After listening to this recent Radio Ecoshock episode on geoengineering, which covered the unsurprising and yet still horrifying plans afoot to attempt to mask climate change through increasingly desperate means, I realized that the very distinction between geoengineering and terraforming I had been looking for was right there in front of me: in the words themselves.
Terraforming is “land shaping”. Geoengineering is “Earth engineering”. Thus while terraforming is restricted to the land surface of the planet, geoengineering concerns itself with anything and everything on the planet.
Broadly, we might say that the planet consists of land, air, and sea. Except for Antarctica, to a first approximation every bit of land on the planet is known and is under some nation’s jurisdiction. While something similar exists for air over land — a nation’s sovereign airspace — the vertical limit of sovereign airspace is unclear. And the vast majority of the sea consists of international waters and the air above it is effectively ungoverned.
The distinction between “land shaping” and “Earth engineering” is a crucial because of the commons. In most countries there is little land that isn’t owned by someone. Even land that we might broadly consider part of the commons — national parks, for example — are owned by the government, and visitors are expected to follow certain strict rules. (Well, unless we’re talking about BLM land and corporations engaged in fracking for gas.)
The air and sea are another matter entirely. Many of the major pollutants global society has dealt with in recent decades — CFCs, SO2, CO2, CH4 — are diffuse and envelop the globe. These pollutants are in the air largely due to, in the convoluted terminology of environmental regulation, nonpoint source emissions (that is, sources that are too small to track individually or point fingers at). Thus, they are being dumped into the commons — shared air and waters. Less often do we hear about open dumping of waste by party X on party Y’s land, and I think that’s because many nations have laws that strongly protect private property. Air and waters are less protected, and globally-shared air and oceans are less protected still.
That brings us to the danger of geoengineering. By not limiting its scope to the land, its purveyors can lay claim to the unregulated global commons of air and sea and don’t have to worry about what anyone else (or any laws) have to say about their plans. And if you look at many of the proposed geoengineering techniques, you’ll find that they invariably involve doing something in the stratosphere or in the ocean — consider proposals to spray sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere, dump iron in the ocean, and whiten clouds. It’s exactly these sorts of techniques that are most dangerous, in that they can be done unilaterally by a nation or even by a consortium of corporate and/or private interests (who are forming alliances, as Clive Hamilton discusses in the episode linked above, with oil companies), who are unlikely to fully weigh the consequences of attempting to mask climate change rather than addressing the root cause.