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Altering the ocean or atmosphere is expensive, but not out of reach for countries or rich individuals. What if they decide to go ahead? Martin Thum

Anyone can geoengineer: should we try to stop them?

International climate change negotiations have not been successful. As Richard SJ Tol stated at the beginning of the 2012 Doha talks, “[h]aving flogged, ever harder for 18 years, the dead horse of legally binding emission targets, the UNFCCC should close that chapter” and “something new” should be tried.

Assuming action by individuals won’t succeed in addressing the climate change problem – on the basis that “[t]he changes necessary are so large and profound that they are beyond the reach” of such action (the Gernot Wagner argument) – what about geoengineering?

Doing ‘something bigger and faster than nature ever has’

Geoengineering as defined by the Royal Society is “deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming”.

There are broadly two forms of geoengineering. Carbon dioxide removal techniques take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (ocean fertilisation, for example). Rather more radical solar radiation management techniques (stratospheric aerosols injection and cloud whitening) reflect part of the sun’s light and heat back into space. The earth thus absorbs less solar radiation.

For Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, geoengineering “seems to imply something global, intentional, and unnatural”. Clive Hamilton refers to geoengineering as “the return of Dr Strangelove”. But Bill Gates gets behind it: he’s funded geoengineering research.

Geoengineering is of interest to those sceptical of climate change on the basis that no action need be taken now but can be taken later if climate change proves to be “true”. But it also interests those who want to address the climate change problem. As Bodansky has recognised, for this second group, in the event that emissions reductions fail to address the problem, geoengineering may await.

Give me half a tanker of iron and I’ll give you the next ice age

Geoengineering (depending on the form used) could enable states or individuals acting alone to deal with the climate change problem. As David Victor notes, this could turn “the politics of climate protection upside down”.

For example, in July last year 100 tons of iron sulphate was dumped into the north Pacific from a fishing vessel as part of a “salmon enhancement project”. This stimulated a plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres, a project supported by a British Columbian fishing village and labelled the world’s “biggest geoengineering experiment”.

It has also been said, however, that the bloom may have been natural.

This power to act independently means there are governance issues associated with geoengineering. To address these issues, the American Meteorological Society recently readopted its 2009 policy statement on geoengineering. This includes enhanced research on the scientific and technological potential for geoengineering the climate system, including research on intended and unintended environmental responses. But it also involves development of policy options to promote transparency and international cooperation in exploring geoengineering, together with “restrictions on reckless efforts to manipulate the climate system”.

The Royal Society has proposed international collaboration and coordination, and development and implementation of geoengineering governance frameworks. The 2010 “Oxford Principles”, an initiative of the Oxford Martin School, state that geoengineering should be regulated as a public good; the public should participate in geoengineering decision-making; geoengineering research should be disclosed with open publication of results; impacts should be independently assessed; and there should be “governance before deployment”.

Geoengineering as an idea, as the Harvard economist Martin Weitzman notes, “is not about to go away any time soon”. In Weitzman’s view, geoengineering is cheap and “tempting”. He says serious thinking needs to be done about a geoengineering governance structure “sooner, rather than later”.

If the Maldives wanted to send airplanes into the stratosphere to scatter sulphates, who could stop them?

Notwithstanding governance and other issues, it seems that “a few billion dollars” might be enough to scatter sufficient sulfur particles in the atmosphere to change the planet’s weather patterns. The New Yorker notes that, for that price, any country, most groups and some individuals could take action. The open and available technology “makes it more like the Internet than like a national weapons program”.

By way of qualification, however, the US Government Accountability Office’s Center for Science, Technology, and Engineering concluded in 2011 that climate engineering technologies reviewed by it were all in early stages of development. It found that significant improvement in those technologies would take decades of research.

Whether geoengineering should be undertaken is addressed by the scientific entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold:

People get themselves all balled up into knots over whether this [geoengineering] can be done unilaterally or by one group or one nation. Well, guess what. We decide to do much worse than this every day, and we decide unilaterally. We are polluting the earth unilaterally … [T]he world is about people taking action, not agreeing to take action. And, frankly, the Maldives could say, “F*** you all – we want to stay alive.” Would you blame them? Wouldn’t any reasonable country do the same?

The heart of the geoengineering matter, it seems to me, is this:

We’ve too long mistaken the present for some version of a human forever. We say we want to save the world. What we really want … [is] to stay alive … Geoengineering may be the earthly pinnacle of our toolmaking ways and an expression of our animal will to live … But if we extend the lifespan of the Holocene by retooling the air yet fail to retool our own ways, our revels will end sooner than they needed to.

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