US National Academy of Sciences backs untested geoengineering technologies

Jeremy Tager

What would a sane society say about a corporatised society that brings the planet to a point of collapse through economic and political systems based on endless exploitation, greed and growth and then desperately searches for ways to solve the problem using the same system?

According to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predictions we are currently on track for 4°C warming by the end of the century.1 As Professor Schellnhuber, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research (PIK) said, "the difference between two and four degrees is human civilisation."2

It is now beyond obvious that, as Naomi Klein says, there are no non-radical solutions. We cannot 'solve' climate change without changing the system that created it.

It is also not surprising that the corporate system, which includes our political 'leaders', is determined to continue with business as usual.

Part of this determination can be seen in the strong push to embrace technological solutions to climate change and the extent to which these 'fixes' are now being normalised, particularly through the elite scientific community. Late last year the IPCC gave tacit endorsement to speculative, immature and costly technologies, in some ways accepting that we will not see sufficient mitigation from big business or their political allies.3 We are seeing the scientific community express profound distrust of a failing system and then expect the same system to research and imwplement risky technologies in equitable, safe and consensual ways.

The recent reports from the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) into geoengineering options4 unfortunately continue this trend. The NAS recognises mitigation is critical and by far the best approach to reducing emissions. It recognises that some of the technological fixes have potentially significant risks; that most are not even close to ready for deployment at the scale needed and may never be. It also acknowledges that some of the approaches may actually be costlier than reducing our emissions.

Of four possibly scenarios that the IPCC mapped in its latest report, only one keeps us within the range that climate scientists regard as survivable. This is achieved by removing hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere. As geo-engineering researcher Dr Hugh Hunt in the Department of Engineering, at the University of Cambridge, points out: "10 billion tonnes a year of carbon sequestration? We don't do anything on this planet on that scale. We don't manufacture food on that scale, we don't mine iron ore on that scale. We don't even produce coal, oil or gas on that scale. Iron ore is below a billion tonnes a year! How are we going to create a technology, from scratch, a highly complicated technology, to the tune of 10 billion tonnes a year in the next 10 years?"1

Others outside the scientific community point out that some of the proposed geoengineering technologies, such as spraying of sulphur aerosols into the atmosphere, cannot be tested at any meaningful scale unless we are prepared to wear the unknown and potentially devastating impacts of uncontrolled 'experimentation'.5 Others note that there are no regulatory or governance structures for any of these technologies that would ensure that the research, experimentation or deployment happens with the consent of the global community.

The suggestion in a recent Nature opinion piece6 that governance can co-evolve with experimentation is an absurdity – a reckless notion based on the underlying assumption that we will be able to reverse or undo the consequences of acting rashly.

Despite these shortcomings and financial and technical problems, the NAS nonetheless ultimately supports investment, research and experimentation into these technologies.

It's a dangerous road that we are beginning to travel. The endorsement of investment in research is a get out of jail card for decision makers, who would rather rely on a techno-fix than changes in the system under which they exercise power. It is an incentive not to cut emissions while the hope of a technological bandaid has a pulse. It is an endorsement for technologies that cannot conceivably be used – such as the spraying of sulphur aerosols into the atmosphere. This form of solar radiation management simply masks the effects of rising CO2 levels and means that the sulphur must be dumped into the atmosphere in perpetuity otherwise we run the risk of massive warming spikes as the 'mask' is removed.

Even worse the technological fix is a way of thinking about climate change removed from its causes. This thinking – that the problem is climate change and not corporate capitalism – means that devastation of land, water, species, air, life is ok as long as we 'solve' the problem of climate emissions. The IPCC endorsement of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is a classic example. In order for BECCS to have any hope of addressing CO2 emissions at necessary scales, vast areas of arable land would be needed to grow the biomass intended for burning and subsequent CO2 capture. Who would be surprised if that land was taken from countries where land grabbing is already rife? And who would be surprised that these countries tend to be the poorest – and lowest emitting countries?

The problem is much broader than climate. We cannot continue to have a social and economic system predicated on endless growth and exploitation for multiple non-climate reasons. The current rate of extinctions of species with which we share the planet is not a climate issue, but is a direct result of the same drivers. The deterioration of life support systems – such as soil and water – is not caused by climate change even though climate change will undoubtedly exacerbate these problems.

But these problems, long ignored by the corporate and political class, have been increasingly ignored by the environment movement because it is not campaigning to destroy corporate capitalism but to reduce emissions. Until we shift the debate to causes rather than symptoms, techno-utopianism will continue. When we begin to talk about eliminating the causes of climate change there are no techno fixes or easy solutions.

The influence of the fossil fuel industry on this debate seems obvious. Prevent strong action on climate by any means necessary, including buying resistance; then push on the political class – already convinced that strong action is too damaging or hard or expensive – to invest public money in technologies that will further benefit corporate interests.

As geoengineering or climate intervention strategies gain credibility, the prospects of effective mitigation and removing the causes of climate change both diminish even further.

Unfortunately, it is the tentative support for climate interventions in the NAS reports that will matter most.

Jeremy Tager is a campaigner with Friends of the Earth's Emerging Tech Project.

jeremy.tager@foe.org.au, www.emergingtech.foe.org.au

References:

1. Breeze, N. (2015) Survivable IPCC projections are based on science fiction − the reality is much worse, www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2772427/survivable_...

2. Kuiper, G. (2014) Too hot to handle: life in a four-degree world, www.climatecodered.org/2014/03/too-hot-to-handle-life-in-four-degree.html

3. Emerging Tech Project (2014) IPCC needs to rethink its embrace of unproven technologies. http://emergingtech.foe.org.au/ipcc-needs-to-rethink-its-embrace-of-unpr...

4. National Academy of Science. (2015) Climate Intervention Reports. http://nas-sites.org/americasclimatechoices/other-reports-on-climate-cha...

5. Klein. N. (2015) Why Geoengineering is “Untested and Untestable”, 6/2/15, http://thischangeseverything.org/why-geoengineering-is-untested-and-unte...

6. Long, J.C.S. et al. (2015) Policy: Start research on climate engineering, Nature, 51: 31, www.nature.com/news/policy-start-research-on-climate-engineering-1.16826

From Chain Reaction #123, April 2015, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/123