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The case against climate geoengineering

By: 
Valerie Lannon

May 14, 2018

There are full-blown climate change deniers, including Scott Pruitt, the head of the US Environmental “Protection” Agency. Then there are those who acknowledge the seriousness of global warming but are confident that capitalist ingenuity will save the day somehow “just like we always have.” Last but not least are those who are concerned about global warming, are not overly confident in capitalism-as-saviour but who are so desperate to avoid climate catastrophe that they pray that the far-out solutions they hear about from Bill Gates (for “storm modification”) will keep the global warming wolves at bay.

It is for these last two large categories of people that the arguments in The Big Bad Fix: The Case Against Climate Geoengineering are ones we have to make. This 77-page report was prepared in 2017 by the ETC Group (headquarters in Ottawa), Biofuelwatch (based in the UK), and the Heinrich Boll Foundation (based in Germany and closely tied to the German Green Party), and is an update of their 2010 report Geopiracy.

What is climate geoengineering?

The report defines geoengineering as “large-scale, intentional human manipulation of climate or Earth systems.” (emphasis mine to distinguish geoengineering from humanity’s historic interaction with nature, including our earliest technologies). Its proponents see it as a solution to the devastation caused by climate change. So far, all attempts at geoengineering have either had to be abandoned or, if tried, resulted in further threats to people and the planet.

There are three main approaches to geoengineering. The first is called Solar Radiation Management (SRM) (aka albedo modification), aimed at reducing the amount of heat in the atmosphere by turning sunlight back into space (e.g. by increasing the reflectivity of clouds). As the report notes, “SRM deployment is likely to alter the hydrological cycle (reduce or increase rainfall by changing weather patterns) and produce unequal effects across the planet, potentially threatening the sources of food and water for millions of people.” There is no attempt to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; instead it releases “inorganic particles such as sulphur dioxide into the upper layer of the atmosphere—via cannons or hoses or aircraft—to act as a reflective barrier to reduce the amount sunlight reaching Earth… the unknowns are many, including the possibility of ozone layer depletion and significant weather pattern changes.”

The second broad approach, with many variations on the theme, is Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR), which does not focus on the sun but, as its name describes, removing the excess greenhouse gas that is already in the atmosphere; again no focus on reducing the production of greenhouse gas emissions. Some GGR methods look to change the chemical balance in the oceans to increase the uptake of carbon dioxide. Others look to sequester carbon dioxide underground or in specialized facilities. As the report states, “Despite stepped-up research on these technologies over the last decade, no one has yet been able to demonstrate that artificial, large-scale, long-term carbon sequestration is affordable, safe or even possible, or that CDR would produce the desired effect of lowering the Earth’s temperature.”

Lastly is the stuff of both science fiction movies and of actual use in China, namely weather modification, usually to either make rain or suppress rain, e.g. via “cloud seeding.” The report explains all three approaches in greater detail and provides eight case studies, all of which point to extreme dangers and, in many cases, irreversibility.

So wrong, on so many levels

When one reads about cannons, hoses and aircraft as delivering the solutions to climate change, one would like to laugh. But there are plenty of business people and technicians anxious to make money from geoengineering, to hell with the consequences. So we need to be clear about the dangers:

·      The science and impact on the planet.  In pilot studies conducted so far, the side effects are seriously risky if not fully harmful. The report states “Geoengineering aims to intervene in dynamic and poorly-understood systems. Given the complexities of global climate, there are countless ways interventions could go awry…Trying to fix a failing geoengineering deployment could make the problem of climate change worse.”

·      The economics. The experiments are typically funded by industry (often with government support), especially the high tech sector. But this is a classic example of “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do it.” The costs are prohibitive, especially when you consider the savings to be had by immediately gearing up sustainable energy sources and agricultural practices to eliminate the use of fossil fuels.

·      The lack of democracy. One would assume that an initiative that affects everyone on the planet would come under some form of democratic control, but that would be to ignore the realities of capitalism.  Instead there is no public control, which is particularly a problem for countries (and neighbouring oceans) that are not only the hardest hit by climate change but most likely to be the subject of geoengineering experiments. So far their scientists have been largely ignored.

·      Militarism. Similar to the fossil fuel industry’s dual role as creator and proposed saviour of the climate crisis is the role of the military. The Pentagon and others understand the so-called “security” implications of rising temperatures and seas, related to the exponential increase in the migration of affected peoples. And, sure enough, rather than fight against the fossil fuel industry, the military, as the armed face of the state, has in the past and today looked to forms of geoengineering to address its “security” concerns. The report cites science historian James Fleming’s reference to the “long paper trail of climate and weather modification studies by the Pentagon and other governmental agencies.” As the report adds, “Indeed some geoengineering scientists like Gregory Benford have argued the military must be involved as they ‘can muster resources and they don’t have to sit in Congress and answer questions about every dime of their money’.”And, the report states, “Despite concerns about creating a nuclear winter or irreparably changing Earth’s magnetic field, the world’s superpowers conducted hundreds of atmospheric nuclear tests during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, defying opposition from affected countries and the UN itself.  The nuclear powers granted themselves the moral authority to decide for the rest of us.”

How to respond?

The authors of the report make four excellent recommendations to address the problems raised with current geoengineering “solutions.” These include:

·      End the production of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels by phasing out fossil fuel infrastructure, using renewable sources with communities’ consent, efficient public transport, reducing energy consumption, transforming agribusiness to smaller holdings and “agroecology”

·      Restore natural ecosystems, including forests, rainforests, moors and oceans, with full involvement of local communities

·      Ban outdoor testing of geoengineering, enforced through a global governance body, since geoengineering has global impacts

·      Debate proposed geoengineering solutions using the “do no harm” principle.

What the report fails to emphasize is that, as admirable as these recommendations are, the likelihood of them being implemented under capitalism is low to non-existent. Capital is too reliant on and seized by the oil and gas sector to stop extracting and using fossil fuels.  While the report notes the biggest obstacle to a sustainable future is the fossil carbon industry, and this same industry will be at the forefront to promote its own geoengineering solutions, there is not enough emphasis on how to successfully oppose this industry head on.

There is no way that capitalism can provide real solutions to address the destruction of the climate. Indigenous peoples are leading the way internationally to challenge the fossil fuel industry—whether through the 2008 opposition by Haida hereditary Chiefs to experiments in the Pacific, the 2010 Peoples’ Agreement of Cochabamba, the recent blockades in Standing Rock or today’s opposition to the Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipeline near and on the west coast.

The longstanding Indigenous worldview of humanity’s symbiotic relation with the rest of nature is incompatible with colonization and capitalism’s need to profit from the extraction of resources. Fighting for an end to capitalism—and for a better world through socialism, in alliance with struggles for Indigenous sovereignty and just transitions for workers to low carbon jobs—is our only hope.

Adapted from a review published in Climate & Capitalism

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