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Hacking The Planet: World Economic Forum Raises Concerns About ‘Rogue’ Geoengineering

By Jeff Spross  

"Hacking The Planet: World Economic Forum Raises Concerns About ‘Rogue’ Geoengineering"


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A commercial airline? Or a rogue geoengineering experiment?

The World Economic Forum has put out a new report on global risks for 2013, and the report’s chapter on “X factors” — concerns more remote than the report’s primary risks, but still worthy of note — includes a section on rogue “geoengineering” experiments.

Geoengineering involves large-scale efforts to either remove carbon from the atmosphere, or to remake the atmosphere’s chemical or physical make-up to offset the effects of climate change. The most plausible scenario mentioned by the report uses aircraft to inject particles into the atmosphere to mimic the way eruptions of volcanic ash block sunlight, and thus cool the climate. More far-fetched scenarios go so far as deploying mirrors into orbit to reflect sunlight.

Such projects involve a host of funding and deployment problems, as well as the serious risk of unintended consequences for both the climate and the billions of humans who rely on it. For instance, a project at the UK-based Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project, or “SPICE,” working on the idea to mimic volcanic ash, was delayed in October over environmental concerns. Unfortunately, this leaves an opening for smaller nations or even commercial interests to begin experimenting with geoengineering unilaterally, say researchers at the World Economic Forum:

Nobody envisions deployment of solar radiation management anytime soon, given the difficulties in resolving a suite of governance issues (evidenced by the fact that even the relatively simple SPICE experiment in the UK foundered in the midst of controversy). Beginning with Britain’s Royal Society, many academic and policy bodies have called for cautious research as well as broader conversation about the implications of such technologies.

But this has led some geoengineering analysts to begin thinking about a corollary scenario, in which a country or small group of countries precipitates an international crisis by moving ahead with deployment or large-scale research independent of the global community. The global climate could, in effect, be hijacked by a rogue country or even a wealthy individual, with unpredictable costs to agriculture, infrastructure and global stability. [...]

For example, an island state threatened with rising sea levels may decide they have nothing to lose, or a well funded individual with good intentions may take matters into their own hands. There are signs that this is already starting to occur. In July 2012 an American businessman sparked controversy when he dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Canada in a scheme to spawn an artificial plankton bloom. The plankton absorb carbon dioxide and may then sink to the ocean bed, removing the carbon – another type of geoengineering, known as ocean fertilisation. Satellite images confirm that his actions succeeded in produce an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres.

The July 2012 incident was first reported by The Guardian in October, noting the gambit may have violated two international agreements and possibly involved misleading the local indigenous population about the nature and risks of the experiment. Russ George, the American businessman who oversaw the iron sulphate dump, is the former chief executive of Planktos Inc., and has been involved in other failed efforts to pull off large commercial dumps near the Galapagos and Canary Islands. Those attempts led to a warning from the EPA and to his ships being barred from ports by the Spanish and Ecuadorean governments. George had apparently hoped to net lucrative carbon credits.

The basic problem with geoengineering is that portions of the climate cannot be walled off to perform small-scale tests. This means geoengineering projects essentially have to jump straight from the experimental and computer modeling phases to a full-on implementation phase — as Russ George recently attempted. This means, at best, that geoengineering is last-resort, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency response to climate change, to be attempted when all other efforts have failed.

At worst, geoengineering is a distraction jumped on by interest groups, who wish to delay far more technologically and economically feasible efforts to tackle climate change by simply reducing the amount of carbon human beings emit into the atmosphere.

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23 Responses to Hacking The Planet: World Economic Forum Raises Concerns About ‘Rogue’ Geoengineering

  1. Sasparilla says:

    CO2 emissions are one our biggest Geo-Engineering experiments so far. As conditions get worse, CO2 emissions increase and people / nations get more desperate – it would seem likely more people or countries will want to take matters into their own hands, however ill conceived the process to delay the effects of climate change.

    Of course the name Geo-Engineering can apply to many things, from making large areas white (painting parking lots and rooftops which reflect sunlight), to processes that pull CO2 from the atmosphere on large scales to the truly reckless sulphate emissions to block the sun.

    My guess is we will see many of them in the future as the time existing when we could just phase out CO2 emissions and not trigger feedbacks seems long past. To see the paranoid section of things go to YouTube and look up ChemTrails – these are folks who see contrails and other clouds formed by aircraft at altitude and think the govt. is on the ball enough to be trying to geo-engineer our way out of climate change (not the right altitude and of course our Govt. sure isn’t on the ball enough to be trying such unwise things).

  2. Joan Savage says:

    Worries about future geoengineering methods serves to shift our attention away from how commonly it already occurs. Cloud-seeding is widely practiced to induce rain or snow.

    And – duh – throwing gigatons of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere is geo-something, if not intentional, engineering, which is going badly to say the least.

    • chlduvth70s says:

      Yeah, “throwing gigatons of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere is geo-something.” It’s called geo-fuckin’ up.

  3. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Sooner or later the realization that we are in very deep doo doo will hit. A two degree rise is already a forgone conclusion given lags and aerosol masking. We are looking down the barrel of rises incompatible with civilization.

    Geo engineering with all its dire consequences is inevitable. So we have the choice of panic induced action with little knowledge, or panic induced action with some knowledge.

    Yes stopping the insane rate we are adding to the problem would be wise, but man is not wise.

  4. David Kronner says:

    At worst, geoengineering is a distraction jumped on by interest groups, who wish to delay far more technologically and economically feasible efforts to tackle climate change by simply reducing the amount of carbon human beings emit into the atmosphere. this articulates my thoughts exactly…very scary

  5. Paul Klinkman says:

    Perhaps we need a term for geoengineering on a small scale. The classic Steven Chu description of geoengineering is painting roofs white. If a homeowner puts white asphalt shingles on her roof, are “they” going to call the geoengineering police?

    And who is “they”. If there are rogue geoengineers, what are the names of the do-nothing establishment committee members who will tell the rogues not to do anything either? Who on this earth is in any possible sense of the word “responsible”?

  6. “At worst, geoengineering is a distraction jumped on by interest groups…”

    I wish that were true. At worst, geoengineering could become to final step of destabilizing the climate and putting any hope of avoiding calamity out of reach.

    Here’s the scenario:

    The Powers That Be piss around until we’ve locked ourselves into a carbon-based energy infrastructure and natural carbon feedbacks are well underway. PPM goes up, temperatures go up, extreme weather events get out of hand, droughts threaten the food supply, flooding drives million upon millions of people out of their homes.

    Time to sell the taxpayers something new: Atmospheric geoengineering undertaken for corporate profit. (I’ve heard Haliburton mentioned in this regard.)

    The aerosols give some temporary relief to overall global warming at the cost of starving India and freezing China, spurring threats of nuclear retaliation against the geoengineering countries. Global temperatures drop, raising havoc with such crop producing regions as still exist. The Arctic shows signs of refreezing, and the Russians threaten nuclear war.

    Then we realize that we don’t have the resources to maintain the aerosol shield, and cut back. Meanwhile, atmospheric carbon, emitted with abandon due to the false security provided by the aerosol shield, has built up well past the critical point…

  7. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    This article glosses over so many critical factors as to be downright misleading in my view, though I fully accept that the author may be quite sincerely convinced of what he writes.

    Yes, stratospheric sulphate aerosols cannot be trialled at less than a global scale, but various other far more promising forms of Albedo Restoration can be, including both surface whitening and cloud brightening.

    Yes, the preliminary trials for stratospheric aerosols were halted, but not for ‘environmental reasons’ – the plan of spraying a water mist from a ballon at just 3,000ft was halted because a couple of US scientists hadn’t disclosed a commercial interest to their colleagues, and partisan NGOs attacked this conduct.

    Yes, nations might apply geo-e unilaterally, but only if they’re willing to face concerted international sanctions up to and including military action – no nation will tolerate the violation of its sovereignty of another unilaterally influencing its weather.

    Yes, there are very clear governance issues to be agreed at the UN before stringently supervised research and trials are mandated, and before there is any prospect of deployment by collective decision, but the sooner that governance is agreed the better our chances of avoiding the geo-political destabilization of global crop failure and widespread famines.

    It seems that those who still consider the 2.0C target as avoiding global crop failure simply haven’t been paying attention to current scientific findings – maybe they’re also unaware that the resulting geo-political destabilization would almost certainly end any possibility of the absolutely essential global co-operation over mitigation ?

    And the fact that without any accompanying geo-e, ending our emissions and so ending our maintenance of the cooling sulphate parasol would make the 2.0C goal plainly unachievable (see Hansen & Sato on the issue) has apparently also escaped their interest.

    In short this article is merely the restatement of a bunch of predjudiced talking points against geo-e, which has yet to receive a thorough impartial evaluation on its merits and its urgency on any US website I’ve seen. The fact that the article is unable to describe any unavoidable demerits of geo-e, and wholly ignores its merits, goes a long way to demonstrate the weakness of the antis’ bluster.

    I note that JR has long included forms of both Carbon Recovery and Albedo Restoration in his carefully crafted ‘Wedges’ mitigation proposal. Those who still view geo-e as utterly undesirable may wonder why that is so.



  8. Steve Funk says:

    The printed article is good, but the photo implies that you believe in the chemtrails conspiracy theory. There are zero qualified atmospheric scientists who take that seriously, and the allegations on chemtrails websites are easily debunked.

  9. fj says:

    When geoscientists and engineers are capable of going into complex geo systems without doing any harm and reversing anything they do then geo engineering will gain the potential of being a valid way to start addressing climate change.

    First do no harm.

    • Nick B says:

      That’s a fine statement but if they are blacklisted out of the debate then how can they get the funds needed to research technologies urgently required now to stave off the crisis we are in?

      Geo Engineering represents one avenue we are leaving ourselves no choice but to go down. Professor Martin Rees responded to a question about the need for Geo engineering bu saying that we don’t need it but if there was a real catastrophe we might have to do some “panic geo engineering”. Surely it would make more sense to develop these technologies safely and understand the tools we have at our disposal?

      From all the data being pushed out by scientific bodies, it seems we need to stall the positive feedbacks whilst we struggle to overcome human inertia and not only reduce emissions but actually begin the atmospheric carbon draw-down.

      • fj says:

        Yes, for instance gentle nudging of natural systems like speeding up ice creation during the winter and slowing melts during the summer.

  10. fj says:

    Mitigating the dangers of tropical cyclones while being able to harvest their extraordinary bounty — energy, water, CO2 sequestering, cooling effect, etc. — would be an incredible venture.

  11. Brad Arnold says:

    The biggest threat is that NGOs or individuals will geo-engineer without understanding that mankind is about to cut their GHG emissions very rapidly due to a new clean energy technology emerging: LENR.

    Already, energy markets are dumping assets and cancelling contracts due to it’s emergence onto the market.



  12. squidboy6 says:

    The iron oxide dumping off British Columbia would not have made much of an impact on carbon sequestering because the coastline is an upwelling coast, deep water is brought to the surface by winds which push the shallow coastal waters offshore.

    The guy that did this had another motive as well. He was hired to increase primary production for native tribes hoping to harvest more salmon. While this is questionable as well there’s no way to measure the experiment to see if it worked there either.

    One of the original investigators of this method of carbon sequestering has cast his own doubts that it will accomplish anything. Off Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia there’s been upwelling of lower pH seawater, acid seawater, now for seven years and this water probably arrived to the area from Antarctica. This could be really bad news for salmon, the tribes, and the whole Pacific Northwest.

  13. ArkRiot says:

    Deliberate large scale Geo-e is nothing more than a bigger box, outside of which we will struggle to think once we exhaust the advantage it gives us. It will be replaced with another box, and another; successfully solving the problem forever. Its like the ice cube in Futurama’s ‘None like it hot’. Its an aspergers answer: solution obsessed and ignorant of consequence. at best its offsetting, at worst bat shit crazy.

    Anyone that believes the environmental issue is about anything more than mitigation, management, and limitation, is mistaken. To even consider geo-e as an alternative, is too anthropocentric to have credibility as any form of environmentalism. The solutions to climate are not complicated, it is only confused by those that make the problem subjective.

    • Lewis Cleverdon says:

      Arkriot – you are grossly mistaken to present geo-e as an alternative to the conventional mitigation of emissions control. It is nothing of the sort, and no serious scientist would propose it as such.

      Geo-e is the necessary complement to emissions control. The latter cannot even begin planetary cooling until at least 30 years after near-zero global emissions are achieved (see timelag due to ocean thermal inertia) – and even a 2050 near-zero global output schedule will be very challenging to achieve, making its earliest feasible peak of warming around 2080.

      Hansen & Sato reported in 2010 that ending our emissions ends our output of fossil sulphate aerosols, which ends our maintenance of the cooling ‘sulphate parasol’ and unveils an additional 110% of realized warming, +/- 30%. Thus 2.1C of committed warming in 2050 (from present realized + timelagged + phase-out emissions’ warming) would yield around 4.4C of realized warming by about 2080.

      That would allow 68 years for the major interactive feedbacks to power up, of which at least six out of seven are already observed to be accelerating, with several each having the potential to dwarf anthro-emissions. Their warming would be on top of the 4.4C in 2080. Warming would then continue to advance at a rate dictated by the feedbacks’ interactions.

      That is an obviously terminal scenario, and wholly negates any rationale for relying solely on emissions control. For all it is entirely necessary, it is evidently not sufficient to resolve our predicament.

      The two major modes of geo-e are both requisite.

      Carbon Recovery, (potentially via native afforestation for biochar and co-product methanol) would aim to cleanse the atmosphere during this century, thereby ending both long-term warming (by around 2130, after the timelag) and also ocean acidification.

      Albedo Restoration needs to be applied in the interim to restore a planetary temperature that allows reliable agriculture, that halts the acceleration of the feedbacks, and that also offsets the inevitable loss of the sulphate parasol due to Emissions Control.

      It is not hard to draw a scenario where the Carbon Recovery mode was done really badly and for the wrong objective (e.g. profitable carbon offsets not net carbon sequestration) so I’d strongly affirm that both modes need to be developed under stringent scientific supervision mandated by the United Nations.

      Given that within two decades on our present course of mitigation via emissions-control-alone, long before we reached 2.0C of warming, we are likely to face global crop failure, unprecedented resulting famine and geo-political destabilization, it needs to be acknowledged that we have a limited time window in which to research, mandate and apply the requisite complement of geo-e. If geo-political destabilization were allowed to develop, then that is almost certainly the end of any prospect of the global co-operation on which the chance of effective mitigation is founded.

      I hope you will spare the time to reconsider your outlook on geo-e as it seems a matter of neccessity, not volition. If on the other hand you can identify a credible means of halting the warming before global crop failures occur without resort to geo-e, I should be interested to hear of it.



      • ArkRiot says:

        IPCC estimates a loss of American and Afican corn, and Indian wheat between 5 -15 % per degree change in temperature. Even if you factor out the redistribution of agriculture to those areas made more agreeable to it by climate change, or irrigated for it as per large scale land mangement projects; that does not constitute global crop failure with 2 degrees. It also totally ignores issues associated with food distribution and wastage (50%), making the assumption that global food production and accessability is totally efficient. It is not.

        Although future food security and climate destabilisation are of great economic and (in developing countries) humanitarian concern, I find the long term considerations of your arguments in favour of technological intervention flawed by a misconception that the climate issue is somehow negotiable; or even if it were, that negotiation would be moral. We are triple jumping the gun.

        That is not to say that geo-e concerned with carbon capture is not valid, it is, but if a techology proposes to alter existing natural systems to ‘tweak’ their characteristics in favour of human friendly warming, it has massively missed the point.

        I do not share your opinion, regardless of the statistics or reasoning you attach to it, because it is an approach to environmentalism based on anthropocentric preservation. No meaningful solution exists within a ‘bandaid’ argument designed to maintain conditions suitable for population growth, as it only requires further innovation when future limitations are again exceeded.

        It is not misanthropic to make that statement, since the base causes of anthropogenic climate change are human overpopulation and over consumption. It is, however, a distance passed the answer to claim geo-e as the logical response to food security in a world with such poor food management.

        Concerning averting catastrophic temperature increase (well in excess of the 2 degrees claimed as threshold for end game climate shift) with Geo-e, in partnership with mitigation: it will most likely be the reality. Still, it represents the worst possible answer to a terrible question.

        What problem are we trying to solve here? How to manipulate climate and preserve a way of life we no linger need, or how to provide a sustainable strategy for continued human existence in what can best be described as a violently dynamic environment which will never stop changing.

  14. Michael Crumpton says:

    We are already doing large scale geoengineering in the form of pumping huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. That is the real risk rather than the tiny effects that individuals or even whole countries could manage.

  15. JBW says:

    You wrote “At worst, geoengineering is a distraction jumped on by interest groups, who wish to delay far more technologically and economically feasible efforts to tackle climate change by simply reducing the amount of carbon human beings emit into the atmosphere.”

    That, and the article to which you link, are misleading. Yes, there are a small number of conservative voices advocating for geo-engineering and its research. But the vast majority of people involved in geo-engineering research (and that’s all it is at the moment) are individuals concerned about the threat of climate change, and who see geo-engineering as a POSSIBLE SUPPLEMENT to the much more important reduction of emissions.

  16. Barbara WAtts says:

    The photo you used is misleading and not attributed to the photographer. I am very disappointed to see this in a blog I trust. It is not a geo-engineering plane as the tag indicates. It is from the website of Josef Williams http://www.joe-photo.com It has recenbtly been used (with permission and attribution) as the cover on a new book, Understanding Aerodynamics.

  17. Solar Jim says:

    Jeff, RE: “. . reducing the amount of carbon human beings emit into the atmosphere.” Please understand the terminology you use is important. We are not “emitting carbon,” we are emitting carbonic acid gas.