The Doomsday Machine and the Race to Save the World: Geoengineering Emerges as Plan B at the 11th Hour

By Jeff Conant, AlterNet
With the pending expiration of the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period in 2012, the widely decried failure of last year’s climate talks in Copenhagen, and the next set of U.N. climate negotiations to take place in Cancun, Mexico in less than six weeks, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), meeting this week in Nagoya, Japan, may be more tense, and more polarized, than ever.

One of the issues generating friction is the little-known set of futurist techno-scenarios collectively known as geoengineering. At the opening plenary of the Convention on Biological Diversity last week, the ETC Group — the same civil society outfit that led the charge for an international ban on Monsanto’s infamous “terminator seed” a decade ago — called for a moratorium on geoengineering experiments. The group’s new report, Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering, argues the case for such a moratorium, calling geoengineering, “a political strategy aimed at letting industrialized countries off the hook for their climate debt.”

This emergent set of planetary-scale technologies is attracting millions of dollars in investment; it is high on the research agenda at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the UK’s Royal Society; and it is being promoted by the scientists behind it as “the only practical way to protect biodiversity.” At the same time, the Washington Post has called it, “Playing God with the weather,” and a leading indigenous peoples’ organization called it “an assault on the sacred.”


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines geoengineering as, “The deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment.” David Keith, a leading proponent, gave the definition a touch more animus when he noted, “Climatic geoengineering aims to mitigate the effect of fossil fuel combustion on the climate without abating fossil fuel use; for example, by placing shields in space to reduce the sunlight incident on earth.”

The mental image conjured by “shields in space” begins to put flesh on the bones of what geoengineering is. Keith’s declaration that a key objective of geoengineering is to maintain the status quo of fossil fuel use tells us its principle intent, and begins to hint at what its critics consider to be the grave error at the heart of the approach. Faith Gemmill, an indigenous woman from Arctic Village, Alaska and Director of REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands) says, “Geoengineering is a way for scientists to remain in denial and for governments to avoid responsibility.”

The Shape of Things to Come

Geoengineering technologies fall into three categories: Weather Modification, Solar Radiation Management, and Carbon Dioxide Removal and Sequestration; each is already under intensive research, computer modeling and experimentation.

The first category, Weather Modification — generally covering “chemical cloud seeding” and “storm modification” (the redirecting of hurricanes) — is, conceptually, the mother of all geoengineering technologies, already practiced at significant scale in the U.S. and China. In the words of the ETC Group report, such techniques demonstrate “a classic ‘end-of-pipe’ response that addresses neither the causes nor the mechanism of climate change, but seeks only to alter its outcomes.”

The second set of methods is found even more literally at the end of the pipe: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Sequestration technologies attempt to remove CO2 from the atmosphere after it has been released. This is done either by mechanical means, through “carbon-sucking machines” (part of the arsenal deployed to put the “clean” in the dubious notion of “clean coal”), by modifying chemical cycles through “Ocean Fertilization” (introducing volumes of iron or nitrogen to the ocean) and “Crop Residue Ocean Permanent Sequestration” (dumping massive amounts of biomass into the sea), or by creating new carbon sinks through manipulation of species (GE algae) and ecosystems (burning biomass through pyrolysis and burying the resulting carbon, popularly promoted as “biochar”).

Biochar provides an interesting perspective on both the broad range of geoengineering proposals, and the appeal. Called Terra Preta de Indio by European settlers, biochar was invented as a soil conditioner in the Amazon centuries ago; its ability to sequester carbon was recently discovered by scientists. It is perhaps the least fantastic-seeming geoengineering approach, boasting supporters such as James Lovelock and Bill McKibben’s group, with a bright green image that appeals to the same demographic that, in principal, likes compost toilets. A precipitous rise in interest in the potential world-saving properties of biochar led to the recent establishment of the International Biochar Initiative, which is lobbying the UN for carbon credits.

While elegantly simple in theory — the direct introduction of carbon into agricultural soils — the factor that would give biochar its world-saving quality would be deployment on a massive scale; the biochar lobby proposes planting half a billion hectares of tree plantations, then burning them and tilling the resulting charcoal into the ground.

Even setting aside thorny ethical questions of patenting traditional indigenous knowledge, the scale of application required to have a global impact could lead, immediately, to a massive disruption of populations and livelihoods, quite possibly accompanied by large-scale violations of human rights.

The third category, Solar Radiation Management, evokes classic sci-fi through techniques such as “space sunshades” (trillions of small free-flying spacecraft forming a cloud a million miles above the earth), “space mirrors” (a superfine reflective mesh between the Earth and the sun), “climate ready crops” (some engineered to have a high-gloss, reflective surface), and “mountaintop painting.”

Altogether, the grandiose scope of these technologies evokes the scientific hubris of that ancient physicist Archimedes who said: “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” A more recent tinkerer in biogeochemistry, John Martin, echoed that phrase in an early description of “ocean fertilization” when he said, “Give me half a tanker of iron, and I’ll give you an ice age.”

While Martin’s comment, made three decades ago, was issued in apparent sarcasm, it belies an attitude, and a technological capacity, worth taking seriously. Indeed, the ETC Group took that particular technology seriously enough that it led the successful effort, beginning at a previous CBD meeting in 2008, to subject ocean fertilization to an international ban.

The Unlikely History of Climate Manipulation

In what seems like one of the little jokes of history, Bernard Vonnegut, the brother of novelist Kurt Vonnegut, was on the ground floor of geoengineering when he discovered in the 1940s that by seeding clouds with silver iodide pellets, you can — sometimes, under very unpredictable circumstances — stimulate rainfall. Since then, cloud seeding has enjoyed both agricultural and military uses, most notably in thousands of missions over Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Trail and, more recently, to ensure good weather during the Beijing Olympics and to fill hydropower reservoirs in California.

The notion of heightening the reflectivity of the earth’s surface has been around since at least 1965, when President Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee suggested addressing global warming by spreading reflective particles over the oceans.

The notion is currently embraced by counter-culture icon Stewart Brand (founder, in 1968, of Whole Earth Catalog) and his close ally, Dr. Lowell Wood. Wood, the man behind Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated Star Wars program, and a protégé of the late Doctor Edward Teller (the real-life Doctor Strangelove and inventor of the hydrogen bomb) initiated another strain of the geoengineering lineage when he gave a provocative talk in 1998 called “Geoengineering and Nuclear Fission as Responses to Global Warming.”

Wood’s presentation captured the imagination of fellow researcher Ken Caldeira, who, as a 25-year-old activist in 1982 had helped organize one of the largest anti-nuke demonstrations in U.S. history; Caldeira initially tried to disprove Wood’s hypothesis, but ended up convinced of its potential for cooling the earth.

Wood and Caldeira are currently conducting joint experiments to mimic the action of a volcanic eruption by releasing sulfate particles into the stratosphere.

“The idea that you can tinker with natural systems to delay climate change seems entirely ludicrous,” said Pat Mooney, the Director of ETC Group, last week at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity. “We began to look at this issue in 2007, and the only reason, frankly, that we took it seriously at all was because there had already been experiments by governments related to ocean fertilization. And what we noticed was that it didn’t work, and every time it didn’t work there were more experiments saying, let’s just make it bigger next time to see if we can make it work then. At the same time, we saw the private sector getting involved with an interest in generating carbon credits. So we took the matter to the U.N.”

Plan B from Outer Space?

Like an example of existential satire from the mordant pulp science fiction of a Kurt Vonnegut novel, geoengineering might appear to those outside the scientific community like a strange, disquieting fantasy — technologies bearing the dimensions of a classic sci-fi doomsday machine, with the key difference that their prime directive is not to destroy the world, but to save it.

Climate science leaves no doubt that a dramatic urgency to “save the world” is fully merited. The UNFCCC negotiations have thus far resulted only in strengthening foundations for market-based climate policies that promise to balloon corporate profits while sinking small island states and coastal territories; there are no binding targets for reducing emissions; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that the Arctic may be free of summer ice within 30 years; and major ecosystems are teetering at the edge of tipping points from which there will be no return.

It is of course the very urgency of the crisis that forms the geoengineers’ bedrock justification for planetary-scale climate interventions. Last year the Royal Society, Britain’s equivalent to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, published a report called Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty, which concluded that geoengineering “does not present an alternative to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which should still be the focus of efforts to avoid dangerous climate change.” However,” says John Shepherd, chair of the group responsible for the report, “this is proving to be difficult.”

It is the apparent lack of political will on behalf of the world’s governments, and the apparent inability to “leave the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole,” in the parlance of social movements, that leads the Royal Society and other geoengineering proponents to argue the need to move quickly in developing what is being increasingly referred to as “Plan B for the climate.”

In a note to a climate science listserv this month, Ken Caldeira wrote, “Given the inertias in both the climate system and our energy infrastructure, climate engineering approaches may be the only practical way to protect the biodiversity of Arctic ecosystems.” In the same note, he launched an outright attack on the ETC Group: “At the upcoming meeting of the Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan, the ETC Group is engaged in efforts to try to ban research on ways to protect biodiversity…. By being against research on systems that could protect biodiversity, the ETC group threatens Arctic biodiversity.”

Who Controls the Thermostat?

There is no question that technological interventions on a planetary scale should raise anxiety about global ‘side-effects’; risk of failure, and risk of accidents, are inherent to any technology, as nuclear disasters at Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl and the massive oil spills from the Ecuadorian Amazon to the Gulf Coast make frighteningly clear. Even a cursory look at more “human-scale” technologies like genetically-modified crops, agrochemicals, and waste incineration show that, once new elements are released heedlessly into the environment, they cannot be recalled, nor can the damage they cause be undone. But equally problematic are the factors that the Plan B approach so easily dismisses: the ethical and political implications.

The report from ETC Group points out that several international treaties could be violated by geoengineering, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Environmental Modification Treaty (ENMOD), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. With reference to this last, hard-won treaty, Tom Goldtooth, Director of the North-America-based Indigenous Environmental Network, has called geoengineering “a violation of our rights and our sovereignty,” and “a continuation of the technological nightmare that’s been imposed on our peoples for five centuries.”

Faith Gemmill, also of the Indigenous Environmental Network, calls geoengineering “a political tactic to allow the causes of the current crisis — and therefore the crisis itself — to continue.” In a specific counter to Ken Caldeira’s claim toward protecting Arctic ecosystems, Gemmill said, “There is no doubt that [geoengineering solutions] will perpetuate our situation in Alaska.”

Geoengineering also involves potentially thousands of patents and proprietary claims, making it a venture capitalist’s dream; one patent owned by David Keith, the scientist who co-manages the Gates Foundation’s $4.6 million geoengineering research fund, bears the official patent explanation, “Carbon dioxide capture method for generating carbon credits.”

Critics like the ETC Group and the Indigenous Environmental Network tend to see geoengineering as a smokescreen that wealthy nations use to avoid both emission reductions and political commitments. Neth Daño of ETC Group, who is from the Philippines, notes that, “The key players are all from the global North; not a single developing country is involved in this effort, and there is no process to allow developing country governments to be involved in decisions to which we are the most vulnerable.”

In a recent exchange, the Royal Society’s John Shepherd charged that ETC’s analysis is “based on fear and suspicion”; ETC Group’s Sylvia Ribeiro countered by saying, “It is possible to be both knowledgeable and suspicious. After all, these are the same governments, industries and scientists responsible for climate change, who have spent trillions of dollars to protect their industries while allowing a billion people to go hungry.”

While various manifestations of the geoengineering fantasy might, in fact, be able to temporarily cool the planet, the strictly technological approach to climate tends to forget that global warming is not the problem. The multiple aspects of ecological crisis — global warming, species die-off, the disruption of water cycles, ocean acidification, depletion of soil nutrients, extreme weather events, and unprecedented levels of social inequality, economic marginalization, extreme poverty, and war — are, arguably, mere symptoms of a common problem. That problem, simply put, is vast overuse of the Earth’s finite resources. And, given the nature of the dilemma, there may be no lever large enough, nor ground firm enough — short of ending fossil fuel exploitation — to make the Archimedean prophecy of geoengineering bear out.

Published by Jeff Conant

Writer, social and ecological justice advocate, world traveler, family-man, gardener, bee-keeper, baker & tender of life in all her fine forms. Here on The Watering Hole you will find my books, both published, unpublished and in progress, my photographs and artwork, and my short (and long) essays and ruminations here in the late stages of the anthropocene as humanity struggles to turn away from millenia of destruction toward a future of co-existence with all creation…or not.

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