Thursday, October 11, 2012

Big names behind US push for geoengineering
A coalition representing the most powerful academic, military, scientific and corporate interests has set its sights on vast potential profits
Geoengineering : a rainbow wrapped around the sun
British scientists have pulled back from geoengineering projects but the US is forging ahead. Photograph: Gallo Images/Getty Images
John Vidal
Guardian Weekly, Thu 6 Oct 2011 12.04 BST
UK scientists last week "postponed" one of the world's first attempts to physically manipulate the upper atmosphere to cool the planet. Okay, so the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project wasn't actually going to spray thousands of tonnes of reflective particles into the air to replicate a volcano, but the plan to send a balloon with a hose attached 1km into the sky above Norfolkwas an important step towards the ultimate techno-fix for climate change.
The reason the British scientists gave for pulling back was that more time was needed for consultation. In retrospect, it seems bizarre that they had only talked to a few members of the public. It was only when 60 global groups wrote to the UK government and the resarch groups behind the project requesting cancellation that they paid any attention to critics.
Over the Atlantic, though, the geoengineers are more gung-ho. Just days after the British got cold feet, the Washington-based thinktank theBipartisan Policy Center (BPC) publisheda major report calling for the United States and other likeminded countries to move towards large-scale climate change experimentation. Trying to rebrand geoengineering as "climate remediation", the BPC report is full of precautionary rhetoric, but its bottom line is that there should be presidential leadership for the nascent technologies, a "coalition of willing" countries to experiment together, large-scale testing and big government funding.
So what is the BPC and should we take this non-profit group seriously? For a start these guys - and they are indeed mostly men - are not bipartisan in any sense that the British would understand. The operation is part-funded by big oil, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and while it claims to "represent a consensus among what have historically been divergent views," it appears to actually represent the most powerful US academic, military, scientific and corporate interests. It lobbies for free trade, US military supremacy and corporate power and was described recently as a "collection of neo-conservatives, hawks, and neoliberal interventionists who want to make war on Iran".
Their specially convened taskforce is, in fact, the cream of the emerging science and military-led geoengineering lobby with a few neutrals chucked in to give it an air of political sobriety. It includes former ambassadors, an assistant secretary of state, academics, and a chief US climate negotiator.
Notable among the group is David Whelan, a man who spent years in the US defence department working on the stealth bomber and nuclear weapons and who now leads a group of people as Boeing's chief scientist working on "ways to find new solutions to world's most challenging problems".
There are signs of cross US-UK pollination – one member of the taskforce is John Shepherd, who recently wrote for the Guardian: "I've concluded that geoengineering research – and I emphasise the term research – is, sadly, necessary." But he cautioned: "what we really need is more and better information. The only way to get that information is through appropriate research."
It also includes several of geoengineering's most powerful academic cheerleaders. Atmosphere scientist Ken Caldeira, from Stanford University, used to work at the National laboratory at Livermore with the people who developed the ill-fated "star wars" weapons. Together with David Keith, a researcher at the University of Calgary in Canada, who is also on the BPC panel, Caldeira manages billionaire Bill Gates's geoengineering research budget. Both scientists have patents pending on geoengineering processes and both were members of of the UK Royal Society's working group on geoengineering which in 2009 recommended more research. Meanwhile, Keith has a company developing a machine to suck CO2 out of the year and Caldeira has patented ideas to stop hurricanes forming.
In sum, this coalition of US expertise is a group of people which smell vast potential future profits for their institutions and companies in geo-engineering.
Watch out. This could be the start of the next climate wars.

1 comment:

  1. Chris,

    Let's imagine a fable, set in the days before chemotherapy was recognized as a sometimes useful tool in the treatment of cancer.

    Let's imagine that there are some medical scientists who get the idea that ingesting a poison might in some specialized cases actually be a good idea.

    For people with invasive cancer, even though the poison would harm their body, it would harm the cancer cells even more. While the idea of self-administering poison is repugnant, there are cases where consuming poison reduces overall harm.

    Now, let's imagine that some nutters get hold of this information, and reason "well, if this poison has such positive benefits that it can tame aggressive cancers, maybe we should start consuming a little poison now, and prevent bad things from happening." They become "poison advocates". Some of these poison advocates think we should put some poison, like fluoride, in our drinking water now so that everyone can get this benefit as soon as possible. (The medical scientists were not sophisticated in the arts of public relations, so they called their idea "poison therapy".)

    Then, a reporter from the Guardian calls one of the scientists working on "poison therapy". The scientist tells the reporter, "I am researching whether there are certain circumstances in which ingesting poison can reduce overall harm. But, one thing that commonly happens is that people try to represent us as 'poison advocates' when we are really working scientists trying to investigate something that might in some special circumstances be able to reduce harm (and potentially save lives). Please make sure you distinguish clearly between poison advocates and scientists researching poison therapy. Oh, and by the way, here are links to two interviews in which I have made my positions clear."

    Let's furthermore imagine that it is early days and the government is not yet funding research into chemotherapy. So, a philanthropist steps in and says "I will contribute to studying this and other innovative ways to address threats posed by cancer, until the government can get its act together and start supporting this research."

    Then, the Guardian reporter, in order to increase the titillation factor of what he fears might be a rather mundane story, decides to blur the distinction between advocating poisoning our water supply and researching chemotherapy, and decides to publish an expose about how a billionaire tycoon and his mad scientists are poison advocates, giving the impression if not out-rightly saying that they seek to profit off of putting poison in your drinking water.

    I think the above allegory reflects how I see the Guardian as handling this matter. The Guardian, it seems, has chosen to titillate rather than to inform.

    And in so doing, the Guardian does me and my colleagues personal harm. I get phone calls or emails nearly every day from nutters who think that I am spraying something in the sky. They have published my home address on the web, much the way doctors who perform abortions here in the US have had their home addresses posted on the web. The Guardian is inciting a bunch of nuts who think the doctors studying chemotherapy need to be stopped before they can poison us all. There is an issue of personal safety here.

    As I have said many times before, I don't know if this climate chemotherapy can really reduce harm, but the stakes are high enough that we would be remiss if we did not examine this possibility.

    It is completely irresponsible of the Guardian to conflate working research scientists with the nutters advocating spraying aerosols in the stratosphere. I would appreciate it if the Guardian could manage to be more responsible in their reporting in the future.



    Ken Caldeira

    Carnegie Institution Dept of Global Ecology
    260 Panama Street, Stanford, CA 94305 USA