The United States is now the only country trying to undermine the Paris Agreement on climate change. While other countries are pledging to cut their emissions — often inadequately, but at least accepting the need — the US intends to raise them.
Meanwhile, the US is taking a step forward on the geoengineering path. Geoengineering, specifically Solar Radiation Management (SRM), refers to large-scale human interventions into the Earth’s climate. These aim to cut the levels of solar radiation that reach the Earth’s surface to artificially cool the planet.
Some climate change commentators say that basic research on geoengineering should be pursued, because we have already locked in significant global warming. However, they insist the first priority must be to rapidly slash carbon emissions.
Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research noted: “We have to … act as though geoengineering doesn’t work, because it probably won’t.”
But now we may be moving towards the nightmare scenario of geoengineering not regarded as a potential last resort, but as an alternative to slashing carbon emissions.
US pushes coal
National representatives have gathered in Bonn, Germany, for the annual UN climate conference, known as COP23, over November 6-17. The US intends to pull out of the Paris Agreement, yet is still doing its best — along with Australia — to thwart demands for climate justice.
This stance by the Donald Trump administration is strongly opposed by many US cities, states, businesses, NGOs and organisations that want action on climate change. They have sent a huge delegation to Bonn under the slogan “We Are Still In”, erecting a stand-alone pavilion where they have hosted events.
Meanwhile, the US government is actively spruiking fossil fuels. It held an event at Bonn called “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation”.
Hundreds of climate activists disrupted the event, singing an anti-coal song. When kicked out, they continued the protest outside the event, chanting and holding banners condemning fossil fuels.
Climate activists have expressed alarm over the US geoengineering push. During COP23, climate researchers from Climate Action Network International (CAN) expressed grave concerns about a geoengineering experiment planned for next year.
In particular, they raised the dangers of a slippery slope — that this small field experiment will pave the way for larger experiments that further legitimise this technology. They highlighted the fact it was pursued by a country that rejects the Paris Climate Agreement.
Called Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), the experience is planned by a research group based at Harvard University. It is funded mainly by foundations, including Bill Gates’.
The experiment features a SRM technique called Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI). This involves injecting sulphate particles into the atmosphere, similar to a gigantic erupting volcano.
SAI could be effective in cooling the planet. Indeed, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 led to a cooling of the Earth’s surface for nearly two years. However, this eruption also had devastating local impacts, with billions of people affected by large changes in rainfall, including the disruption of the Asian monsoon.
So SAI may have terrible side effects, particularly affecting poorer countries. Moreover, SAI does not address other effects of rising carbon emissions, such as the acidification of the oceans.
The injection of sulphate particles would also need to be ongoing to maintain the cooling effect. Stopping it suddenly could cause a rebound, with global temperatures rising suddenly.
The Harvard geoengineering researchers are careful to depict the trial as research and not an alternative to slashing emissions. Researcher David Keith noted that his biggest concern was “the fear that the very idea of this technology will be exploited by those who wish to block emissions cuts as a way to sow confusion”.
On the other hand, Keith also founded the company Carbon Engineering, which is partially funded by the oil sands billionaire Norman Murray Edwards. His acceptance of fossil fuel funding is concerning.
The UN has a moratorium on geoengineering under its Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This was adopted in 2010 and re-affirmed in late last year.
It imposes stringent conditions on what research may be conducted. Open field trials are very unlikely to comply.
It is not clear how the SCoPEx experiment stands with regards to these conditions. However, the US is the only nation not to ratify the CBD, and therefore under no obligation to comply.
Right now, the long, hard road to tackling climate change, and the still-untested quick fix of geoengineering, are being counterposed. The technocratic idea that geoengineering can be sensibly governed — and that global consensus can be reached on how to equitably address climate change — are being exposed as naive.
For further information on the problems with governing Geoengineering, see the Riding the GeoStorm report by the the ETC Group and the Heinrich Boell Foundation.
[Andrea Bunting is a Melbourne-based climate activist. She is part of the Climate Action Network Australia delegation at COP23.]