Following a pair of reports published by the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday which explor the possible future role and scientific efficacy of geoengineering schemes to combat the runaway climate catastrophe driven by human emissions, experts and environmental groups are making it clear that efforts to employ "---wacky techno fixes---" would be a misguided, unjust, profoundly arrogant and endlessly dangerous approach.
According to a statement by the NAS, the two reports – titled Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration and Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool the Earth – should not be seen as wholesale endorsement of the various climate-intervention techniques explored, but simply as an acknowledgement that further scientific research into such schemes should not be avoided by the research community.
"There is no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change," said the NAS. However, the research body did argue that geoengineering "could contribute to a broader portfolio of climate change responses with further research and development."
It is that second argument which now has climate justice advocates and experts from the field of mitigation strategies worried.
As Marcia McNutt, the committee chair and former director of the US Geological Survey, told the Guardian on Tuesday: "That scientists are even considering technological interventions should be a wake-up call that we need to do more now to reduce emissions, which is the most effective, least risky way to combat climate change."
In response to the two reports, Friends of the Earth said the NAS is going backward on real solutions to the climate crisis by offering cover to those who have pushed for geoengineering in years past. As the environmental group noted, the UN's Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to a moratorium on geoengineering in 2010, but said reports like these reveal that too many people, even some within the scientific community, continue to grasp at "techno-fixes as viable options to combat climate change."
As Ben Schreiber, FOE's climate and energy program director, explains, "While we agree that the current level of greenhouse gas emissions leaves us vulnerable to climate chaos, geoengineering will take us in the wrong direction. It serves as a dangerous distraction from the crucial discussions and actions that need to take place to mitigate and adapt to climate disruption."
In his response to the NAS reports on Tuesday, Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, which focuses on the intersection of socioeconomics, ecology and technology, argued that "NAS support for geoengineering research creates a political space that could lead multinational oil companies and their governments off the hook."
That fear is shared by Schreiber, who continued his statement by saying:
Geoengineering presumes that we can apply a dramatic technological fix to climate disruption. Instead of facing the reality that we need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions, lower our consumption levels and rapidly transition to renewable energy, some hope to simply reengineer the climate, the land and the oceans to theoretically slow down and reverse climate disruption.
Geoengineering is an attempt by those most responsible for climate disruption to continue polluting instead of committing to the necessary actions and funding needed to help those countries and communities that will be most harmed by climate change.
Mooney said that simply stating "we need more information" may sound like a reasonable position for scientists to take, but countered by arguing that geoengineering research is problematic precisely because the "experimentation" involved would be a clear and present danger in and of itself. There are two key reasons for this, he said, explaining:
If the US or other powerful governments accept geoengineering as a plausible “Plan B,” Plan A will evaporate faster than Congressional bipartisanship. The fossil fuel industry is desperate to protect between $20 and $28 trillion in booked assets that can only be extracted if the corporations are allowed to overshoot GHG-emissions. The theoretical assumption that carbon capture and storage will eventually let them recapture CO2 from the atmosphere and bury it in the earth or ocean provides the fossil fuel industry with the best way to avoid popping the "carbon bubble" other than outright climate denial. Spraying sulfates in the stratosphere can – theoretically – lower temperatures until carbon capture and storage techniques are viable. In other words, geoengineering research is becoming the only tool the fossil fuel industry has left to undermine the political and corporate will to lower actual emissions now.
Geoengineering could justify continued emissions, but it may also do direct damage to the climate. The two NAS reports are quiet about budgets and don’t define the scale of field studies. Most scientists concur that geoengineering is extremely risky, but also say that only very large field trials will yield useful data. Experimentation, in other words, equals hardware development and effective deployment.
In a post written to her blog last week in response to a separate endorsement of geoengineering science, author and journalist Naomi Klein also warned of the potential damage that lurks beneath any claim which poses that humanity's salvation from climate change resides in technical interventions. In her critique of an opinion piece that appeared in Nature magazine, Klein slammed the logic of the authors who, she said, "boldly call for these tests to go ahead even in the absence of any regulatory system governing them. They explicitly state that 'governance and experimentation must co-evolve'—which is a high-minded way of saying: roll the dice and see what happens."
The objection fits into one also made by Schreiber, who pointed out that there are only a very "few wealthy nations, elite citizens and corporations with immense funding and technology at their disposal could conduct geoengineering experiments." The problem, he continued, is that "one country’s experiments... could have devastating effects on other countries and the global climate system."
In conclusion, he wrote, "Geoengineering conflicts with sustainable and just solutions to the climate crisis. Real climate justice requires dealing with root causes of climate change, not launching risky, unproven and unjust schemes."