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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.

When it comes to climate change, any discussion of "cap and trade" legislation usually generates a bit of controversy, but there is another proposition for tackling our global warming woes that should be causing even more friction -- the little-known set of futurist techno-scenarios collectively known as geoengineering. At the opening plenary of the Convention on Biological Diversity last week in Nagoya, Japan, the ETC Group -- the same civil society outfit that led the charge for an international ban on Monsanto's infamous "terminator seed" a decade ago -- called for a moratorium on geoengineering experiments. The group's new report, Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering, calls geoengineering, "a political strategy aimed at letting industrialized countries off the hook for their climate debt."

This emergent set of planetary-scale technologies is attracting millions of dollars in investment; it is high on the research agenda at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the UK's Royal Society; and it is being promoted by the scientists behind it as "the only practical way to protect biodiversity." At the same time, the Washington Post has called it, "Playing God with the weather," and a leading indigenous peoples' organization called it "an assault on the sacred."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines geoengineering as, "The deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment." David Keith, a leading proponent, gave the definition a touch more animus when he noted, "Climatic geoengineering aims to mitigate the effect of fossil fuel combustion on the climate without abating fossil fuel use; for example, by placing shields in space to reduce the sunlight incident on earth."

The mental image conjured by "shields in space" begins to put flesh on the bones of what geoengineering is. Keith's declaration that a key objective of geoengineering is to maintain the status quo of fossil fuel use tells us its principle intent, and begins to hint at what its critics consider to be the grave error at the heart of the approach. Faith Gemmill, an indigenous woman from Arctic Village, Alaska and Director of REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands) says, "Geoengineering is a way for scientists to remain in denial and for governments to avoid responsibility."

The Shape of Things to Come

Geoengineering technologies fall into three categories: Weather Modification, Solar Radiation Management, and Carbon Dioxide Removal and Sequestration; each is already under intensive research, computer modeling and experimentation.

The first category, Weather Modification -- generally covering "chemical cloud seeding" and "storm modification" (the redirecting of hurricanes) -- is, conceptually, the mother of all geoengineering technologies, already practiced at significant scale in the U.S. and China. In the words of the ETC Group report, such techniques demonstrate "a classic 'end-of-pipe' response that addresses neither the causes nor the mechanism of climate change, but seeks only to alter its outcomes."

The second set of methods is found even more literally at the end of the pipe: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Sequestration technologies attempt to remove CO2 from the atmosphere after it has been released. This is done either by mechanical means, through "carbon-sucking machines" (part of the arsenal deployed to put the "clean" in the dubious notion of "clean coal"), by modifying chemical cycles through "Ocean Fertilization" (introducing volumes of iron or nitrogen to the ocean) and "Crop Residue Ocean Permanent Sequestration" (dumping massive amounts of biomass into the sea), or by creating new carbon sinks through manipulation of species (GE algae) and ecosystems (burning biomass through pyrolysis and burying the resulting carbon, popularly promoted as "biochar").

Biochar provides an interesting perspective on both the broad range of geoengineering proposals, and the appeal. Called Terra Preta de Indio by European settlers, biochar was invented as a soil conditioner in the Amazon centuries ago; its ability to sequester carbon was recently discovered by scientists. It is perhaps the least fantastic-seeming geoengineering approach, boasting supporters such as James Lovelock and Bill McKibben's group 350.org, with a bright green image that appeals to the same demographic that, in principal, likes compost toilets. A precipitous rise in interest in the potential world-saving properties of biochar led to the recent establishment of the International Biochar Initiative, which is lobbying the UN for carbon credits.

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