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Pat Mooney on the Dangers of Geoengineering and Manipulating the Planet to Combat Climate Change

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Supporters of geoengineering have proposed radical ways to alter the planet to decrease the level of greenhouse gas emissions. Proposals include creating artificial volcanoes to pollute the atmosphere with sulfur particles, fertilizing the oceans and placing sun-deflecting aluminum foil in the sky. But opposition is growing to geoengineering. Here at the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change in Bolivia, the ETC Group is launching an international campaign against geoengineering experiments. We speak with the group’s founder, Pat Mooney, a Right Livelihood Award winner. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth here in the Bolivian town of Tiquipaya, just outside Cochabamba. Thousands of people are streaming to the soccer stadium for a major climate change rally that’s taking place this morning.

Part of this week’s summit focuses on the controversial practice of geoengineering, the deliberate altering of the earth to decrease the level of greenhouse gas emissions. Supporters of geoengineering have proposed radical ways to manipulate the planet, including creating artificial volcanoes to pollute the atmosphere with sulfur particles.

Our next guest, Pat Mooney, heads the ETC [pronounced et cetera] Group, a Canadian-based group that addresses the impact of new technologies on vulnerable communities. The group is launching an international campaign against geoengineering experiments. Pat Mooney is the author of several books on the politics of biotechnology and biodiversity. In 1985, he received the Right Livelihood Award [in] the Swedish Parliament.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

PAT MOONEY: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thanks, Pat, for being here. You’ve come from Ottawa for this conference to talk about geoengineering. It may be the first time some people in this global audience of Democracy Now! have even heard the term. What does it mean?

PAT MOONEY: Well, it really is a massive manipulation of the ecosystems of the planet. It’s a major way of trying to intervene in climate change, to block sunlight or to sequester carbon dioxide in the ocean, to make a change in how the planet will function in response to climate change. I think it’s a terribly dangerous idea. It’s entirely a theoretical idea. And it’s gaining currency, strangely enough, in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the forces behind it?

PAT MOONEY: Well, it’s a great excuse. You don’t have to do anything. If you can simply say to your populations that, “Don’t worry, folks. You can keep on driving your SUVs, you can keep on flying. We’ll take care of this through a technological fix for you” — so there’s this magic bullet that will solve the problems, and we can all go back to business as usual.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it governments? Is it corporations?

PAT MOONEY: Both governments and corporations. We’re finding some very big players in it. Besides the UK and the US, we’re seeing Richard Branson, from the Virgin group of companies, very enthusiastic about it, saying, “Well, we can keep on driving and flying now.” We have Bill Gates investing in it and — as is Branson — and also actually patenting in it, looking at ways in which you can block things in the stratosphere or on ocean surface.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about some of the geoengineering projects.

PAT MOONEY: Well, the one that’s become most popular with the National Academy of Sciences in the United States and also with the Royal Society in the UK is this idea that you can throw sulfates into the stratosphere, blast them high into the stratosphere, where they’ll coast around for about two years at a time and block the sunlight. It doesn’t reduce greenhouse gases in any way whatsoever; it simply blocks and delays some of the effects of climate change for a period of years.

The problem is, of course, that no one really knows how that’s going to work any better than anyone knows what’s going to happen with the volcano that’s erupting right now. This is just a gamble that maybe we can buy ourselves some time by doing this. We don’t know what the impact would be for, particularly, tropical areas of the world, areas right around here. We know that probably monsoons would be set off course. We know there probably would be greater drought in Asia. There could be more famine in Africa. We’re not quite sure what would happen here in Latin America. But no one is quite sure.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you shoot sulfates into the atmosphere?

PAT MOONEY: Long pipes from polluting areas, in fact, that could blast it through the troposphere into the stratosphere. There’s other ideas of planes flying over that could blast it, as well, from the aircrafts, and not just through trails, but in a very deliberate sort of strategy. There are several possibilities. There’s also ideas of where you could whiten clouds to reflect sunlight more, by blasting salt spray, basically, from oceans into the clouds, and that would reflect more sunlight.

AMY GOODMAN: What about these artificial volcanoes?

PAT MOONEY: Well, that is the idea of blasting sulfates into the sky. It really is mimicking a volcano. But volcanoes usually only affect the troposphere. This would be getting into the stratosphere. They do occasionally get into the stratosphere, and if that happens, of course, you get global cooling very quickly sometimes.

All of these, again, are ideas which were thought and produced initially in the 1980s and the 1990s. Everyone thought they were crazy. We abandoned them. Now they’ve come back, since the failure of Copenhagen. And people are saying, “We have no choice. This is the Plan B we have to try.” And tragically, it’s a bunch of rich guys in rich countries sitting around together, saying, “We can risk the planet. We can make the decision for everybody else. We can put our hand on the thermostat and decide for everybody else what has to be done.”

AMY GOODMAN: Placing aluminum foil in the sky?

PAT MOONEY: Well, the idea is, yes, to reflect sunlight, again. Nanoparticles, basically, of aluminum foil that would be up there that would drift around for, again, a few years at a time. The cost of all of this are $25 to $50 billion, perhaps, continually. But compared to some other costs, they may seem not to be too expensive.

And the very attractive thing for the US Congress, which is discussing this now, the UK Parliament, that’s also discussing this now, the attractive thing is that they can have a coalition of the willing of their own. They don’t need to have the United Nations to agree. They don’t need to have a peoples’ summit agree to it. They can really decide themselves, as a handful of countries, that we’ll do this for the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to fertilize the oceans?

PAT MOONEY: There are areas of the ocean which are nutrient-deficit in terms of iron, so they’re saying that what they can do is they can take iron filings, nanoparticles of iron again, spread them over the surface of the ocean, 10,000 square kilometers of ocean at a time, 50,000 square kilometers of ocean, and create a phytoplankton bloom that would soak up carbon dioxide and, when the phytoplankton die, sink to the bottom of the ocean. The international community said that’s a dumb idea. The United Nations, two years ago, imposed a moratorium against doing it. But it still keeps on coming back again from industrialized countries as a solution for some parts of the world, perhaps.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the body, perhaps an international body, that oversees this?

PAT MOONEY: There isn’t one, really. I guess we could say that the UNFCCC is — the climate change folks — are the ones that have to address it most closely. It also affects the biodiversity convention, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, that’s meeting twice this year, where the US is not a member, by the way, which imposed a moratorium against ocean fertilization, which does have on its agenda geoengineering most broadly and is going to look at issues like not just ocean fertilization, but also stratospheric interferences.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what nanotechnology is?

PAT MOONEY: Well, nanotech is partly a dream, I guess. It’s a theory by some companies and governments that we can reduce everything down to the nanoscale and we can take advantage of the impacts of quantum effects at the nanoscale, so that, for example, the silver here in Bolivia and the lithium here in Bolivia that we’ve been talking about may not be as important twenty or thirty years down the road, because nanotechnology could change the nature of compounds so that they would act in different ways, so other materials can replace lithium, other materials can replace, not the iconic value of silver, but other uses of silver.

AMY GOODMAN: Vandana Shiva credits you with being her mentor, the great Indian environmentalist who, I believe, is here, is here in Bolivia right now for the world summit on climate change. But can you talk about — well, among the things you taught her, she says, about Terminator seed technology?

PAT MOONEY: Well, that’s another kind of geoengineering, really. It’s another kind of a threat, which we thought we got rid of about a decade ago, when the United Nations, again, imposed a moratorium against it and when the major corporations backed away from it, saying they didn’t want to do that.

Now it’s again on the table. The Brazilian government is saying that in order to respond to climate change, to have climate-ready crops, which could be quite dangerous in some conditions, they need to have Terminator technology, the suicide seed technology, that would let them safely get those crops into the field. We’re getting the European Union saying that maybe they need to consider Terminator again or different variations of Terminator again. So it’s back on the table as a major threat to indigenous peoples and farmers around the world, who will lose their diversity. They will not have their diversity if Terminator gets into the fields.

And again, the excuse for Terminator is climate change. It is that we need to respond to effects here, so stand back, let us have a technological fix to your problem.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, a winner of the Right Livelihood Award, came to Bolivia from Ottawa for this global change — climate change conference. The bestselling book Freakonomics suggests the way to deal with climate change is to — is a helium balloon and a long garden hose. Explain.

PAT MOONEY: Well, yes, in a way of getting — it’s like sucking the gases out into the stratosphere, out into space — a way out for us. And all of these ideas, though, have a kind of a scientific hubris behind them, which I think is really scary. The guys who caused the problem of climate change in the first place, who geoengineered us into this problem in the first place, are now saying, “Trust us, we’ll geoengineer you out of it again.” And I just don’t trust them. I just don’t think that’s true.

I can’t believe that governments who don’t have the intelligence or the integrity to tell their own populations that there’s a problem here with climate change, who haven’t had the guts to address the issues around the Kyoto Protocol, even that, are actually going to have the integrity or the intelligence to geoengineer the planet in a safe way. It’s simply ridiculous. They cannot.

AMY GOODMAN: Pat Mooney, what is the Obama administration’s policies around geoengineering?

PAT MOONEY: Well, the folks around Obama, initially, were — I thought were very opposed to geoengineering. And over the last year, what we’ve seen is a shift toward that, where they’re saying we can’t take it off the table, we’ve really got to consider this with other possibilities. They’ve welcomed the hearings in Congress on this topic. They’ve welcomed the joint hearings with the UK Parliament about it. They’ve encouraged the National Academy of Sciences to explore this area. They’re all saying, “We don’t really want to do this, folks, but it is a Plan B we can’t avoid.” We’re saying, for poor people around the world, for vulnerable populations around the world, letting a bunch of guys in the North make a decision about the science that’s going to manipulate the planet doesn’t make sense.

AMY GOODMAN: So why are you here in Tiquipaya, in Cochabamba, for this World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change?

PAT MOONEY: Well, these are the folks that are going to be affected by it. These are the ones who will be most impacted by geoengineering, most impacted by Terminator technology. I think it’s critical that they understand that this is being discussed, that in corridors of power long ways away from here is a serious conversation going on among scientists, among some governments, saying that we’re going to risk the planet on this kind of experimentation.

They don’t know that now. The Bolivian government has only, itself, in the last few weeks, become aware that this is a new factor. It’s only now being introduced into the parlance of the United Nations. I was in Germany a few days ago with the German Minister of the Environment, who knew that there was something called geoengineering, but didn’t even realize that it was on his agenda for negotiations next month.

AMY GOODMAN: Pat Mooney, the issue of nanotechnology, of geoengineering, do people in Canada, as you talk about people here should understand, because they’ll be impacted the most — you come from Ottawa. Do people there understand it?

PAT MOONEY: I think the people do. The government doesn’t. The government is hopefully a long way from where the people really are, but our government has been one of the worst, in terms of its history and track record on climate change. It’s been full steam ahead on nanotechnology, full steam ahead in terms of synthetic biology, and in attracting and interested in geoengineering. Some of the top geoengineers on the planet are actually from Canada. So the government likes all these alternatives. Technological fixes are just fine for Canada.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the corporations that could most profit from geoengineering?

PAT MOONEY: The oil companies, for sure. All of the major energy companies find it very attractive. They’re investing in it. All the transportation companies find it attractive. The major polluters want geoengineering. If it doesn’t work, that’s OK, but it bought themselves time. It gives them an excuse for not doing anything for another decade or another twenty years.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have hope? I mean, here you’re at a peoples’ summit on climate change. But what actually is going to come out of this?

PAT MOONEY: I’m optimistic. I must say that when we first started talking about this after Copenhagen, I thought that it was a noble idea to have this meeting, but it wasn’t going to get anywhere and it wouldn’t get much traction. It has got traction. I mean, around the world, people have come together around this conference. Those who couldn’t make it here because of the volcano are still participating in any way they can, through the internet, and are joining us. I’ve been amazed, in the discussions that I’ve been involved in just the last couple of days, how aware people are of the range of the issues, how open they are to looking at other alternative solutions, how concerned they are, again, that some solution is going to be found for them from industrialized countries and not a homegrown solution that people in Bolivia and people in developing countries can deal with themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Pat Mooney, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Pat Mooney is the head of the ETC Group. He is here in Bolivia for the Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, executive director of the ETC Group.

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