Terra Thermal Inducer (2009)
Keith, who has received funding for his research from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, testified that it is already possible to intentionally alter the earth’s climate using existing solar radiation management technology: “Managing that capability [for planetary climate control] must be part of the debate,” he told me. The big question is, who should do the managing? “The answer is, of course, that we don’t have a mechanism for global management of most anything,” he says.
Consider the case of pumping sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere, which is considered one of the most promising geoengineering ideas. The particles do reflect the sun’s rays, but they don’t last. To be useful, then, this man-made haze would need to be continually replenished until greenhouse gas concentrations drop to sustainable levels. The potential health effects would have to be assessed. But who would pay for that?
Blackstock wants to step back and pose even more fundamental policy questions. Will the world’s poorest nations, many of which are the victims of the West’s carbon addiction, have a say in how experiments are conducted? And who will be liable for any negative consequences? As he wrote in a recent essay, “These two questions, while extremely difficult to practically answer, have the singular critical advantage of focusing the discussion of emerging geoengineering options squarely where it belongs: on the human consequences of both climate change and potential climate intervention technologies.” His advice to British MPs and anyone else who will listen is that governments need to continue poking and prodding and researching the possibilities and threats posed by geoengineering. But, he adds, while it might be wise to start policing higher-level experiments, policy-makers should resist the temptation to rush to judgment. “So few stakeholders have voiced opinions,” he says. “It’s premature to put it to a body to regulate.”
Group traces its origins back more than twenty-five years, when a small group of Canadian and Latin American activists began promoting rural development. More recently, the organization has become increasingly interested in — and critical of — twenty-first-century technologies such as biofuels, nanotechnology, and geoengineering. Diana Bronson, an ETC
program manager, characterizes the developing world’s take on geoengineering as “incredibly skeptical,” because the West’s craving for oil and gas has produced all sorts of environmental tribulations in poor countries, including droughts, floods, and increased exposure to violent ocean storms. Over the past two years, ETC
has notched up major victories by persuading two UN bodies to take measures to limit certain types of emerging geoengineering activities; their target was private companies trying to make money by promoting geoengineering solutions.
For instance, in 2008 the International Maritime Organization and the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted resolutions banning ocean fertilization as a form of illegal dumping with inadequately understood implications for sensitive marine ecosystems. (Pure research was exempted.) In lauding the CBD
roundly — and correctly — denounced entrepreneurs who would manipulate the climate to generate a profit. Bronson is more than willing to supply examples: a few years ago, a San Francisco dot-com entrepreneur named Dan Whaley set up a company called Climos, which claimed to be developing a method for reducing carbon levels in the ocean by triggering plankton growth in sea water using iron compounds.
But why would the private sector be interested in plankton? Because the emerging global carbon market will produce a commercial incentive. If high-emission companies are required to purchase carbon credits to reduce their ecological footprint, they could buy them from firms like Climos. Apart from the obvious environmental concerns, the profit motive shouldn’t be driving experiments intended to alter delicate, and already abused, natural systems like the ocean floor. After all, who would determine how much ocean fertilization is appropriate, and where it should take place? Who would be liable for any damage caused by this kind of activity? Even though scientists are investigating the techniques, no international agency has even tried to grapple with these questions.
Another focus of ETC
is intellectual property. Last fall, the organization published a hard-hitting report, Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering
, which attacks leading scientists for taking out patents on some of these technologies. “It is inconceivable that the ability to suppress or redirect hurricanes should be privately owned,” Bronson says. As ETC
told British parliamentarians, global climate negotiators should not allow nascent geoengineering technologies to move from the lab to real-world testing. (Keith is one of the scientists ETC
That line of argument appears to have gained traction in the court of public opinion. ETC
’s sustained lobbying and media campaigns, which resulted in the UN-backed moratoriums, effectively killed Climos and other similarly dubious commercial ocean fertilization ventures. Nevertheless, in February a consortium of institutions — none of those listed are Canadian — initiated a broad-based effort to research the technology. “We seek to maintain healthy ocean ecosystems and support the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time recognizing the need for considering our options for the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere,” the group says on its website.
No one could argue against the importance of research. Indeed, some recent experiments have determined that ocean fertilization can yield toxic algae growth, which is definitely a result worth knowing. And who knows whether these inquiries will lead to some means of soaking up excess carbon in a benign way? They may. What is clear is that even if the science produces technical solutions that can be pressed into service on a grand scale, it doesn’t follow that market forces alone should determine how such technologies are deployed. After all, that’s how we got into this mess in the first place.
MPs issued their landmark report last year, they urged the government to push the European Union, the Commonwealth, and other international bodies to think seriously about the need to regulate geoengineering as a “public good.” It’s a tough sell in a politically volatile period marked by persistent global economic uncertainty and soaring government debt. The UK Royal Society and the international Environmental Defense Fund have sought to keep the ball in play by establishing the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, which will deliver a series of its own proposals this spring. Keith was a driving force behind the SRMGI
, as well as other efforts to institutionalize the inquiry around geoengineering. The Obama administration has opted to steer clear of the subject. Nonetheless, Washington is sponsoring geoengineering research, such as tests now being conducted by a NASA
satellite on the climatic impact of aerosols in the upper atmosphere.
At home, no parliamentary standing committee has bothered asking the sorts of questions posed by British and US legislators in recent years. Ottawa’s analysis of the issue is “ongoing,” according to an Environment Canada spokesperson, who added, “At this time, the government is not considering regulating geoengineering.”
Should any government bother opening this door, given how outlandish some of these ideas seem? Absolutely. With contentious emerging technologies like geoengineering, genetic manipulation, and cloning, governments would be well advised to get themselves ahead of the curve by developing rules for conducting experiments that can address issues of prudence and ethics. At this stage, Keith says, a formal policy debate is certainly more important than coming up with rules. He feels there needs to be “a lot of talk, because for so many people this is so new. [We] need a venue to allow a lot of people to express a lot of opinions, including those that say geoengineering is stupid and should be banned.”
As our interview wound down, he offered another way to view the debate about how — or indeed if — the world should regulate geoengineering research and the resulting technologies. Like many other climate scientists, he is enormously frustrated by the polarized state of the conversation, especially among conservative and business groups that flatly refuse to believe human activity has caused global temperatures to rise to precarious levels. It’s the very outrageousness of geoengineering technologies that might prompt climate change naysayers to reconsider their views. Perhaps, Keith notes, the prospect of governments or private entities deploying these fantastically potent technologies will stir people to focus more energy on finding ways to make Plan A work.