Monday, October 29, 2012
Sunday, October 28, 2012
Geoengineering: Testing the Waters
By NAOMI KLEIN
Published: October 27, 2012
FOR almost 20 years, I’ve been spending time on a craggy stretch of British Columbia’s shoreline called the Sunshine Coast. This summer, I had an experience that reminded me why I love this place, and why I chose to have a child in this sparsely populated part of the world.
It was 5 a.m. and my husband and I were up with our 3-week-old son. Looking out at the ocean, we spotted two towering, black dorsal fins: orcas, or killer whales. Then two more. We had never seen an orca on the coast, and never heard of their coming so close to shore. In our sleep-deprived state, it felt like a miracle, as if the baby had wakened us to make sure we didn’t miss this rare visit.
The possibility that the sighting may have resulted from something less serendipitous did not occur to me until two weeks ago, when I read reports of a bizarre ocean experiment off the islands of Haida Gwaii, several hundred miles from where we spotted the orcas swimming.
There, an American entrepreneur named Russ George dumped 120 tons of iron dust off the hull of a rented fishing boat; the plan was to create an algae bloom that would sequester carbon and thereby combat climate change.
Mr. George is one of a growing number of would-be geoengineers who advocate high-risk, large-scale technical interventions that would fundamentally change the oceans and skies in order to reduce the effects of global warming. In addition to Mr. George’s scheme to fertilize the ocean with iron, other geoengineering strategies under consideration include pumping sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere to imitate the cooling effects of a major volcanic eruption and “brightening” clouds so they reflect more of the sun’s rays back to space.
The risks are huge. Ocean fertilization could trigger dead zones and toxic tides. And multiple simulations have predicted that mimicking the effects of a volcano would interfere with monsoons in Asia and Africa, potentially threatening water and food security for billions of people.
So far, these proposals have mostly served as fodder for computer models and scientific papers. But with Mr. George’s ocean adventure, geoengineering has decisively escaped the laboratory. If Mr. George’s account of the mission is to be believed, his actions created an algae bloom in an area half of the size of Massachusetts that attracted a huge array of aquatic life, including whales that could be “counted by the score.”
When I read about the whales, I began to wonder: could it be that the orcas I saw were on their way to the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet that had descended on Mr. George’s bloom? The possibility, unlikely though it is, provides a glimpse into one of the disturbing repercussions of geoengineering: once we start deliberately interfering with the earth’s climate systems — whether by dimming the sun or fertilizing the seas — all natural events can begin to take on an unnatural tinge. An absence that might have seemed a cyclical change in migration patterns or a presence that felt like a miraculous gift suddenly feels sinister, as if all of nature were being manipulated behind the scenes.
Most news reports characterize Mr. George as a “rogue” geoengineer. But what concerns me, after researching the subject for two years for a forthcoming book on climate change, is that far more serious scientists, backed by far deeper pockets, appear poised to actively tamper with the complex and unpredictable natural systems that sustain life on earth — with huge potential for unintended consequences.
In 2010, the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology recommended more research into geoengineering; the British government has begun to spend public money in the field.
Bill Gates has funneled millions of dollars into geoengineering research. And he has invested in a company, Intellectual Ventures, that is developing at least two geoengineering tools: the “StratoShield,” a 19-mile-long hose suspended by helium balloons that would spew sun-blocking sulfur dioxide particles into the sky and a tool that can supposedly blunt the force of hurricanes.
THE appeal is easy to understand. Geoengineering offers the tantalizing promise of a climate change fix that would allow us to continue our resource-exhausting way of life, indefinitely. And then there is the fear. Every week seems to bring more terrifying climate news, from reports of ice sheets melting ahead of schedule to oceans acidifying far faster than expected. At the same time, climate change has fallen so far off the political agenda that it wasn’t mentioned once during any of the three debates between the presidential candidates. Is it any wonder that many are pinning their hopes on a break-the-glass-in-case-of-emergency option that scientists have been cooking up in their labs?
But with rogue geoengineers on the loose, it is a good time to pause and ask, collectively, whether we want to go down the geoengineering road. Because the truth is that geoengineering is itself a rogue proposition. By definition, technologies that tamper with ocean and atmospheric chemistry affect everyone. Yet it is impossible to get anything like unanimous consent for these interventions. Nor could any such consent possibly be informed since we don’t — and can’t — know the full risks involved until these planet-altering technologies are actually deployed.
While the United Nations’ climate negotiations proceed from the premise that countries must agree to a joint response to an inherently communal problem, geoengineering raises a very different prospect. For well under a billion dollars, a “coalition of the willing,” a single country or even a wealthy individual could decide to take the climate into its own hands. Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, an environmental watchdog group, puts the problem like this: “Geoengineering says, ‘we’ll just do it, and you’ll live with the effects.’ ”
The scariest thing about this proposition is that models suggest that many of the people who could well be most harmed by these technologies are already disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Imagine this: North America decides to send sulfur into the stratosphere to reduce the intensity of the sun, in the hopes of saving its corn crops — despite the real possibility of triggering droughts in Asia and Africa. In short, geoengineering would give us (or some of us) the power to exile huge swaths of humanity to sacrifice zones with a virtual flip of the switch.
The geopolitical ramifications are chilling. Climate change is already making it hard to know whether events previously understood as “acts of God” (a freak heat wave in March or a Frankenstorm on Halloween) still belong in that category. But if we start tinkering with the earth’s thermostat — deliberately turning our oceans murky green to soak up carbon and bleaching the skies hazy white to deflect the sun — we take our influence to a new level. A drought in India will come to be seen — accurately or not — as a result of a conscious decision by engineers on the other side of the planet. What was once bad luck could come to be seen as a malevolent plot or an imperialist attack.
There will be other visceral, life-changing consequences. A study published this spring in Geophysical Research Letters found that if we inject sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere in order to dial down the sun, the sky would not only become whiter and significantly brighter, but we would also be treated to more intense, “volcanic” sunsets. But what kind of relationships can we expect to have with those hyper-real skies? Would they fill us with awe — or with vague unease? Would we feel the same when beautiful wild creatures cross our paths unexpectedly, as happened to my family this summer? In a popular book on climate change, Bill McKibben warned that we face “The End of Nature.” In the age of geoengineering, we might find ourselves confronting the end of miracles, too.
Mr. George and his ocean-altering experiment provides an opportunity for public debate about an issue essentially absent during the election cycle: What are the real solutions to climate change? Wouldn’t it be better to change our behavior — to reduce our use of fossil fuels — before we begin fiddling with the planet’s basic life-support systems?
Unless we change course, we can expect to hear many more reports about sun-shielders and ocean fiddlers like Mr. George, whose iron dumping exploit did more than test a thesis about ocean fertilization: it also tested the waters for future geoengineering experiments. And judging by the muted response so far, the results of Mr. George’s test are clear: geoengineers proceed, caution be damned.
The author, most recently, of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on October 28, 2012, on page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: Geoengineering: Testing the
Posted by stang289 at 5:21 PM
Thursday, October 25, 2012
Sunday, October 21, 2012
Solar geoengineering can be tailored to reduce inequality or to manage specific risks, study suggests October 21, 2012 This shows a sunset in the Arctic. A new study at Harvard explores the feasibility of using cautious and targeted solar geoengineering to counter the loss of Arctic sea ice. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen By tailoring geoengineering efforts by region and by need, a new model promises to maximize the effectiveness of solar radiation management while mitigating its potential side effects and risks. Developed by a team of leading researchers, the study was published in the November issue of Nature Climate Change. Solar geoengineering, the goal of which is to offset the global warming caused by greenhouse gases, involves reflecting sunlight back into space. By increasing the concentrations of aerosols in the stratosphere or by creating low-altitude marine clouds, the as-yet hypothetical solar geoengineering projects would scatter incoming solar heat away from the Earth's surface. Critics of geoengineering have long warned that such a global intervention would have unequal effects around the world and could result in unforeseen consequences. They argue that the potential gains may not be worth the risk. "Our research goes a step beyond the one-size-fits-all approach to explore how careful tailoring of solar geoengineering can reduce possible inequalities and risks," says co-author David Keith, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. "Instead, we can be thoughtful about various tradeoffs to achieve more selective results, such as the trade-off between minimizing global climate changes and minimizing residual changes at the worst-off location." The study—developed in collaboration with Douglas G. MacMartin of the California Institute of Technology, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, and Ben Kravitz, formerly of Carnegie and now at the Department of Energy—explores the feasibility of using solar geoengineering to counter the loss of Arctic sea ice. "There has been a lot of loose talk about region-specific climate modification. By contrast, our research uses a more systematic approach to understand how geoengineering might be used to limit a specific impact. We found that tailored solar geoengineering might limit Arctic sea ice loss with several times less total solar shading than would be needed in a uniform case." Generally speaking, greenhouse gases tend to suppress precipitation, and an offsetting reduction in the amount of sunlight absorbed by Earth would not restore this precipitation. Both greenhouse gases and aerosols affect the distribution of heat and rain on this planet, but they change the temperature and precipitation in different ways in different places. The researchers suggest that varying the amount of sunlight deflected away from the Earth both regionally and seasonally could combat some of this problem. "These results indicate that varying geoengineering efforts by region and over different periods of time could potentially improve the effectiveness of solar geoengineering and reduce climate impacts in at-risk areas," says co-author Ken Caldeira, Senior Scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science. The researchers note that while their study used a state-of-the-art model, any real-world estimates of the possible impact of solar radiation management would need to take into account various uncertainties. Further, any interference in Earth's climate system, whether intentional or unintentional, is likely to produce unanticipated outcomes. "While more work needs to be done, we have a strong model that indicates that solar geoengineering might be used in a far more nuanced manner than the uniform one-size-fits-all implementation that is often assumed. One might say that one need not think of it as a single global thermostat. This gives us hope that if we ever do need to implement engineered solutions to combat global warming, that we would do so with a bit more confidence and a great ability to test it and control it." More information: The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-10-solar-geoengineering-tailored-inequality-specific.html#jCp
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-10-solar-geoengineering-tailored-inequality-specific.html#jCp
Posted by stang289 at 5:23 PM
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Posted by stang289 at 4:23 PM
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
World's biggest geoengineering experiment 'violates' UN rules
Controversial US businessman's iron fertilisation off west coast of Canada contravenes two UN conventions
• What is geoengineering?
• US geoengineers to spray sun-reflecting chemicals
• What is geoengineering?
• US geoengineers to spray sun-reflecting chemicals
A controversial American businessman dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean as part of a geoengineering scheme off the west coast of Canada in July, a Guardian investigation can reveal.
Lawyers, environmentalists and civil society groups are calling it a "blatant violation" of two international moratoria and the news is likely to spark outrage ata United Nations environmental summittaking place in India this week.
Satellite images appear to confirm the claim by Californian Russ George that the iron has spawned an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres. The intention is for the plankton to absorb carbon dioxide and then sink to the ocean bed – a geoengineering technique known as ocean fertilisation that he hopes will net lucrative carbon credits.
George is the former chief executive of Planktos Inc, whose previous failed efforts to conduct large-scale commercial dumps near the Galapagos and Canary Islands led to his vessels being barred from ports by the Spanish and Ecuadorean governments. The US Environmental Protection Agency warned him that flying a US flag for his Galapagos project would violate US laws, and his activities are credited in part to the passing of international moratoria at the United Nations limiting ocean fertilisation experiments
Scientists are debating whether iron fertilisation can lock carbon into the deep ocean over the long term, and have raised concerns that it can irreparably harm ocean ecosystems, produce toxic tides and lifeless waters, and worsen ocean acidification and global warming.
"It is difficult if not impossible to detect and describe important effects that we know might occur months or years later," said John Cullen , an oceanographer at Dalhousie University. "Some possible effects, such as deep-water oxygen depletion and alteration of distant food webs, should rule out ocean manipulation. History is full of examples of ecological manipulations that backfired."
George says his team of unidentified scientists has been monitoring the results of the biggest ever geoengineering experiment with equipment loaned from US agencies like Nasa and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. He told the Guardian that it is the "most substantial ocean restoration project in history," and has collected a "greater density and depth of scientific data than ever before".
"We've gathered data targeting all the possible fears that have been raised [about ocean fertilisation]," George said. "And the news is good news, all around, for the planet."
The dump took place from a fishing boat in an eddy 200 nautical miles west of the islands of Haida Gwaii, one of the world's most celebrated, diverse ecosystems, where George convinced the local council of an indigenous village to establish theHaida Salmon Restoration Corporation to channel more than $1m of its own funds into the project.
The president of the Haida nation, Guujaaw, said the village was told the dump would environmentally benefit the ocean, which is crucial to their livelihood and culture.
"The village people voted to support what they were told was a 'salmon enhancement project' and would not have agreed if they had been told of any potential negative effects or that it was in breach of an international convention," Guujaaw said.
International legal experts say George's project has contravened the UN's convention on biological diversity (CBD) and London convention on the dumping of wastes at sea, which both prohibit for-profit ocean fertilisation activities.
"It appears to be a blatant violation of two international resolutions," said Kristina M Gjerde, a senior high seas adviser for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. "Even the placement of iron particles into the ocean, whether for carbon sequestration or fish replenishment, should not take place, unless it is assessed and found to be legitimate scientific research without commercial motivation. This does not appear to even have had the guise of legitimate scientific research."
George told the Guardian that the two moratoria are a "mythology" and do not apply to his project.
The parties to the UN CBD are currently meeting in Hyderabad, India, where the governments of Bolivia, the Philippines and African nations as well as indigenous peoples organizations are calling for the current moratorium to be upgraded to a comprehensive test ban of geoengineering that includes enforcement mechanisms.
"If rogue geoengineer Russ George really has misled this indigenous community, and dumped iron into their waters, we hope to see swift legal response to his behavior and strong action taken to the heights of the Canadian and US governments," said Silvia Ribeiro of the international technology watchdog ETC Group, which first discovered the existence of the scheme. "It is now more urgent than ever that governments unequivocally ban such open-air geoengineering experiments. They are a dangerous distraction providing governments and industry with an excuse to avoid reducing fossil fuel emissions."
Posted by stang289 at 9:03 PM
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
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.
Posted by stang289 at 9:04 PM