November 1st 2010
Most people have never heard of geoengineering and many of those who have don’t know quite what it is. Yet geoengineering is all the rage in some scientific circles and some climate policy circles in wealthy countries. Should you be worried? Definitely.
Geoengineers propose an array of speculative techniques by which humans might try to deliberately modify the Earth’s climate and weather systems to counteract global warming. Until now humans have altered the climate by accident. Now some scientists, buoyed by a faith in technological solutions and computer models, believe we know enough about climate systems to actually control them. Some are even advocating experimentation in the relatively short term, and some technologies (such as ocean fertilization) have already been tested on the open seas (unsuccessfully).
The Future Isn’t Far Ahead
So what are these technologies? There are, broadly, three types of geoengineering techniques under consideration.
The first set of geoengineering proposals is known as Solar Radiation Management (SRM). These aim to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet by reflecting more of it back to space, thereby reducing atmospheric warming. SRM proposals include putting sulfate or aluminum aerosols or engineered nanoparticles into the stratosphere, making clouds whiter by spraying seawater at them, covering deserts with plastic or creating a layer of foaming bubbles on the surface of the ocean.
The second type involves attempts to draw mega-tonnes of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and lock them up either biologically or mechanically. An example of this is ocean fertilization, which entails growing plankton in the hope of sequestering CO2 in the bottom of the sea. This category also includes suggestions to change the chemistry of the ocean to improve CO2 absorption (enhanced weathering), artificial trees, and appropriating and burning forest and crop residues into a charcoal that is subsequently buried for carbon sequestration.
A third set of geoengineering proposals entails attempts to directly control weather—acting to reduce or redirect hurricanes or seeding clouds for rainfall in drying regions. There are many instances of such interventions (150 incidents in forty countries according to one report), often connected to military objectives.
Although it sounds futuristic, this isn’t the first time that policymakers have flirted with the concept of geoengineering. As early as 1965, the U.S. President’s Science Advisory Committee warned Lyndon B Johnson that CO2 emissions were modifying the earth’s heat balance. In a report regarded as the first high-level acknowledgment of climate change, the authors recommended—not emissions reductions, but a suite of geoengineering options. They suggested that reflective particles could be dispersed on tropical seas (at an annual cost of around $500 million), which might also inhibit hurricane formation. Thankfully Johnson ignored their proposal.
Thirty years later, two older military scientists re-ignited interest in the topic by presenting a 1997 paper favouring the sulphate pollution approach. They were weapons scientist Edward Teller, dubbed the “father of the Atom Bomb,” and his protégé Lowell Wood, the architect of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defence system. Their proposals gained currency a few years later when Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, famous for his work on ozone depletion, threw his support their way in a controversial article in the journal Nature. Geoengineering was no longer a taboo topic for respectable scientists.
A Cheap Solution Instead of Emission Commitments
New geoengineering enthusiasts emerged and have worked assiduously over the past decade to get more funding and political backing for the controversial technologies. As with nuclear testing, proponents contend that we need to test the technology first to know if it is a viable tool for later use. They seek to persuade policymakers that we may need these technologies as a Plan B in the case of catastrophic climate change. Their crowning achievement was the Royal Society’s 2009 report, which conferred legitimacy on geoengineering as a field of scientific endeavor and made other scientists and governments pay attention. Particularly in the wake of the Copenhagen debacle, geoengineering has gained significant momentum. But it’s not just worried climate scientists who have put the geoengineering option back on the table. In something of an unholy alliance, the few climate scientists backing such schemes have joined forces with former climate skeptics who see geoengineering as a preferred Plan A. Fossil fuel-friendly think tanks such as Newt Gingrich’s American Enterprise Institute or Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre, previously dismissive of climate science, are now aggressively advocating geoengineering as a cheaper, less disruptive way to address climate change than long and difficult multilateral negotiations.
These well-heeled think tanks are attracting private money. Those offering financial support to the search for a hi-tech geo-fix include Shell, Virgin Airlines (check out www.carbonwarroom.com) and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has spent millions on planet-hacking schemes. For these industrial interests the lure of geoengineering is pretty straightforward. As Sir Richard Branson told the Wall Street Journal “If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem, then Copenhagen wouldn’t be necessary. We could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars.” Why force industry to live within the planet’s constraints when you can simply jigger the planet to tolerate the ravages of industry?
Not surprisingly, this way of thinking leaves many environmentalists suspicious and angry. Geoengineering may never be deployed, but even as a counter in a rhetorical game it can serve as a powerful distraction, sapping the political will to undertake the hard work of decarbonizing our societies. Many proponents go out of their way to insist that geoengineering research should only supplement, not replace, strong policies on emissions reductions. The trouble with such notions is that once politicians start to see geoengineering as the cheaper option—economically and politically—then emissions reduction will seem even less urgent. We need to increase, not decrease, the sense of urgency among political leaders of wealthy high-emission countries, none more than Canada.
Geoengineering technologies and experiments will also engender specific negative social and environmental consequences, such as destruction of livelihoods, reduction of rainfall, acidification of the oceans, even the end of blue skies. But geoengineering is not merely a set of technologies, it is a philosophy and a political strategy. It is a way of seeing the natural world that is shallow and calculating, a testament to the hubris of the twenty-first century Western world.
Moreover, many proposed geoengineering techniques could be relatively cheap to deploy, and the technical capacity to do so will be within reach of some individuals, corporations and states in the coming decade. Multilateral mechanisms to prevent unilateral attempts at planetary modification are urgently needed. And by the way, competition is already stiff in the patent offices among those who think they have a planetary fix for the climate crisis. The prospect of a private monopoly holding the “rights” to modify the climate is alarming to say the least, injecting a commercial incentive into the madness of climate manipulation.
In March 2010, 175 geoengineers met at Asilomar, California with the purpose of establishing voluntary guidelines for experiments with the planet. The meeting was initiated by commercial geoengineers eager to move their technology out into the field. But with geoengineering “the field” is the entire planet and we would all be the unwilling experimental subjects. Civil society groups denounced the meeting on the grounds that the scientists had neither the wisdom, experience, nor the legitimacy to take such risks.
A month later many of the same organizations, including representatives of indigenous peoples, development groups and environmental and social justice advocates launched “Hands Off Mother Earth!” (HOME), a global coalition to halt geoengineering experiments (handsoffmotherearth.org). They are inviting individuals to sign an online photo petition and be part of a campaign to stop geoengineering. HOME supporters include many high-profile environmentalists and social commentators such as David Suzuki, Vandana Shiva, Naomi Klein and Frances Moore Lappe. As the tagline of the HOME campaign reminds policymakers “our home is not a laboratory.” The organization will be working hard this fall to ensure that a draft moratorium on all geoengineering activities gets passed by Environment Ministers when they meet at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Japan this October.
Diana Bronson joined the ETC Group as a program manager and researcher in 2009. She is trained as a political scientist and sociologist and has a professional background in journalism (CBC radio current affairs) and international human rights advocacy. She has also worked on Parliament Hill as a director of policy for the Leader of the NDP. She lives in Montreal.
What’s Wrong with Geoengineering?
For any geoengineering technique to have an impact on the climate, it will have to be deployed on a massive scale. Unintended consequences are also likely to be massive and irreversible, especially in the global South. Geoengineering interferes with poorly understood complex systems such as the climate and ocean ecology. Interventions could go awry due to mechanical failure, human error, incomplete knowledge, natural phenomena (like volcanic eruptions), or other unforeseen problems.
It is governments and corporations in OECD countries—the same ones which have ignored, denied and prevaricated on climate change for decades—which possess the resources to embark on this gamble. They cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of the planet and the majority of people who inhabit it.
Many geoengineering techniques can have military applications and could therefore violate the UN Environmental Modification Treaty of 1978 which outlaws hostile use of climate and weather engineering. In addition, treaties protecting our oceans, human rights and biodiversity, to cite just a few, contain provisions that need to be respected.
Some geoengineers, including those promoting ocean fertilization and biochar, have already tried to profit from carbon trading schemes by marketing these unproven technologies eligible for offsets—once again driving geoengineering deployment for short-term profit.