The National Academy of Sciences released a report on Tuesday discussing the possibility of using “climate engineering” (more frequently called geoengineering) to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. The report said that geoengineering needs further scientific investigation, but should only be used a last resort, “a Hail Mary with only two seconds on the clock,” according to Marcia McNutt of the National Academy of Sciences.
Already, many are expressing their concern over what is seen as an overly dangerous proposal. It’s fair to ask how we let the problem of climate change get to this point, and as international leaders are walking back their expectations for the next climate summit in Paris, it’s clear that there’s plenty of blame to go around.
But just as important is the question of how geoengineering became seen as a possible solution to the climate problem, and whether it would ever gain traction in the broader public. Although public opinion on things like geoengineering is obviously a complex topic, many scholars argue that the media plays a big role in how we see things like science and the environment.
When it comes to processes that take place over a long time (like climate change) or things that are hard to observe personally (like rising carbon dioxide emissions), people without scientific training will turn to the media to help them visualize the changes. Pop culture is thought to be particularly potent in this regard because it embeds science within a story.
So what does pop culture say about geoengineering? For my dissertation research, I examined dozens of mostly low-budget disaster films, looking for their depictions of climate change, scientists, and geoengineering. The results aren’t pretty, especially if you’re of the opinion that geoengineering is complex and potentially dangerous.
Overwhelmingly, disaster films reinforce what environmental sociologists call the human exemptionalist paradigm. The human exemptionalist paradigm, in a nutshell, says that human culture and human ingenuity are sufficient to allow people to overcome natural limits and successfully modify nature for our own purposes. As prominent environmental sociologists William Catton and Riley Dunlap put it, the human exemptionalist paradigm is an “unreserved faith that equilibrium between population and resources…[can] be reached in noncatastrophic ways, since technology and organization…[will] mediate the relations between a growing population and its earthly habitat.”
In disaster films, this typically translates into the use of geoengineering to “solve” the natural disasters plaguing the film’s fictional world. This is almost universal in fictional media discussing extreme climate change, climactic shifts, and superstorms. The proposed solutions range from the patently ridiculous (the ever-present throw-a-bomb-into-the-tornado strategy of the Sharknado films) to the indecipherable (using an electromagnetic pulse to “reverse the earth’s polarity” in Lightning: Bolts of Destruction). Many of these films hew surprisingly close to current conceptualizations of geoengineering, though – at least in terms of the visualizations and terminology being used, if not the actual science. Cloud seeding technology is used to stop a climate change-driven tornado outbreak in NYC: Tornado Terror, for instance.
It’s important not to overlook the fact that many of these disasters are actually caused by geoengineering in the first place – the eponymous “ice twisters” in Ice Twisters were created by a novel cloud seeding program. There is some skepticism of geoengineering in this strain of pop culture. But this skepticism is always situated within the context of “Oops, our bad, we broke the planet. But we can fix it!” In the end, human cleverness solves the problem almost every time. Humans are exempt from natural laws because we’re so smart that we can solve whatever disasters we create.
Now, this is not to suggest that audiences take these films as scientific gospel. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who openly admits to getting his/her information about catastrophic climate change from an actor in a fake lab coat. But we can’t neglect the fact that pop culture provides many people with their first (and sometimes only) exposure to ideas like geoengineering. Like it or not, pop culture provides the backdrop against which people interpret things like today’s NAS report. And when the fictional crises caused by geoengineering are so easily solved (with more geoengineering, in fact), it’s worthwhile considering what this means for the larger social and scientific conversations we’re having in the real world.