February 9th, 2012 by Shellee Tyler
The earth is in a tail spin when it comes to climate change and finding an effective solution,… unfortunately, this is not an easy task. Emissions reductions is one way, but effectively implementing it on a global scale looks like it’s going to take quite some time in the best of circumstances. Also, getting all countries on board, well that’s another problem.
Now, a handful of billionaires, including Bill Gates, are funding some of the leading scientists of the world to lobby governments and international bodies to back experiments into manipulating the climate on a global scale to help prevent climate change.
The technique is called geoengineering and it comes in many forms. One example is the spraying of millions of tones of reflective particles of sulphur dioxide 30 miles above the earth to slow down global warming. The scientists are trying to persuade some of the top countries to release funding for international research, as they argue that a resolution for global greenhouse gas emissions will likely not be agreed upon within the global communities.
The support for solar geoengineering is split between top scientists. While some feel that it is the quick and somewhat easy fix, others are concerned that it could alter rainfall and interfere with the earth’s natural climate.
On the other hand, many environmentalists, activists and developing countries, feel that it could undermine efforts to reduce emissions and worry that it could be used as a weapon. A moratorium on geoengineering experiments has been put in place by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, except for small-scale scientific studies in the sea and space.
Concern is now growing that the small but influential group of scientists, and their backers, may have a disproportionate effect on major decisions about geoengineering research and policy.
“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,” said Jane Long, director at large for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US, in a paper delivered to a recent geoengineering conference on ethics.
“The stakes are very high and scientists are not the best people to deal with the social, ethical or political issues that geoengineering raises,” said Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace. “The idea that a self-selected group should have so much influence is bizarre.”
Pressure to find a quick technological fix to climate change is growing as politicians fail to reach an agreement to significantly reduce emissions. In 2009-2010, the US government received requests for over $2bn(£1.2bn) of grants for geoengineering research, but spent around $100m.
As well as Gates, other wealthy individuals including Sir Richard Branson, tar sands magnate Murray Edwards and the co-founder of Skype, Niklas Zennström, have funded a series of official reports into future use of the technology. Branson, who has frequently called for geoengineering to combat climate change, helped fund the Royal Society’s inquiry into solar radiation management last year through his Carbon War Room charity. It is not known how much he contributed.
Professors David Keith, of Harvard University, and Ken Caldeira of Stanford, are the world’s two leading advocates of major research into geoengineering the upper atmosphere to provide earth with a reflective shield. They have so far received over $4.6m from Gates to run the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research (Ficer). Nearly half Ficer’s money, which comes directly from Gates’s personal funds, has so far been used for their own research, but the rest is disbursed by them to fund the work of other advocates of large-scale interventions.
According to statements of financial interests, Keith receives an undisclosed sum from Bill Gates each year, and is the president and majority owner of the geoengineering company Carbon Engineering, in which both Gates and Edwards have major stakes – believed to be together worth over $10m.
It seems that these scientists have been on seven panels on the matter, including one set up by the United Nations. Three other strong advocates of solar radiation geoengineering, including Rasch, have been on national inquiries partly funded by Ficer.
“There are clear conflicts of interest between many of the people involved in the debate,” said Diana Bronson, a researcher with Montreal-based geoengineering watchdog ETC.
“What is really worrying is that the same small group working on high-risk technologies that will geoengineer the planet is also trying to engineer the discussion around international rules and regulations. We cannot put the fox in charge of the chicken coop.”
The scientists involved reject this notion. “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.”
With every scientist having, in some form, a conflict of interest with their research or business, this type of conflict makes one feel concerned, especially when they are trying to play God and disrupting the natural cycles of the earth. Maybe more money should be poured into controlling the greenhouse gases that are emitted and figuring out a global regulation that works for everyone and the earth. Just a thought!
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