Enviros Split on Geoengineering Conference

By Chris Mooney | March 15, 2010 8:08 am

This is the first in a series of guest posts by science writer Eli Kintisch, author of the forthcoming book Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope–or Worst Nightmare–for Averting Climate Catastrophe, and climate change reporter for Science magazine. We’ve invited Kintisch to contribute regular guest posts at the Intersection on the topic; my take on his excellent book, due out April 19 from John Wiley, is here.

Hack the PlanetI was speaking to a contact of mine on Capitol Hill and we both agreed: there’s  been next to no public controversy about geoengineering yet, but the storm from enviros and others is certainly coming. But the green community is split. Some think even coming up with voluntary rules to govern work on the controversial topic is a bad idea. Most of the big organizations, even if they have kept quiet up till now, think scientists ought to begin to understand what the unthinkable would entail.

The ETC Group, an Ottawa-based civil society organization that’s been opposing various efforts in geoengineering since 2006, last week published an open letter opposing the upcoming privately organized meeting on geoengineering in Asilomar, California:

As civil society organizations and social movements working to find constructive solutions to climate change, we want to express our deep concerns with the upcoming privately organized meeting on geoengineering in Asilomar, California… The priority at this time is not to sort out the conditions under which this experimentation might take place but, rather, whether or not the community of nations and peoples believes that geoengineering is technically, legally, socially, environmentally and economically acceptable.

Without any international consensus as to whether geoengineering is an acceptable intervention in natural systems, the Climate Response Fund and its Scientific Organizing Committee’s discussion about “voluntary guidelines” is nonsensical. The Conference organizers — almost exclusively white male scientists from industrialized countries — are presuming that they have the experience, wisdom and legitimacy to determine who should or should not be invited into this conversation.

One of those people invited to the conversation was Diana Bronson of ETC. But Bronson told me in an interview that ETC “is a small organization with limited resources” and would be unable to attend. Moreover, she said, since ETC opposed the meeting’s stated goal of creating such voluntary guidelines, “there’s no reason for us to attend.”

(She also said that she had based her critique on the makeup of the meeting on who “she figured” would be attending, having not yet received the guest list. She well may be right about a racial/cultural weighting, but I note that in the same vein ETC attacked the Royal Society report last year on geoengineering before they had read a copy.)

A number of prominent environmental groups support the conference being held, including the Environmental Defense Fund. Two officials from that organization, which helped organize the meeting, will be attending, along with Steve Seidel of Pew Center on Climate, and Tom Lovejoy of the Heinz center — both centrist, nonpartisan environmental groups. In addition, Dave Hawkins of NRDC will be there, as will Paul Craig of the Sierra Club. “We thought it was important to have engagement by the NGO community,” Margaret Leinen, head of the Climate Response Fund, told me. That group is the main sponsor of the meeting.

(Friends of the Earth UK’s position on geoengineering research is here: I’ll analyze it in another post soon.)

Blogger Tim Harper of cientifica is particularly unimpressed with ETC’s stand:

There’s nothing like the mention of geoengineering to get environmental groups even madder than putting a wasps nest down their trousers and beating them with a cricket bat, and for good reason. The idea that we could do something about climate change that didn’t involve re-engineering the political system would mean that we don’t have to live in caves, grow beards and ride bicycles. More annoyingly, some kind of techno fix would deprive some groups of a platform for the various other anti capitalist/globalisation/consumer agendas that have somehow got mixed up with sustainability.

Harper’s critique might apply to ETC — I’m still trying to understand their motives, and this document, their longest explanation of their views on geoengineering, helps a little. (The document, a pretty useful summary of events to date in this fast moving field, represents an evolution of the group’s views on one key aspect: Bronson told me last year that she felt research into the concept was ok, provided that it not involve field trials. Now they say research into geoengineering “takes money away from real solutions on the ground.”)

But I don’t think it applies to the other mainstream environmental groups who have turned a wary eye toward geoengineering. As I say in Hack the Planet, environmental groups have been mostly quiet about geoengineering not for the ideological reason that they don’t want to fix the problem, but for strategic reasons. They’re worried that talk about geoengineering could distract from the solution even the biggest advocates of planethacking research want: immediate and drastic reduction of global man-made carbon emissions.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy, Environment, Global Warming

Comments (10)

  1. Geoengineering Scientist Explains Contrails
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNrkp6a_6As

    Scientist Alan Robock, Rutgers University, meets with protesters before his scheduled session, “Can Geoengineering Save Us from Global Warming? “. Activists claim geoengineering is already taking place with chemical spraying (via persistant jet trails also known as “chemtrails”) while Mr. Robock argues they are confused with normal contrails that produce cirrus clouds.

  2. Chris Mooney

    Eli is being a bit kind here. I can’t see anything wrong with a meeting like this, and I applaud the organizers for inviting ETC–which has clearly turned out to be quite a powerful insulation against criticism.

  3. TTT

    My problem with climate-friendly geoengineering is that most of the schemes I’ve seen have been, for lack of better terms, stupid and impossible. The worst stereotype are those promoted in “Superfreakonomics”: building a some-miles-high smokestack to shoot sulfur into the high atmosphere, creating an artificial cooling effect. Of course, if the project should ever fail in the slightest way, we’d be hit with a supermagnified “catch up” warming effect, not to mention the physical impact of some-miles-high worth of concrete. And then there’s the risk of incoming nuclear missiles from China or India, since this new gadget of ours would have deactivated their monsoons.

    Geoengineering is a cheap way out, a parlor trick favored by glib charlatans such as Julian “let’s alchemically convert one element into another” Simon.

  4. We need to be very careful about putting all geoengineering techniques into the same umbrella category. At a bare minimum, we need to separate those that merely reduce warming (e.g. orbiting mirrors, ground albedo modification) from those that would reduce the CO2 content of the atmosphere and therefore also address ocean acidification.

    The first sub-category is nearly useless, unless we suddenly find ourselves facing a horrific surprise, like a huge outgassing of CO2 and methane from melting permafrost. Our emissions are doing more than “merely” warming the atmosphere, and any discussion of how to address that fact should include all the effects.

  5. Jay Fox

    As a USNavy trained photographer specializing in wet processes, and an avid saltwater hobbyist, I cannot think of a worse solution to AGW than pumping even MORE stuff into the atmosphere. The solution (the atmosphere) is out of balance. Adding more, different stuff to it is not going to solve the problem. It will most likely bring about unforseen, unintended consequences.

    With photo processes, as with the fish tank, when the solution gets so bad that it doesn’t work properly, you drain the tank and start over. It’s the only predictable way to effect the desired outcome. Not sure how to apply that strategy to our atmosphere, but adding more stuff is not the answer. We need to remove the harmful ingredients to a more balanced concentration, and stop adding more. Anything else is a waste of time, money, and effort.

  6. Don’t people like ETC realize that performing enough research to determine the actual effect (intended and collateral) of some pie-in-the-sky geohack is one of the most effective ways of discrediting many geoengineering proposals?

    A few years back there was an AGU session that models a sulphate-based shield. I can’t remember the specifics, but I think shading sufficient to keep the mean global temperature constant dried out the tropics and did not prevent Greenland from melting. Oops.

  7. Dark Tent

    Another one gone…and another one gone…another one bites the dust?

    Eg “Climate ‘Fix’ Could Poison Sea Life (by Richard Black)

    “Fertilising the oceans with iron to absorb carbon dioxide could increase concentrations of a chemical that can kill marine mammals, a study has found.”

    While I would support doing small scale experiments to determine the feasibility — and possible (probable?) negative ramifications of the most “promising” of the geo-engineering proposals, I would merely point out that there is a very valid reason for not wanting the focus to shift to geo-engineering ‘solutions” at this stage.

    Our politicians — and public — would like nothing better than to latch onto some “easy” solution that requires no change in lifestyle (to say nothing of sacrifice).

    Personally, I have serious doubts about most of the proposals I have seen. Even if they could be shown to work — and shown to have no serious downside — on a small scale, that does not mean they would work as planned on a planetary scale.

    In fact, based on even the relatively small scale (in comparison) engineering fiascoes to date (eg, the “water diversion” systems which have so badly mucked up the Florida Everglades) I would have close to zero faith that they would.

    But as I said, by all means, do the small scale experiments…and Lab lemming is right: that’s actually the best way to put the nonsense to rest.

  8. The geoengineers have admitted that billions of people may be left without food and asian, african and other ecosystems are going to be put into severe draughts by their scheme. Writiers like Kintish, work for the AAAS, the science group (they call themselves the largest) that is pushing the aerosol schemes….this article is a scam. Eli admitted to me he is friends with Caldeira, geoengineering and livermore scientist, who admitted conceptualizing weather modification for weapons in the 90s with Edward Teller (father of the H-Bomb) and Lowell Wood (star wars).

    Caldeira also said HE (not the gov, not the military…HE) would kill 18 people in Mississippi to save 1800 or 180 in New Orleans. These are the words of a madman. A man that is planning on dumping 100-200 MILLION METRIC tons of aluminum on us every year. David Keith admitted they havent done ANY research on the aluminum. ANd as yet, Eli or any of the other so called “journalists” (pretty pathetic) havent even reported that these madmen have switched their aerosol cocktail from sulfur to aluminum…THE BIGGEST PART OF THE STORY.

    And david also said in US science house hearings “The richest people on the planet can afford your own ice age”

    geoenginneringwatch dot org has the best information. ANd Diana Bronson is way ontop of these madmen….read her work, sign on to her letter (ETC GROUP to be more exact). Thank you Diana and you geoengineers and Eli…well your just traitors and have no GOD within you.

    Do you?

  9. David Lewis

    It will be interesting to hear the environmentalists who come to see research into geoengineering as necessary continue to dump on nuclear power. The risk of any geoengineering plan other than removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is so many orders of magnitude greater than any possible risk of nuclear power the contradiction may just make their heads explode.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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