With the help of a group of very wealthy and well known individuals, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Chairman of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson, a group of leading climate scientists are advocating for the use of controversial geoengineering as a way to prevent catastrophic climate change. The scientists are lobbying national governments and international organizations to fund experiments that would involve manipulating the atmosphere on a large scale to counteract high concentrations of greenhouse gases. These might include methods like fertilizing the oceans to create a huge carbon sink or spraying reflective particles or other chemicals into the air to reflect sunlight and prevent it from warming the atmosphere.
The Guardian is reporting that the scientists support the tactic as “plan B” should the UN and global politicians fail to come to agreement on making significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Pressure is mounting to find a technological fix to climate change, as no international agreement to reduce emissions has been made. Although a process for negotiating one was set as a result of the COP17 climate negotiations that took place in December, it’s unclear whether reductions can be made in time to reverse the negative effects of the warming atmosphere. A recent report from the Department of Energy found that 2010 had the largest increase in carbon emissions ever reported, and according to the International Energy Agency, global temperatures could reach dangerous levels unless internationally coordinated action is taken to reduce emissions by 2017.
Geoengineering is an appealing alternative because it’s cheap relative to what it would take to make emissions reductions and the effects would be experienced more quickly. However, these techniques are highly controversial due to the risks they pose. These include:
- The possibility of unilateral implementation with impacts that are experienced on a global scale
- The risk that these efforts would fail to reverse climate change and would discourage efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or to make necessary adaptations
- The high potential for unintended consequences that would create other more serious environmental problems
- Fear that these new technologies could be used as a weapon
With the exception of small scale studies, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity even banned geoengineering experiments.
There is concern that this move by Bill Gates and other powerful parties in support of geoengineering could give this one group of scientists greater influence over decisions that are made about geoengineering research and policy. Jane Long, director at large for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently said at a conference on geoengineering and ethics, “We will need to protect ourselves from vested interests [and] be sure that choices are not influenced by parties who might make significant amounts of money through a choice to modify climate, especially using proprietary intellectual property.”
The scientists deny that they have undue influence over the issue. David Keith of Harvard University, one of the leading advocates of geoengineering research said, “Even the perception that [a small group of people has] illegitimate influence [is] very unhealthy for a technology which has extreme power over the world. The concerns that a small group [is] dominating the debate are legitimate, but things are not as they were,” said Keith. “It’s changing as countries like India and China become involved. The era when my voice or that of a few was dominant is over. We need a very broad debate.”
I’m not sure what’s worse, the idea of unleashing such powerful human controlled forces on our planet or the possibility that they be undertaken by rogue individuals and not properly researched or tested.
Kara Scharwath is a corporate social responsibility professional, marketing consultant and Sustainable Management MBA Candidate. She is currently working as a Graduate Associate in Corporate Citizenship at the Walt Disney Company while pursuing her degree at Presidio Graduate School. Follow her on Twitter @karameredith.