Sat, Aug 24, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Geoengineering Trojan horses threaten Earth

By Silvia Ribeiro

Although the effects of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent, the progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains as disappointing as ever, leading some to tout new technological solutions that could supposedly save the day.

For example, David Keith, an applied physics professor at Harvard University, would have us consider geoengineering — that is, deliberate, large-scale and highly risky interventions in the Earth’s climate system.

At the UN environmental conference in Nairobi, Kenya in March, the US and Saudi Arabia blocked an effort to scrutinize geoengineering and its implications for international governance.

Meanwhile, Keith’s Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) in the US — which aims to test a form of geoengineering known as solar radiation management — seems to be moving forward.

Solar radiation management depends on so-called stratospheric aerosol injection, whereby a high-altitude balloon sprays large quantities of inorganic particles into the stratosphere with the goal of reflecting some sunlight back into space. SCoPEx would send a balloon equipped with scientific instruments about 20km above the ground to test the reflectivity of various substances.

Yet the technical aspects of the experiment are far less important than its political, social and geopolitical implications. After all, the risks of geoengineering could not be more serious.

If deployed at scale, solar radiation management could disrupt the monsoons in Asia and cause droughts in Africa, affecting the food and water supplies of 2 billion people.

The use of sulfuric acid — the most studied option, and the one SCoPEx initially intended to test — could further deplete the ozone layer. (More recently, SCoPEx has been mentioning only carbonates.)

The launch of an independent advisory committee for SCoPEx seems to be aimed at lending legitimacy to a kind of experiment that the rest of the world has agreed is too dangerous to allow.

Moreover, the panel’s membership is exclusively US-based, and mostly linked to elite institutions, which raises questions about whose interests are being served.

These concerns are reinforced by the fact that the SCoPEx pitch is fundamentally manipulative. The results from a “small-scale” experiment would not amount to a credible assessment of the effects of deploying solar radiation management at the scale needed for geoengineering.

As climate scientists have made clear, the only way to know how solar radiation management would affect the climate is to deploy it over several decades on a massive scale. Otherwise, its effects could not be distinguished from other climate variables and “climate noise.”

Given that geoengineering is, by nature, not testable, all experiments like SCoPEx can do is create momentum for larger and longer experiments. Once millions of dollars have been sunk into creating the relevant institutions and employing large numbers of people, it becomes easier to argue that even more data should be collected and, finally, that the technology should be deployed.

In this sense, projects such as SCoPEx set a new and dangerous precedent for the unilateral implementation of geoengineering technologies by billionaires and vested interests.

As the Center for International Environmental Law and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s recent report Fuel to Fire says, fossil-fuel companies have been investing in geoengineering for decades.

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