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Geoengineering: Testing the Waters


FOR almost 20 years, I’ve been spending time on a craggy stretch of British Columbia’s shoreline called the Sunshine Coast. This summer, I had an experience that reminded me why I love this place, and why I chose to have a child in this sparsely populated part of the world.

It was 5 a.m. and my husband and I were up with our 3-week-old son. Looking out at the ocean, we spotted two towering, black dorsal fins: orcas, or killer whales. Then two more. We had never seen an orca on the coast, and never heard of their coming so close to shore. In our sleep-deprived state, it felt like a miracle, as if the baby had wakened us to make sure we didn’t miss this rare visit.

The possibility that the sighting may have resulted from something less serendipitous did not occur to me until two weeks ago, when I read reports of a bizarre ocean experiment off the islands of Haida Gwaii, several hundred miles from where we spotted the orcas swimming.

There, an American entrepreneur named Russ George dumped 120 tons of iron dust off the hull of a rented fishing boat; the plan was to create an algae bloom that would sequester carbon and thereby combat climate change.

Mr. George is one of a growing number of would-be geoengineers who advocate high-risk, large-scale technical interventions that would fundamentally change the oceans and skies in order to reduce the effects of global warming. In addition to Mr. George’s scheme to fertilize the ocean with iron, other geoengineering strategies under consideration include pumping sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere to imitate the cooling effects of a major volcanic eruption and “brightening” clouds so they reflect more of the sun’s rays back to space.

The risks are huge. Ocean fertilization could trigger dead zones and toxic tides. And multiple simulations have predicted that mimicking the effects of a volcano would interfere with monsoons in Asia and Africa, potentially threatening water and food security for billions of people.

So far, these proposals have mostly served as fodder for computer models and scientific papers. But with Mr. George’s ocean adventure, geoengineering has decisively escaped the laboratory. If Mr. George’s account of the mission is to be believed, his actions created an algae bloom in an area half of the size of Massachusetts that attracted a huge array of aquatic life, including whales that could be “counted by the score.”

When I read about the whales, I began to wonder: could it be that the orcas I saw were on their way to the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet that had descended on Mr. George’s bloom? The possibility, unlikely though it is, provides a glimpse into one of the disturbing repercussions of geoengineering: once we start deliberately interfering with the earth’s climate systems — whether by dimming the sun or fertilizing the seas — all natural events can begin to take on an unnatural tinge. An absence that might have seemed a cyclical change in migration patterns or a presence that felt like a miraculous gift suddenly feels sinister, as if all of nature were being manipulated behind the scenes.

Most news reports characterize Mr. George as a “rogue” geoengineer. But what concerns me, after researching the subject for two years for a forthcoming book on climate change, is that far more serious scientists, backed by far deeper pockets, appear poised to actively tamper with the complex and unpredictable natural systems that sustain life on earth — with huge potential for unintended consequences.

In 2010, the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology recommended more research into geoengineering; the British government has begun to spend public money in the field.

Bill Gates has funneled millions of dollars into geoengineering research. And he has invested in a company, Intellectual Ventures, that is developing at least two geoengineering tools: the “StratoShield,” a 19-mile-long hose suspended by helium balloons that would spew sun-blocking sulfur dioxide particles into the sky and a tool that can supposedly blunt the force of hurricanes.

THE appeal is easy to understand. Geoengineering offers the tantalizing promise of a climate change fix that would allow us to continue our resource-exhausting way of life, indefinitely. And then there is the fear. Every week seems to bring more terrifying climate news, from reports of ice sheets melting ahead of schedule to oceans acidifying far faster than expected. At the same time, climate change has fallen so far off the political agenda that it wasn’t mentioned once during any of the three debates between the presidential candidates. Is it any wonder that many are pinning their hopes on a break-the-glass-in-case-of-emergency option that scientists have been cooking up in their labs?

But with rogue geoengineers on the loose, it is a good time to pause and ask, collectively, whether we want to go down the geoengineering road. Because the truth is that geoengineering is itself a rogue proposition. By definition, technologies that tamper with ocean and atmospheric chemistry affect everyone. Yet it is impossible to get anything like unanimous consent for these interventions. Nor could any such consent possibly be informed since we don’t — and can’t — know the full risks involved until these planet-altering technologies are actually deployed.

While the United Nations’ climate negotiations proceed from the premise that countries must agree to a joint response to an inherently communal problem, geoengineering raises a very different prospect. For well under a billion dollars, a “coalition of the willing,” a single country or even a wealthy individual could decide to take the climate into its own hands. Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, an environmental watchdog group, puts the problem like this: “Geoengineering says, ‘we’ll just do it, and you’ll live with the effects.’ ”

 The scariest thing about this proposition is that models suggest that many of the people who could well be most harmed by these technologies are already disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Imagine this: North America decides to send sulfur into the stratosphere to reduce the intensity of the sun, in the hopes of saving its corn crops — despite the real possibility of triggering droughts in Asia and Africa. In short, geoengineering would give us (or some of us) the power to exile huge swaths of humanity to sacrifice zones with a virtual flip of the switch.

The geopolitical ramifications are chilling. Climate change is already making it hard to know whether events previously understood as “acts of God” (a freak heat wave in March or a Frankenstorm on Halloween) still belong in that category. But if we start tinkering with the earth’s thermostat — deliberately turning our oceans murky green to soak up carbon and bleaching the skies hazy white to deflect the sun — we take our influence to a new level. A drought in India will come to be seen — accurately or not — as a result of a conscious decision by engineers on the other side of the planet. What was once bad luck could come to be seen as a malevolent plot or an imperialist attack.

There will be other visceral, life-changing consequences. A study published this spring in Geophysical Research Letters found that if we inject sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere in order to dial down the sun, the sky would not only become whiter and significantly brighter, but we would also be treated to more intense, “volcanic” sunsets. But what kind of relationships can we expect to have with those hyper-real skies? Would they fill us with awe — or with vague unease? Would we feel the same when beautiful wild creatures cross our paths unexpectedly, as happened to my family this summer? In a popular book on climate change, Bill McKibben warned that we face “The End of Nature.” In the age of geoengineering, we might find ourselves confronting the end of miracles, too.

Mr. George and his ocean-altering experiment provides an opportunity for public debate about an issue essentially absent during the election cycle: What are the real solutions to climate change? Wouldn’t it be better to change our behavior — to reduce our use of fossil fuels — before we begin fiddling with the planet’s basic life-support systems?

Unless we change course, we can expect to hear many more reports about sun-shielders and ocean fiddlers like Mr. George, whose iron dumping exploit did more than test a thesis about ocean fertilization: it also tested the waters for future geoengineering experiments. And judging by the muted response so far, the results of Mr. George’s test are clear: geoengineers proceed, caution be damned.

1 comment

  1. Brian Cady July 17, 2014 11:19 am 

    Dear Naomi,
    Re: ‘Geo-engineering: Testing the Waters’

    I’ve read and think quite highly of _The Shock Doctrine_. and just heard you join Bill McKibben on the Boston segment of the ‘Do the Math’ tour, where you spoke of the great strategy of divesting ourselves from fossil fuel foolery. I feel that your efforts here have been very well thought through.

    I also read your ‘Geo-engineering – Testing the Waters’ NYT article, and it stimulated in me some thoughts and questions. I see this article as addressing very important issues. As you know, the response so far by humanity as a whole to the climate crisis has been underwhelming, and thus we’re all endangered: the many innocent along with the industrial guilty. You have called out geo-engineering as too risky, and named geo-engineering as being intentional efforts to affect our climate. But isn’t it still geo-engineering even if we didn’t mean to? Is not our unprecedented current raising of the earth’s temperature geo-engineering, even though inadvertent?

    Why does this matter? We need to understand just how risky our current trajectory is as we compare the risks of preceeding as we are, versus attempting to ameliorate this disaster. The ‘Do nothing’ response has been left behind. We’ve continued to release carbon every time we raise the thermostat from ‘off’, every time we switch an electric light or computer on, and every time we drive an automobile. When we compare the risks of geo-engineering we really have nothing to compare this to. We’re already altering the climate, we’ve been doing so for some time, we’re accelerating the pace of change as we speak and no one of us has the ‘off’ switch for this earth-wide process within our grasp.

    So what? So we’re experimenting without a control, risking our bets without a hedge: What does that have to do with considering geo-engineering concepts proposed to lessen the risk of catastrophic climate change? Here’s the nub; if we were comparing new geo-engineering ideas with truly doing nothing; with all humanity unplugging from industrialism completely, then dismissing geo-engineering as risky would clearly be the sane choice. Why risk possible disaster?

    But that is not the choice we face, now that an out-of-control USA has been exceeded in GHG emission rates by an even more out-of-control China.
    We do not have a ‘do nothing’ option to choose from, since we’re geo-engineering this one and only living planet at ever-accelerating rates as we speak.

    It’s like we’ve woken up to find ourselves bicycling but falling, when we don’t know how to steer a bike. Attempting to move the handlebars is possible disaster, but doing nothing as we fall is certain disaster. It makes sense to try to steer, because we’re already falling. Some say that were we to simply cease all industrialism-based fossil-fuel use tomorrow, we would still face unacceptable climate change, even though we returned to Stone-age human climatic impact levels. So since we can’t seem to avoid risk completely, our choices are continuing to accelerate our disasterous ways, or looking into hedging our bets by considering also-risky conscious, intentional geo-engineering.

    So let’s consider the geo-engineering options carefully. Don’t these seem to separate into two main groups? First are the attempts to shade earth; to reduce sunlight falling to earth. Second are attempts to capture atmospheric carbon by increasing photosynthesis. These each have completely distinct outcomes, apart from both cooling the earth.

    The first catagory, reducing sunlight reaching earth’s surface, will reduce photosynthesis on earth. The wild plants and plankton will grow more slowly and crops will yield less – earth’s carrying capacity will be reduced. As a result, less of us will have enough to eat. Examples of this approach include reflective umbrella satellites and high atmosphere sulfate aerosols. Let’s consider other options.

    The second catagory of geo-engineering increases earth’s photosynthesis by various means. This leads to more food for wild and tame, to a greater carrying capacity for earth, to more of humanity going to bed fed. Some examples of this approach are growing seaweeds, etc. on seawater-flooded deserts and iron fertilization of oceans, the very topic that stimulated Ms. Klein to write ‘Testing the Waters’.

    So while I agree with Naomi Klein that some geo-engineering efforts should be avoided, I disagree that all geo-engineering can be safely avoided. Indeed, we’re already geo-engineering earth, albeit unthinkingly. Let’s consider just how unteniable the ‘do nothing’ option is, and then very carefully and thoughtfully investigate intentional geo-engineering approaches within our reach.

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