Geo-engineering: It’s probably not a good idea

Iceland in 2010: The Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupts. Image: By anjči, via Wikimedia Commons


Skyseed: geo-engineering the planet might be humankind’s last desperate throw, says a tale by a geophysical hazard expert.

LONDON, 30 October, 2020 − There were always three objections to the technofix answer to climate change: that geo-engineeering wouldn’t work, that it would deliver unintended consequences that would be unpredictably distributed, and a third, rarely mentioned: that it might work all too well.

In Bill McGuire’s unexpected eco-thriller Skyseed: Hacking the Earth might be the last thing we ever do it works desperately well. Unexpected is a carefully chosen word: it’s no surprise that scientists can be good writers − I’ve argued elsewhere that they can be better writers than most writers − but the leap from factual analysis to lurid fable is a challenge.

Skyseed has what good thrillers always need, as well as geo-engineering: a world to save, characters with a bit of go in them, some plausible villains, fast-paced action, sustained tension, a big moment of reckoning and (let us be honest) as little preaching as possible.

The story is a simple one of global eco-collapse. Volcanoes are involved, and extreme weather, and ice, but not the outcome that McGuire (a volcanologist who for many years headed research into natural hazards) has spent a working lifetime warning about.

In this book, instead of taking the obvious route and abandoning fossil fuels as an energy source, a bullying, dishonest and unthinking American president, dependent on what is now called “dark money”, with help from a fawning British prime minister sorely in need of a trade deal, decides to contain global heating in a different way.

“The precise manner in this book in which civilisation perishes as a consequence of climate change is fortunately so far implausible”

The duo authorise a dangerous experiment in geo-engineering, under the cover of some so-called rain-making experiments during high-altitude military flights. That’s mistake one.

Mistake two is that they do it secretly. And they seem to think that a small army of global climate scientists − people whose career is based on sampling the stratospheric atmosphere and matching its chemistry with global temperature levels − won’t notice. And that if they do, these academic busybodies can be rubbed out without anyone else asking awkward questions.

Of course, things go wrong: horribly wrong, and it doesn’t take long for a trio of all-too human scientists, working separately and together, to tumble to the truth. As soon as they start to do so, sinister forces try to contain the secret. Our heroes survive, thanks to fortune, subterfuge and some help with the weather, and come back with the truth: don’t mess with geo-engineering.

In the course of this entertainment, the informed reader could play the game of spot-the-science: quite a lot, actually, but trailed racily and with just enough explanation to keep the story at stampede speed − advanced nano-engineering, upper atmosphere chemistry, volcanic discharges, the interplay of climate change on geological hazard, the advance of an ice front, and so on. You could both enjoy the story and learn a little more about how the planet works.

Not escapist

McGuire poses no great threat to the reputations of Len Deighton, Leslie Charteris and Ian Fleming, but who cares? Their heroes always survived, to begin a new adventure in each successive volume.

In Skyseed, whoever makes it to the last page doesn’t expect to survive for much longer, and − non-spoiler alert − McGuire cheerfully breaks that bit of bad news to the reader in the prologue. You know this one is going to end badly, before it even begins.

A declaration of interest: I know McGuire, professionally, and have done for many years. Another declaration: I can think of less readable books, by vastly better-known popular authors. And a third: the precise manner in this book in which civilisation perishes as a consequence of climate change is fortunately so far implausible.

That civilisation is threatened, and all too plausibly, by the inexorable increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, unhappily is not. You could call this book a thriller. You could not call it escapist. − Climate News Network

Skyseed: The Book Guild, £8.99. By Bill McGuire