Geoengineering to save the planet from climate change is a hot topic among climate scientists, governments, policy makers, industry and the media. But according to Canadian scientist, broadcaster and activist David Suzuki, "We know what is creating our problem with climate, and we know the best solution, which is to accept that mother nature, not governments or corporations, sets the limits and we've got to meet those limits. Geoengineering is insane."
Geoengineeering is the large-scale, intentional intervention in the ocean, atmosphere and land to make specific environmental changes to combat the human-caused effects of climate change. These interventions are planetary in scope: they affect large parts of or the whole globe.
Climate change is accelerating, threatening life on the planet. International climate negotiations are proving tepid and dilatory. Because of the looming crisis, "The attraction of quick, techno-fix solutions seem[s] to be gaining ground," says Retooling the Planet? Climate Chaos in the Geoengineering Age: A Report Prepared by the ETC Group for the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.
No one has yet undertaken an analysis or assessment of the technology, its alleged benefits or its risks. Instead, government, science and industry are "all too willing to 'leap before they look' -- with hard and painful consequences hitting back years later," the Retooling the Planet? report says.
Geoengineering falls into three categories: solar radiation modification, carbon dioxide burial and weather modification.
Some specific geoengineering projects people have proposed are, in solar radiation:
- Shooting sulfate particles into the stratosphere to reflect the sun's rays;
- Dumping iron particles in the oceans to encourage the growth of CO2-absorbing plankton;
- Genetically engineering crops so their leaves can better reflect sunlight;
- Constructing 16 trillion space sun shades to deflect sunlight above Earth;
- Launching 5,000-30,000 boats with turbines to propel salt spray to whiten clouds in order to deflect sunlight; and
- Dumping limestone into the ocean to change its acidity so that it can absorb extra CO2.
"International discourse around geoengineering has thus far been dominated by scientists, technocrats and utopian extremists." - Retooling the Planet?
A few geoengineering technologies in the carbon dioxide burial category:
- "Fertilizing" the ocean with iron particles to increase photo plankton that supposedly sequester CO2;
- Storing carbon by dumping logs into the sea;
- Incinerating biomass with pyrolysis (in low oxygen environments so carbon is not emitted) and burying the concentrated carbon is the soil;
- Using carbon-sucking machines or synthetic trees to remove carbon from the atmosphere and burying the concentrated carbon in the soil;
- Using pipes to raise nitrogen- or phosphorus-enriched seawater to the surface of the ocean to cool surface waters and enhance ocean sequestration of CO2;
- Placing carbonate in the ocean to increase alkalinity and increase carbon uptake;
- Controlling levels of atmospheric CO2 by spreading magnesium iron silicate on farms and forests;
- Genetically engineering algae and marine microbes to sequester CO2 in the seas or ponds; and
- Placing minuscule reflective particles into the stratosphere to reduce the quantity of sunlight that passes through it.
In the weather modification category are:
- Firing silver iodide into clouds to produce rain;
- Seeding clouds by dropping chemicals like silver iodide into them to create rain or snow (being done now on a large scale by the United States and China); and
- Whitening clouds by injecting them with seawater, thus increasing the clouds' "condensation nuclei," making them smaller and more reflective and so cooling the atmosphere.
Clearly, some of those technologies have military potential. All are similar in that they don't reduce greenhouse gas levels and ignore the root cause of climate change, burning fossil fuels, such as coal and gasoline.
Geoengineering is based on wishful thinking, on the idea that a technological fix can let human beings continue what they've been doing to cause climate change and try to remedy the problem by treating the symptoms. "If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to [climate change], then [the international meeting on climate change in] Copenhagen wouldn't be necessary," Sir Richard Branson, a British industrialist and airline owner, said in Retooling the Planet?. "We could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars."
Geoengineering isn't confined to the realm of science fiction and childhood fantasies; it's become mainstream internationally. Some of those promoting the technology come from major universities, labs and corporations, including Oxford University, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Stanford University, MIT, Monsanto, BASF, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry.
Despite geoengineering's respectable veneer, problems abound. For instance, humans don't know -- and might never know -- enough about the planet's complex ecosystems and their interactions to tinker with them and take the accompanying risks. If it fails to work or causes adverse effects, geoengineering can delay the development and use of constructive alternatives.
As Retooling the Planet? points out, "Techniques that alter the composition of the stratosphere or the chemistry of the oceans are likely to have unintended consequences as well as unequal impacts around the world. ... As much as the Industrial Revolution's unintended 'geoengineering' experiment has disproportionately harmed people living in tropical and subtropical areas of the world, purposeful geoengineering experiments are liable to do the same."
One example is sending sulfates into the stratosphere to cool global temperatures by reflecting solar energy back onto space. As Retooling says, "Some scientists are proposing to increase levels of (banned) sulfate aerosols. ... However, a dramatic increase in sulfates would have serious impacts on ecosystems, including acid rain and localized climatic disruptions, such as droughts."
"It's important, the report says, not to let panic about the accelerating pace of climate change push us to treatments as damaging as the disease they fight."
Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, who advocated research into sulfate aerosols as a last-ditch solution to global warming, predicted "about half a million deaths as a result of increased particulate pollution."
To take another example, sun shades mean installing 16 million transparent, sunlight-refracting shades in space some 1.5 million kilometers from the earth. "The project," according to Rising Tide America's Hoodwinked in the Hothouse: False Solutions to Climate Change, "would require 20 launchers each positioning 800,000 screens every five minutes for 10 years to initiate and would cost trillions of dollars to deploy."
The answer to climate change is elementary: stop burning fossil fuels and thereby decrease the atmospheric level of CO2 to 350 parts per million, the level at which scientists say we can circumvent the most catastrophic effects of global climate change. Renewable energy sources, such as wind, sun and geothermal, are abundant, and we know how to harness them.
But there's lots of money to be made with geoengineering.
"Only a few years ago the same companies were saying climate change wasn't a problem," says The Guide to False Solutions, published by the nonprofit Hands Off Mother Earth (HOME). "Now, as its impacts become apparent, many of the same corporations are suddenly scrambling to claim leadership on the issue. Desperate to avoid regulation that may hit their profits, they present a dizzying array of false solutions, quick fixes that perpetuate inequalities in our society while they can cash in on the crisis. Upon closer examination, many of these technologies and policies are merely dangerous detours on the road to a just, livable planet, distracting us from the root causes of the crisis."
The report doesn't dismiss bioengineering; rather, it states that "[g]eoengineering warrants serious debate and pre-emptive action rather than forging ahead into the unknown."
At the heart of sane solutions to climate change, Retooling asserts, are democracy and justice. "International discourse around geoengineering has thus far been dominated by scientists, technocrats and utopian extremists," Retooling says. The process of evaluating climate change technologies should be "participatory and accessible to civil society organizations, indigenous peoples' organizations and social movements so that people likely to be affected by its deploying can be heard. Scientists should work with [Global South] governments, local communities, indigenous peoples and peasant farmers already trying to respond to this crisis."
"Geoengineering isn't confined to the realm of science fiction and childhood fantasies; it's become mainstream internationally."
The evaluation process should be "respectful of the principle of local free, prior and informed consent." Also, the process should be "transparent with full public reporting at all stages of the evaluation process." The process should be "driven by the countries and peoples interested in obtaining the technology and not by the corporations interested is selling it."
Also, a worldwide agency evaluating geoengineering technologies should be staffed not only by scientists but also by "social scientists, civil society and indigenous peoples' representatives and specialists in different regions who are equipped to evaluate the appropriateness of a given technology."
It's important, the report says, not to let panic about the accelerating pace of climate change push us to treatments as damaging as the disease they fight. Most important, "Climate change must not be examined in isolation from other global crises -- poverty, hunger, species extinction, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, war -- or the solutions that will be envisaged are liable to exacerbate other problems."
Acting with justice and democracy in mind, people around the world are fighting geoengineering. Residents of the Global South are the hardest hit by climate change, which is perpetuated by wealthy countries in the Global North. Retooling asserts, "Environmental and social justice activists in the Global South are demanding that the world's wealthiest nations assume responsibility for the disaster they have created rather than perpetuate carbon colonialism in the developing world. Social movements and grassroots organizations rooted in the Global South have long realized the futility of certain 'solutions' and remind us that any old action won't do."
"Acting with justice and democracy in mind, people around the world are fighting geoengineering."
HOME describes itself as a "global campaign to defend our one precious home, planet earth, against the threat of geoengineering experiments." A geoengineering moratorium proposal that HOME is involved with will undergo discussion at the U.N. Biodiversity Convention in Nairobi, Kenya. The proposal is being offered to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and for consideration by its 193-member governments when the CBD gathers in Nagoya, Japan, this October.
Environmental and social justice activists in the Global South are demanding that the North respond to climate change through commitments to reducing consumption, paying the "ecological debt" the North owes the South "from decades of resource extraction"
and by "immediately shifting to renewable energy."
Climate justice also means the community-controlled use of renewable energy and "small-scale agriculture infrastructure geared to meeting the right of all people to healthy food," according to Rising Tide America's Hoodwinked in the Hothouse. Climate justice means rejecting corporate development. "No effort to create a livable climate future will succeed without the empowerment of marginalized communities."
"Using the market to solve a problem the market created seems little short of insanity," Sandy Gauntlet, Pacific People's Environment Coalition, is quoted in Hoodwinked.
Evaluating solutions to the climate crisis must start with questions asked infrequently: "Who owns, controls and profits from each technology? Who loses?"
According to La Via Campesina, a Latin America-based grassroots nonprofit quoted in Hoodwinked, geoengineering technologies "both deepen and widen the privatization of all natural resources on Earth, and this excludes local communities from access to those resources which were once called the Commons: land, water, seeds and now, perhaps, even the air we breathe."
Linda Greene can be reached at email@example.com.
For more information
The ETC Group has published a two-page, easy-to-read flier summarizing the issues underlying geoengineering. Available in English, French and Spanish, the flier is called Hands Off Mother Earth! Stop Geoengineeering -- Our home is not a laboratory.