Geo-engineering: green versus greed in the race to cool the planet

The alert on the Climate Ark website in January 2009 was marked urgent: “Take action: A rogue science ship is poised to carry out risky experimental fertilisation of the Southern Ocean. This is likely [to be] the first of many coming attempts to begin geo-engineering the biosphere as a solution to climate change. The chemical cargo is likely to provoke a massive algal bloom big enough to be seen from outer space…”

The response was immediate and vitriolic: “You morons,” fumed a woman from a Canadian university. “That isn’t a rogue ship… it’s one of the best marine science research groups in the world. You are no different than anti-science religious fanatics. You seek to keep the world ignorant. May you drown in your lies…”

Professor Peter Liss, then chair of Britain’s Royal Society’s global environment research committee and himself involved in research to see the effect of iron on phtyoplankton, stepped in: “The [intention] is to find out what role iron plays in marine biogeochemistry. In no way is it an attempt to geo-engineer the planet. Only by knowing the facts can you argue effectively against such geo-engineering proposals. Emotion and opinion will not win the argument; knowledge and understanding will.”

Some hope. Geo-engineering – artificial efforts to mitigate global warming by manipulating weather patterns, oceans, currents, soils and atmosphere to reduce the amount of greenhouses gases – evokes ideological, political and financial passions. For those who have more or less given up on UN climate talks, it is, along with nuclear power, the only practical planetary way to avoid catastrophic climate change; for others, it is an irresponsible move into the unknown by the rich world that will inevitably have unintended consequences, most probably for the poorest.

But as attempts to get major economies to agree to reduce emissions through energy efficiency falter, so groups of scientists, universities and entrepreneurs are coming together, patenting ideas and pressing the case with governments and the UN to back experiments as the first step towards wide-scale deployment of a suite of technologies.

From just a few individuals working in the field 20 years ago, today there are hundreds of groups and institutions proposing experiments. They fall broadly into two camps: one aims to remove greenhouse gases from the air and store them underground; the other, more controversially, tries to cool the Earth down by reflecting sunlight from the atmosphere or space in a process known as solar radiation management.

The range of techno-fix ideas is growing by the month. They include absorbing plankton, growing artificial trees, firing silver iodide into clouds to produce rain, genetically engineering crops to be paler in colour to reflect sunlight back to space, fertilising the ocean with iron nanoparticles to increase phytoplankton, blasting sulphate-based aerosols into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight, covering the desert with white plastic to reflect sunlight and painting cities and roads white.

There are serious proposals to launch a fleet of unmanned ships to spray seawater into the atmosphere to thicken clouds and thus reflect more radiation from Earth. Most controversial of all is an idea to fire trillions of tiny mirrors into space to form a 100,000-mile “sunshade” for Earth.

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