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'Chemotherapy for the planet' eyed as emissions surge

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Saturday, 3 December 2011 14:12 GMT

Geoengineering to curb climate change "scares the hell out of me", expert admits, but it could buy time for faltering mitigation efforts

DURBAN, South Africa (AlertNet) - Efforts to deal with climate change have so far focused on two kinds of actions - reducing climate-altering emissions of greenhouse gases, and helping societies adapt to shifts already underway.

But as emissions continue to surge around the world, with little prospect of an effective political deal to curb them, a new type of action is now on the horizon: a kind of planetary chemotherapy that might reduce the symptoms of climate change but also has enormous risks.

Under the most popular “geoengineering” proposal, light-reflecting sulphur particles would be dispersed into the earth’s atmosphere to block a share of incoming sunlight, mimicking the volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, which reduced worldwide temperatures by up to nearly half a degree Celsius over the next 18 months until the particles fell to earth.

Scientists say the technology could be an effective means of buying time to reduce emissions if the world begins to see catastrophic impacts from climate change, such as plunging food production, the breakup of major glaciers leading to rapid sea-level rise, and mass extinctions.

But if deployed, it could also weaken monsoons and alter rainfall and wind patterns worldwide, changing the distribution of weather “winners and losers” and provoking conflict, both researchers and opponents of the technology warn. And it could potentially lead to other irreversible damage to the planet, they say.

Geoengineering “scares the hell out of me”, admitted Jason Blackstock, an expert on geoengineering technologies at the Centre for International Governance and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, during a discussion on the theme at the U.N. climate talks in Durban .

But Blackstock, a physicist, believes research into the technologies needs to continue and international rules should be set up to govern their use - not least to try to prevent a rogue nation deploying the technology on its own after deciding it’s “the only choice I have and I don’t give a damn what other people think”.

Chemotherapy, he said, “is utterly lunacy to consider doing to yourself if you are healthy. But once you have cancer, suddenly chemotherapy starts looking like an option that, unattractive as it is, you have to begin to look at.”


One of the advantages – and greatest potential dangers – of what is known as “solar radiation management” is its cost. Backers say injecting 10 million tons of sulphur into the atmosphere each year, using airplanes, long hoses or even potentially howitzer-type guns, would cost $1 billion a year.

That makes it appear relatively affordable compared to the $100 billion a year developed nations have agreed to mobilise by 2020 to provide adaptation and clean development assistance to help the world’s most vulnerable countries cope with climate change.

The problem, as Stephen Gardiner, a University of Washington ethicist, author and expert on geoengineering techniques, points out, is that that the well-promoted pricetag doesn’t take into account a wide range of potential costs associated with developing and deploying the technology.

“To say geoengineering is cheap is a bit like saying brain surgery is cheap because scalpels are cheap,” he said. A range of additional costs would likely surround the use of the technology, experts say, not least research and testing expenses, environmental impact studies, setting up international frameworks on its use and, potentially, insurance costs against unintended – and potentially catastrophic – side effects.

Opponents also fear that allowing research and testing to advance on the techniques will lead to a trajectory much like the development of the atom bomb, where once a pioneering technology is developed and available, it is likely to be used.

“When you’ve taken it that far, what is the likelihood of the world being able to refrain from using it?” asked Niclas Hallstrom, an expert on carbon at the Swedish Dag Hammarskjold Foundation.


Perhaps most worrying, though, he said, is that the lure of even a temporary “fix” for climate change could remove pressure to cut carbon emissions worldwide and make needed changes for long-term planetary stability, including investment in renewable energy.

“It cannot be underestimated what this does to that motivation to cut carbon,” Hallstrom said. “This is communicating there is a way out that allows you to relax a bit.”

Blackstock agrees that “if people think it provides a ‘get out of jail free’ card, we’re in trouble”.

But he believes, paradoxically, that the possibility geoengineering technology could be used, particularly by one nation acting outside an international framework – as nuclear weapons might be deployed – could spur action in the climate talks.

“There is nothing like the ability of an individual to change the world that gets people to want to solve that problem faster,” Blackstock said. “This may encourage people to (accept) more mitigation to not get engineering. I think this potentially changes the collective action.”

Using solar geoengineering to address climate change has a multitude of drawbacks – it is risky and difficult to test effectively at large scale, creating rules to govern it could be a challenge that dwarfs the ongoing U.N. climate talk process, and it would not curb the acidification of the world’s oceans, which threatens sea life.

“How do we engage democratic processes on technologies that are planetary in scale? It creates new governance challenges we haven’t faced,” Blackstone said. The question becomes, “Who gets to set the global thermostat?”

 The problem is that “we are engineering the climate system right now – we’re just doing it very stupidly” by continuing to increase carbon emissions that scientists predict will make life much more difficult for many people on earth, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, he said

By 2020, the production of crops from rain-fed fields in Africa could fall by 50 percent as a result of warming and changing rainfall patterns linked to climate change, noted Mulugeta Mengist Ayalew, an Ethiopian researcher who works on food security and governance issues for the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa .

That is one reason he is studying geoengineering techniques and their possible effects. Right now, with so little progress worldwide toward cutting emissions, “relying on mitigation and adaptation alone has risks as well”, he said.

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