Morton is a much-loved science writer, the former news and features editor for Nature, with an asteroid (10716 Olivermorton) named after him.
In Planet Remade, Morton looks at the long sweep of debates over the science of climate change and humanity's relationship to its home planet, offering a smart, sensitive history of how our species has at various times, denied that the planet could ever be changed by puny humans; exulted in its ability to change the planet to suit its needs; quailed at the damage wrought by human activity; and taken global, effective, coordinated action to mitigate that damage — and how each of these modes of relating to Earth has worked out for us and for our fellow living things.
This is the backdrop for the urgent story of geoengineering, the practice of (deliberately or accidentally) changing the planet. We're already geoengineering Earth, have been doing so at least since the dawn of agriculture, though mostly our changes have been inadvertent. The reason geoengineering matters today is clear: global climate change is a pressing threat with few comprehensive solutions in sight. It is an example of geoengineering gone terribly wrong, with pressing consequences for the human race and most other living things on our only planet.
As much as geoengineering has been the source of our woes, it has also been mooted as the solution to them. The debate over how we might change our planet to accommodate it to our activities (rather than changing our activities to accommodate the planet's limitations) is a fierce one, and it cross-cuts through science, technology, politics, philosophy, even aesthetics.
This is where Morton shines: he is every bit as thorough in exploring the political ramifications of geoengineering (up to and including all-out global war, but not excluding the further immiseration of the global poor as their homes are sacrificed for the rest of the planet's benefit) as he is in looking at the scientific and technical debates. By locating these technical questions in their human, historical contexts, Morton picks at the tangled knots of policy and politics that make geoengineering a much more difficult subject than any mere question of whether technology will save or destroy the world.
Morton explores two general themes in geoengineering: veiling (putting some kind of particulate, maybe water vapor, maybe sulfur, maybe something else, into the sky to change the way the sun's rays strike the earth) and changing the chemical makeup of our atmosphere (by removing gases, or adding them, or changing them, so that the Earth's climate is changed). He surveys the current state of the art, signposts which techniques are likely, possible, and improbable, and provides rough costings and roadmaps for accomplishing them.
As he moves through the physics of weather and the chemistry of soil, plant life, microorganisms and gas, he keeps circling back to politics, both the small-p kind, in the form of the stories of the battles between individual scientists over theories, and the big-P kind in the form of practical considerations about nations and multinational companies and what role they might play in each scenario.
The result is a extended Radiolabish story that uses human beings to illustrate larger technical and historical forces, while educating, informing and provoking. Morton's thesis is that we are already engaged in a significant geoengineering project, in the form of industrial civilization. Our technology can be made sustainable, but over a longer term than climate change leaves us. He suggests, convincingly, that some form of geoengineering is inevitable, and desirable, as a means of buying time and saving the lives of possibly tens of millions of people while we figure out how to move into the next phase of technological human life.
It's a convincing argument, but not one that is made without many caveats. Morton knows that there are good reasons to disagree with him, and he presents Steel Man arguments against his position. This is a book that lays out all the facts, with great clarity and at some length, draws a conclusion, but leaves you to make up your mind.
The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World [Oliver Morton/ Princeton University Press]