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The Doomsday Machine and the Race to Save the World: Geoengineering Emerges as Plan B at the 11th Hour

How close are we to space sunshades, mountaintop painting, 'fertilizing' the oceans with iron, and redirecting hurricanes? Closer than you might imagine.

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Plan B from Outer Space?

Like an example of existential satire from the mordant pulp science fiction of a Kurt Vonnegut novel, geoengineering might appear to those outside the scientific community like a strange, disquieting fantasy -- technologies bearing the dimensions of a classic sci-fi doomsday machine, with the key difference that their prime directive is not to destroy the world, but to save it.

Climate science leaves no doubt that a dramatic urgency to "save the world" is fully merited. The UNFCCC negotiations have thus far resulted only in strengthening foundations for market-based climate policies that promise to balloon corporate profits while sinking small island states and coastal territories; there are no binding targets for reducing emissions; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that the Arctic may be free of summer ice within 30 years; and major ecosystems are teetering at the edge of tipping points from which there will be no return.

It is of course the very urgency of the crisis that forms the geoengineers' bedrock justification for planetary-scale climate interventions. Last year the Royal Society, Britain's equivalent to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, published a report called Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty, which concluded that geoengineering "does not present an alternative to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which should still be the focus of efforts to avoid dangerous climate change." However," says John Shepherd, chair of the group responsible for the report, "this is proving to be difficult."

It is the apparent lack of political will on behalf of the world's governments, and the apparent inability to "leave the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole," in the parlance of social movements, that leads the Royal Society and other geoengineering proponents to argue the need to move quickly in developing what is being increasingly referred to as "Plan B for the climate."

In a note to a climate science listserv this month, Ken Caldeira wrote, "Given the inertias in both the climate system and our energy infrastructure, climate engineering approaches may be the only practical way to protect the biodiversity of Arctic ecosystems." In the same note, he launched an outright attack on the ETC Group: "At the upcoming meeting of the Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan, the ETC Group is engaged in efforts to try to ban research on ways to protect biodiversity.... By being against research on systems that could protect biodiversity, the ETC group threatens Arctic biodiversity."

Who Controls the Thermostat?

There is no question that technological interventions on a planetary scale should raise anxiety about global 'side-effects'; risk of failure, and risk of accidents, are inherent to any technology, as nuclear disasters at Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl and the massive oil spills from the Ecuadorian Amazon to the Gulf Coast make frighteningly clear. Even a cursory look at more "human-scale" technologies like genetically-modified crops, agrochemicals, and waste incineration show that, once new elements are released heedlessly into the environment, they cannot be recalled, nor can the damage they cause be undone. But equally problematic are the factors that the Plan B approach so easily dismisses: the ethical and political implications.

The report from ETC Group points out that several international treaties could be violated by geoengineering, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Environmental Modification Treaty (ENMOD), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. With reference to this last, hard-won treaty, Tom Goldtooth, Director of the North-America-based Indigenous Environmental Network, has called geoengineering "a violation of our rights and our sovereignty," and "a continuation of the technological nightmare that's been imposed on our peoples for five centuries."

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