Geoengineering: Crackpot capitalism or climate-saving science?

Posted by Jon Entine [1] on Nov 3, 2011

Some radical climate change solutions are being taken seriously – by both supporters and critics, says Jon Entine

By the time you read this, the finalists will have been named in one of the most unusual science competitions ever held. The Virgin Earth Challenge is a $25m prize offered by Sir Richard Branson and Al Gore for a viable plan to counter the effects of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Welcome to the marriage of capitalism and climate remediation.

The climate debate so far has been about costs: doing nothing and courting catastrophe versus carbon taxes, trading schemes and subsidisation of alternative energy. The UK government’s Stern report estimated remediation would cost 2% of world gross domestic product – $1.26tn a year. Governments would have to foot the bill. And even if wallets flip open, low carbon energy cannot be developed quickly enough to avoid serious scenarios.

We can shrug off or deny the problem, as politicians, particularly in the US, often do. That’s reckless. But what if corporations shoulder more costs and lead the technological charge, all for a huge potential payoff? That could be a game changer. In a nutshell, that’s the realpolitik argument for geoengineering.

There are two climate remediation strategies: attacking the source of the problem through carbon dioxide removal (CDR), or solar radiation management (SRM), which would mimic a volcanic eruption by sending particles aloft to block the sun, cooling the planet.

The British government-backed Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project (Spice) is the most advanced project. It would float a balloon tethered by a six-mile hose that shoots reflective particles into the upper atmosphere. The initial test – spraying water particles from a balloon – could come in April 2012.

While it’s sometimes hard to distinguish the crackpot from the consequential, many sober scientists believe that even far-out schemes are worth exploring, considering the alternatives. With India, Brazil, China and much of the developing world on the edge of hyper growth, curbing carbon consumption and a shift to renewables won’t happen for decades.

“We don’t know when the climate may tip,” says Richard Elliott Benedick, former ambassador and chief US negotiator for the 1987 Montreal protocol to protect the ozone layer. “Nature does not give us an early warning system.”

Denialists refuge?

Precautionary-obsessed environmentalists counter that geoengineering is a refuge for climate change denialists. Joe Romm of the Centre for American Progress likens geoengineering to an overweight person recklessly resorting to chemotherapy and radiation rather than dieting. Such campaigners believe we are playing god, that tinkering with complex weather systems could wreck havoc on seasons, generating storms and droughts.

But humans have been manipulating the climate for centuries, building energy plants around the world. “Those who oppose exploratory research on the grounds that we do not know its effects are missing a fundamental point of research, which is to allow us to potentially rule out any technology that would have negative effects that outweigh the positive,” writes Paul Nurse, president of the UK’s Royal Society.

Bedevilled by politics and restrained by sinking economies, global efforts to address climate change are going nowhere fast. Bill Gates has become so fed up with inaction to curb emissions that he has begun seeding geoengineering projects, including balloon sprayers and ocean-churning machines to sap the strength of hurricanes that might grow fiercer if ocean warming continues.

Branson echoed this frustration when he unveiled the Virgin Earth Challenge, saying: “Something radical has got to be done to turn back the tide of global warming.”

In a new report, the Washington DC-based non-profit group Bipartisan Policy Centre urges increased government research, saying it hopes the mere discussion of drastic interventions would jolt policymakers into backing greenhouse gas emission reductions. Even the most liberal members of the panel, from the Natural Resources Defence Council and the Environmental Defence Fund, were encouraging.

That unanimity has the hard left nervous. These scientists and business leaders “represent the most powerful US academic, military, scientific and corporate interests” sneered the Guardian’s John Vidal, a reflexive critic of all things technological. “This coalition of US expertise is a group of people who smell vast potential profits for their institutions and companies in geoengineering,”

Let’s hope entrepreneurs do more than just smell profits. If visionary geoengineers are lucky enough to succeed, it’s going to cost big bucks over decades. If there is no business case for tackling climate change – no money to be made – it simply won’t happen. Let’s hope we are unleashing enlightened capitalist forces that just might drive the kind of technological innovation necessary to genuinely tackle climate change.

Jon Entine is founder of the sustainability consultancy ESG MediaMetrics and is senior fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication at Stats/George Mason University.