Geo-Engineers Without Orders – Lack of Rules Could Mean More Rogue Experimenters


A team of scientists employed by a Canadian company prepare to sample levels of phytoplankton in the waters off the island of Haida Gwaii. The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific in July 2012, resulting in a 10,000 square kilometre plankton bloom.
A team of scientists employed by a Canadian company prepare to sample levels of phytoplankton in the waters off the island of Haida Gwaii. The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific in July 2012, resulting in a 10,000 square kilometre plankton bloom.(photo source: IISS)

Last July, American businessman and “rogue geoengineer” Russ George undertook an ambitious iron-fertilization experiment in the waters off the western coast of Canada. The officially-unapproved-but-not-technically-illegal experiment in geoengineering sought to trigger a massive bloom of CO2-loving plankton (which it did) and which would in turn buttress the local food chain and (consequently) the declining salmon population (a source of livelihood for a local tribe). George also sought to garner carbon credits for his carbon sequestration efforts.

Results of Russ George’s iron-fertilization experiment are not in (and may not be conclusive anyway) but the controversial move has sparked a vocal debate amongst climate scientists and policy  makers — many of whom feel strongly that the lack of a regulatory framework (and thus the lack of oversight) for such climate-tinkering schemes will only encourage more of these risky, unsanctioned experiments.

Geoengineering without Rules – A Recipe for Rogue Research

In a recent article published in the jounal Science, researchers (Kieth, Parson) called for the world’s governments to dive head first into the geoengineering pool now and start formulating rules and laws to govern climate-impacting practices such as “seeding” clouds, pumping sulfur dioxide aerosols into the upper atmosphere (to reflect sunlight back into space) and iron-ocean fertilization.

Geoengineering the climate is a bold and brave new frontier and without clear guidelines and scientifically valid protocols, they argue, such “renegade” experiments will continue – possibluy doing irrevocable harm.

But at the same time, such a framework, they argue, needs to be open and flexible to accommodate valid scientific experiments which, one day, may need to be rapidly scaled-up and put into effect.

Geoengineering by International Consensus (and Government Funding)

“The central thing that’s lacking is enough agreement in how to govern this thing to give people the freedom to go forward in [geoengineering] research,” said Harvard University professor and co-author David Keith, in a press statement.

Indeed, according to a report by the US Congressional Research Service, there are currently no international treaties or governing bodies with sufficient authority “to regulate the full spectrum of geoengineering approaches.”

Another important factor here is that currently, there is no government support in the US for geoengineering and next to none for the rest of the developed/ing world. The researchers assert that this lack of official state funding is hindering a possible climate-saving “life-line” and its absence makes “renegade research” an appealing option for would-be geoengineers in search of carbon credits and fame.

The reserachers suggest crafting an “informal” international agreement, at first, laying down guidlelines that would insure that no one conducts a climate-ruining experiment. Every nation (or at least those with sea access) woud have to agree and abide by these guidelines so as to prevent a rogue geoengineer from finding a non-abiding nation that would sanction their experiments (for the right price).

The authors do acknowledge the double-edged sword of geoengineering – its potential benefits and risks  — and thus also the dual need for international laws to control rogue experimentation as well as flexible guidelines encouraging experimentation within established limits

Article co-author Edward Parson, professor at the Emmett Center for Climate Change and Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, elaborates:

“A prohibition of research isn’t the sensible response because geoengineering has this two-edged character. We might need these things if we fail in prudently responding to climate change.”

One way to accomplish this, according to Parsons, is if science agencies from a dozen or so countries joined forces at the outset to develop these guidelines and establish an open forum for review of proposed geoengineering initiatives — along with other mitigation and adaptation plans.

Criticisms and Rebuttals

In most cases where a new technology is introduced, a great deal of laboratory testing, or limited field testing, has occurred before its real-world application. But with geoengineering, there is no lab or field big enough to do safe but adequate (realistic) testing of the proposed technology — other than the global atmosphere or ocean itself (tons of aerosols and iron powder don’t stay in one place either). However, scientists like Kieth and Parson maintain that even small-scale experiments — like releasing a tsingle on of water vapor into the stratosphere — have important scientific value.

Real-world, smaller-scale geoengineering experiments have been conducted, mostly iron fertilization experiments, but so far, these have produced mixed results, with one apparent success, and several failures, including an unintentional result in one: neuro-toxin producing plankton.

Many policy experts, environmentalists, and not a few scientists, feel that such climate-tinkering is asking for trouble; these techniques could back-fire on us in so many ways, they argue (like altering precipitation patterns), and could set us down the path of irreversible climate change much sooner than if we had left things alone.

Kieth thinks these fears are exaggerated, but never-the-less calls for a moratorium on such experiments until leading nations can get their climate-control act together.

But there is also a significant geopolitical risk in coalitions of nations employing geoengineering strategies to the exclusion of others, according to one very recent Game Theory analysis.

On the other hand, many have observed that we are already conducting a massive geoengineering experiment by ceaselessly pumping more and more CO2 into our atmosphere. Given this, it does not seem unreasonable, or overly reckless, to conduct smaller-scale experiments so as to assess these geoengineering techniques and their likely impacts.

Given our collective inability to significantly cut CO2 and GHG emissions, and the current rate of industrial development in other nations, we will most likely exceed a 2° C increase in global average temperture by 2020 (see the UNEP emissions report link, below). Thus, risks or not, geoengineering may be our planet’s last best hope for avoiding the severest of climate change impacts.

Some source material for this post came from the SciAm article: Would-Be Geoengineers Call for Research Guidelines by Umair Irfan and ClimateWire

For a more in-depth review/analysis of geoengineering (history, policy, climatology, current and prospective technologie) read this IISS report:

Geoengineering: rules needed for climate-altering science

(here’s a brief excerpt):

Why geoengineering?
Ocean fertilisation is just one of a wide range of remedies involving geoengineering that have been proposed to arrest the continuing rise in global temperatures.

The United Nations Environment Programme’s 2012 Emissions Report concluded that even if all countries met their full reduction commitments, in 2020 global emissions would still be 8–13 gigatonnes equivalent of carbon dioxide above the level likely to prevent global warming from climbing higher than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. (A rise of more than this amount is considered dangerous.) This ’emissions gap’ is larger than that reported in the 2011 report, principally due to a greater than expected rise in emissions as a result of economic growth.

It looks increasingly unlikely that the gap can be bridged. And if this is the case, global warming is likely to exceed 3°C and perhaps as much as 5°C by the end of the century – a rise that is widely seen as having severe consequences. With mitigation efforts apparently failing to deliver, and the costs of adapting to climate change growing disproportionately as global temperatures rise, ‘remediation’ in the form of geoengineering is increasingly being considered as a back-up plan.

In Geoengineering the Climate, a seminal report published by Britain’s leading scientific body, the Royal Society, in 2009, geoengineering is defined as ‘deliberate large-scale interventions in the Earth’s climate system to diminish climate change or its impacts’. Scientists have long imagined engineering the climate on a planetary scale, although mostly in highly speculative contexts such as altering other planets – Mars or Venus – to make them more like Earth.

Top Photo: (A team of scientists employed by a Canadian company prepare to sample levels of phytoplankton in the waters off the island of Haida Gwaii. The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific in July 2012, resulting in a 10,000 square kilometre plankton bloom); source: IISS website


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