Geoengineers Gone Wild

Techno-entrepreneurs are funding sci-fi solutions to global warming.

Anthony Mangini

Billionaire Richard Branson can't contain his excitement about geoengineering. (Illustration by Rachel Dooley)

Car­bon diox­ide lev­els in the earth’s atmos­phere recent­ly crossed the 400-parts-per-mil­lion mark, and if inter­na­tion­al action on cli­mate issues is fur­ther delayed, glob­al tem­per­a­tures look like­ly to jump by 6.3 degrees by the end of the cen­tu­ry. Such an increase would lead to a world with­out ice — no glac­i­ers, no Arc­tic sea-ice, no Green­land ice sheet and, almost incon­ceiv­ably, no Antarc­tic ice mass,” writes Clive Hamil­ton in his new book, Earth­mas­ters: The Dawn of the Age of Cli­mate Engi­neer­ing.

Scientists estimated that by these means, one ton of iron could remove 30,000 to 110,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Ocean fertilization, however, poses risks to the cycling of macronutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, disturbances that scientists have identified as being potentially “deleterious or even catastrophic” to ecosystems worldwide.

Geo­engi­neer­ing — broad­ly defined by Hamil­ton as the inten­tion­al, endur­ing, large-scale manip­u­la­tion of Earth’s cli­mate sys­tem” — was long agreed to be a fool’s pur­suit: most like­ly impos­si­ble, most def­i­nite­ly expen­sive and most cer­tain­ly a dis­trac­tion from the very real need to reduce car­bon emis­sions world­wide. But in 2006, Hamil­ton writes, the Nobel Prize-win­ning Dutch atmos­pher­ic sci­en­tist Paul Crutzen changed the con­ver­sa­tion with an essay in the jour­nal Cli­mat­ic Change in which he pro­posed stratos­pher­ic sul­fur injec­tions” as a poten­tial strat­e­gy to arrest cli­mate change. Con­vinced that the reliance on polit­i­cal process­es to resolve issues of glob­al warm­ing had become a pious wish,” Crutzen argued instead for sub­stan­tial invest­ment in sul­fate aerosol research. Crutzen’s essay made waves. When, in 2009, the Inde­pen­dent of Lon­don polled 80 inter­na­tion­al cli­mate-sci­ence spe­cial­ists, more than half agreed that the sit­u­a­tion is now so dire that we need a back­up plan” such as the arti­fi­cial manip­u­la­tion of the glob­al cli­mate.” In 2010, the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) announced that its fifth assess­ment of glob­al warm­ing (slat­ed for pub­li­ca­tion in 2014) will for the first time eval­u­ate geo­engi­neer­ing technologies.

Geo­engi­neer­ing schemes, says Hamil­ton, can be bro­ken down into two types. The first, known innocu­ous­ly as car­bon diox­ide removal meth­ods,” are the mete­o­ro­log­i­cal equiv­a­lent of sweep­ing dirt under the liv­ing room rug. They involve extract­ing car­bon diox­ide from the air only to put it some­where else. That some­where else?” Well, our oceans’ 42,000 giga­tons of pure car­bon reten­tion have long impressed researchers, espe­cial­ly when com­pared to the puny 11 giga­tons we emit annually.

But how does one stuff all that excess CO2 into the briny depths? Ocean fer­til­iza­tion” — in oth­er words, dump­ing large amounts of iron into our oceans in order to explode the pop­u­la­tion of the tiny sea plants known as phy­to­plank­ton, which feed on iron. Phy­to­plank­ton, in turn, absorb dis­solved car­bon diox­ide, tak­ing it with them down into the depths of the ocean when they die. When research into ocean fer­til­iza­tion first began, sci­en­tists esti­mat­ed that by these means, one ton of iron could remove 30,000 to 110,000 tons of car­bon from the atmos­phere. Ocean fer­til­iza­tion, how­ev­er, pos­es risks to the cycling of macronu­tri­ents such as phos­pho­rus and nitro­gen, dis­tur­bances that sci­en­tists have iden­ti­fied as being poten­tial­ly dele­te­ri­ous or even cat­a­stroph­ic” to ecosys­tems worldwide.

The sec­ond kind of geo­engi­neer­ing, which falls under the broad rubric of solar radi­a­tion man­age­ment” (SRM), seeks to reg­u­late the earth’s increas­ing tem­per­a­tures by reflect­ing a greater amount of sun­light back into space. The lead­ing hope in SRM involves spray­ing rough­ly 6 mil­lion tons of tiny sul­fur par­ti­cles into the earth’s stratos­phere. These sul­fur par­ti­cles com­bine with dust and water to make sul­fate aerosols, which could reflect an extra 2 per­cent of incom­ing solar radi­a­tion. That’s about what it would take to off­set the glob­al warm­ing asso­ci­at­ed with a dou­bling of green­house gas­es in the atmos­phere,” writes Hamilton.

Sul­fate aerosols, how­ev­er, pose a dan­ger to the Earth’s bios­phere. Rapid cool­ing of the earth means less heat, which means less evap­o­ra­tion, which means less rain. Cli­mate mod­els sug­gest pre­cip­i­ta­tion could decline by as much as 10 to 20 per­cent in Europe and North Amer­i­ca, and by about 20 per­cent in the Ama­zon, with dis­as­trous effects for life on Earth.

Hamil­ton posits that the chal­lenge of geo­engi­neer­ing is what makes it appeal­ing to tech­no-entre­pre­neurs like Microsoft chair Bill Gates, who see cli­mate change as a tech­ni­cal prob­lem that requires some kind of killer app.’” Gates, Hamil­ton tells us, is the world’s lead­ing finan­cial sup­port­er of geo­engi­neer­ing research” and retains shares in sev­er­al com­pa­nies — includ­ing Sil­ver Lin­ing, Car­bon Engi­neer­ing Ltd. and Intel­lec­tu­al Ven­tures — seek­ing patents for a range of new tech­nolo­gies. And British bil­lion­aire Richard Bran­son has offered a prize of $25 mil­lion for the best plan to extract car­bon from our atmosphere.

Pro­po­nents of geo­engi­neer­ing claim it is more fea­si­ble than the rad­i­cal social changes nec­es­sary to curb glob­al emis­sions. They describe geo­engi­neer­ing as an incen­tivized mar­ket solu­tion” — one that, not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, does remark­ably lit­tle to de-incen­tivize con­tin­ued car­bon pol­lu­tion. In fact, should human­i­ty one day embark on a glob­al pro­gram of inject­ing sul­fate aerosols into the stratos­phere, ener­gy com­pa­nies will sud­den­ly have a greater mar­ket for their waste. Sul­fur, Hamil­ton notes, is a byprod­uct of oil and gas pro­duc­tion and is also scrubbed from the flue gas­es of coal-fired pow­er plants. If a sul­fate aerosol pro­gram should one day account for as much as 5 to 10 per­cent of glob­al sul­fur demand, Hamil­ton pre­dicts that lob­by­ing to pro­tect the share­hold­er val­ue of sul­fur pro­duc­ers could influ­ence deci­sions about the planet’s cli­mate.” If that sounds far-fetched, con­sid­er that the sul­fur indus­try already has a lob­by­ing group work­ing in Washington.

With­out inter­na­tion­al reg­u­la­tion of geo­engi­neer­ing, lit­tle stands in the way of rogue projects. In 2007, Plank­tos, a com­pa­ny financed by a Cana­di­an real estate devel­op­er, announced that it was going to get into the emerg­ing mar­ket for car­bon off­sets by fer­til­iz­ing the oceans near the Gala­pa­gos Islands. But word got out, and as the ves­sel pre­pared to set sail, the Inter­na­tion­al Mar­itime Orga­ni­za­tion, the U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and the Gala­pa­gos Nation­al Park joined forces to stop the project. The deba­cle drew atten­tion to both the dan­ger of rogue geo­engi­neers and the absence of an inter­na­tion­al reg­u­la­to­ry framework.

Hamil­ton sec­onds New Zealand legal schol­ar Karen Scott’s con­tention that geo­engi­neer­ing is the next great chal­lenge for inter­na­tion­al envi­ron­ment law.” Scott thinks the best way for­ward is to adopt a geo­engi­neer­ing pro­to­col to the Unit­ed Nations Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change.

How­ev­er, to the sci­en­tif­ic-tech­no­log­i­cal elite” — as Pres­i­dent Eisen­how­er famous­ly called them in 1961 — the lure of the tech­nofix is irre­sistible,” writes Hamil­ton. As irre­sistible — to ener­gy com­pa­nies — as the lure of a sul­fate aerosol solu­tion that promis­es addi­tion­al prof­its with no penalties.

Antho­ny Mangi­ni is an edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times. He holds a mas­ter’s degree from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta and a bach­e­lor’s degree from New York Uni­ver­si­ty. He cur­rent­ly resides in Chicago.
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