Climate Controlled

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

Artwork by David Trautrimas

• 3,287 words

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Jason Blackstock, a young scholar with an almost luminous sense of self-confidence, has been gaming out the future in recent months. He’s been training his mental telescope on the year 2031, and the nagging question of whether our world will be consumed by a new, climate-related geopolitics. A senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario, he is developing a bracing scenario with specific relevance to Canadians: after decades of global warming, the summer sea ice in the Arctic has vanished entirely, opening up new trade routes and vast oil and gas reserves in the Far North. China and the Pacific Rim nations, meanwhile, are enduring ever-worsening repercussions of climate change: volatile storms, food riots, and rising sea levels that displace millions of people. “Suddenly,” he says, drawing out the tale like the pitch for a thriller, “some countries say, ‘Screw it. We have to cool this down.’”

How? A bloc of Asian nations underwrites an aggressive geoengineering effort that uses specially designed aircraft to disperse thousands of tonnes of sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere. The goal: to reduce global temperatures and calm regional weather patterns. Relative to the costs of environmental mayhem, this high-leverage project is alluringly affordable and promises quick results. Indeed, the halo of high-altitude particles succeeds in reflecting enough sunlight into space that ocean temperatures begin to drop—so much so that the summer sea ice in the Arctic refreezes.

Blackstock continues the plot line: Arctic oil and gas exploration halts, triggering a recession as investors anticipate rising energy prices. Resource-rich northern nations, which have reaped a climate change dividend in the Arctic, now find their commercial interests directly threatened by the geoengineering efforts of southern countries hit by global warming symptoms. “There’s nothing to say this conflict doesn’t turn into a hot war over climate issues,” he says.

Geoengineering is often described as the Plan B of the climate change fight—something to try if preventive measures like wind turbines, hybrid buses, and energy-efficient windows don’t stop global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels. These Asimovian technologies range from such extreme interventions as artificially whitening clouds with salt particles, to more low-tech solutions like painting rooftops in light colours. (The premise of both is to cool the planet’s surface by reflecting sunlight back into space.) They’re not all abstractions. During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government shot silver iodide rockets into the sky to disperse rain clouds—the first time a host country has manipulated the climate to guarantee good weather to visiting athletes and spectators.

The popular debate over geoengineering is nothing if not radioactive. To many environmentalists, the intentional manipulation of the earth’s climate using largely untested methods ranks right up there with genetically modified foods and biofuels as prime examples of mankind’s tragic compulsion to engineer its way out of its problems. Yet proponents of geoengineering research say that if the international community can’t find ways to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll have no choice but to look into alternative ways of addressing climate change. Blackstock draws an analogy with human health: the best way to prevent lung cancer is to refrain from smoking, but that doesn’t mean researchers shouldn’t look for ways to treat the disease.

This debate will never be just technical, even though much of the discussion so far has focused on the potential environmental consequences of what could happen to the earth’s natural systems if scientists figure out how to deliberately alter the atmosphere. But if we are forced to consider geoengineering solutions to combat catastrophic climate change, the global community will be venturing into an utterly new and unpredictable form of geopolitics—a world where the purveyors of such technologies could incite unprecedented conflict. That these systems will need to be regulated is self-evident. As for how we go about laying down the ground rules for managing the research, that is a conversation best had now, well before the genie is out of the bottle.

Scientists have long fantasized about manipulating the climate. The early nineteenth-century American meteorologist James Espy—a.k.a “the storm king”—suggested that vast forest fires lit in the Appalachians would produce a column of hot air, and the resulting convection in the atmosphere would bring rain to the east coast. (He didn’t actually try the experiment but lectured extensively about storm systems.) During World War II, the British air force burned thousands of barrels of oil around airstrips to disperse fog. Afterwards, US scientists investigated techniques for diverting hurricanes that attracted the attention of naval tacticians intrigued by the possibility of steering violent storms into enemy vessels. During the Vietnam War, the US military put these ideas into practice by conducting top secret cloud-seeding missions meant to trigger monsoons and hamper North Vietnamese troop movements.

Following revelations in the 1970s about the covert use of weather warfare, the United Nations approved the Environment Modification Convention (ENMOD), which prohibited employing the environment as a weapon. To date, more than seventy nations, including Canada, the US, and Russia, have signed the treaty. It’s believed by some that ENMOD could be used to oppose future geoengineering technologies, even in a non-military context.

After ENMOD and Vietnam, the field of geoengineering research became a scientific backwater, and remained so until the Dutch chemist Paul J. Crutzen, who won a Nobel Prize for ozone studies, suggested that deliberate climate modification could be a solution to climate change. In a widely read 2006 essay, he asked whether sulfate aerosols should be fired into the atmosphere to cool the planet. He posed this question fifteen years after the dramatic eruption of Mount Pinatubo led to falling temperatures worldwide. That event produced unexpected proof of concept for renegade climate scientists who felt the greenhouse effect could be mitigated by finding ways to artificially reduce global temperatures.

Since Crutzen’s shot across the bow, a small but growing number of scientists have begun devising geoengineering systems. Perhaps the best known is University of Calgary physicist David Keith, who has spent five years developing a device—known variously as a carbon scrubber or an artificial tree—meant to capture and store carbon dioxide from ambient air. There’s also Edinburgh engineer Stephen Salter, who has investigated how to whiten clouds to increase their ability to reflect solar radiation. And two years ago, a joint Indian and German research team set out to investigate the use of iron sulfate particles to fertilize ocean water and accelerate algae production; the scientists have hypothesized that algae blooms will absorb carbon dioxide as they grow and naturally sequester it when they die.

These experiments have played out against a backdrop of increasingly futile international climate change negotiations; the steady rise in global temperatures and atmospheric carbon concentrations; and mounting evidence of disturbing natural developments, such as melting glaciers and the rapid disappearance of the polar ice caps. In 2009, President Barack Obama’s top science adviser, John Holdren, gave the still-obscure field a public relations boost when he suggested that geoengineering must be considered: “We don’t have the luxury of taking any approach off the table.” Steven Chu, the US secretary of energy, chimed in by advocating for the widespread use of white roofs.

Those pronouncements, though heavily hedged, triggered a media frenzy about the theoretical pros and cons of geoengineering. Advocates like Keith took to the pages of the New York Times to argue that if the world can’t kick its carbon habit, governments must think ahead to Plan B solutions. “If we don’t know whether it works and what the potential consequences would be, we’ll be in really bad shape,” adds Thomas Homer-Dixon, the chair of global systems at the Balsillie School in Waterloo, who has written extensively about global politics and the future of energy. Some high-leverage technologies, like blasting aerosols into the atmosphere, are already cheap enough that “a lot of actors could do it on a substantial scale,” he says. “Unilateral action is a strong motivation for getting the governance right.”

Environmental groups, in turn, hustled to denounce these untested technologies as scary, science fiction–style manipulations, arguing that they would work against efforts to reduce carbon use. Yet despite the stakes of this debate, there is no formal centre for discussion about geoengineering and how such a technology might fit into climate change policy. There are no broadly accepted protocols for geoengineering experiments, and no multilateral body tasked with probing the policy issues and establishing ground rules. Members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—the global institution principally responsible for the Kyoto Protocol and whatever succeeds it—haven’t paid any serious attention to these nascent technologies, focusing instead on mitigation.

For our part, the Canadian government hasn’t done anything to help develop a policy framework for geoengineering. Ottawa has placed a big bet on technologies meant to store carbon in spent oil and gas wells, but has otherwise contributed nothing useful to global discussions about tackling climate change. By sharp contrast, the British Parliament has made a sustained effort to raise questions about the environmental and political consequences of geoengineering. The UK is driving this debate because it has invested heavily in progressive climate change policy, and thus has a keen sense of the limitations of such measures as clean energy. In 2008, the British House of Commons’ science and technology committee released a report entitled The Regulation of Geoengineering. In a precedent-setting move, the American Congress’s science and technology committee held its own hearings on these issues.

Blackstock describes that unique binational exercise as “a very reasoned, thorough conversation.” Interestingly, Canadian fingerprints are all over the final UK report: Blackstock and Keith gave extensive testimony, as did the Ottawa not-for-profit ETC Group (the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration), whose activists have emerged as the most outspoken and well-informed critics of the technology. The report called on the government to push research and urge international bodies to begin formulating rules. “The science of geoengineering is not sufficiently advanced to make the technology predictable, but this of itself is not grounds for refusing to develop regulatory frameworks, or for banning it,” the report concluded, adding, “Serious consideration for the regulatory arrangements for geoengineering needs to start now, not once highly disruptive climate change is under way.”

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.”

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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.

This appeared in the June 2011 issue.

John Lorinc is a senior editor at Spacing, and a frequent Walrus contributor.

David Trautrimas participated in the Contact Photography Festival in Toronto in 2011.