“Buying Time,” and Other Charismatic Temporalities of Climate Change

A small fishing boat floats on a still, sunny morning sea, with large rocks in the foreground and ice glaciers behind.

This essay on charismatic temporalities and the social construction of time is part of the Troubling Time series, which interrogates environmental ideas, spaces, processes, and problems through the lens of temporality. Series editors: Rebecca Laurent, Rudy Molinek, Samm Newton, Prerna Rana, and Weishun Lu.

How much does it cost to buy time? Usually, “buying time” is just an expression, an old metaphor for stalling or delaying. But The New York Times has a recent series of articles about “buying time” that describe pricey geoengineering projects that can literally buy time against the climate crisis.

They estimate it would cost about $500 million for one of these geoengineering test projects in Greenland. The “audacious” project aims to stop warm ocean water from flowing into the Ilulissat Icefjord (Ilulissat Kangerlua in Greenlandic), where the northern hemisphere’s largest glacier plunges into the sea. Scientists realized more than fifteen years ago that substantial Greenland ice loss comes not just from warming air temperatures but also from warming ocean water, which flows into fjords along the seafloor and thaws the underside of Greenland’s outlet glaciers.

The geoengineering scheme in Ilulissat proposes to construct a long 100-meter-high wall, or curtain, on the seafloor. The idea is that this submarine curtain would block the warmest water from entering the fjord, thereby reducing glacier melt and slowing sea level rise. It buys time for the world’s coastal residents, from Miami to Shanghai. Theoretically. There are still substantial technical, ethical, scientific, social, and political obstacles, as synthesized by glaciologist Twila Moon from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

And yet, The New York Times article reports optimistically that a successful prototype in Greenland could pave the way for a $50 billion seafloor geoengineering project at Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier. What’s more, this submarine curtain on the ocean floor is just one of the geoengineering schemes to buy time against impending climate impacts that the Times has recently showcased. Other projects in its “buying time” series include cloud brightening to deflect sunlight and an enormous vacuum to suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

A large ocean glacier with jagged top edges, on a bright day, seen from a boat.
Iceberg at the mouth of Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland’s Disko Bay, where the proposed geoengineering scheme would be implemented. Photo by author, 2019.

But buying time has its limits—and problems. For one, it is supposed to be about slowing time, but it actually changes nothing. It is an investment in the status quo, not in solutions or revolutions. Also: whose status quo gets preserved, who gets to decide, and who pays the price for that, including all the social and ecological debts accrued in the future? Buried deep in the forty-five-paragraph Times article about Greenland is but a single paragraph reporting on Greenlandic perspectives. And here the storyline is quite different from the foreign boosters of geoengineering who are showcased in the other forty-four paragraphs.

“Why should we pay for your Western-created problem of CO2 emissions?” asks glaciologist Carl Egede Bøggild from Greenland’s education ministry. Sara Olsvig, Chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Council who previously served in the parliaments of Greenland and Denmark, is also suspicious of this risky engineering project that is purportedly for the greater global good.

As she explains, “That is exactly what we have been experiencing as Indigenous peoples of the Arctic . . . that our lands were colonized, our societies were colonized, in the greater good of someone else.” After all, the seafloor curtains to supposedly save Miami would be installed in Greenlandic waters, with still-unknown consequences for fishing, hunting, homes, livelihoods, economies, political autonomy and sovereignty, marine plants and animals, and a hundred other things for Greenlanders who have a deep connection to the sea.

Charismatic Time

Despite opposition and a host of legitimate concerns, geoengineering and other such “climate solutions” have been gaining greater traction—in part because of how people conceptualize and normalize time.

Different understandings of time determine whether someone sees geoengineering as either unnecessary and risky, or urgently needed. Support (or dissent) for climate solutions and geoengineering are thus as much about the social construction of time as about science, technology, engineering, and politics. Geoengineering solutions usually stem from the belief that (1) we are “out of time” to act, (2) the “speed of time” is accelerating, and (3) we now need to “buy time” because politicians have failed to act. In the article about Greenland seafloor engineering, “buying time” becomes palatable when readers accept urgency as a given.

Dominant time stories are crucial to justifying that project and other climate solutions. But not everyone buys into those same conceptions of time.

These three temporal understandings—out of time, accelerating time, and buying time—are marketable but overly simplistic understandings of time that appear in almost all climate stories, and especially those about geoengineering. I refer to them as “charismatic temporalities”—”temporality” here meaning a time period with a storyline or narrative arc, and “charismatic” referencing their wide deployment and ability to capture attention.

The three temporalities thus become like charismatic megafauna: they are prioritized by conservationists at the expense of other species. They are more visible than other temporal framings and narratives. “Charismatic” flags both the gravitational pull to prioritize these certain temporal storylines and the way the public, scientists, and activists increasingly internalize a surprisingly small number of them as fact. This is not to say the temporal storylines are always wrong. But ensuring they emerge from evidence instead of habit or marketing is vital, as is understanding the way people frame temporalities.

Temporal understandings of the Earth and environmental change are both social and scientific. Take the case of sea ice in Antarctica, a classic climate story these days. A few years ago, I was co-writing an article about cryospheric change in Antarctica when one of my co-authors wrote in our draft that from 1979 to 2017 the maximum amount of ocean covered by sea ice in the Weddell Sea had increased. Yet I had just read a new article about the recent decrease in Weddell Sea summer sea ice.

Aerial shot of a glacial ice pattern, with dark ocean water seen on the bottom of the image and snaking through the white ice.
Flooded sea ice in the northern Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, 2017.

Should we amend our text, I asked my co-author, because this new article was clearly saying that sea ice had declined in the Weddell Sea? But my co-author explained that there was no contradiction; both were correct. The key part of the story was the temporal scale used, he told me. From 1979 to 2017, the area covered by sea ice in summer had increased. But taking a shorter and slightly different time scale, from 2014 to 2020, the story changed entirely: sea ice extent had decreased dramatically during that period.

Researchers studying sea ice in the Weddell Sea could choose the start date and end date for their study based on what they wanted to show. The time period scientists select thus shapes not just the length of their study but also the arc of their narrative—one of loss and declension, one of increase, or both. We chose to explain both in our article.

Constructing Temporalities

This case of Antarctic sea ice exemplifies a larger point: temporalities are socially constructed, not inherent. Selecting different periods and chronologies changes the stories we tell about climate change. Researchers can choose baselines, turning points, temporal limits, trajectories, and endpoints based on the story they want to tell—or storylines they might introduce unintentionally—or even the decisions they make about their baseline starting point or their end point, like with Antarctic sea ice.

Climate denialists do these temporal tricks furtively and frequently. They cherry-pick temporalities to fabricate uncertainty in climate science. Sometimes they select long timescales, such as the whole Holocene, to create confusion and gloss over nuance. Other times denialists’ favorite temporality is today: the snowfall this morning that somehow disproves global heating, they say. Temporalities have politics, in other words.

The three charismatic temporalities show up consistently and widely in climate reporting. “Out of time” can be spotted in a whole range of research topics and climate news. Extinction. Collapse. Crisis. Catastrophe. Doomsday. Emergency. Tipping point. Point of no return. Deadline for climate action. These words and phrases capture the concept of being out of time through a temporal arc that leads straight into apocalypse.

For example, The Guardian publishes a series called “The Age of Extinction” with a tagline that reads, “Reporting on our catastrophic species loss, and ways to tackle the biodiversity crisis.” Many stories, including those in The Guardian, have bold taglines about extinction and loss while the articles themselves describe messier trajectories, uneven data, and much more nuanced stories of change over time. Those temporalities are usually buried in favor of a more charismatic chronology of collapse.

The point is not to single out The Guardian, or to say extinction isn’t happening widely and causing great planetary loss. Rather, the point is to highlight it as an example of a widespread tendency to frame climate through a temporal frame that depicts humanity and the Earth as being “out of time.”

At a climate protest, a sign reads "Time is Up" with a drawing of the earth on fire, dripping sweat.
A demonstrator’s sign at No Planet B demonstration strike in Nürnberg, Germany. Photo by Markus Spiske, 2019.

“Accelerating time” is another charismatic framing that frequently accompanies the “out of time” storyline. Time is moving faster these days; things are changing quicker than ever. Scientists were aware of rapid climate change by the 1990s. University of Colorado scientist James White captured the speed of time back then, saying “I used to tell my students climate could change in their lifetime. Well, now I can tell them that it can change in less time than it takes them to graduate.”

Another recent New York Times article captured the quickening speed of time in how people justify geoengineering. It noted how the world had already passed the 1.5 degrees Celsius target for constraining climatic warming but said the world surpassed that threshold “sooner than many scientists expected.” There is a feeling of missed deadlines due to the pace of change as well as the world spiraling out of control. Politicians missed their goals and scientists missed their mark. The Earth is changing faster than expected. Time is no longer proceeding in a linear, chronological trajectory, the storyline tells us. We are out of time, and things are getting worse even faster.

Hence the need to “buy time.” Buying time shows up in a few different ways. It justifies geoengineering schemes, like in Greenland. But it is also a narrative twist in climate reporting to give readers some hope, to show that at least something is being done to address the climate crisis. This temporal frame often appears as a David versus Goliath story. Against all odds, as the planet races ever-faster toward the climate apocalypse, the reports go, a hero—usually a man, it seems—stands up to tackle the global problem.

This is a newer yet widespread charismatic temporality, with news stories frequently focused on individual scientists and engineers—and a substantial dose of the technological sublime—rather than recognizing the full range of adaptation actors, including governments in the Global South. Whether the climate story is about brave scientists in the world’s most remote regions or dedicated engineers securing local water supplies, this temporal framing changes the arc from “it’s all getting worse—and fast” to “there’s hope and action after all.”

Stories of Time, Stories of Power

The supposed goal with this charismatic climate storyline of “buying time” is to change the trajectory of time—to alter a linear, seemingly predetermined downward trajectory toward doomsday to a new hope as communities adapt, even when politicians do nothing. But the underlying faith in buying time as a means to change the flow of time is wrong. Buying time only buys business as usual. It helps the same old rich to get richer while the poor stay poor; it extends the same old chronology of extractive capitalism even further.

Buying time becomes particularly potent in perpetuating the status quo when it works in tandem with “out of time” and “accelerating time.” This temporal trifecta conjuring imminent crisis justifies geoengineering, for example, which is supposedly about the future but leads straight back to past systems of unequal global capital and power. This is partly why human geographer Mike Hulme critiques the framing of a climate emergency, asking: “Why should an emergency be declared for the planet, but not for the poor?”

Also: whose status quo gets preserved, who gets to decide, and who pays the price for that, including all the social and ecological debts accrued in the future?

As we saw with geoengineering in Greenland, charismatic temporalities like “buying time” suit some rights holders but certainly not all of them. Temporalities are relative, socially produced, culturally diverse, and particular to places and times. Their universal use is a concern: they get deployed by habit, internalized as fact not evidence-based, used for marketing instead of science, and attract attention at the expense of other stories. These charismatic temporalities do this in the same way elk and elephants can eclipse the presence of other species.

All three charismatic temporalities—out of time, accelerating time, and buying time—fall precisely into the critique that humanities scholar Rob Nixon waged a decade ago about the invisibility of slow violence worldwide. Slow temporalities are less charismatic for news companies in search of clicks. But even the emergencies framed by charismatic temporalities can contribute to slow violence. After all, Nixon explains that slow violence works by privileging the wealthiest governments and companies, who offload their toxics, trash, and other problems (like climate change) to the poorest nations that become casualties of the West’s wealth, become invisible, silenced, without political power.

A fjord village with red and black wooden buildings, green grass and rocky hills, with ocean, sea ice, and a clear blue sky in the background.
A day in the life in Ilulissat, Greenland, with icebergs from Ilulissat Icefjord drifting in Disko Bay. Photo by author, 2019.

Geoengineering the seafloor in Greenland looks a lot like this kind of offloading. Dominant time stories—these charismatic temporalities—are crucial to justifying that project and other climate solutions. But not everyone buys into those same conceptions of time. In Greenland, Former Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond explained at one point that, “Greenlanders are very good at seeing the new opportunities. We have refused to be victimized due to climate change.” In short: Greenlanders put themselves on a different chronological trajectory and temporal arc than the outsiders who victimize or ignore them.

Ultimately, then, stories of time are also stories of power.

Featured image: Local fishing in the Ilulissat Icefjord. Photo by author, 2019.

Concepts in this article were originally presented at a University of Cambridge workshop on “Temperatures and Temporalities,” hosted by the Department of History & Philosophy of Science and Department of Geography. Research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (grant #2127244). Thanks also to members of the Glacier Lab.

Mark Carey is a professor of Environmental Studies and Geography at the University of Oregon, where he also directs the Glacier Lab for the Study of Ice and Society. His last contribution to Edge Effects was “Who is Killing the Glaciers? From Glacier Funerals to Glacier Autopsies” (November 2022). Contact.