Geo-engineering: global warming quick fix?

October 8, 2010
"Trillions of mirrors, yes!"

In “The Return of Dr Strangelove”, a September 6 lecture hosted by Melbourne University and Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), Clive Hamilton, author of Affluenza, Scorcher and Requiem for a Species gave a short history of the research and investment in geo-engineering solutions to global warming.

A move from fossil fuels to renewable energy is the logical “Plan A” response to human-caused climate change, but such a response would threaten corporate profits.

Geo-engineering has become “Plan B”: a technological quick fix that will avert the threat of catastrophic climate change without threatening profits. Entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson are investing in “global cooling research”.

Scientists have worked on global dimming techniques and efforts to remove some of the CO2 from the atmosphere for some time. But this has gone largely unreported, perhaps, Hamilton suggested, so as not to arouse “resistance to their fiddling with the world’s dimmer switch”.

In Russia, spraying sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere is already being tested and the US Congress is engaged in consultations with experts and venture capitalists interested in planetary engineering.

Proposals to remove CO2 include fertilising the oceans with iron filings to cause the growth of phytoplankton, which will sequester CO2 in their bodies at the bottom of the ocean. Synthetic “sodium trees” are another way to extract CO2 and store it, but these are still speculative.

In California, the government has already mandated the whitening of roofs and roads to reflect back the sun’s rays. Other schemes include increasing the Earth’s albedo (capacity to reflect light) using trillions of reflective disks in space to block the sun.

The grandest project of all is to create global dimming by injecting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to create sulphate particles. “A fleet of 747s could do the job”, said Hamilton, adding that we’d have to continually keep up the injections.

The closest experience we can refer to was when Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991. It caused a global cooling effect of half a degree.

The risks are incalculable — one way it could backfire would be by increasing the ocean’s acidity, making blue skies a thing of the past.

Lowell Wood is someone who has few doubts about humankind’s ability to manipulate nature. He developed technology for the US military’s “Star Wars missile shield” and has recently promoted aerosol geo-engineering as a solution to climate change.

There are several investors, such as Richard Branson and Bill Gates, who have a vested interest in business-as-usual growth, but also seem to have a vision of themselves as saving the planet in a unilateral way — a messiah complex.

Hamilton described these men as “so out of sync with modern attitudes to nature that they seem like a throwback”.

For him they are committing the crime of hubris as they put themselves above the laws of nature. The risk of never seeing a blue sky again, as global dimming traps us in a cycle of continual aerosol cooling, is real.

The ocean’s acidity is already rising, bleaching coral and damaging the marine ecosystem. Geo-engineering the growth of phytoplankton to sequester CO2 would also cause dead zones in the sea.

On the other hand, some scientists, frustrated by the refusal of business and governments to carry out the policies needed to restore a safe climate, are considering geo-engineering responses to buy time.

Paul Crutzen, the eminent Dutch atmospheric chemist and Nobel prize winner, wrote that while cutting emissions is the preferred way, with the world seemingly unable to respond resolutely we need to explore “the usefulness of artificially enhancing earth’s albedo and thereby cooling climate, by adding sunlight reflecting aerosols into the stratosphere”.

When even optimistic assumptions suggest we are looking at a catastrophic warming of four degrees by the end of the century, wouldn’t some sort of cooling be necessary until the world governments get their act together?

Hamilton said the uncertainty about the impact on ecosystems, unintended consequences for global weather patterns and the crop losses if the Indian monsoon is disrupted, should be enough to put a brake on these activities.

Furthermore, because the world’s apparent inability to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is due to the profitability of fossil fuel use, it is probable that, rather than buying time for such a transition, geo-engineering would become an incentive for business to continue polluting as usual.

Hamilton described the irresistible attraction for governments and corporations of geo-engineering: “It gets powerful lobbies off their backs, gives the green light to burn more coal, avoids the need to raise petrol taxes, allows unrestrained growth and is no threat to consumer lifestyles.”

He pointed out that behind the push for geo-engineering solutions are the conservative think tanks who until now have been behind climate change denial.

He called for an international agreement that would rapidly bring down emissions and for international regulation on unilateral geo-engineering projects.

“We need a UN treaty to regulate all forms of potentially dangerous geo-engineering”, he said

He added that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and start thinking about making Plan A — a transition to renewable energy —work.

“Scenarios such as the one created by BZE are essential”, he said, referring to BZE’s costed plan for 100% renewable stationary energy generation in Australia within a decade.

Hamilton said that we need to overcome the view that nature exists to serve human needs and can be manipulated at will.

“The thinking that got us into this mess, won’t get us out of it. We are drunk on years of technological progress”, he said.

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