The Weekend Essay: A Geoengineering Trojan HorsePublished by MAC on 2019-09-21
Source: Project Syndicate
According to this article, for fossil-fuel companies the promise of geoengineering is "the ideal excuse to continue with business as usual" and "merely allow the energy sector to continue to act in its own interest".
The world must therefore "establish a strong, democratic regulatory mechanism, which includes the option to ban certain technologies outright".
A Geoengineering Trojan Horse
19 August 2019
For fossil-fuel companies, the promise of geoengineering is the ideal
excuse to continue with business as usual. Rather than allow the industry
to continue to act in its own interest, the world must establish a strong,
democratic regulatory mechanism, which includes the option to ban certain
MEXICO CITY – Although the effects of climate change are becoming
increasingly apparent, the progress toward reducing greenhouse-gas
emissions remains as disappointing as ever, leading some to tout new
technological solutions that could supposedly save the day. Harvard
University’s David Keith, for example, would have us consider
geoengineering – that is, deliberate, large-scale, and highly risky
interventions in the Earth’s climate system.
This past March at the United Nations environmental conference in Nairobi,
Kenya, the United States and Saudi Arabia blocked an effort to scrutinize
geoengineering and its implications for international governance.
Meanwhile, Keith’s Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment
(SCoPEx) in the US – which aims to test a form of geoengineering known as
Solar Radiation Management (SRM) – seems to be moving forward.
SRM depends on so-called Stratospheric Aerosol Injection, whereby a
high-altitude balloon sprays large quantities of inorganic particles into
the stratosphere with the goal of reflecting some sunlight back into
space. SCoPEx would send a balloon equipped with scientific instruments
some 12 miles (20 kilometers) above the ground to test the reflectivity of
But these technical aspects of the experiment are far less important than
its political, social, and geopolitical implications. After all, the risks
of geoengineering could not be more serious. If deployed at scale, SRM
could disrupt the monsoons in Asia and cause droughts in Africa, affecting
the food and water supplies of two billion people. The use of sulfuric
acid – the most studied option, and the one SCoPEx initially intended to
test – could further deplete the ozone layer. (More recently, SCoPEx has
been mentioning only carbonates.)
The recent launch of an independent advisory committee for SCoPEx seems to
be aimed at lending legitimacy to a kind of experiment that the rest of
the world has agreed is too dangerous to allow. Moreover, the panel’s
membership is exclusively US-based, and mostly linked to elite
institutions, which raises questions about whose interests are really
These concerns are reinforced by the fact that the SCoPEx pitch is
fundamentally manipulative. The results from a “small-scale” experiment
would not amount to a credible assessment of the effects of deploying SRM
at the scale needed for geoengineering. As climate scientists have made
clear, the only way to know how SRM (or any other geoengineering
technique) would affect the climate is to deploy it over several decades
on a massive scale. Otherwise, its effects could not be distinguished from
other climate variables and “climate noise.”
Given that geoengineering is, by nature, not testable, all experiments
like SCoPEx can do is create momentum for larger and longer experiments.
Once millions of dollars have been sunk into creating the relevant
institutions and employing large numbers of people, it becomes easier to
argue that even more data should be collected and, finally, that the
technology should be deployed.
In this sense, projects like SCoPEx set a new and dangerous precedent for
the unilateral implementation of geoengineering technologies by
billionaires and vested interests. Indeed, as the Center for International
Environmental Law and the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s recent report, Fuel
to Fire, points out, fossil-fuel companies have been investing in
geoengineering for decades. For them, the promise of a technological
get-out-of-jail-free card is an ideal pretext for continuing their highly
profitable, destructive activities.
In fact, Keith’s own company, Carbon Engineering, recently received $68
million from Occidental Petroleum, Chevron, and the coal giant BHP
(Billiton) to develop another potentially dangerous geoengineering
approach – Direct Air Capture, which takes CO2 from the atmosphere, to be
used or stored. Among the company’s original funders is the oil sands
financier N. Murray Edwards (as well as Bill Gates).
Allowing such projects to move forward with no political mandate or
institutional oversight could entrench a system of self-regulation that is
grossly inadequate for technologies as consequential as geoengineering.
That is why the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) has asked governments
not to allow any geoengineering activities to be carried out until “a
global, transparent, and effective control and regulatory mechanism” is
put in place – a mechanism that adheres to the “precautionary approach.”
The CBD decision made an exception for small-scale experiments, but only
under certain conditions, which SCoPEx doesn’t meet: among them, carrying
out experiments in “controlled settings” and acquiring the free, prior,
and informed consent of indigenous peoples and local communities that may
be affected. Furthermore, in the case of SCoPEx, no critical voices from
civil society or developing-country governments seem to have been
SCoPEx’s promoters appear determined to take advantage of the US’s failure
to ratify the CBD. The fact that the SCoPEx advisory committee is chaired
by a California government official, Louise Bedsworth, also raises the
question of whether a state that has positioned itself as a climate leader
is now embracing the most controversial form of geoengineering.
Rather than allow fossil-fuel companies that have ravaged our planet for
profit to continue to act in their own interest, the world must establish
a strong, multilateral democratic regulatory mechanism, which includes the
option to ban certain technologies outright. Until such an international
system is in place, experiments like SCoPEx – which threaten to act as a
Trojan horse for deploying dangerous technologies at scale – must not be
allowed to move forward.