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We Cannot 'Techno-Fix' Our Way to a Sustainable Future

by Rachel Smolker

This week, California will host the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies. The conference follows hearings last week in the US House of Representatives and a report from the UK Committee on Science and Technology, as well as a recent report from the Government Accounting Office, all following on the heels of earlier reports from the Royal Society.  In short, there is a lot of high level interest in the topic.

Given the failure of Copenhagen, the sellout of US Congress to special interests and the stalemated international negotiations, the "last resort" of geoengineering is gaining support. This is especially true as many are either in a state of panic or paralysis following recent announcements of methane seeping from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, on top of the ongoing reports of emissions rising, ice melting, and temperatures reaching all time highs.

There are good reasons to be quite worried. But there may be good reasons to be even MORE worried by the climate geoengineering proponents and what is going on at Asilomar this week. 

The conference holds as its intent to develop "voluntary guidelines" for further research on climate geoengineering technologies. Voluntary guidelines are most often designed to fend off "involuntary" regulation. The conference is organized by Margaret Leinen, who happens to be the mother of Dan Whaley, founder and CEO of Climos, a company with patents currently pending for methods to profit by selling carbon offsets from ocean fertilization, one proposed geoengineering technology. Other major players in geoengineering, some of whom will be at Asilomar, similarly have vested interests in ensuring cash flows for funding, experimentation and commercialization of their pet technologies.

We can pretty well guess that whatever "voluntary guidelines" they come up with for themselves will be designed with "don't take no for an answer" as their underlying mantra.

A letter signed by dozens of civil society groups was submitted to the conference organizers, challenging the entire premise of the conference in stating:  "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."

Asilomar seeks to step right on past any process for determination of acceptability, assume it as a given, and carry on with business.

This is deeply troubling on many fronts given the technofixes being put on the table, the scale of their impacts, and the track record so far.

The technologies for "climate intervention"(aka, geoengineering) fall into two broad categories: Carbon sequestration and solar radiation management. Ocean fertilization falls into the former. The idea is to dump iron particles into ocean waters to stimulate plankton blooms. The plankton absorb CO2, and when they die, (hopefully) carry their carbon to the ocean floor to remain sequestered. There are many known risk factors, including one newly discovered and described just last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This study revealed that the kinds of plankton that are stimulated by iron fertilization include those that produce domoic acid, cause of shellfish poisoning in humans and lethal to marine animals. Oops.

Ocean fertilization has already been tested numerous times. The controversial "Lohafex" test last year failed to illustrate any carbon sequestration after dumping more than 6 tons of iron into the Southern Ocean. To make matters worse, these tests were undertaken in spite of a moratorium agreed to by close to 200 nations under the Convention on Biological Diversity, also defying the London Convention on Ocean Dumping. Such treaties and agreements are, apparently, just pieces of paper. Biochar is another carbon sequestration technology proposed. Advocates claim that by growing hundreds of millions of hectares of tree plantations, burning the trees to make charcoal and then tilling the charcoal into soils, we can sequester carbon under ground. The scale that would be entailed here is monumental, especially given that only 12-40% of the carbon from the trees is retained in the charcoal. The impacts, on forests, soils, and from small particles (soot) becoming airborne, could very well outweigh any supposed gain.

Another broad category of climate intervention technologies involve "solar radiation management" (SRM), i.e. blocking or reflecting sunlight. Examples include using jets or rockets to blast small reflective sulphate particles into the stratosphere, "cloud whitening" to increase reflectivity by injecting saltwater mist into clouds, vast plantations of plants engineered to have shiny, reflective leaves, or covering large areas of the desert with a white/reflective coating or deplying huge arrays of mirrors into space. 

These technologies are virtually all extremely risky, expensive and/or downright nuts. But, frighteningly, they are gaining mainstream acceptability! Among the advocates are some, like Bjorn Lomberg the "Skeptical Envrionmentalist", who have denied global warming is even real. Some claim that these approaches are prefereable to reducing emissions. Julian Morris, of the International Policy Network, for example stated: "Diverting money into controlling carbon emissions and away from geoengineering is probably morally irresponsible."

The potential for "weaponization" of climate geoengineering technologies adds fuel to the fires for those who find this issue troubling. Who will control and have access to the power to control rainfall or deflect (or not) sunlight in a drought, flood, famine and water deprived future world?

Perhaps it is time for a collective pause and some deep reflection? First of all, our faith in science and technology seems to be teetering precipitously. On the one hand, we appear shocked when scientists err, as if we somehow expect the scientific method and its practitioners to be godlike in their ability to predict the future of global systems and dynamics. On the other hand, many are prepared to deny the validity of literally thousand of studies all converging towards the conclusion that global warming is in fact a reality. Further, we fail to recognize that science is merely a tool, and it's ability to uncover "truths" depends utterly on the skill and integrity of its' users. Scientific rigor demands a lag time between asking a question and offering "proof" for an answer. That time delay is inconveniently long under the current circumstances.

How do we reconcile? The decision to resort to technofixes to geoengineer our only planet is not up to the handful of profit-seeking businessmen donning lab coats at Asilomar this week. The planet is our collective responsibility. The world views held by many earth inhabitants, including most if not all indigenous peoples, is that we are not Mother Earth's "mechanics", but rather integral parts of her. This view is part of the conciousness of "Pachamama" which will be visibly present at the "negotiating tables" in the upcoming World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, being held in Bolivia next month.

I, for one, will feel far more hopeful about my children's future if decisions about climate geoengineering come not from Asilomar and the "profitable technofix" mindset, but rather out of Bolivia, with the Rights of Mother Earth as their basis.

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