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Issue # 1427      9 September 2009

Geoengineering – a dangerous climate fairytale

The idea of re-engineering the entire planet (geoengineering) used to be the stuff of science fiction, but in the past few years a small group of geoengineering backers has worked hard to give it a veneer of respectability. On September 1, they succeeded in getting the world’s oldest scientific academy, Britain’s Royal Society, to legitimise dangerous planet-tinkering schemes.

Geoengineering involves the intentional, large-scale manipulation of the environment by humans to bring about environmental change, particularly to counteract the undesired side-effects of other human activities such a climate change.

Geoengineering is deadly serious business. Under consideration are such techniques as sulphate injections in the stratosphere and cloud-whitening to reflect sunlight away from the earth, fertilisation of the oceans with iron nano-particles to try to increase their carbon-carrying capacity – all with the intent of modifying global weather patterns.

Until recently, the stuff of fairytales, these techniques are garnering credibility from a number of institutions, the press, politicians and policy makers. Geoengineering is being presented as a technological silver bullet to address climate change, a means of avoiding serious and immediate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Seen in the light of Realpolitik, the report’s explicit endorsement of geoengineering research and real-life experimentation – and its unwillingness to reject even the most outlandish schemes – is deeply troubling,” said the ETC Group commenting on the Royal Society’s report.

“If you are a member of the G-8 – and especially if you are the G-8 member who launched the Industrial Revolution that is causing climate change – you could have some confidence that geoengineering is your kind of fix,” the ETC Group said.

“Only the world’s richest countries can really muster the hardware and software necessary to rearrange the climate and reset the thermostat. You can also have some hope that the cost of geoengineering will be much less than the 2% of global GDP per year that reducing greenhouse gas emissions around the world is conservatively expected to cost.”

Institutions involved include NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Academies, the Carnegie Institute, the American Ecological Society, the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Meteorological Society, Novim Group. The World Bank is also in the game.

There is also a large group of conservative think tanks with strong links to big oil that have abandoned the old tactic of denying climate change and joined the chorus in favour of a techno-fix, including the Copenhagen Consensus Center, the Heartland Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Hudson Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The report acknowledges that there are many ways to geoengineer the planet and admits we know little about social and environmental impacts.

Projects that alter the stratosphere or the oceans will not only have unknown implications, the ETC Group notes. “The long-term costs are liable to be much higher, particularly if a large-scale intervention causes unpredictable consequences. We know that rainfall patterns could react unexpectedly to aerosol injections; ocean acidification will worsen as more carbon absorption is masked by tinkering with the global thermostat, and a host of other side effects could be extraordinarily costly to repair. That geoengineering is cheap is speculation, not science.”

The only parties happy with the Royal Society’s report are the scientists undertaking geoengineering research already, the industries that can profit from experimentation and deployment, and the governments and corporations that hope this silver bullet will let them dodge the bullet of public criticism in Copenhagen in December.

These groups only needed the Royal Society to flash governments a “yellow light” favouring more research and experimentation. They know that geoengineering is going to be a very tough sell with the public who already distrust industry and their governments on climate change. They are convinced that a failure in Copenhagen will lead the world to their doorstep. Perhaps quite unintentionally, the Royal Society has played into their hands

The ETC Group opposes geoengineering and warns that devoting resources for research and experimentation will put us on a dangerous path.

“Seen alongside the full set of possible and urgent responses to anthropogenic climate change, we regard geoengineering as the wrong avenue, towards which further political will and resources will only be squandered.

“Our research shows that all geoengineering technologies, by virtue of being large-scale, highly centralised and having commercial applications as well as latent military uses, will always deliver inequitable outcomes.

“We further believe that the illusion of a ‘techno-fix’ serves as an all too convenient excuse for the powerful to drag their heels and further refrain from making the urgent changes required to reverse the climate’s trajectory. In a sane and sensible world, the geoengineering option would not be on the table at all, and nobody in their right mind would be agitating for experiments.”

*The ETC Group is an Ottawa-based civil society organisation monitoring new technologies.
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