Climate Controlled

How do we regulate the weather-changing technologies of geoengineering?

Terra Thermal Inducer (2009)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.”

ETC 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 resolution, ETC 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 has criticized.)

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.

When British 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.
John Lorinc has served as national affairs chair for PEN Canada, and has written three books, most recently Cities (2008).
David Trautrimas will participate in the Contact Photography Festival in Toronto in May.
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8 comment(s)

Wa sky watcherMay 10, 2011 08:53 EST

I respect the author of this article for doing some research, and for even writing this article. However what is obvious to me, is how these scientists think they can get away with saying they are \"researching\" without actually doing stratospheric aerosol geo-engineering already. What kind of data can you come up with unless you are actually putting the mega-tons of chemicals in the atmoshphere?? You see, my point is it is already on-going and has been for years now. Aluminum levels in soil samples, snow-packs and other water tables, and even our bodies directly, are sky-rocketing in these nations currently engaging in \"chemtrails\". This is not a \"futuristic\" idea, this is current day genocide. Mountains of evidence exist, and i\'m tired of it being swept under the rug. The mass genocide is underway, and frankly I\'m appalled people like Bill Gates support this. Just google Bill Gates and de-population, or Monsanto and aluminum resistent seeds. Do your own research, and dont beleive articles such as this which paint a \"purposed pretty picture\" for this type of earth altering. Where is the debate, the discussions, the vote???

watch the documentary \'What in the World are they Spraying\' available on youtube. Get informed, get involved.

this article did nothing to show the side of the data that is currently available to prove geo-engineering is currently underway, and folks the Truth is out there. it\'s poisoning on the grandest scale.

Captain ZenMay 10, 2011 08:54 EST

Strange you do not mention the ionization of the upper atmosphere with the use off Tesla coils, and what is done at HAARP in Alaska. By lack of mentioning that all this writing loses its credibility, sorry to say. Have a nice time researching what's really going on.

ChrisMay 15, 2011 19:36 EST

\"Members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ... haven’t paid any serious attention to these nascent technologies, focusing instead on mitigation.\"

Of course this is the correct approach in terms of cost effectiveness, efficiacy, and solving the cause of the problem: high human population of seven billion growing exponentially, and each rightly wanted a energy-rich quality life-style. The energy our society emits is huge at an annual 30 billion tonnes of C02.

So what to do? Much more effective to feed human\'s insatiable appetite for more energy by safe economical thorium molten-salt nuclear reactors.

This IS a disruptive technology that China and other nations are developing to market.

Paul KishimotoMay 17, 2011 08:39 EST

Conspiracy theories and accompanying hysterics aside, there are a couple of very real concerns about geoengineering.

David Keith is exactly right that a policy debate is needed. Critical to that debate is providing useful information about potential geoengineering technologies. This means setting a standard of scientific review, including who should be reviewing. Technologists, like Keith, with a personal stake in the field invariably tend to argue for the validity of their own work and attack that of others. This is good science, but the public still needs someone to weigh and evaluate competing claims.

Another concern that the article speaks to is moral hazard. This is the economic idea that the guarantee or real possibility of insulation from harm increases an individual's tolerance for risk. The uninsured are more likely than the insured to be careful about their health, driving, home fire safety, etc.

Due to long climactic time scales, most of the effects of near-term emissions will occur decades in the future. One may be tempted to believe that geoengineering will become viable and allow us to save ourselves when those problems manifest, but ideally it should operate in concert with immediate cuts to emissions.

Bill BradbrookeMay 19, 2011 12:13 EST

A policy framework for geo-engineering, I couldn\\\'t agree more! And the very first piece of this framework must be agreement on the triggers for regulatory measures based on comprehensive, settled science.

When considering highly disruptive climate change, what change are we talking about? For instance, if melting arctic pack ice is not due to the warming effect of green house gases but is due instead to disintegration of the deep ocean conveyor in the North Atlantic, if sea levels are not rising – at all, if unusual weather patterns are occurring as global surface temperatures cool, if deep solar minimums are harbingers of ice ages, the world may be on the verge of a precipitous cold spell. Science has not settled this uncertainty. Cross disciplinary evidence is only beginning to emerge. Data are still incomplete.

Personally, I do not remember when a eugenicist at the county fair could determine by a few skull measurements whether your child would be above or below normal intelligence. However, I do remember when shoe stores used x-ray machines to measure children’s shoe sizes, and I certainly remember the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice. We must not leap to conclusions beyond our knowledge.

Our policy framework for geo-engineering must begin with the steps necessary to define the problem before we get to regulatory measures to provide a solution.

JakJune 05, 2011 19:29 EST

I could say something about over reactionary, bicycle riding, cappuccino sucking, tree hugging, do gooders, but I won't.

Al ZiehmerJune 30, 2011 10:03 EST

So, if I came up with a new and novel way of robbing you of your money, technically I have not broken any laws. Even better, I can continue to rob you, your family, friends and loved ones as long as I can say that I have no knowledge that such a thing is occurring.

Now for another parallel; I could gather funding from governments, philanthropists, and private NGO stakeholders to aid buying the loyalty of Universities and affiliated corporate labs and begin open air "research" activities with no limits, on a large scale, as long as I deny that full implementation is underway because there are currently no laws governing "research" at present. Especially if the so called "unintended unknow unknowns" are beneficial to striking right to the heart of the source of Co2 (Russian roulette through collateral, population reduction) - This "benefit" would remain as an unspoken bonus to the stakeholders who's neo economy is based around the "sustainable development programme" where every body is assigned a negative carbon value.

Folks, we already bare witness to SRM SAG. Look up!
The day the likes of Keith and his ilk get caught with their hand in the nano powder jar cannot arrive soon enough. "Climate Change" is man made - damn right! Made by forcing our ecosystems to the breaking point by stratospheric geoengineering. Then the finger will be pointed at mankind's misuse of resources as the mortality rates increase.

The Devil himself could not have devised a better plan to deceive so many.
They don't need to stop.
They don't intend on stopping.
We (you) must stop them. - Do your part to expose and bring these criminals down.

Deborah SomfayJuly 08, 2011 12:26 EST

Great article John!
Let\'s I took shots of chemtrails over Kitchener -Waterloo.July 1 they were going at it all day! What arrogance! One just needs to google the date and chem-trails Canada and up they pop!As a citizen of this planet I have a right to know what the hell they are spraying up there and what is landing in my yard! Is anyone getting angry out there!? Such silence from our politicians (not surprisingly) and obvious pretending of many geo-engineers to not know what we\'re talking about, is disgraceful and disgusting.We are not idiots! I am wondering who the hell we can turn to to get some answers..truth..such a foreign word these days..sad to say. We need this subject brought up more frequently on television and other media sources but I think tv is the way to get it out more in the open to the average member of the public..The Agenda did one programme on geo-engineering but we need far more than that to expose this activity.David Suzuki..where are you buddy!? Anyone?!

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