The folly, egoism and dangers of climate geo-engineering

Administrator’s note: It’s my pleasure to feature a guest essay by Glen Barry. Dr. Barry is founder and President of Ecological Internet; provider of the largest, most used environmental portals on the Internet including the Climate Ark and EcoEarth.info. A conservation biologist and political ecologist, he writes impassioned, thought provoking essays from an uncompromising ecological point of view. They appear regularly on his blog, Earth Meanders, where this one originated.

In this essay, Dr. Barry takes a strong stance against geo-engineered solutions to climate change. This is a contentious topic on which respected scientists and environmentalists hold a wide range of opinions. Glen’s essay prompts us to think hard about fundamental questions such a topic raises, questions concerning the role of humans in the global ecology. My thanks to Glen for making it available. — JF

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By Glen Barry:

Is humanity so resistant to change that we will tamper with the biosphere’s workings to construct a “Frankensphere” rather than reducing population, consumption and emissions?

phytoplankton bloomIt is being widely suggested that humanity can “geo-engineer” a global solution to climate change; that is, modify the Earth’s biosphere at a planetary scale. Many methods are proposed. Most include either reflecting additional solar radiation away from the Earth, or using the ocean to store more carbon.

Reactionary geo-engineering proposals emerge largely from a sense of desperation as the world fails to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, and an unwillingness to make necessary societal and personal changes in response to deadly climate change. To some the extreme action of taking the Earth’s ecological systems into techno-human hands seems sensible given indications that global heating is proceeding more rapidly than thought, as shown by unexpectedly quick melting of Arctic sea ice.

Risky climate geo-engineering schemes include giant vertical pipes in the ocean to increase ocean circulation and thus marine carbon sequestration, similarly growing vast blooms of ocean plankton by fertilizing with iron, erecting giant mirrors above the earth to reflect the sun’s energy, and dropping sulfur particles from balloons at high altitude to do the same.

Two rogue US companies are moving forward with plans to fertilize the ocean with iron to create plankton blooms to suck heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. They are motivated by profits from the growing carbon credit market, rising public demands for action, and politicians eager to avoid painful reductions in emissions. There is little that can be done to stop them, as no applicable laws or treaties exist.

Such efforts to “manage” Gaia are absolute madness – betting the planet and humanity on something as complex as artificially regulating a biosphere. Radical geo-engineering proposals could just as easily worsen the situation if these projects fail or are suddenly halted. And it is highly likely that unintended consequences of widespread implementation of such schemes would outweigh possible benefits. Have we learned nothing from the biofuels boondoggle? Failure could destroy the Earth.

There has been little research on the potential impacts upon marine ecosystems. The powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide may be released as marine organic matter decomposes. Oxygen may become depleted in the deep ocean, killing fish and throwing already troubled marine ecosystems into further turmoil. Even James Lovelock, the British scientist that first conceived of Gaia as a self-regulating organism, has fallen victim to favoring human technology over proven Earth processes.

Gaia, the Earth System, is a finely honed creature with unbelievably complex and ancient existing systems of planetary regulation. Messing with ocean carbon storage and solar radiation levels will affect ocean currents and acidity, atmospheric circulation and weather. Almost certainly there will be a whole host of follow-on effects, and dependable climatic patterns are likely to be further seriously diminished.

It is unfathomable to me that after millennia of ecological ignorance and unconstrained global ecological change leading to our current ecological crises, that a handful of scientists and business people could be so egotistical as to suppose they can play God and refashion a planet. Once geo-engineering is embraced, we could never stop, or the carbon would be re-released. Again, to propose human management of the biosphere is so egoistical and dangerous; and wrong on so many levels.

These may be desperate times, but governments have not even acted yet to set mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The skeptics have only just gone from denying the problem to minimizing its importance. Rather than embracing known sufficient policies that could solve the problem by transforming our energy and transportation systems, it is human nature to seek the easy way out. Yet reducing emissions of CO2, population, and consumption; and restoring global ecological systems, is so much more likely to be effective.

So much nature remains — that could be enlarged, reconnected and regenerated — that it is wrong to give up on natural ecosystems’ processes to embrace a techno-industrial “Frankensphere”. A failing biosphere can never be managed in any real sense to mimic a healthy biosphere. It is simply too complex.

If SUVs and coal plants are still spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, clearly risky geo-engineering is unjustified. Humanity is unable to eliminate exotic species, live peacefully, end deforestation, or stop having so many babies; yet it is going to take the global ecosystem into its management? Geo-engineering cannot succeed and it is terribly misguided to suggest it can.

Geo-engineering represents the shameless extreme nature of societal refusal to cut energy use and emissions. We have not even really tried in earnest as a human family to do so through conservation, efficiency and alternatives. Yet, before we have even begun, we are going to bet the human family’s future on technological fixes that we hope will allow us to continue consuming, and pumping out babies and emissions, without end?

I am furious; absolutely certain with every thread of my ecological knowledge, intuition and being that no good and a large amount of harm will come from geo-engineering. Proposed global scale experimental environmental fixes will be disastrous. Under no circumstances may untested planetary manipulations commence until all other options have failed. The seeds of an operable biosphere remain, they must be given time and space to reestablish themselves; and humanity challenged and aided by all means to embrace necessary radical change.

The biosphere belongs to all people and tribes, and should it come to wild once off experiments with the Earth, the decision must be made by United Nations’ consensus. Until then, government prohibitions on unsanctioned activities must be implemented with all haste. Given the lack of regulation against such planetary scale climate experiments, direct action to stop arbitrary and capricious geo-engineering implementation is warranted and necessary.
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Image source: NASA, US government, public domain

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21 responses to “The folly, egoism and dangers of climate geo-engineering

  1. Many thanks, Glen Barry.

    Your blogs are making a difference that make a difference. Keep going.

    Evidence seems to be emerging from different places simultaneously about the latest version of the “man playing God” problem.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/10/21/wstorm121.xml

    What is most worrisome is how much of this kind of activity has been and is being done by people who are determined not to present their work in the public domain until after they have completed it. Only after the “men playing God” have accomplished their objectives, do pronouncements about their means and ends get shared with the general public.

    Somehow, there is a need for the general public to have “early-stage process transparency” in circumstances of “global commons interference” such as the one to which you are drawing attention.

    Sincerely,

    Steve

  2. I want to be cautious here as I very much respect scientists like Lovelock and Rapley who have suggested one of these geoengineering schemes. It seems that out of the desperation Glen mentions, they’ve concluded we may need at some point to take emergency measures. So they suggest arrays of huge pipes using wave energy to pump deep ocean water to the surface so that more CO2 is absorbed.

    I know Lovelock is concerned about a die-off down to about a billion people and a migration to the poles for those remaining. I suppose he sees such a plan as a way to soften the blow, make the earth perhaps a little more habitable, or to buy some time.

    In fairness, I’d much sooner listen to Lovelock’s and Rapley’s ideas about this sort of thing than those of some entrepreneurial company without their knowledge and understanding and just out to make a buck.

    Still, as Glen makes clear, we really don’t understand the workings of the biosphere well enough to have much of an idea what unintended consequences such geoengineering might have. Might they make overall matters worse?

    I wonder if the time needed to research such things thoroughly enough to have even an inkling of their effects would put their implementation at a date too late to help anyway.

    It does seem the great bulk of work and funding should go toward dealing with the basics like population, per capita consumption, etc. We’d better be awfully, awfully careful about the geoengineering approach. After all, it’s basically technology which got us into this mess.

  3. Dear John,

    There are not words, at least that I can find now, to adequately express the support I have for your thinking about the anathema of geophysical engineering. Such thinking, like so much of the thinking regarding eugenics, gives me an “ego chill.”

    That ideas for “geotechno-fix” activities are not accompanied by an appreciation of the propositions presented in the “precautionary priniciple” lead me to view such aims as unconscionably reckless and short-sighted.

    IMHO, we are seeing in these ideas and action plans the naked expressions of the children of men…… of the masters of the universe among us. The ideas of economists managing the global economy in a patently unsustainable way as a pyramid scheme, of all things, and of geophysical engineers managing the “global commons” are examples of the game, “men playing God.”

    Ultimately, it seems to me that human beings are not rogue organisms or a cancer on Earth’s body, unless we fail to make adequate use of our intelligence and many other gifts which we have been granted to our species by God. If the human species does fail to protect biodiversity and the environment as well as to preserve the integrity of Earth and itself, that will not necessarily mean that we are not the miraculous creatures we know ourselves to be. It could be, however, that we will have inadvertently and unknowingly come to look like or resemble something human beings could not possibly have been meant to be.

    Always,

    Steve

  4. Well Steve, I’m just sitting back and mulling over the geoengineering stuff. Though it very much concerns me for the reasons mentioned, I want to see how the debate unfolds. Here’s a pretty good article on Lovelock:

    http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/16956300/the_prophet_of_climate_change_james_lovelock/4

    On the last page, it touches on his geoengineering ideas.

  5. Dear John,

    Terrific article on the work of Dr. Lovelock. If this great man was the leader of the world, I would be one who follows his recommendations.

    Without extolling the many virtues of James Lovelock, and there are many, I want to draw attention to one sentence from the wonderful article you have shared with us.

    “Although he {James Lovelock} views large-scale geoengineering as an act of profound hubris — “I would sooner expect a goat to succeed as a gardener than expect humans to become stewards of the Earth” — he thinks it may be necessary as an emergency measure, much like kidney dialysis is necessary to a person whose health is failing.”

    It seems to me that Dr. Lovelock appreciates the risks implicit in his proposals for large-scale geophysical engineering projects, and could be counted upon to do two things: take sufficient precautions and proceed with all deliberate speed.

    Sincerely,

    Steve

  6. Of course, there are many things to say about James Lovelock; but I would like for us to consider that he possesses an uncommon and unmistakeable character. Perhaps Dr. Lovelock is not an heir of Ozymandias, nor can he be bought-and-paid-for by the wealth-worshipping, power driven masters of the universe among us.

  7. Magne Karlsen

    http://www.ecologicalhope.org/global-warming/what-should-be-front-page-news-but-isnt/

    “Now, the NY Times article, entitled UN warns of rapid decay of environment, is an appropriately scary and concise summary. But hardly anyone is going to read it. Why isn’t news of this report blazing from headlines all across the country, since this is arguably the greatest and most challenging crisis of our age? Every other issue that matters to us in the future fits within the question of whether or not this world will remain habitable — and that question is screaming at us from the oceans, the lakes and rivers, the soils, the very air we breathe.”

    – Margaret Swedish

  8. Dear Friends,

    Where have all our leaders gone?

    What can they be thinking and doing?

    I suppose our leaders are so focused upon growing the global economy that they have forgotten how there cannot much longer be such a thing as successful economic globalization, once our planetary home has been ravaged and desecrated.

    Unbridled economic growth, unrestrained per capita consumption and skyrocketing population numbers of the human species in our planetary home can be plainly seen as activities that are dissipating natural resources, degrading the environment and destroying the foundation upon which all life depends upon for its very existence.

    Perhaps the heirs of Ozymandias are only ones among us who are capable of perpetrating such colossal destruction.

    Sincerely,

    Steve

  9. Magne Karlsen

    http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/kafka/inthepenalcolony.htm

    “It was all very simple. If I had first summoned the man and interrogated him, the result would have been confusion. He would have lied, and if I had been successful in refuting his lies, he would have replaced them with new lies, and so forth. But now I have him, and I won’t release him again. Now, does that clarify everything?”

    – Franz Kafka: In The Penal Colony

  10. I agree with Margaret Swedish 100%. I hope that UN report wakes a few people up. And Kafka may have said something about the approach of today’s leaders. (The quote/link brought back memories. I remember writing an essay about that story in high school.)

    Now, for perhaps the most ignorant and just plain stupid editorial I’ve seen in a long time:

    http://www.investors.com/editorial/editorialcontent.asp?secid=1501&status=article&id=278290879759157

    (Thanks to Dave Gardner for that link.)

    If the author’s name and email had been included, I’d have sent a couple of links to straighten him out. Maybe including this one:

    http://www.mnforsustain.org/catton_malthus_more_relevant.htm

    Steve, our leaders seem simply not to “get” it. I know some observers believe they do get it and have concluded it’s too late to prevent collapse, and so merely act to guard some wealth for themselves and their heirs. But I lean slightly toward the former possibility. As I’m sure you know, Catton’s book, _Overshoot_ is a fantastic read, including his assessment of how Jimmy Carter came close to “getting” it, but fell just a bit short. I wonder what he thinks today. I’m no expert on political history, but from a few things I’ve read, I sense he may have been the last honest president with some ability to face our ecological situation as it is.

  11. Oh, also, see this blog entry at Blå skärm-Crashing system:

    http://blaskarm.wordpress.com/2007/10/26/a-conjunction-of-factors/

    Magne, that’s a blog from a Norwegian graduate student. 🙂 Very good topics and essays so far.

  12. Just for a moment, let us take a look at the “world problematique” from the standpoint of absolute global human population numbers.

    1. Six billion six hundred million+/- people inhabit the planet now and this gross number is expected to increase by three-quarters of a million people per annum in coming years.

    2. Of that number, a great majority of people worldwide live in nations in which population numbers are exceeding the replacement level.

    3. Despite differing demographic trends among the nations of the world, it appears that the anticipated growth of human population numbers in undeveloped nations far and away surpasses the expected decline of human numbers in developed nations.

    4. Because one-half of the global human population is under the age of 30 today, and a vast majority of these young people live in the undeveloped world, global population numbers can be expected to grow robustly despite an anticipated decline in fertility rates in the developed world.

    Somewhere, somehow, at some time, hopefully sooner rather than later, we are going to begin to talk openly about how to effectively and humanely slow the rate of human population growth.

    In coming weeks, I hope to contribute ideas for discussion; however these ideas will focus on plans for new and necessary action.

    If we just keep doing what we are doing now, we will likely keep going as we are going now.

    On the other hand, if we are going to provide a good enough future for our children, at some point we are going to have do something else……something that is DIFFERENT from what we are doing now.

  13. Magne Karlsen

    “The improvements to the climate change bill that Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, announced yesterday were welcome. But in every major energy sector – aviation, transport, power generation, house building, coal mining, oil exploration – the government is promoting policies that will increase emissions. How will it make the 60% cut that the bill enforces?”

    – George Monbiot

  14. At least from my humble view, Hilary Benn is somehow off base and not quite right. He wants to do the right thing; but cannot propose a realistic way of moving forward. Necessary proposals are liable to be politically unpopular, economically inexpedient and socially disagreeable.

    As an alternative, let me suggest other proposals. These are adequately represented by Al Gore, who appears to be an exemplar of the kind of great political leader the human community requires in Century XXI.

    Dr. Rajendra Pachauri and the 2000 scientists of the IPCC are also heroic because they are following in the footsteps of Galileo.

    Now, if only other political leaders like Al will speak out loudly and clearly in support of the splendid work of Rajendra and the IPCC scientists.

    All we need are several thousand brave political leaders and valiant scientists among us to join humanity’s newest Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.

    Then the world will surely change.

    Then the environment will not be irreversibly degraded; limited resources not recklessly dissipated; and the integrity of Earth will be preserved for generations to come.

    Then a good enough future for the children can be assured.

    Sincerely,

    Steve
    http://sustainabilitysoutheast.org/

  15. Yes, absolutely dreadful, counter-intuitive idea that: trying to ramp up the oceans’ ability to absorb CO2 and trying to reflect sunlight with sulfide particles high up in the stratosphere!

    It sounded like a bad idea as soon as I heard it, but couldn’t put my finger on what I disliked about it — but there you are saying it: Gaia is a finely balanced system — an organism actually. There is only so much tinkering that this ‘macro-organism’ will take from mechanistic-minded humans!

    I think civil resistance is needed to stop these corporates from running amok in an already devasted biosphere. People in large numbers need to resort to peaceful civil-resistance movements to stay the hands of rogue companies!

    Please do contact me. Let us join hands, reinforce each other, think globally and act locally on our own governments and our own people.

  16. Blaming the technology as well as believing that technology will save us alone, are both wrong.

    The human factor, both in size (almost all people ever lived on this planet did so the last 200 hundred years) and in behavior, is the responsible and the key.

    I am a strong believer in making educated decisions and therefore support science and understanding the Earth System. No matter what we do, it should be based on sound knowledge about the Earth System.

    Even the US – who perhaps rightfully can be blamed not to take global warming seriously – have taken measures to improve our understanding of the Earth.

    In 2003 the US took the lead in organizing a global effort to improve Earth Observation – now called GEO (Group on Earth Observation). Today there are more than 70 countries and close to 50 Participation Organizations including several UN bodies, teaming up to implement a global earth observing system of systems.

    http://www.earthobservations.org

    I am also put off by the discussions on topics like global warming where you are either a believer or you’re not. Way too often does people create fake conflict of interest say between changing human behavior and developing new technology.

    In my opinion we need both – and we need a sound basis of facts to support our decisions.

  17. Are many of our current leaders stuck in the denial of reality?

    Some of our leaders appear to be running away from real global challenges looming before humanity, as if they had seen a calamity in the making. Other leaders are promising pie-in-the-sky solutions for threats to human wellbeing and environmental health. Still others have apparently adopted the posture of an ostrich by placing their heads in the sand. Last but not least, we have a group of commanders of others who pose as hysterically deaf or blind and have become electively mute.

    These various means of denying what could be called “more of the stark reality of the world we inhabit” are of not helpful to anyone, I suppose, except themselves and their minions. They keep their wealth, power and privileges by maintaining the status quo, regardless of the potential for catastrophic circumstances, ones already dimly visible on the far horizon. Many too many soon to be erstwhile leaders of the human community have allowed unbridled self-interests to literally separate themselves from a meaningful regard for humanity, for life as we know it, for a future of children and coming generations, and for the maintenance of the integrity of Earth and its ecosphere.

    Thankfully, the human community is bountifully blessed with still other leaders, brave and courageous leaders, like UN Secretary-General Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, Al Gore, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Professor Al Bartlett, IPCC Vice Chair Mohan Munasinghe, Dr. Ernst von Weizsaecker, John Guillebaud, US Senator Bernie Sanders, Paul Chefurka, David Wasdell, Jean Krasno, Joseph Baker, Magne Karlsen, “Trinifar”, Dame Jane Goodall, Jeffrey McNeely, Seti Sastrapradja, Vivian Ponniah, Peter Salonius, Hazel Henderson, Peter Nobel, Mickey Glantz, Scott Walker, Margaret Swedish, Emily Spence, Susan B. Adamo, John C. Feeney, Lester Brown, Gretchen Daily, Bill Rees, Richard Duncan, Pentti Malaska, Deborah Byrd, Jean Gilbertson, Alex de Sherbinin, Anne Ehrlich, Ashok Khosla, Paul Hawken, Werner Fornos, Jane Roberts, Jean Francois Rischard, Jan Janssens, Raoul Weiler, Mathis Wackernagel, David Blockstein, Andy Revkin, Dave Roberts, Joe Romm and no less than 2000 IPCC scientists. Who knows, perhaps these and emerging leaders among our youth are ready to “square up” to the global challenges soon be confronted by humankind in these early years of Century XXI.

  18. A new BBC Green Room article is relevant to Glen’s essay:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7133619.stm

  19. Bente Lilja Bye,

    A very belated thanks for your comment. You’re right, for sure, that we need knowledge and not artificial conflicts of interest on these issues. The answer is not always black and white. Getting the emphases right, though, in the realm of public policy, is surely not easy. I think Glen would agree on your basic point as some of his recent writing shows his ambivalence on such issues as nuclear energy and “clean coal.”

    http://earthmeanders.blogspot.com/2007/10/deep-ambivalence-re-nuclear-energy-and.html

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