Geoengineering the Planet?


Of all the assaults humanity is inflicting on the earth, nitrogen pollution is one of the most devastating. In more than 400 coastal areas worldwide, agricultural runoff is sapping oxygen from large swaths of oceans, killing nearly all marine life. In the Midwest, much of the synthetic fertilizer used in farming washes into the Mississippi River and out to the Gulf of Mexico where every year it creates a "dead zone" up to 8,000 square miles.

So imagine the reaction in 2007 when one company reportedly approached the governments of the Philippines, Malaysia, Chile, and Morocco with a plan to do much the same by dumping up to 1,000 tons of nitrogen-rich urea into their offshore waters. The Australian-based Ocean Nourishment Corporation was looking to test its patented technology to cultivate oceanic gardens of phytoplankton that would suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a major factor in global warming. It theorized that once the microscopic plants die, they carry some of the carbon to a watery grave on the ocean floor. This could allow Ocean Nourishment to sell credits in carbon-trading markets. While public opposition forced the company to scrap its plans, it has been able to carry out smaller tests. (Another ocean fertilization firm, Planktos, which filed for bankruptcy in 2008 after environmental groups thwarted its plan to dump more than 50 tons of iron ore about 200 miles from the Galapagos Islands, also built its business model on selling carbon credits.)

Ocean Nourishment is one of a new class of companies developing saleable "geoengineering" technologies to counter the effects of global warming. Geoengineering is sometimes defined as "the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system in order to moderate global warming." An indication of the complexity involved can be gleaned from the geoengineering experiment humanity has been conducting since the mid-18th century. Having dumped more than 200 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere since then, we’ve known for decades that we’re dramatically altering the biosphere. Hundreds of institutions and thousands of scientists have been trying to understand global warming for years, yet the effects are constantly surprising, whether it’s methane (a potent greenhouse gas) pouring out of the arctic permafrost, oceans suddenly absorbing less carbon dioxide, the rapid spread of invasive species and pathogens, or mountain glaciers melting faster than expected.

Many geoengineering enthusiasts are undeterred by the uncertainties and risks. They aim to create a human-controlled "planetary thermostat" and discuss how to remake the Earth’s atmosphere and climate by artificially brightening clouds, mimicking volcanic plumes, or constructing a space-based sunshade, all of which would cool the planet by reflecting more sunlight back into space. Others are testing carbon-filtering artificial trees, methods to enhance oceanic carbon sinks, speeding up natural processes of turning carbon into rock, or sequestering liquid carbon dioxide deep underground. Some suggest reforesting the planet, genetically engineering trees to be carbon hungry and crops to be reflective—while others suggest cutting down heat-absorbing boreal forests as climate-control measures.


Schematic representation of various climate-engineering proposals
—image from B. Matthews,
Nature

There are two main categories of geoengineering. One is "solar radiation management" (SRM), which would alter the "albedo," or reflectivity, of the Earth. For instance, snow-covered ice reflects up to 90 percent of sunlight while open ocean reflects as little as 6 percent, soaking up the rest. Less sunlight being absorbed means a cooler planet. Some SRM ideas are outlandish, such as shooting trillions of tiny disks into space to diffuse sunlight. Most SRM technologies are projected to be fast acting and lower in cost than removing carbon, but the drawbacks and unknowns still appear to be extensive. Pumping reflective sulfate particles into the stratosphere, like the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, is favored by many geoengineering proponents. Risks include widespread drought, substantial ozone depletion, disrupting the "global atmospheric electrical circuit," and even increasing greenhouse gases because of chemical changes to the atmosphere. Also, warns one writer, "If anything were to interrupt this geoengineering effort, which would have to keep replenishing the sulfates every few years…temperatures would suddenly soar upward at a rate 20 times faster than they are rising today." And blocking sunlight will not stop ocean acidification caused by excess carbon, which is imperiling the entire marine food chain.

The second technique, carbon dioxide removal (CDR), includes mechanisms like artificial trees, ocean fertilization, and "enhanced weathering." They all depend on figuring out ways to sequester billions of tons of carbon for centuries. Some geoengineering ideas entail risks, such as oxygen depletion with dumping iron and nitrogen into oceans. Others are just good land-management practices, like planting trees or retaining more carbon in the soil, and probably shouldn’t be lumped in with artificial technology. However, even these methods involve sorting out issues of who pays, whose land is used, and how it is managed.

Most carbon dioxide removal techniques address global warming at the source, the carbon. But they need decades to have an impact, are expensive, hinge on poorly understood processes of long-term carbon storage, often require large amounts of energy to implement (creating more greenhouse gases), and will probably have unknown impacts on the biogeochemical properties of land and water. Nonetheless, carbon dioxide removal measures will likely be needed. We’ve already pumped so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, now at 390 parts per million (PPM), versus a historical level of 275 PPM, that to get it below what is estimated to be the safe threshold of 350 PPM, we would have to go "net negative emissions." That means phasing out carbon-based energy entirely while finding ways to soak up and store some of the excess carbon floating about.

Making the Crisis the Solution

Nearly all methods, rather than address the fossil fuels at the root of the crisis, make the crisis the solution. It’s the guiding principle behind Ocean Nourishment’s plan of trying to turn an ecological hazard into a benefit and is inherently contradictory. As one scientific paper on ocean fertilization published last year commented, "Ecological disruption is the very mechanism by which iron fertilization would sequester carbon."

In a 2009 paper published in Nature, a team of scientists describe the "safe operating space for nine planetary systems." They calculate that we’ve already exceeded three boundaries: "rate of biodiversity loss, climate change, and human interference in the nitrogen cycle," and we’re in danger of exceeding global freshwater usage and ocean acidification. For nearly every planetary system, climate change amplifies the destruction. Because most geoengineering methods either add new pollutants to the environment or need huge amounts of energy to operate, it’s a good chance they will exacerbate these ecological crises, too.

Geoengineering is still on the drawing board, but the technologies and broader concepts are being fiercely debated in scientific journals and among scientists, policymakers, scholars, and environmentalists. The inability of the biggest-polluting nations in Copenhagen to reach agreement last December on a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions has spurred interest in geoengineering. According to one study, only 3 percent of the public is correctly informed about the subject. In this valley of ignorance, a geoengineering lobby is growing. Companies, venture capitalists, think tanks, scientists, and government bodies, including the Pentagon, are all pushing for money to research and conduct field tests. Call it the military-industrial-geoengineering complex.

It’s no mystery who is interested in geoengineering—oil, coal, auto corporations, and other business sectors dependent upon fossil fuels. The Pentagon, which used climatological warfare during the Vietnam War, is interested in the military applications of geoengineering. Billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson and hi-tech entrepreneurs are funding scientists engaged in geoengineering. (Whether it’s out of profit, hubris, ego, or general concern, the super-rich think geoengineering can save humanity from themselves.) Add to that, elements in think tanks, the media, the business-friendly right wing, and even a few alleged environmentalists who are "excited about any solution that doesn’t get in the way of the oil companies," as the Atlantic Monthly put it recently.

These interests are creating an inexorable logic for funding geoengineering research and field tests. Proponents say we need a "Plan B" if cutting emissions fails. Suppose Greenland’s ice sheet starts to collapse, don’t we want to have a back-up plan that has been tested? Thus, the argument goes, we need to research geoengineering—not just as computer models, but in field tests—to know the effects, the risks, what works, and what doesn’t. And just in case, we should also know how and which technologies can be deployed as a weapon in case someone else is plotting against us. It sounds reasonable, cautious, and prudent. Last year, Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, regurgitated the argument that geoengineering had to be looked at because, "We don’t have the luxury…of ruling any approach off the table."

There is also a sinister element afoot. Think tanks—such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Reason Foundation, the Heartland Institute, the Hudson Institute, and the Cato Institute, all bankrolled by right-wing foundations, big energy companies, and large corporations—have been denying that climate change is happening or that fossil fuels are the cause. In the last few years, they’ve jumped on the geoengineering bandwagon. This indicates they now accept that climate change is real, is human caused, and represents a significant threat. Why else would we try to alter the climate?

For the right-wing, geoengineering is not a last resort, but a silver bullet. It’s a new form of climate denialism, as well as a delaying tactic to diffuse the opposition. The arguments are largely recycled from the battle against the Kyoto Protocol, claiming emission cuts will cripple the economy. The Heartland Institute describes geoengineering as "much less expensive than seeking to stem temperature rise solely through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.…" Banging the same drum, the Cato Institute argues, "geo-engineering is more cost-effective than emissions controls altogether." The Hudson Institute says hang on to those SUVs and McMansions because geoengineering "could obviate the majority of the need for carbon cuts and enable us to avoid lifestyle changes…." Then there’s Bjorn Lomborg, the skeptical "environmentalist," whose Copenhagen Consensus Center is aggressively promoting geoengineering as the cheapest fix.

Signal To Noise

In terms of small-scale field tests, a handful of dogged critics contend there is no way to evaluate many geoengineering technologies. Rutgers University Professor of Climatology Alan Robock and three other scientists writing in the January 30, 2010 issue of the journal Science describe the problem with testing the injection of sulfate particles into the stratosphere as one of signal to noise. They explain that one cannot distinguish small-scale testing from regular climatic activity. A real-world test came courtesy of two volcano explosions in 2008 and 2009 that each lofted an estimated 1.5 to 2 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, far more than would ever be deployed in an experiment. This is an enormous amount, but only about 10 percent of the Mount Pinatubo explosion. Neither of the smaller eruptions "produce[d] a climate response that could be measured against the noise of chaotic weather variability." So the only way to separate the signal of the test from the background of the climatic noise "would essentially be implementation of geoengineering."


In ocean iron-fertilization experiments, sinking algae are sampled from a sediment trap—photo from the Alfred Wegener Institute

The same is true of ocean fertilization, argue four scientists in the September 17, 2009, issue of Nature: "Ocean fertilization for climate mitigation would have to be widespread and cumulative over decades. Thus, properly field testing its geoengineering potential would entail fertilizing and sampling an enormous swath of ocean. Assessment would be needed for between decades and a century or so to demonstrate sequestration, and to document the downstream effects on ecosystem productivity—’nutrient robbing’—and oxygen depletion." And even then, the scientists write, the nature of the dynamic ocean undergoing dramatic climate change would make it extremely difficult to isolate the impacts of the fertilization.

The signal-to-noise problem actually creates a research paradox that favors full-scale geoengineering. If a field test is determined to have failed or to be inconclusive, supporters will argue that it was too small to get proper results or definitive data so it needs to scaled-up. If the test is determined to have positive results, then the argument will be it works so it should be scaled-up. Furthermore, argues Robock, once an experiment is underway, "The geoengineering infrastructure, including different industrial interests involving many jobs, would lobby to keep the program going."

As for carbon dioxide removal, daunting technical issues loom. Columbia University geophysicist Klaus Lackner has designed resin-coated artificial "trees"—which look like huge flyswatters—to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. The problem is not the technology, but the scale. To remove just 10 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, some 3.6 billion tons, would require 10 million of these trees, a costly and energy-intensive process. An article in the April 30, 2009 issue of Nature calculates that to use another air capture method to cancel out less than 3 percent of the carbon humanity is spewing in the atmosphere today by 2030 would require the energy equivalent of "slightly more than the total electricity generated by the 104 nuclear power plants in the United States," which is also equivalent to the world’s current wind-generating capacity. Even if we can efficiently capture carbon dioxide, what to do with it? To store all carbon dioxide currently emitted worldwide would require building a pipeline, transport, pumping, and storage infrastructure that can handle eight times the volume of the entire oil economy. So why not just put all that effort into transitioning to ultra-low carbon energy?

Who Decides?

Wrestling with these technological and environmental dilemmas turns out to be the easy part. The human equation makes deploying geoengineering far riskier. Who will control the planetary thermostat—government, corporations, billionaires, or the military? Is talk of geoengineering creating a "moral hazard," encouraging the continued use of oil, coal, and natural gas because we can presumably counter the effects? With the amount of money at stake—one writer calls it "the mother of all engineering projects"—won’t this create a huge incentive for corporations to make false claims and hype technologies? Who will pay for the consequences of failed geoengineering? How does one shut down a failed project without increasing the damage? How does one repair planetary-scale damage anyway? How can lobbies be stopped from fighting to keep projects going no matter the drawbacks? How will geoengineering schemes be assessed and managed if they help some and harm others? For that matter, how will success and failure be determined and who will decide that?

What if Russia wants to warm the climate but the United States wants to cool it? Would this lead to warring climate controls? A U.S. Air Force-commissioned document talks about how to "own the weather" by 2025 so that "weather-modification offers the war fighter a wide-range of possible options to defeat or coerce an adversary." Many scientists fear that pumping sulfates into the atmosphere may cause Asia’s monsoons to fail, putting more than a billion people at risk of starvation.

James Gustave Speth, co-founder of the National Resources Defense Council, writes in his book The Bridge at the End of the World, "the climate convention is not protecting climate, the biodiversity convention is not protecting biodiversity, the desertification convention is not preventing desertification, and even the older and stronger Convention on the Law of the Sea is not protecting fisheries." So how can we hope to create an effective global governance structure on geoengineering? Climatologist Alan Robock raises the question of moral authority: "Do humans have the right to control the climate of the entire planet to benefit them, without consideration of all other species?"

Earth 2.0, Brought To You By Microsoft

These questions have not slowed down would-be geoengineers. A leading developer is the Microsoft-funded Intellectual Ventures LLC, which employs many prominent scientists working on geoengineering. It holds numerous patents on deployable geoengineering technologies and Bill Gates is listed on many as one of the patent holders. Like many in the field, Intellectual Ventures soft pedals its plans as prudence and inquiry. Its website states, "We believe that geoengineering should be viewed as a last resort to prevent irreparable harm to the environment and human society. However, we can’t wait to develop that last resort until we need it, we must begin the research work to understand it now." It also argues, "In order to make meaningful cuts in CO2 emissions, there would need to be comprehensive and effective international agreements in place. So far, these have proven elusive…the task of retooling our energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels is a massive task, which is going to take a long time to accomplish…. [I]f we do find ourselves in a bad scenario, geoengineering is one of the few alternatives for reducing harm to both human society and the environment."

The question that comes to mind is would you trust Bill Gates and Microsoft with programming the Earth’s climate? The involvement of Bill Gates, who is listed as a patent holder on a device aimed at moderating hurricanes, also reveals another side of geoengineering. It’s not so much all-or-nothing, but a spectrum. Many proponents are looking at smaller-scale ventures, whether it’s to affect regional climates, increase fishing stocks, or counter extreme weather. But once unleashed, geoengineering will invent new markets and rationales for its existence, making it more difficult to put the genie back into the bottle.

Many government institutions have staked out a position similar to Intellectual Ventures. The United Kingdom’s Royal Society, a leading scientific body, issued an influential report in September 2009 on geoengineering. It spoke of risks and uncertainties, "manifestly far-fetched" schemes that are being "promoted over-optimistically." But it added, "Unless future efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are much more successful then they have been so far, additional action may be required should it become necessary to cool the Earth this century. Such action might involve geoengineering …."

U.S. government entities investigating geoengineering include the National Academy of Sciences, NASA, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, NASA, Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency have also "funded some research and small-scale technology testing relevant to proposed geoengineering approaches," according to the Government Accountability Office. Influential private groups have weighed in as well, with the Council of Foreign Relations holding an ominous-sounding workshop called "Unilateral Planetary Scale Geoengineering" in 2008.

Coming-Out Party

The biggest event, a "coming-out party" for geoengineering, was held in March 2010 and titled, "The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies," or Asilomar 2.0. The name is significant because Asilomar 1.0, held in 1975, was organized by a group of scientists involved in genetic engineering with the purpose of drawing up a code of self-governance to legitimate the technology to the public. Susan Wright, a historian of science, writes that the organizers’ agenda was "to persuade the American public that genetic engineering was under control, that the scientists responsible for developing this technology knew what they were doing, and that responsibility for the future development of the field was best left in their hands." The conference presented genetic engineering and its governance as the province of neutral scientific experts who were dealing with technical questions. They downplayed "the industrial, agricultural and military uses," according to Wright, with organizers excluding "awkward questions of biological warfare and human genetic engineering that molecular biologists obviously had no more claim to pronounce on than other people."

In this light, it’s worth examining how Asilomar 2.0 was organized. Conveners described its purpose as three-fold: identifying potential risks of experiments, proposing research standards for experiments, and proposing a system to assess experiments for "potential categorical risks" and suggesting precautions. What’s left unsaid is who will identify potential risks? Who will propose research standards? Who will assess experiments and suggest precautions? Also noteworthy is how the description "climate intervention technologies" was substituted for geoengineering, the preferred term for years.

The list of attendees provides a possible answer to "who will decide." About 175 experts in "natural science, engineering, social science, humanities [and] law" participated. Most were scientists and many wore multiple hats as researchers, government experts, and developers of geoengineering technology. Just like the first Asilomar conference, this calls into question the claim of scientific neutrality.

Asilomar 2.0 was mired in controversy before it even began. "Conference developer" and oceanographer Dr. Margaret Leinen had served as the chief scientist at Climos, a geoengineering firm developing ocean fertilization technology, which happens to be run by her son, Dan Whaley. Whaley made a fortune selling an online travel company called GetThere for $750 million in 2000. Two years ago Climos snagged $3.5 million in venture capital from PayPal cofounder Elon Musk. Climos based its carbon sequestration method on iron fertilization to then sell as carbon credits.

The conference was organized by the Climate Response Fund, which Leinen founded. The financial advisor to the Climate Response Fund and conference participant is Bill Kohrs, who is also a vice president at Climos. The conference’s scientific organizing committee includes Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, who is on the scientific advisory board of Climos. Some prominent geoengineering experts skipped Asilomar 2.0, such as atmospheric scientist Ken Caldiera, who heads up Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University. Caldeira wrote that he was not attending because, "I am not comfortable with the idea that a meeting set up to create guidelines governing geoengineering field tests might be used to help raise funds for geoengineering field tests…. I am also concerned with possible conflicts of interest related to the profit motive."

Additionally, more than 50 civil society groups representing small farmers, indigenous peoples, environmentalists, and scientists issued a public letter in January, calling Asilomar’s proposed volunteer guidelines "nonsensical," alleging that the main organizing groups were supported by "fossil fuel interests and car manufacturers" and charging that "geoengineering experiments with cross-border impacts would violate existing treaties" such as the UN Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques.

Ken Caldeira is an important figure in the geoengineering debate. He has served on numerous government panels and workshops relating to geoengineering and his resume lists 120 scientific papers, almost all of which are directly related to climate change or geoengineering research. Moreover, he is grappling publicly with the dilemmas raised by the lack of political progress on curbing greenhouse gases. As one profile put it, "He views geoengineering as a last resort, one fraught with risks and unintended consequences." Caldeira is adamant that the "main thing we need to do is work to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions," and suggests "outlawing the production of devices that emit carbon dioxide." He is conscious of the larger risks with geoengineering, such as Pentagon involvement. "Geoengineering is already so fraught with social, geopolitical, economic, and ethical issues; why would we want to add military dimensions?"

Caldeira supports federally-funded research to demonstrate if geoengineering adds to the risk of climate change or whether it has "potential to reduce risk." Yet the picture gets murkier when looking at Caldeira’s connections. He is one of the "inventors" at the Microsoft-funded Intellectual Ventures. In the interest of full disclosure, Caldeira states, "Funds made available by Bill Gates support several post-doctoral researchers in my lab," some of whose research involves geoengineering. Some funds have also been used to support meetings where geoengineering was discussed. And Caldeira is listed as an inventor on patents involving oceanic geoengineering, though he assures everyone that "if any of these patents are used for climate modification purposes, I will donate my share of the proceeds to non-profit charities and NGOs."

Conflicts Of Interest

Even while Caldeira skipped Asilomar 2.0 because of "possible conflicts of interest related to the profit motive," he clearly has some of his own. The same goes for many conference participants:

John Latham of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado was the first to propose in 1990 a way to cool the atmosphere by artificially brightening maritime clouds that would reflect sunlight. He is also an inventor at Intellectual Ventures.


"Cloudseeder" ship proposed by Professors John Latham and Stephen Salter which would spray a seawater mist into sunlight-reflecting clouds

Stephen Salter is an emeritus professor of engineering design at the University of Edinburgh who has been working for years on a proposal to deploy 1,500 robotic ships that would crisscross the oceans, spraying saltwater mist to brighten clouds. He has patented a "Salter Sink" that lists Bill Gates as an inventor, and which Intellectual Ventures is promoting as a means to "reduce the severity and frequency" of hurricanes and typhoons.

David Keith, a high-profile professor of physics at the University of Calgary, is leading "a team of engineers developing technology to capture CO2 from ambient air at an industrial scale." He also happens to receive funding from Bill Gates. Notice a pattern?

Klaus Lackner, the professor designing carbon-capturing artificial trees, co-founded Global Research Technologies in Arizona, which has teamed with Columbia University to license the technology. The company was funded by the late Gary Comer, the billionaire owner of the Land’s End apparel company.

Gregory Benford, a physicist at the University of California and adviser to NASA and DARPA, has been an early popularizer of geoengineering. Writing in Reason magazine in 1997, he dismissed cutting fossil fuel consumption as a "starkly Puritan ethic." Benford argued, "Instead of draconian cutbacks in greenhouse-gas emissions, there may very well be fairly simple ways—even easy ones—to fix our dilemma," which is geoengineering, of course. Reason is published by the Reason Foundation, which has received more than $4 million over the years from oil money-funded foundations such as the Sarah Scaife Foundation and David H. Koch Charitable Foundation. Benford participated in a 2006 NASA workshop on "Managing Solar Radiation" and a DARPA geoengineering session in 2009

Lee Lane and Sam Thernstrom are co-directors of the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Geoengineering Project. AEI is part of the climate denialist network funded by Koch Industry, a U.S.-based "conglomerate dominated by petroleum and chemical interests with approximately $100 billion in annual sales." AEI also received approximately $2.6 million from ExxonMobil from 1998 to 2007. Its scholars have adamantly opposed the Kyoto Protocol, regularly attack climate change science as unfounded, and argue that most "prospective damage from climate change" be allowed "to simply occur" because it will be cheaper to deal with in the future. In testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology in November 2009, Lane claimed geoengineering is cheaper than cutting emissions, saying "solar radiation management" could save the global economy up to $700 billion a year. Lane’s argument seemed to be a call for inaction because he claimed that if there were "no controls" on greenhouse gas emissions this "would actually increase the positive contribution of SRM." Lane also calls for $7.5 billion to be spent over the next 10 years on geoengineering research.

Also in attendance were representatives of other geoengineering outfits, such as the "Carbon War Room," which was founded by billionaire Richard Branson, who is offering a $25 million reward for a "commercially viable design" for capturing atmospheric greenhouse gases, and Biochar Engineering, which is commercializing "biochar" technology. There were a slew of scientists, engineers, economists, and other specialists who have published papers favoring geoengineering, including Michael MacCracken, the chair of Asilomar’s scientific organizing committee and a former atmospheric and geophysical scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a U.S. nuclear weapons-design facility. The sole strategic partner was the Australian State of Victoria, which has 28 percent of the world’s reserves of brown coal, 430 billion tons, which emits far more carbon dioxide than black coal.

Despite all this, it would be unfair to conclude the gathering was just a nest of mad scientists and snake-oil salespeople. Also attending were plenty of skeptics of geoengineering claims, such as Alan Robock and historian James Fleming, who has just published a book, Fixing the Sky, critical of the checkered history and misuses of climate control. Even among advocates were many well-regarded scientists who don’t wholly embrace geoengineering and recognize the only real solution is aggressively cutting use of carbon-based energy.

Still, there is a fatal flaw in the thinking of serious scientists, even those like Ken Caldeira who shunned the conference. When the world itself is up for grabs, it’s natural for corporations, ideologues, and the military to latch onto geoengineering. Even the best-intentioned scientists will find themselves pushed and pulled by these forces. Capitalism has a long history of appropriating whatever it needs to its ends. If scientists agree that cutting greenhouse gas emissions is the best solution, then the problem is not technical, it’s social. There are no engineering or economic barriers to reducing our thirst for oil, coal, and natural gas. It has to do with how our society and political economy are structured to enforce the transfer of wealth and resources from the many to the few. Relying on complex, untested, and dangerous means to address global warming will not make the crisis any easier to address because geoengineering will still intersect with the same social forces.

The evidence against geoengineering is so overwhelming and the motivation of many proponents so self-serving that it should be stopped. One organization leading the way is the Canadian-based ETC Group, which has helped block some for-profit schemes. Whatever happens, humanity will muddle through, if worse for wear, and the planet will heal itself on a geological time scale. But the task at hand is to build sustainable societies that can co-exist with and preserve the natural world, something no amount of science or capital can ever replicate.

Z


A founding editor of the Indypendent, Arun Gupta writes about energy, the economy, the media, U.S. foreign policy, and other subjects. He’s writing a book on the decline of American Empire to be published by Haymarket Books.