Geoengineering in a World Risk Society

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  • Title: Geoengineering in a World Risk Society
  • Author(s): Tina Sikka
  • Publisher: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Collection: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Series: Climate Change: Impacts and Responses
  • Journal Title: The International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses
  • Keywords: Geoengineering, Risk, Ulrich Beck, Reflexive Modernization, Subpolitics, Climate Change
  • Volume: 3
  • Issue: 1
  • Year: 2012
  • ISSN: 1835-7156 (Print)
  • DOI:
  • Citation: Sikka, Tina. 2012. "Geoengineering in a World Risk Society." The International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses 3 (1): 143-154. doi:10.18848/1835-7156/CGP/v03i01/37093.
  • Extent: 12 pages


In the following paper, I draw on Ulrich Beck’s model of the world risk society to examine, unpack and critique geoengineering technologies. Briefly, geoengineering can be defined as large-scale technological interventions into the environment in an attempt to mitigate or even reverse climate change. They include such proposals as painting the surfaces of buildings white to reflect the sun’s rays, placing mirrors in space for similar ends or the more interventionist seeding of oceans with iron in order to encourage the growth of carbon absorbing algae blooms. What is startling about geoengineering is that despite its seeming outlandishness, it has recently been seriously considered by a number of governments, corporations, research institutes and professional scientific bodies. In an attempt to better understand and appreciate the possible normative, political, economic and environmental consequences of such large-scale technological interventions, I have found Beck’s thesis of reflexive modernity and the world risk society to be particularly useful and illuminating. Essentially, Beck’s thesis is that we live in a world that distinguished from the past by the extent to which it is constituted by global technological risks that one, tears down traditional boundaries between people and their environments (de-localization); two, resists anticipation by conventional scientific and/or rational means; three, denies compensation or insurability against danger; and four, re-orients social attention to the constant anticipation of catastrophe. These risks, as Beck argues, “represents a shock for the whole of humanity” who never could have anticipated “the self-destructiveness–not only physically but also ethical–of unleashed modernity” (Beck, 2006, p. 330). In applying these insights to geoengineering, it becomes clear that these technologies are, by definition, risk technologies. I argue that it is their inherently global, unpredictable, uninsurable and potentially catastrophic character, which can be both inimitable, frightening, which renders them in need of further study. As such, in undertaking an examination of these questions, I have chosen to divide this article into the following sections: I begin with a brief introduction to geoengineering technologies and discuss not only what they are and what they are supposed to do. Following this, I delve into a more considered discussion of how geoengineering technologies are in fact risk technologies as Beck defines them. I begin with an overview of reflexive modernization, followed by discussions Beck’s concepts of risk, insurability and responsibility, and subpolitics, which I use to examine geoengineering in turn.