September 03, 2009

The Royal Society’s Report on Geoengineering the Climate: Geoengineering or Geopiracy?

With the Royal Society’s President, Lord Martin Rees, presiding and James Lovelock, the father of the Gaia Hypothesis, commenting, the release of the Society’s report[1] outlining the possibilities for geoengineering the world out of the climate crisis could seem the very embodiment of the precautionary principle. In his 2004 book, Our Final Century, it was Lord Rees after all who warned us that technological hubris could obliterate a million lives through “bio error or bioterror” before 2020. He is a cautious man not disposed to put faith in technological silver bullets. Likewise, Dr. Lovelock has been outspoken in his alarm over the impending climate chaos – edging toward geoengineering, but equally perturbed by the “Kafkaesque” prospects of scientists and governments trying to rejig the planetary thermostat.
Media coverage of the report has been confused.[2] Not surprising since the venerable Society, at times contradicting itself, bent over backwards to appear balanced – an acrobatic feat beyond most academics! Still, there are two unequivocal messages: (1) Climate mitigation and adaptation are urgent and the first task is to reduce GHG emissions, and (2) Geoengineering is a credible, if unproven, Plan B should mitigation fail. While the Royal Society can be applauded for its first message, it is also an obligatory mantra en route to its second –  geoengineering must be funded and tested. After all, most of the report’s authors have less precautionary credentials than Rees and Lovelock. Many are actively engaged in geoengineering research and development, seeking financial support, and pushing specific earth techno-fixes.
From some perspectives, geoengineering as “an insurance policy” may seem prudent, practical and even precautionary. But, like it or not, the authors’ and readers’ perspectives are at least geographical if not geopolitical. Seen in the light of Realpolitik, the report’s explicit endorsement of geoengineering research and real-life experimentation – and its unwillingness to reject even the most outlandish schemes[3]– is deeply troubling.
The report can only plausibly seem precautionary when read from the perspective of OECD states. Techno-fixes have become the opiate of the politician – the best way to avoid the heavy lifting of actual decision-making and letting real problems fade (at least until after the next election) into the placid blue haze of Bunsen burners.

Geoengineering, the authors opine, is an unsatisfactory and hopefully distant Plan B that should only be considered if one or more climatic “tipping” events swing humanity close to catastrophe: the rapid release of methane gases from Arctic tundra; a sudden collapse of Greenland’s icefields; or, perhaps even the failure of governments at the critical climate change conference in Copenhagen this December to set a credible course that will pull the planet back from chaos.  The report acknowledges that there are many ways to geoengineer the planet and admits we know little about social and environmental impacts. The authors modestly propose that the UK government invest £10 million per year over 10 years for geoengineering research. Most of this research, readers are assured, would be in the form of monitoring and computer simulations – but the report also recommends field trials for several technologies. In communications with the Royal Society, they argue that, as a scientific body, it would be irresponsible for them not to study geoengineering and to equip governments and society with their best analysis of the risks and benefits involved. Officials point to the escalating media interest in geoengineering over the last several months and insist that they have felt obliged to take on the thankless task of bringing “scientific rigor” to an increasingly polemical debate.
But, again, it depends on where you are standing. If you are a member of the G-8 – and especially if you are the G-8 member who launched the Industrial Revolution that is causing climate change – you could have some confidence that geoengineering is your kind of fix. Only the world’s richest countries can really muster the hardware and software necessary to rearrange the climate and reset the thermostat. You can also have some hope that the cost of geoengineering will be much less than the 2% of global GDP per year that reducing greenhouse gas emissions around the world is conservatively expected  to cost.[4] Since it will be your money, your scientists and your companies that will undertake experiments and deploy geoengineering, you can feel relatively confident that you can control the process and protect your population. Because you know that the Copenhagen process is in trouble and the climate is in peril, it is politically reassuring to have Plan B in your hip pocket.
However, if your perspective is a little to port or starboard of the equator – in the tropics or subtropics – geoengineering looks a lot different...

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