Geoengineering and (un)making the world we want to live in

Geoengineering and its policy implications were hot topics at this year’s Science in Public conference. The subject raised questions such as how is geoengineering portrayed in the media and what does this mean for the acceptance of geoengineering technologies?  Dr Rusi Jaspal and Professor Brigitte Nerlich discuss their research into media representations of geoengineering and how these shape the hopes and fears of the public…

Geoengineering promises to alter global climate patterns and thereby avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. Implementing various types of climate engineering options is a huge, but still mainly speculative, technological problem. It throws up immense political, governance, social and ethical problems. However, we should not forget that it is also a linguistic problem. As I. A. Richard said in his Philosophy of Rhetoric, a “command of metaphor plays a role in the control of the world that we make for ourselves to live in” (see p. 155). This means that we make the world we live in by the language we speak in it, especially through the use of metaphors. Metaphors make us see one thing in terms of another and then act in specific ways according to this new way of seeing. What does this mean for geoengineering? What language is emerging in the context of geoengineering? How might people respond to such language?

To explore these questions, we undertook two studies as part of a larger project considering climate change as a complex social issue. In the first study, we examined a small body of articles published in trade magazines between 1980 and 2010, with the majority being published between 2006 and 2009. In a second follow-up study we analysed a small sample of articles published in UK national newspapers between 1 January 2010 and 15 July 2013. Overall, the coverage of geoengineering lags far behind coverage of other geoscientific developments, such as carbon capture and storage and fracking, for example.

The findings of our first study indicate that those trying to promote geoengineering use a series of powerful metaphors circling around one master-argument, namely that if emissions continue to rise we face global catastrophe and geoengineering might be the only option left to avert it. The three main conceptual metaphors supporting this master-argument were:

  1. The planet is a machine (car, heating system, computer), which manifested itself in scientists’ and journalists’ claims that geoengineering can ‘fix’ the planet, that it can be used to manipulate the planet’s thermostat and so on;
  2. The planet is a body, which manifested itself in people talking about building a sunshade for the planet or applying suncream, sunblock or sunscreen to it; and
  3. The planet is a patient, which manifested itself in talk of applying medical treatment to the planet of curing the planet’s addiction to carbon and so on.
Honeywell's iconic thermostat, also called "The Round". (Credit: Flickr user midnightcomm)

Honeywell’s iconic thermostat, also called The Round. (Credit: Flickr user midnightcomm)

Just after we had carried out the first study, the SPICE project (which aimed to assess the feasibility of injecting particles into the atmosphere in order to manage solar radiation) was launched and attracted some media attention, especially after it was cancelled. We imagined that the language used to talk about geoengineering might change after this event. When we looked at the UK press coverage, we found a pronounced difference between right- and left-leaning newspapers. The Times and The Daily Telegraph (right-leaning) still displayed some of the optimism we had found in the trade magazines (and the scientists who were quoted in them), while The Guardian and The Independent (left leaning) focused more on potential threats posed by geoengineering. The Times and The Telegraph saw geoengineering as a last option in the war against climate change, as a palliative and a silver bullet (linking back to the conceptual metaphors used in the trade press). They also, and more importantly, began to normalise geoengineering, either by comparing it to sci-fi but pointing out that it was becoming a reality, by linking it back to successful experiments in cloud seeding, or by comparing geoengineering to everyday activities we take for granted, such as stepping into our cars.

The technology that would have been used in the SPICE experiment. (Credit: Hugh Hunt)

The technology that would have been used in the SPICE experiment. (Credit: Hugh Hunt)

By contrast The Guardian and The Independent focused on the threats posed by geoengineering and argued that it distracts from climate mitigation (what others have called the moral hazard argument) and by pointing to many uncertainties, both scientific and social. Some articles also framed the technology as ‘fascist’. This contrasts strongly with the normalising discourse emerging within the more right-leaning press.

Readers of press articles about geoengineering are confronted with a wide range of linguistic and metaphorical arguments and framings. These need to be thought through in terms of the world they might want to live in or be forced to live in terms of individuals and communities. This is not easy, as this technology is highly speculative, would be a global enterprise and would have very uncertain and unpredictable local impacts. As a means of understanding how people might respond to complex social and linguistic constructions of geoengineering, we have drawn upon Identity Process Theory. This social psychological theory argues that we need to maintain appropriate levels of particular ‘identity principles’ in order to construct a positive identity:

  • Continuity – thread connecting past, present and future and, at a group level, survival;
  • Self-efficacy – control and competence over one’s life and future;
  • Self-esteema positive self-conception;
  • Distinctivenessdifferentiation from relevant others.

It is likely that metaphors which construct geoengineering as a danger to the human species could threaten people’s sense of continuity, while those that normalise geoengineering could in fact safeguard our sense of continuity over time by denying that anything would change. Metaphors that depict geoengineering as the only means of regaining control of the planet’s climate could bolster people’s sense of self-efficacy. The notion that we are supporting a technology that could benefit our planet may help us to derive a positive self-conception, enhancing feelings of self-esteem.

We are more likely to endorse or embrace phenomena that provide us with high levels of these principles and to avoid or deny things that jeopardise our feelings of continuity, self-efficacy and so on. Thus, the metaphors which make us view geoengineering in terms of either threats or benefits to these principles are clearly important in shaping our perceptions and, ultimately, our future engagement with geoengineering at both individual and group levels. This is no trivial matter. As the sociolinguist Suzanne Romaine said: “It matters which metaphors we choose to live by. If we choose unwisely or fail to understand their implications, we will die by them.”

By Dr Rusi Jaspal & Professor Brigitte Nerlich


Jaspal, R. & Nerlich, B. (2013). Media representations of geoengineering: Constructing hopes and fears. Paper presented at the Science in Public Conference, University of Nottingham, UK, 23 July 2013.

Nerlich, B. & Jaspal, R. (2012). Metaphors we die by? Geoengineering, metaphors and the argument from catastrophe. Metaphor and Symbol, 27(2), 131-47.

Dr Rusi Jaspal is Lecturer in Psychology and Convenor of the Self and Identity Research Group at De Montfort University, Leicester. E-mail:

Professor Brigitte Nerlich is Professor of Language, Science and Society and Director of the Leverhulme Program: Making Science Public at the University of Nottingham. E-mail:

GeoTalk: Suzanne Hangx on Carbon Capture & Storage

Today in GeoTalk, we’re talking to Suzanne Hangx, who explains the great potential of carbon capture and storage and the challenges emerging technologies, like CCS, face.

First, could you introduce yourself and let us know what drew you to geomechanics?

Let’s start with the introduction: I’m Suzanne Hangx and I currently work as a researcher on geomechanics for subsurface storage containment technologies at Shell Global Solutions in the Netherlands. Actually, I hadn’t planned, or even thought of, becoming a geomechanist at first. In high school, I was mainly interested in chemistry and I was thinking of studying Chemical Technology. It wasn’t until I read a book about volcanoes for Geography class that I thought: “maybe I want to become a volcanologist!” To me it nicely combined chemistry, travelling and Earth processes, which I also found interesting. So I enrolled for my geology studies at Utrecht University. As it turned out, volcanoes were not my cup of tea, but I did meet a great professor that introduced me to geomechanics. All of a sudden I had found it: breaking rocks (for scientific purposes of course… and also a bit for fun) was my ‘thing’.

After finishing my Master’s in 2004, I continued working with Professor Chris Spiers at the High Pressure and Temperature Laboratory at Utrecht University. I started a PhD project on CO2 storage and the effect of chemical CO2-rock interactions on the mechanical properties of rocks. To me that was a nice combination of putting science in a socially-relevant context, as CO2 storage is considered to be a potential solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When I finished my PhD in 2009, I got the opportunity to continue this work at Shell Global Solutions.

Last year, you received a Division Outstanding Young Scientists Award for your work on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Could you tell us about your research in this area?

Suzanne Hangx

Suzanne Hangx

One way to get rid of large quantities of greenhouse gasses, like CO2, is to inject them into the subsurface, reducing their effect on climate change. Suitable locations are depleted oil or gas reservoirs, or aquifers, at several kilometres depth. However, it is key to ensure that after injection the CO2 also stays there – not just today or tomorrow, but for thousands of years. Once a potential injection site is identified, it is important to see if the reservoir (the ‘container’) and the seal keeping the CO2 in place (the ‘lid’), are up for the job, so to speak. I investigate if the injected CO2 does anything to the rocks to alter their mechanical behaviour, i.e. how they break, under which force they break and if they get weaker. Once I have this data, I will give it to the people that make the long term (thousands of years) numerical modelling predictions of the behaviour of the reservoir-seal system. This way, we all work together to determine whether or not a potential site is suitable for geological storage of CO2.

How does carbon dioxide affect the chemical and mechanical properties of rocks?

When you inject CO2 into a depleted oil or gas reservoir, part of it will start to dissolve into the water that is present in that reservoir, while the rest will stay in a dense liquid or supercritical phase. When CO2 dissolves in water, the water will become acidic. This acidic fluid can chemically interact with the surrounding rocks – like in fizzy drinks, where CO2 is injected to make them fizz, but they also become acidic and corrode your teeth if you drink too much of them. As a result, certain minerals may dissolve and new ones may be formed, also the way cracks propagate through the rock may be affected, changing their strength and the way they break. If a rock gets sufficiently weakened by the chemical interaction with CO2 it may compact or break. As a result, a fracture may be created through the seal and CO2 could leak out of the reservoir. This is something we absolutely do not want, and therefore, for every new, potential site we look at how CO2 can affect the rocks of that specific location in great detail.

At the same time, chemical interactions may occur on different timescales. Processes that happen in days, weeks or months can still be dealt with in a laboratory setting. However, to be able to predict what will happen on the timescale of thousands of years, we are currently trying to learn as much as we can from naturally occurring CO2 fields, such as those in Utah (USA), Australia and Europe. These fields can contain over 90% pure CO2 and have mostly done so for millions of years. At Shell, we have recently set up a research consortium with international universities and research institutes to investigate the chemical, mechanical and transport properties of a natural CO2 field in Green River, Utah. The results from this program can help us understand better how anthropogenic CO2 injection into the subsurface will evolve over time.

In some areas in Utah (USA), subsurface rock formations of the Entrada Sandstone have held natural CO2 accumulations for millions of years. (Credit: Suzanne Hangx)

In some areas in Utah (USA), subsurface rock formations of the Entrada Sandstone have held natural CO2 accumulations for millions of years. (Credit: Suzanne Hangx)

Under what conditions can caprock integrity be compromised, and how can we avoid this?

Loss of caprock integrity, i.e. a leaking ‘lid’, can occur if you try to inject too much CO2 into a reservoir. As a result, the pressure in the reservoir may get too high and will try to escape, usually along the path of least resistance. To avoid overpressuring of the injection site, strict regulations are set to injection volumes and pressure. It is not allowed to inject CO2 at a higher pressure than the original oil or gas pressure in the reservoir, before production started. We strive to stay well below this value to make sure we do not induce failure of the seal.

Integrity can also be compromised by chemical weakening of the seal by the injected CO2. Here, laboratory experiments and studying the seals of natural CO2 field helps to understand what processes we need to look at and pay attention to, before we can say that a seal is good enough.

What technical challenges face CCS and how do you think we can overcome them?

The CCS chain consists of CO2 capture at source, followed by transport to the site, and then injection into the reservoir for storage. For storage, we already understand the larger part of the processes that are of importance. Key challenge is still to investigate every new site in great detail, which is very time consuming and could take several years. In addition, it is also about getting the general public to accept this technology as a way to battle climate change.

Finally, what do you hope to work on next?

I’m mainly driven by my curiosity about the physical and chemical processes that control rock material behaviour in the subsurface, along with the direct relevance of this field to socially relevant issues. With energy and water demand rapidly increasing globally, while availability continues to diminish, densely populated areas are becoming increasingly targeted for exploitation. We already notice that in some areas oil, gas and ground water pumping leads to surface subsidence and induced seismicity. In addition, hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) of subsurface reservoirs for shale gas and geothermal exploitation meets with strong public opposition, due to the risk of induced ground motion, seismicity, and health and safety hazards, some of which are miscommunicated. I would like to contribute to such geo-energy problems, by investigating and quantifying these risks and coming up with socially acceptable solutions or technologies.

If you’d like to suggest a scientist for an interview, please contact Sara Mynott.