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.