General Ned Ludd  

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Geoengineering - Extreme Climate Fixes

Jim Thomas, ETC GroupHOME logo

Among the panoply of extreme and risky technological fixes proposed to address our social and environmental crises, Geoengineering stands out as one of the boldest, or craziest, of all depending on your point of view.

Literally speaking, geoengineering is planetary engineering - the intentional, large-scale manipulation of the earth’s environment. At present most money, effort and attention is focused on developing geoengineering technologies to fix climate change. The argument goes that humankind has inadvertently changed the climate from its natural balance - perhaps we can advertently change it back again.

While no geoengineering technologies have yet been deployed, what is astonishing is how close to reality these 'crazy' technologies are currently becoming. Once dismissed as the stuff of science fiction, support for real world geoengineering development is now coming from the Royal Society and even the House of Commons Science Committee. Meanwhile money for geoengineering tests is rolling in from big names with deep pockets, including airline tycoon Richard Branson and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

There are broadly three suites of geoengineering techniques under consideration. The first attempt to draw down megatonnes of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and lock them up either biologically or mechanically. In one technique, called ‘ocean fertilization’, iron powder and other nutrients are thrown into the ocean to prompt the growth of massive plankton blooms (tests so far have covered hundreds of square kilometers). The plankton theoretically sequesters carbon dioxide from the air (although with artificial blooms there is no proof that it does so). Also in this camp are suggestions to change the chemistry of the ocean, to improve carbon dioxide absorption or schemes to appropriate forest and crop residues, either to transform into a charcoal known as biochar to bury in soil or to just dump them at sea.

The second set of geoengineering proposals are termed ‘solar radiation management’ (SRM). The most prominent of these proposals involves blasting sulphur particles into the upper atmosphere to mimic large volcanic explosions. The particles are expected to block sunlight, and the aim is to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet by reflecting it back to space, therefore reducing atmospheric warming. Other SRM proposals include making clouds whiter by spraying seawater, covering deserts or ice sheets with PVC, or creating a layer of foaming bubbles on the surface of the ocean.

A third set of geoengineering proposals dispense with controlling the climate and attempt instead to directly control weather by intervening to reduce or redirect hurricanes or seeding clouds for rainfall in drying regions.

That such proposals involve large environmental and climatic risks is obvious: geoengineering schemes (including tests) may not be reversible or if stopped may lead to sudden and dangerous rises in global temperatures. But the prospect of embarking on geoengineering at any scale (including real world tests) also raises a host of other ethical, social and geopolitical concerns:

  • Geoengineering may be developed to avoid action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions Some strong proponents of geoengineering are closely allied with polluting industries.

  • Geoengineering technologies can double as tools of war - manipulating weather and regional climate could be used as offensive weapons.
  • Geoengineering is being developed by rich countries of the North to avoid action on climate change, but the most acute impacts may be felt by tropical countries who are already vulnerable to climatic shifts.
  • Interest in geoengineering is being driven by the potential for private geoengineering firms to profit on the carbon credit market as well as to secure lucrative monopoly patents.

A 1978 UN treaty (the ENMOD convention) outlaws hostile uses of geoengineering technologies and a 2010 decision of the UN Biodiversity Convention also put in place a moratorium on deploying and testing geoengineering technologies. However, there is now a strong push by industry and some rich nations to overturn that moratorium. The HOME (Hands Off Mother Earth) Campaign is a global movement of hundreds of organizations and thousands of concerned individuals working to strengthen the moratorium on geoengineering.

Learn more about HOME and Geoengineering

For a critical overview of Geoengineering see Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering

The Guardian - Geo-engineering: green versus greed in the race to cool the planet