if Russia were to capture its remaining emissions to reach beyond zero solely by DAC, approximately 1,260 DAC plants would be required, consuming an area of 315 km2. What might seem a colossal intervention appears shy in the context of the infrastructure that Russia’s massive fossil fuel industry comprises. DAC could be implemented alongside existing infrastructure, reducing costs. Recent breakthroughs suggest basalt rocks provide a permanent underground repository, making the Siberian Traps a prime geological storage site. Russia could leverage its hydro- and nuclear power to provide the required clean energy to run direct air capture. An effort to reduce the current cost of $100 per ton of CO2 removed is also necessary to meet increasing global efforts of a meaningful carbon tax. DAC should not be seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card, but could be a unique opportunity to utilize the massive energy infrastructure network—which is already powering neighboring nations and bolstering the Russian economy—towards a new market of carbon capture.

 

From Russia to Planet Earth

The complexities, risks, and costs of implementing climate intervention are vast—and the larger the intervention, the more inconceivable it seems. But reasons not to consider intervention are no vaster than the critical necessity of a future imaginary. Russian energy operators commencing carbon capture and storage en masse might seem a wild fantasy, but even wilder would be arriving in 2040 without a green new deal or a loaded silver bullet. Climate change expert Will Steffen warns of tipping cascades as phenomena where Earth systems and ecologies cross a threshold beyond human effect and begin self-calibrating collapse, such as repetitive reef bleaching or melting ice sheets. Can these points of no return be avoided, and reframed as restoration opportunities through conscious interventions? The planetary human network has been cashing in on gorging Earth materials for almost two decades and now must invert itself and capture what was lost. In the five years that have passed since the Paris Agreement, national commitments under international treaties have proved insurmountable. It is time for a different approach, a necessary shift in the way climate intervention is embraced as a necessary project from different perspectives in collaboration. It is not a matter of if, but when. The Climate Intervention Lexicon designs new compositions of infrastructure already on course that must simply change direction—soon—toward what Holly Jean Buck speculates about in After Geoengineering.

*Disclaimer: The scale of effect is a percentage figure of current annual emissions that could be avoided, measured from the most recent available emissions data which, for the most part, is represented through carbon dioxide (C02) or methane, the most prolific greenhouse gasses (1 = 0-1%, 2 = 1-10%, 3 = 10-100% and 4 = stored emissions at risk of release).

Lexicon of Climate Intervention

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Eleanor Peres is a designer and researcher based between Melbourne and Sydney.

Tatiana Lyubimova is a landscape architect based in Moscow.

Vlad Afanasiev is an architect and graphic designer usually based in Kyiv.

Iani Zeigerman is a public policy specialist and project manager working between Brazil and Europe.

This essay is part of the Revenge of the Real special project by The Terraforming research program and Strelka Mag. Read more essays here.

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