Category Archives: Geoengineering

David Suzuki: We can’t geoengineer our way out of climate change

Seawater is sprayed into clouds to make them reflect more sunlight (Illustration: Nasa)
Seawater is sprayed into clouds to make them reflect more sunlight (Illustration: Nasa)

Because nature doesn’t always behave the same in a lab, test tube or computer program as it does in the real world, scientists and engineers have come up with ideas that didn’t turn out as expected.

DDT was considered a panacea for a range of insect pest issues, from controlling disease to helping farmers. But we didn’t understand bioaccumulation back then – toxins concentrating up the food chain, risking the health and survival of animals from birds to humans. Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, seemed so terrific we put them in everything from aerosol cans to refrigerators. Then we learned they damage the ozone layer, which protects us from harmful solar radiation.

Unintended consequences

These unintended consequences come partly from our tendency to view things in isolation, without understanding how all nature is interconnected. We’re now facing the most serious unintended consequence ever: climate change from burning fossil fuels. Some proposed solutions may also result in unforeseen outcomes.

Oil, gas and coal are miraculous substances – energy absorbed from the sun by plants and animals hundreds of millions of years ago, retained after they died and concentrated as the decaying life became buried deeper into the earth. Burning them to harness and release this energy opened up possibilities unimaginable to our ancestors. We could create machines and technologies to reduce our toil, heat and light our homes, build modern cities for growing populations and provide accessible transport for greater mobility and freedom. And because the stuff seemed so plentiful and easy to obtain, we could build vehicles and roads for everyone – big cars that used lots of gas – so that enormous profits would fuel prosperous, consumer-driven societies.

We knew fairly early that pollution affected human health, but that didn’t seem insurmountable. We just needed to improve fuel efficiency and create better pollution-control standards. That reduced rather than eliminated the problem and only partly addressed an issue that appears to have caught us off-guard: the limited availability of these fuels. But the trade-offs seemed worthwhile.

All that carbon catching up with us

Then, for the past few decades, a catastrophic consequence of our profligate use of fossil fuels has loomed. Burning them has released excessive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a thick, heat-trapping blanket. Along with our destruction of natural carbon-storing environments, such as forests and wetlands, this has steadily increased global average temperatures, causing climate change.

We’re now faced with ever-increasing extreme weather-related events and phenomena such as ocean acidification, which affects myriad marine life, from shellfish to corals to plankton. The latter produce oxygen and are at the very foundation of the food chain.

Had we addressed the problem from the outset, we could have solutions in place. We could have found ways to burn less fossil fuel without massively disrupting our economies and ways of life. But we’ve become addicted to the lavish benefits that fossil fuels have offered, and the wealth and power they’ve provided to industrialists and governments. And so there’s been a concerted effort to stall or avoid corrective action, with industry paying front groups, “experts” and governments to deny or downplay the problem.

Enter the techno-fixes

Now that climate change has become undeniable, with consequences getting worse daily, many experts are eyeing solutions. Some are touting massive technological fixes, such as dumping large amounts of iron filings into the seas to facilitate carbon absorption, pumping nutrient-rich cold waters from the ocean depths to the surface, building giant reflectors to bounce sunlight back into space and irrigating vast deserts.

But we’re still running up against those pesky unintended consequences. Scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, studied five geoengineering schemes and concluded they’re “either relatively ineffective with limited warming reductions, or they have potentially severe side effects and cannot be stopped without causing rapid climate change.” That’s partly because we don’t fully understand climate and weather systems and their interactions.

That doesn’t mean we should rule out geoengineering. Climate change is so serious that we’ll need to marshal everything we have to confront it, and some methods appear to be more benign than others. But geoengineering isn’t the solution. And it’s no excuse to go on wastefully burning fossil fuels. We must conserve energy and find ways to quickly shift to cleaner sources.

With contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington. 

David Suzuki on Chemtrails

David Suzuki on Chemtrails

David Suzuki on Chemtrails
Photos like this one appear all over the Internet, presented as evidence of “chemtrails”
Conspiracies fuel climate change denial and belief in chemtrails

I recently wrote about geoengineering as a strategy to deal with climate change and carbon dioxide emissions. That drew comments from people who confuse this scientific process with the unscientific theory of “chemtrails”. Some also claimed the column supported geoengineering, which it didn’t.

The reaction got me wondering why some people believe in phenomena rejected by science, like chemtrails, but deny real problems demonstrated by massive amounts of scientific evidence, like climate change.

Chemtrails believers claim governments around the world are in cahoots with secret organizations to seed the atmosphere with chemicals and materials – aluminum salts, barium crystals, biological agents, polymer fibres, etc. – for a range of nefarious purposes. These include controlling weather for military purposes, poisoning people for population or mind control and supporting secret weapons programs based on the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, or HAARP.

Scientists have tested and used cloud and atmospheric seeding for weather modification and considered them as ways to slow global warming. With so many unknowns and possible unintended consequences, these practices have the potential to cause harm. But the chemtrails conspiracy theory is much broader, positing that military and commercial airlines are involved in constant massive daily spraying that is harming the physical and mental health of citizens worldwide.

I don’t have space to get into the absurdities of belief in a plot that would require worldwide collusion between governments, scientists and airline company executives and pilots to amass and spray unimaginable amounts of chemicals from altitudes of 10,000 metres or more. I’m a scientist, so I look at credible science – and there is none for the existence of chemtrails.

They’re condensation trails, formed when hot, humid air from jet exhaust mixes with colder low-vapour-pressure air. This, of course, comes with its own environmental problems.

From chemtrails to climate denial

But what interests me is the connection between climate change denial and belief in chemtrails. Why do so many people accept a theory for which there is no scientific evidence while rejecting a serious and potentially catastrophic phenomenon that can be easily observed and for which overwhelming evidence has been building for decades?

To begin, climate change denial and chemtrails theories are often conspiracy-based. A study by researchers at the University of Western Australia found “endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories … predicts rejection of climate science as well as the rejection of other scientific findings.”

Many deniers see climate change as a massive plot or hoax perpetrated by the world’s scientists and scientific institutions, governments, the UN, environmentalists and sinister forces to create a socialist world government or something.

Not all go to such extremes. Some accept climate change is occurring but deny humans are responsible. Still, it doesn’t seem rational to deny something so undeniable! In a Bloomberg article, author and Harvard Law School professor Cass R. Sunstein points to three psychological barriers to accepting climate change that may also help explain why it’s easier for people to believe in chemtrails: People look to readily available examples when assessing danger, focus “on risks or hazards that have an identifiable perpetrator”, and pay more attention to immediate threats than long-term ones.

Researchers Ezra Markowitz and Azim Shariff of the University of Oregon Psychology and Environmental Studies departments add a few more, including that human-caused climate change “provokes self-defensive biases” and its politicization “fosters ideological polarization.”

People who subscribe to unbelievable conspiracy theories may feel helpless, so they see themselves as victims of powerful forces – or as heroes standing up to those forces. Whether it’s to deny real problems or promulgate imaginary ones, it helps reinforce a worldview that is distrustful of governments, media, scientists and shadowy cabals variously referred to as banksters, global elites, the Illuminati or the New World Order.

The problem is that science denial is, in the case of chemtrails, a wacky distraction and, in the case of climate change denial, a barrier to addressing an urgent, critical problem. Science is rarely 100 per cent certain, but it’s the best tool we have for coming to terms with our actions and their consequences, and for finding solutions to problems. The science is clear: human-caused climate change is the most pressing threat to humanity, and we must work to resolve it. We don’t have time for debunked conspiracy theories.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.

Is geoengineering a silver bullet for climate change?

Is geoengineering a silver bullet for climate change?

Is geoengineering a silver bullet for climate change?
Satellite imagery of a massive plankton bloom west of Haida Gwaii following an ocean fertilization experiment

Altering environments to suit our needs is not new. From clearing land to building dams, we’ve done it throughout history. When our technologies and populations were limited, our actions affected small areas – though with some cascading effects on interconnected ecosystems.

We’ve now entered an era in which humans are a geological force. According to the website Welcome to the Anthropocene, “There are now so many of us, using so many resources, that we’re disrupting the grand cycles of biology, chemistry and geology by which elements like carbon and nitrogen circulate between land, sea and atmosphere. We’re changing the way water moves around the globe as never before. Almost all the planet’s ecosystems bear the marks of our presence.”

One of our greatest impacts is global warming, fuelled by massive increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning oil, coal and gas. Thanks in part to self-preserving industrialists, complicit governments and deluded deniers, we’ve failed to take meaningful action to address the problem, even though we’ve known about it for decades. Many now argue the best way to protect humanity from the worst effects is to further alter Earth’s natural systems through geoengineering.

Geoengineering to combat climate change is largely untested. Because we’ve stalled so long on reducing carbon emissions and still aren’t doing enough, we may have to consider it. What will that mean?

As it relates to climate change, geoengineering falls into two categories: solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal. The former involves reflecting solar radiation back into space. The latter is aimed at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it.

Solar radiation management includes schemes such as releasing sulphur aerosols into the atmosphere to scatter sunlight and reduce radiation, creating or whitening clouds by spraying seawater or other materials into the air, and even installing giant reflectors in space. These methods don’t affect CO2 levels and so don’t address issues like ocean acidification, but they offer possible quick fixes to reduce warming.

An example of carbon removal is fertilizing oceans with iron. Iron stimulates growth of small algae called phytoplankton, which remove carbon dioxide from the sea and release oxygen through photosynthesis. This allows the oceans to absorb additional CO2 from the atmosphere. When the plankton die and sink to the ocean floor, they become buried under other materials, storing the carbon within them.

The Alberta and federal governments have spent billions on their favoured carbon-reduction method, carbon capture and storage – trapping CO2 released by burning fossil fuels and pumping it into the ground – but this method has yet to be perfected.

Many schemes are controversial and have shown mixed results in tests, and the danger of unintended consequences is real, including further catastrophic, irreversible damage to the climate system.

One major drawback with geoengineering is the mistaken idea that it can be a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. That many geoengineering projects are fraught with danger and would not resolve the problem quickly enough or even effectively – and would do little or nothing to resolve other fossil fuel problems such as pollution – makes this a critical concern.

There’s also the matter of who would decide what methods to apply and when and where. The issue of “rogue” geoengineering has also cropped up in my part of the world, when an American businessman working with the Haida village of Old Massett dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the ocean in 2012 for a salmon restoration and carbon-reduction project.

A U.K. Royal Society study concludes that geoengineering “should only be considered as part of a wider package of options for addressing climate change” and carbon dioxide reduction methods should be preferred over more unpredictable solar radiation management.

Scientists at the Berlin Social Science Research Centre suggest creating “a new international climate engineering agency … to coordinate countries’ efforts and manage research funding.” Because some geoengineering is likely unavoidable, that’s a good idea. But rather than rationalizing our continued use of fossil fuels in the false belief that technology will enable us to carry on with our destructive ways, we really need governments, scientists and industry to start taking climate change and greenhouse gas emissions seriously. We can’t just engineer our way out of the problem.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.

Mark Hume: Businessman Russ George Defends Haida Ocean Fertilization Project

Mark Hume: Businessman Russ George defends Haida Ocean Fertilization Project

Mark Hume: Businessman Russ George Defends Haida Ocean Fertilization Project
Russ George, head of a controversial geoengineering project, in a 2007 photo (Thor Swift/The New York Times)

Read this column from Mark Hume in the Globe and Mail on the ocean fertilization project that caught the world by surprise last week, provoking criticism over fears of geoengineering and unintended ecological consequences. (Oct. 19, 2012)

Russ George, who designed a controversial ocean fertilization experiment now under investigation by Environment Canada, says he is being vilified for daring to go where none have gone before.

But he is not backing away from his research project or apologizing for the way the project was conducted, off the coast of British Columbia, saying that he is out to save the world’s oceans and demonstrate how to halt global warming.

While the damage from climate change mounts, he said, others are only talking – while he is acting.

“I am the champion of this on the planet,” he said in an interview on Thursday.

“If the world does nothing but look into the future about CO2 and says we have to reduce our emissions and we do nothing about the lethal dose we’ve already administered, then it doesn’t matter,” he said.

“If somebody doesn’t step forward to save the oceans, it’s too late.”

Mr. George, a California businessman, worked with the Old Massett Village Council, on Haida Gwaii, to dump 100 tonnes of an iron sulphate mix into the Pacific. The goal of the project was to trigger a plankton bloom in the hope of reviving salmon runs – and to demonstrate a theory that global warming can be blunted by using massive amounts of ocean plankton to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

The experiment took place this summer, apparently without sanction from any official body. There have been widespread expressions of concern from scientists, who fear the experiment could backfire, and political leaders, who are concerned international agreements banning ocean fertilization have been violated.

“Environment Canada did not approve this non-scientific event. Enforcement officers are now investigating,” Environment Minister Peter Kent said in Parliament on Thursday. “This government takes very seriously our commitment to protect the environment and anyone who contravenes environmental law should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, said the project is alarming.

“This kind of experiment is very, very risky business. Scientists have warned us it can destroy oceanic ecosystems, create toxic tides, and aggravate ocean acidification and global warming,” she said. “The bottom line is that ocean fertilization has a high potential of catastrophic effects and a low potential of success.”

Mr. George said his group advised the government all along of its plans and got legal opinions that they are not violating any international accords.

He said since news of the project broke earlier this week, he has been “under this dark cloud of vilification,” with some suggesting his motive is to profit through a carbon-trading scheme.

“I’m not a rich, scheming businessman, right. That’s not who I am. … This is my heart’s work, not my hip pocket work, right?” he said.

Read more:

Nuke the Moon- The Wacky World of Geoengineering

Nuke the Moon: The Wacky World of Geoengineering

Nuke the Moon- The Wacky World of Geoengineering
Detail of Edvard Munch’s 1895 painting, “The Scream”

Okay, time to stop worrying about climate change. Turns out we can just change the climate. How? Well, maybe we should just nuke the moon. (Apparently if we can shift its orbit to block more sunlight, oil companies can keep drilling, the politicians in their pockets can keep doing nothing and gas-guzzling SUV drivers can laugh at the doomsday warnings of scientists. I kid you not).

Welcome to the wacky world of geo-engineering where geeks compete to find technical remedies for the fossil-fueled mess we’ve got ourselves into.

As Joyce Nelson reveals in an article in the current issue of Watershed Sentinel, funding for geo-quick fixes is pouring in from governments (including Canada’s), from the oil industry (including the tar sands folks) and from billionaires like Bill Gates, Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Sir Richard Branson. (Branson wants everyone to stop worrying about climate change so he can go ahead with plans to launch space tourism. I kid you not).

Too much carbon dioxide in your atmosphere? You could turn off the tap by fast-tracking development of electric cars and investing in clean energy. Or you could fund mad schemes to develop money-making ways to suck up the CO2.

Before reneging completely on Canada’s commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, the Harper government and the government of Alberta were relying on – and continue to heavily fund – carbon capture and storage (basically, pumping CO2 underground and hoping for the best). As David Suzuki points out, not all that long ago we thought spraying DDT everywhere was a good idea.

Here are some other bright carbon capture ideas:

  • Dump mega-tonnes of limestone into the oceans to change their acidity in order to soak up extra CO2.
  • ‘Fertilize’ the oceans with iron to increase phytoplankton which may (or may not) sequester CO2.
  • Genetically modify plants to absorb more CO2 or (commercially, of course) manufacture ‘synthetic trees’ to dramatically accelerate an actual tree’s ability to capture carbon.

If none of these work out, we can always try ejecting CO2 from the atmosphere at the Earth’s poles, using the planet’s electromagnetic field and lasers. (I kid you not.)

Alternatively, the geo-engineers reckon we could cool things down by preventing some of that pesky sunshine reaching the planet.

As reported in this week’s New Yorker, geo-engineers think we should be mimicking volcanoes by blasting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. (What might this do to the ozone layer we’re trying to protect? Oh, please don’t ask awkward questions.)

Here are some brilliant ideas for deflecting sunlight:

  • Keep the petroleum-based plastics industry busy by covering four million square miles of desert with white plastic.
  • Use thousands of ships with turbines to propel salt spray from the oceans into low-lying clouds to whiten them.
  • Launch 16 trillion glass disks into space to create a sunshade in orbit 1.5 million kilometres above the planet. Price tag for this sunshade? Four trillion dollars.

Forget for a moment the number of the earth’s problems (and not just the climate-related ones) which could be solved with $4 trillion, and consider this: As Alan Robock of Rutgers University points out in a list of reasons why we should not rush to embrace geo-engineering, blocking or deflecting sunlight would dramatically diminish the capacity of solar power to provide clean energy.  (A good reason – as if one was needed – to build solar panels in the desert, rather than covering it in plastic.)

Robock also warns that geo-engineering proposals could permanently turn our sky the red and yellow depicted in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. He wonders what sort of psychological impacts this might have on humanity. So do I.