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Geoengineering: Can We Save the Planet by Messing with Nature?

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As the carbon dioxide in the air hits 400 parts per million for the first time in human history, some are arguing that the best way address climate change is to use the controversial practice of geoengineering — the deliberate altering of the Earth’s ecological and climate systems to counter the effects of global warming. Supporters of geoengineering endorse radical ways to manipulate the planet, including creating artificial volcanoes to pollute the atmosphere with sulfur particles. Many scientists and environmentalists have raised concerns about geoengineering technologies designed to intervene in the functioning of the Earth system as a whole. We’re joined now by Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia. Hamilton’s new book, “Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering,” lays out the arguments for and against climate engineering, and reveals the vested interests behind it linking researchers, venture capitalists and corporations.

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StoryJul 08, 2010A Debate on Geoengineering: Vandana Shiva vs. Gwynne Dyer
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to look at the issue of climate change, the growing concern about climate change and what to do about it. A recent survey of more than 4,000 academic papers published over the last 20 years found [ 97 ] percent of them agree climate change is caused by human activity. This comes as scientists are warning the planet has now reached a grim climate milestone not seen for two or three million years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmoshere has topped 400 parts per million. the 400 ppm threshold has been an important marker in U.N. climate change negotiations, widely recognized as a dangerous level that could drastically worsen human-caused global warming.

Some are arguing the best way to address climate change is to use the controversial practice of geoengineering—the deliberate altering of the Earth to decrease the level of greenhouse gas emissions. While controlling the Earth’s climate system sounds like science fiction, such proposals are already being hatched out by government agencies, scientists, businesses around the world. Supporters of geoengineering endorse radical ways to manipulate the planet, including creating artificial volcanoes to pollute the atmosphere with sulfur particles. This is environmental scientist David Keith explaining the idea.

DAVID KEITH: This geoengineering idea, in its simplest form, is basically the following. You could put fine particles—say, sulfuric acid particles, sulfates—into the upper atmoshere, the stratosphere, where they would reflect away sunlight and cool the planet. And I know for certain that that will work—not that there aren’t side effects, but I know for certain that will work. And the reason is, it’s been done. And it was done not by us, not by me, but by nature. Here’s Mount Pinatubo in the early ’90s that put a whole bunch of sulfur in the stratosphere with a sort of atomic-bomb-like cloud, and the result of that was pretty dramatic. After that and some previous volcanoes we have, you see a quite dramatic cooling of the atmosphere.

AMY GOODMAN: Many scientists and environmentalists have raised concerns about geoengineering technologies designed to intervene in the functioning of the Earth system as a whole. Speaking on Democracy Now! in 2010, Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva warned about some of the dangers.

VANDANA SHIVA: These shortcuts that are attempted from places of power—and I would add, places of ignorance—of the ecological web of life, are then creating the war solution, because geoengineering becomes war on a planetary scale, with ignorance and blind spots, instead of taking the real path, which is helping communities adapt and become resilient.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, our next guest has written a new book that lays out the arguments for and against climate engineering, and reveals the extent of vested interests linking researchers, venture capitalists and corporations. We’re joined by Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia. He’s the author of Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering.

Clive Hamilton, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: So, what is geo- and climate engineering?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, it’s a range of schemes that are being developed by scientists, particularly in the U.S., to essentially try to counter the effects of global warming by technological interventions in the global climate system. They range from the benign, such as making biochar, a kind of charcoal; through to the science fiction, like putting a cloud of mirrors in space to deflect some sunlight; to probably the premier scheme that receives most attention and which, in my view, is very likely to be implemented in perhaps 20, 30 years’ time, the one that David Keith mentioned, the idea of essentially installing a solar shield, a layer of sulfate particles around the Earth to deflect a certain proportion of incoming solar radiation—so, in other words, to regulate the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why did you decide to write this book?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, I wrote a previous book called Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, which, as the title suggests, went into detail why it is that here we are in the beginning of the 20th century, where there’s an overwhelming consensus of scientific evidence saying we’re in really deep trouble, and yet we’re not doing anything about it, or our actions are trivial. And so, it seems to me that as long as that goes on, as long as the scientists continue to ring the alarm bell ever more loudly, and as long as governments around the world fail to respond to those warnings—in other words, if plan A isn’t working, then people are going to resort to plan B, and that is geoengineering. And that’s why there’s been this boom in interest, both from scientists and from other people, in these schemes to essentially take control of the climate system of planet Earth.

AMY GOODMAN: The Heartland Institute describes geoengineering as, quote, “much less expensive than seeking to stem temperature rise solely through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.” The Cato Institute argues that, quote, “geo-engineering is more [cost]-effective than emissions controls altogether.” And the Hudson Institute says geoengineering, quote, “could obviate the majority of the need for carbon cuts and enable us to avoid lifestyle changes.” Why are all these groups proponents of geoengineering?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, one thing united about all of those groups is that they have a right-wing political vision. And so, what they like about geoengineering—bear in mind, incidentally, that the Heartland Institute, and another is—in this camp is the American Enterprise Institute, have spent many years repudiating climate science, attacking climate scientists and resisting all measures to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions. And yet here they are endorsing geoengineering, so a response to a problem they say does not exist. And the reason is that, in some cases, if the medicine is palatable, then the patient is more likely to admit that there is a disease or an illness. And in this case, the technological intervention in the climate system is acceptable to a certain kind of conservative thinking, because it, in a way, refuses to vindicate the warnings of environmentalists that there’s something profoundly wrong in our economic and political system, because geoengineering comes along and says, “Well, look, the system can solve the problem.”

AMY GOODMAN: And which are the corporations that are most involved with this?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, most corporations are kind of staying at arm’s length from all of this, as indeed governments are, for the time being. But quietly, behind the scenes, you can see them taking interest. There are a number of powerful or wealthy venture capitalists. Bill Gates is the sort of prominent player here. He’s invested in a range of geoengineering schemes. You can go to the U.S. patent office, and you’ll find Bill Gates’s name on a couple of patents for geoengineering. We’re also starting to see the oil companies, even Exxon, BP, Shell, starting to take an interest. They’re sort of pulling people into independent groups to produce reports, advocating research into geoengineering. And you’ve got some kind of rogue geoengineers, sort of cowboy capitalists, who are going out there right now and doing these kinds of experiments in the ocean, for example.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about about what these experiments are.

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, the one that has perhaps attracted most attention is an experiment in so-called ocean iron fertilization, spreading iron slurry on a patch of ocean.

AMY GOODMAN: What is iron slurry?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, basically iron dust or iron sulfate mixed with seawater. Spread it on a patch of ocean, and algal blooms suddenly emerge. You can do this quite quickly. And the idea is that you over—this way, you overcome the acidity of the ocean—I’m sorry, you stimulate the production of algal blooms. They suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And all of this sort of marine life that you stimulate then, in theory, sinks to the bottom of the ocean, taking their carbon with them, because, as organic creatures, they have to absorb carbon as they grow. And they grow because we’ve added the micronutrient that is missing—that is, the iron—in the sea.

And so, there’s a man called Russ George, who—an entrepreneur with a colorful history, who’s carried out a couple of experiments here, including one off the coast of British Columbia a couple of months ago, entirely unauthorized and probably illegal. And yet, he was up there spreading iron slurry or iron sulfates from the back of his ship, carrying out a geoengineering experiment, which highlights one of the main concerns that many of us have. There’s virtually no regulation of geoengineering. And when it comes to sulfate aerosol spraying, there’s nothing to prevent a government, any government, or even a corporation or a billionaire with a messiah complex, from launching a program of taking control of the Earth’s weather by installing this kind of solar shield. So the absence of governance, the absence of regulation and the exclusion, particularly of people from poor and vulnerable countries, is a very serious concern.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the mirrors in the sky?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, this is more on the sci-fi end of it. But the idea is to send up a cloud, a large number of small mirrors, that would be stationed in a particular spot between the Earth and the sun, and adjusted in a way, from the Earth, or regulated, so that as the sunlight comes to the Earth, that they’re oriented so that they deflect some of the sunlight so it misses the Earth and heads off into space. And you could adjust them so that you might reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth by, say, 2 percent, which might be enough to offset the warming associated with a doubling of carbon dioxide emissions.

The problem with this is, we’re not—we’re not tackling the problem, we’re just dealing with one symptom, because carbon dioxide emissions continue to go into the atmosphere under this scheme, acidifying the ocean. And so, basically, it just suppresses warming. And one of the dangers—in fact, perhaps the most frightening danger—of solar radiation management of this form is, if at some point in the future we install the solar shield and at some point we have to take it away—let’s say there is some terrible side effect we hadn’t foreseen or there’s some global conflict, because, after all, who’s going to have their hand on the thermostat? If we took away this solar shield, then you’d have this sudden surge of warming that had been suppressed for 10 or 20 or 30 years. And as you know, ecosystems are destroyed not so much because of the amount of warming, but of the rapidity of the increase in warming, because organisms, ecosystems don’t have time to adapt. So that’s a serious concern about installing this kind of solar shield.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2010, we spoke to freelance journalist Gwynne Dyer, author of Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats. He defended geoengineering.

GWYNNE DYER: Geoengineering is short-term interventions to avoid a climate runaway disaster, in order to give us more time to get our emissions down, which, in themselves, will cause a runaway climate disaster if we simply allow them to go ahead. Without geoengineering, you hit that disaster in less than 50 years. And you probably need more than 50 years to get your emissions down. Now, first of all, obviously, you’ve got to do the experiments. You’ve got to figure out: Are there horrendous side effects you don’t want to do? But if you don’t do this, you know who dies first? It’s the people in the tropics and the subtropics.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Gwynne Dyer. Your response?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, I mean, coming from someone like Gwynne Dyer, it reflects the anxiety about global warming and the refusal of the world to respond to it in a significant way. And so, he’s extremely well motivated, and I have a lot of respect for Gwynne Dyer. But you notice he said “short-term intervention.” In other words, the idea is we buy time until we get it right, either technologically or politically. But, of course, Amy, the problem with geoengineering is that the short term will become long-term. I mean, if you’ve got the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, and already some conservative politicians saying we should go down the geoengineering route—

AMY GOODMAN: Like the Koch brothers?

CLIVE HAMILTON: The Koch brothers—

AMY GOODMAN: Are they involved with this?

CLIVE HAMILTON: They are not, as far as I know, involved in it, but it’s right up their alley. I wouldn’t be surprised if they got involved in it. Certainly Murray Edwards, the billionaire investor in the Canadian oil sands, he is involved in geoengineering.

AMY GOODMAN: In the tar sands?

CLIVE HAMILTON: He’s invested in the tar sands, but he also has put money into a company called Carbon Engineering, managed—owned by David Keith, the scientist we saw, and in which Bill Gates has an investment. But, you see, the reason why these conservatives like geoengineering, it’s because they see it as a substitute for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. They see it as a permanent solution to global warming, not, as Gwynne Dyer was saying, an opportunity to buy time in the short term. They see it as a—the conservatives see it as a vindication of the system. They see it—see geoengineering as a way of protecting the system, of preserving the political economic system, whereas others say the probably is the political and economic system, and it’s that which we have to change.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to look at the Keystone XL for a second, you know, the tar sands, the whole story, the Keystone XL, the controversial pipeline that would deliver tar sands oil from Canada to the refineries in Texas. Earlier this year, a State Department report concluded the Keystone XL pipeline does not threaten the global climate. A number of environmental groups opposed the conclusion in a report called “Cooking the Books.” They said, “In a world constrained by the realities of climate change, the proper measure of any project’s climate impact should not be based on the assumptions inherent in a business as usual scenario that guarantees climate disaster. … There is a climate impact from burning 830,000 barrels per day of any crude that cannot be ignored.” Your response to that, Clive Hamilton?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, the most frightening development for those of us who watch climate change and climate politics over the last several years is that, whereas previously we thought, well, at least the fossil fuel reserves, you know, are running out, now we discover there are these vast so-called unconventional reserves or new ways of tapping into fossil fuels that were previously thought to be inaccessible. And so, suddenly the game has changed in a most unwelcome way. So you’ve got enormous greenhouse carbon dioxide resources buried in the tar sands in Canada. In Australia, where I come from, you’ve got huge new coal mines opening up. And, of course, across many countries, we have fracking getting access to new sources of natural gas. So, to argue that exploiting massive new resources of fossil fuels is not a threat to the climate is—you know, is bonkers, really.

AMY GOODMAN: What do the climate scientists say about geoengineering?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, the climate scientists—there’s a range of views about it. There are some, like David Keith, who are very gung ho, who say that this is the answer to the global warming problem, we really should pursue this rapidly, and so he has a research interest, but he also has a financial interest in geoengineering.

And then you have scientists at the other end. Alan Robock, for example, is a prominent American climate scientist who points of the grave risks associated with attempting to tinker with the climate system of the Earth as a whole. So they tend to focus on the scientific risks. After all, we’re talking about, you know, the mother of all ecosystems, the Earth as a whole, and, you know, we have trouble enough understanding the complexities of local ecosystems, let alone planet Earth.

But, of course, apart from the scientific risks, there are the political risks, the kinds of things that I’ve talked about, the danger that geoengineering becomes a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—in other words, as a way of protecting the political economic system from the kind of change that should be necessary.

AMY GOODMAN: What is Richard Branson involved with, who founded of Virgin Air?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, Richard Branson has got in early into the geoengineering, and he sees it—you know, he’s one of these billionaires that wants to save the world. And so, among other things, he set up a prize for—a competition for whoever can come up with the best geoengineering scheme, and I think it was a $10 million prize that he offered to the winning entry. And so, he has set up a website, and he’s got some, you know, funky employees there who have this kind of “we can use technology to get ourselves out of this fix.” So he very much comes with this sort of can-do attitude: If we put money into it, we cut through the politics, and we’ll use technology to save the day. It’s a very kind of Silicon Valley view of the world. But, of course, what it doesn’t recognize is that technologies are never neutral. Technologies always come in a political and social context, which is why we see, you know, the Cato Institute and the Heartland Institute backing geoengineering, but bagging or attacking or dissing renewable energy.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about what’s happening in Australia, as that’s where you’re from. The—Australia pushing for an amendment to the London Protocol on marine pollution and dumping at sea, which would introduce a complete prohibition on the practice of fertilizing the oceans without scientific justification, this just announced by the Australian government?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Yeah, and a bit of a surprise, I have to say, a welcome surprise. I mean, it’s part of a growing push from a range of countries, mostly from the South, but also backed by some Scandinavian countries, to try to develop an international governance structure to regulate research into geoengineering. So I was very pleased to see that the Australian government was taking—was on the side of progress in this particular case. And so, but most countries, including the United States, are kind of taking an arm’s-length view here. We don’t really want to get involved. It’s not big enough yet. And the same, incidentally, goes for some of the big environment groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you talked about this before, putting iron sulfate into the oceans, but the process came to prominence last year after an attempt was made to augment salmon stocks off the Canadian Pacific coast by adding chemicals to the ocean waters?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Yes, it came to prominence through this unauthorized experiment by this colorful entrepreneur, Russ George, who said he was spreading iron sulfate in order to stimulate salmon stocks. But, in fact, he had tried it before, specifically as a form of geoengineering. And he has said quite explicitly—in fact, he’s tried to sell shares in his company, saying, “We can spread iron sulfate on the seas, which will encourage it to suck up carbon dioxide. We will generate carbon credits this way, which we can sell on the international market.” So, you know, it’s very much a commercial venture, which has not very good science behind it. And it’s—so it’s rung alarm bells amongst regulators and certain environment groups, that here we have someone, a rogue geoengineer, who’s taken it upon himself to experiment with these kinds of schemes to affect the planet—the climate of the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: You write that “The potential risks are enormous: disrupting the food chain, damaging the ozone layer, the loss of monsoon rains in Asia.” How?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, in the case of the monsoon, the Indian monsoon, which provides the annual water for a billion or more people, one of the—some of the early scientific work on the impact of installing this solar shield around the Earth through a sulfate aerosol layer is that it may—it will certainly cool the Earth, as David Keith said. He’s pretty confident of that, because it mimics volcanoes. But it will also affect and change global rainfall patterns. And one of—some of the studies suggest that it could shift the Indian monsoon.

And, of course, let’s say either the United States or China decides, in a desperate state, to install this solar shield, and it shifts the Indian monsoon, and there’s a massive continuing drought, and people are going hungry. So, here we have a—you start to get a sense of the geopolitical implications of this, because this is not—you know, everyone, through their greenhouse gas is, you know, as an unintended consequence, changing the climate of the Earth, which is happening now. Here you’ve got a government, probably, backed by the military, probably, or in collaboration with their military, actually setting out to regulate the temperature of the Earth, which may suit their interests. It may help fix their climate, but if it’s severely damaging the climate of another country, particularly a poor country, I mean, what are they going to do? If it’s a nuclear-armed country—you know, these are the kind of scenarios that are attracting the attention of the military planners, who are now—the Pentagon, for example, is taking an interest in geoengineering, because they can see some of these longer-term implications.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to the Pentagon. In 2010, the Pentagon highlighted climate concerns in its main public document on military strategy that’s released every four years, the Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR. This is Michèle Flournoy, the then-undersecretary of defense for policy.

MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: This is the first QDR to address climate and energy issues, which are both significant factors in the future security environment. Climate change could increase demand for U.S. forces and humanitarian response, creating a new operating environment in the Arctic and requiring adaptation in our own facilities and systems. DOD’s enormous dependence on energy makes its operations vulnerable to disruptions in energy flows and to price fluctuations. DOD aims to be a leader in the government to improve sustainability, resource efficiency, increase of renewable energy supplies, and reduction of energy demand, to improve operational effectiveness and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Pentagon’s Michèle Flournoy. She was one of the people on the short list, apparently, for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s job. Clive Hamilton?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, she was talking principally about the implications of climate change on energy supply for the operations of the U.S. military. But, of course, the other part of it is the militarization of climate change itself, the geostrategic implications of a changing climate around the world, the potential destabilization that it is likely to bring about, particularly if we continue to do little about it. And so, when it comes to geoengineering schemes, using technology to essentially take control of the world’s climate, it’s no wonder that the Pentagon has now got people, you know, on the case, watching the scientific debate and taking note of the fact, for example, that China a year ago included geoengineering amongst its earth science research priorities. We can see that the emergence of a kind of global situation, where a number of nations are starting to investigate geoengineering, in the absence of regulation or, at this stage, any kind of global cooperation or transparency, and so it’s no wonder that the Pentagon is taking an interest in it. I mean, it would be derelict in its duty if it weren’t taking an interest in the emerging science and geopolitics of geoengineering.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you heard of the HAARP program of the U.S. government?


AMY GOODMAN: Which would alter the weather?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, it might. I mean, I think we have to be careful about the HAARP program and attributing too much to it. It’s an experiment in the ionosphere that does not appear to have anything to do with geoengineering, not as typically understood.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the whole issue of sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and, as we wrap up, where you feel the science and the politics need to go from here?

CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, one scheme, and a very prominent scheme, again backed by David Keith, who seems to be ubiquitous in this, is to build huge arrays of basically metal boxes that would suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, concentrate it in a safe form—calcium carbonate or something like that—and then pipe it somewhere to bury it permanently underground—you know, so to turn coal, which is stable carbon, into some other form of stable carbon under the ground. But, you see, it would require the construction—and these things would be built next to coal-fired power plants, perhaps. It would require the construction of a vast industrial infrastructure to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, fix it, pipe it, bury it, in order to offset the effects of our existing vast industrial infrastructure. And it would be expensive. And so, it seems to make sense just to wind back our existing industrial infrastructure based on fossil fuels and replace it with the technologies that we already have, the zero- and low-carbon technologies that we already have. It will not be enormously expensive to make that energy transition. It’s not that we lack the technology to solve climate change. We lack the political will.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you very much, Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia, author of the new book Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go to Seattle, Washington, to find out what’s happening at Garfield High School. Stay with us.

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