Geoengineering Schemes: Destroying the Earth to Save It?

The billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has received criticism for backing a group of climate scientists lobbying for geoengineering experiments. (Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP)

Geoengineering Schemes: Destroying the Earth to Save It?

The promotion of ideas like dumping mineral dust across the oceans continue to receive traction, but critics warn of unintended consequences

If world leaders refuse to follow the sane advice of climate scientists and innovators in sustainable energy and agriculture much longer, it should be noted that there's a group of people out in the margins willing to perform planetary experiments to halt the progress of climate change by whatever strange, outlandish or dangerous means necessary. Geoengineers.

As another new report in The Guardianshows Tuesday, a new study shows that geoengineering advocates would consider sprinkling billions of tons of "mineral dust" across the surface of the world's oceans in order to offset the carbon pollution of today's modern industrial society.

Ignoring the law of unintended consequences and despite that the effort would "require a mining effort on the same scale as the world's coal industry and would alter the biology of the oceans," supporters of continued research into the idea say that such plans should be retained in case other efforts to forestall greenhouse gas emissions fail.

But, as author and activist Naomi Klein worried last year after reports of a "rogue geoengineer" operating in British Columbia surfaced, was that "serious scientists" backed by "deep pockets" appeared ready and willing to "actively tamper with the complex and unpredictable natural systems that sustain life on earth."

Klein wondered if the repeated appearance of scientific voices calling for complext schemes such as these shouldn't urge the world's citizens and policy makers to stop and have a conversation about their deep implications. She wrote:

The appeal is easy to understand. Geoengineering offers the tantalizing promise of a climate change fix that would allow us to continue our resource-exhausting way of life, indefinitely. And then there is the fear. Every week seems to bring more terrifying climate news, from reports of ice sheets melting ahead of schedule to oceans acidifying far faster than expected. At the same time, climate change has fallen so far off the political agenda that it wasn't mentioned once during any of the three debates between the presidential candidates. Is it any wonder that many are pinning their hopes on a break-the-glass-in-case-of-emergency option that scientists have been cooking up in their labs?

But [...] it is a good time to pause and ask, collectively, whether we want to go down the geoengineering road. Because the truth is that geoengineering is itself a rogue proposition. By definition, technologies that tamper with ocean and atmospheric chemistry affect everyone. Yet it is impossible to get anything like unanimous consent for these interventions. Nor could any such consent possibly be informed since we don't -- and can't -- know the full risks involved until these planet-altering technologies are actually deployed.

As Common Dreamsreported last year, the prowess of such efforts is often bolstered by some of the ideas' financial backers, such as Microsoft founder and billionaire Bill Gates.

And additionally, as technology expert and critic of geoengineering schemes Diana Bronson has pointed out, "Some of geoengineering's most ardent advocates are best known for their arguments against climate action, including outfits like the American Enterprise Institute and individuals like Bjorn Lomborg of Denmark."

"Somehow they're now urgently calling for a massive techno-fix for a problem they have spent their careers saying is exaggerated."

The Guardianreports Tuesday:

Geoengineering - global-scale intervention to combat climate change - is a controversial idea because of the risk of unintended consequences on a planet-wide scale. But scientists argue it needs to be researched in case international efforts to cut the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities fail to prevent dramatic changes in climate and emergency measures are needed.

Dissolving mineral dust in the ocean makes sea water more alkaline and able to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The mineral olivine is attractive because it would dissolve within a year or two - delivering near-instant carbon reductions - and is present below the Earth's surface around the world. Kohler's research, published in Environmental Research Letters, found that sprinkling 3bn tonnes of olivine would remove almost 10% of man-made carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

More than 10% would be absorbed by the oceans, but the energy needed to grind and ship the mineral dust would result in carbon emissions. Up to one-third of that would be absorbed in the seas if coal-fired power stations were the source of the electricity. The mineral needs to be ground down to 1 micron size to prevent it sinking to the ocean floor before it dissolves.


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