It can be difficult to tell, reading papers related to climate engineering, whether the researchers themselves really take the proposals seriously. It is human nature to enjoy inventing crazy ideas, and so we should expect a few to appear from time to time. Of course, life on Mars perhaps excepted, the researchers have always pretended that these are serious proposals, because otherwise funding would dry up. There is always a sentence or two about making a responsible choice, and preserving options for the future.
However, in the early days, the authors could speculate freely, for they had little fear of the proposals becoming reality. Today in contrast, the dollars-per-tonne-Carbon ratio must be carefully calculated relative to expected carbon taxes/credits. It seems, some of the sponsors have gone beyond the question, will we ever employ climate engineering, they are already choosing the cheapest scheme...
It was in the early 1970s, with the first wave of concern about greenhouse warming, that climate engineering schemes began to appear in the international academic literature. Before then, in the Soviet Union, various enormous engineering schemes were proposed to warm the Siberian tundra or irrigate their southern deserts, and in this tradition Budyko (1974) applied the idea to the world, proposing the stratospheric aerosol idea. Kellogg and Schneider (1974) even at this early stage foresaw many of the ethical objections. Marchetti (1977) coined the term "Geoengineering" and the subject slowly gained academic credibility in the US, perhaps culminating in the 1992 NAS report, by which time the Iron Fertilisation proposal was already well known.
These were academic studies, and the scale of such research is still relatively small. Most of the original ideas arose this way. But in these last five years, the scale of the research has expanded greatly, since industrial sponsorship is rapidly taking over as the driving force. And as the schemes become more realistic and the climate problem increasingly urgent, for there is little sign yet of decisive action from the politicians to curb emissions, I expect the funds to flow faster.
This could have three potentially disturbing impacts. Initially, it might seriously distort the science of global change. Following that, the prospect of a technical fix might distract politicians from the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, in the worst case scenario, the proposals might actually be implemented. These impacts of climate engineering proposals are thus discussed in that order: the impact on climate science, the impact on climate politics, and the impact on the world's climate itself. I then ask whether such research should continue, and finally, what we might do to constrain it.
It is now increasingly difficult to get a job in physics without working for the military, in plant biology without working for agribusiness giants, in chemistry without working for the chemical industry, or in medical research, without working for drug companies. Myself, I joined global change research, not because it was lucrative, but because I was inspired by the mysteries of the oceans, atmosphere, and how life controls our climate, and concerned that the balance of these systems was in grave danger from our pollution. But in this era of "wealth creation", such inspiration is no longer considered a valid driving force for science. We must all be seen to make money. Insecure young scientists may feel particularly that "beggars can't be choosers", and put their efforts into climate engineering. I already know colleagues drawn into this..
The "wealth creation" concept implies a marketable product. A healthy, beautiful, diverse planet belongs to nobody and cannot be sold, therefore there is little money to be made investigating it. The message that we should consume less fossil fuel cannot be sold. On the other hand, industry can sell oil, coal, electricity, and then later the same companies can sell the technology - probably the price will have to be paid by future governments - to fix the problems they have caused: pipelines to the deep sea, rockets to the stratosphere, fertilisers for the ocean. This is also good for the national growth statistics: it is the classic story that if we make a mess and then have to clean it up, money changes hands twice so the economy seems to be booming and we are all working hard. However, we will not find the world a better place as a result! The technical fix is good for business and GNP figures, but not so good for the rest of us. The irony is summed up well by the title of another RITE project: "A study concerning Global Environmental Improvement through the development of air-pollution-philic plants" (plants which love pollution)!
And to make this money, the companies will have to file patents on their new technology. As noted above, RITE already has many patents. Can we envisage patents for controlling the oceans, algae, forests, deserts, stratosphere? There is already an enormous outcry against genetic engineering patents. Will we now have to pay royalties to live in a world with a stable climate, something which we used to take for granted in the preindustrial age?
With patents will also come secrecy. This is inefficient, encouraging duplication of work and propogation of stupid ideas. It is also dangerous, if we have no warning of proposals before they are actually tried out on our only planet. And many climate engineering schemes which might be beneficial for one community might be harmful to another, we all have a right to know and respond to what is planned.
Moreoever it was apparent to me from reading many papers particularly on CO2 disposal, that those coming from industrial labs or private consultants were more likely to be over-optimistic and to ignore existing knowledge. Their papers are a commercial product: if the conclusion were that the proposal is a stupid idea or that it has been thought of many times already, they would be less likely to get a new contract. So each year many more miraculous cures are announced.
It seems that governments who commission such research are sometimes ignorant of fundamental laws of thermodynamics. You cannot get something for nothing. If you convert fossil fuel to CO2 to gain energy, you cannot convert that CO2 back into fuel without putting back even more energy. Yet many resources are spent on clever methods to fix CO2, the specialists conveniently ignoring the full cycle.
Political dogma can be responsible for trusting research to industry or consultants rather than academics, who are more likely to point out the stupid ideas. It can also lead to patronage, encouraging a system which is less open that that of the universities. The problem of climate change was discovered in universities and institutes driven by curiosity about how the world works. They now receieve considerable funding to keep doing that, on the grounds that this is a vital field which cannot be driven by the search for commerical applications. But as more and more technofix proposals appear, will political dogma drive government money away from the "blue skies" climate research and towards so called "wealth creation"?
On the other hand, it could be argued that the academics already know what the problem is, and the difficulty is getting the message clearly to the rest of society. Perhaps bringing in the engineers and the industrial research labs is one step towards this. They will have to find out about the climate system, reinventing some wheels perhaps, but we all learn best by mistakes, even transnational corporations!
Also I am not suggesting, that for industry to control the purse strings, is necessarily more dangerous than direct funding by governments. Indeed, the reverse may even be so, for government programmes have become so short-sighted that industry may take a more responsible view of the medium term future. And we must remember, it is governments that fund military research, and supported the most ludicrous proposals such as star wars (SDI). In the "military-industrial complex" the division between government and private industry is often indistinct, as it is also in the fossil fuel and power industries.
The danger is for global change research to be sucked into a system dominated by the ethical values and methods of those with money and power. We must be most wary of the strings attached to funding, and of who chooses which projects get funded. Ideally, there should be a common global change research fund, into which industry can contribute, with no strings attached, no intellectual property rights, where all decisions are made openly. We would then see whether the fossil fuel giants are really so motivated to "save the earth". For they do not have a good record in the game of climate politics, as the next section shows.
In Geneva this July (1996) 1500 people gathered for two weeks, for the second Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. to advance the negotiations of the UN Climate Convention. As a participant, I can confirm that very little happened. They even failed to agree even the voting procedure. In the words of one delegate, "this conference continues to discuss the sex of angels".
It is not surprising: the diplomats all know that their countries' economic growth is intimately linked to fossil fuel consumption, yet for all countries to increase consumption to the levels enjoyed by the richest few today, would clearly lead to a global catastrophe. Preventing this will require an enormous redistribution of consumption. It is the biggest power struggle the world has known, with a very high price of failiure. The diplomats are still only sounding out their opponents and digging in their position. Yet many of them feel powerless, for so much of the current conference agenda - Joint Implementation, Economic Efficiency - is not there primarily to aid a political solution and save small islands from drowning or the Sahel from becoming desert, but to placate the international business interests. The industry lobby were there in force, many under the banner of the "Global Climate Coalition". The GCC just a month earlier had organised a letter to the US President signed by the chief executives of many major US companies including the fossil fuel giants, effectively demanding that the US do nothing in the negotiations. They were also behind a vicious campaign to challenge the integrity of the IPCC scientists and thus deny that climate change was real, and also disseminated misleading information to developing countries about the effect of emissions reductions on their export markets. In response the environmental lobbyists spent most of their effort, not into searching for long-term political solutions, but in attacking the blocking tactics of the businessmen.
And so the world's media was told a great breakthrough had been made when, in his official statement the US minister Timothy Wirth openly scorned the GCC, calling them "naysayers and special interest groups deliberately obfuscating the science...". So a small battle was won. The GCC is discredited and companies are now switching their allegiance, and large lobbying payments, to other organisations. Yet that was just the first battle. Having now conceded, many years after the scientific consensus, that Climate Change is a real problem, the industry lobby now seeks to delay any curb in emissions with the argument that it is cost effective, rallying around an paper coauthored by a climate modeller and economists from the US Electric Power Research Institute (Wigley, Richels and Edmonds 1996). Recall that EPRI were among the first to fund research into climate engineering schemes. The paper proposes that it might be cheaper to delay immediate cuts in CO2 emissions, in order to gain wealth and technology first which could pay for more rapid cuts in emissions later, to achieve the same final concentration in the atmosphere.
This approach not only denies consumption to future generations whilst ecouraging more at present, and increases the risk of "surprises" from climate feedbacks not included in Wigley's model, but it is also fundamentally based on the assumption that there will be technical fixes to this problem. That assumption encourages complacency and reduces the incentive to find a political agreement. So, as long as they can fool governments to believe they can develop technical fixes, the fossil fuel giants have an interest in sponsoring such research, regardless of whether it really works...
There are other academic papers which are siezed upon by the industry lobby to justify delaying any curb of emissions. In particular, they love to quote the figures from Global Cost-Benefit Analyses (CBAs) of climate change calculated by economists such as David Pearce and William Nordhaus. In chapter 7 of IPCC working group 3's report (IPCC 1996f), Pearce confidently claimed that the figures for damage due to future climate change were all converging on a figure 1.5-2.0% of Gross World Product, remarkably similar to the previous chapter's figure for "mitigation costs". They claimed to have considered all damages, from trees and fish to storm damage, agriculture, human health and morbidity. Everything had to be given a value in US$, and these figures were based on the principle of asking people's "Willingness To Pay" to preserve what would be lost. It was only by reading the small print on one page of the original analysis (Fankhauser 1995), that the fundamental assumptions behind the figures became clear. Arguing that people in rich countries are "willing to pay" more than in poor countries where life is cheap, the values for everything, from biodiversity to human life, were taken from OECD countries and then divided by 15 for calculating damages in the rest of the world. Given that the actual damages will be much worse in the poor countries which lie where the world is already warmest and people are most vulnerable, it is not surprising that the total figure (as % of GWP) came out much lower than it would have been were all lives valued equally. Effectively the analysis said, climate change may drown many people in Bangladesh, but this will not have much impact on the global dollar economy.
A campaign to reject such analysis was led by the Global Commons Institute, who applied a range of value assumptions to the same original figures as Fankhauser used, and showed that the damage could lie anywhere from 0.5 to 200% of GWP (Meyer and Cooper 1995). By playing the economists' game, GCI thus demonstrated that CBA is a useless tool for global climate policy. At a meeting in Montreal shortly afterwards, the government delegates effectively ridiculed the analysis in the IPCC in the only way they were able, by agreeing a summary for policymakers which was very critical of Pearce's chapter itself. This ridiculous stalemate continued into the published report despite calls for total rejection, and the debate received much media attention. The story of "defending the value of life", including letters and press clippings, is told on GCI's web page (http://www.gn.apc.org/gci/vol/vol.html).
However, there are plenty of more economists willing to reinvent these absurd analyses. The International Energy Agency followed with another global climate CBA (IEA 1995), claiming it was both the most comprehensive to date, and that all life was valued equally, and yet still the total "damage" figure was even lower. This is simply because they took a high-tech low-emissions scenario in which the climate would actually change much less than in Fankhauser's "business as usual" analysis. However, this figure has been quoted by the business lobby out of context, arguing that it implies emissions reductions are unnecessary.
A closer view suggests that this was not the IEA's intention. Their CBA is actually examining the cost of implementing technical fixes, notably CO2 capture and disposal, and even includes figures for environmental damage due to deep sea disposal, for example (a small fraction of the total cost). It is amazing that anybody can claim to know such figures. But most revealing is the implication of this trade off, between the damage from global warming and the damage from technical fixes to reduce that warming. It implies that fossil fuel consumption will be a "fait accompli", and so the only choice is between the warming or the technofix. It is sometimes pointed out for instance, that global warming is expected to reduce marine primary productivity by stratification which hinders nutrient supply (a positive feedback since the algae then soak up less CO2), so there would be less life in the sea. And therefore they claim, marine ecology might benefit globally from CO2 disposal or ocean fertilisation which reduces that warming, although it harms marine ecology locally.
This assumption, that our wasteful consumption is inevitable and so we have the right to decide on behalf of the algae and whales what is their least-worse option, remains incredible to those of us with respect for the rest of life on earth, who are not brainwashed by the dogma of economics which requires that eveything be judged by it's direct monetary utility to individual humans. Surely the first question is whether the fish and the plankton are intrinsically more valuable than profligate human consumption of fossil fuels? Yet even that question will be seized upon by the economists. They say they can measure the value of everything by asking people's "willingness to pay". For instance, such figures for the value of biodiversity, extremely low, were included in Fankhauser's analysis. No doubt they will soon be asking North Americans, on the one hand how much they value driving their cars, and on the other how much they are "willing to pay" for the plankton, krill and fish of the southern ocean. I only wish somebody could ask the whales the same question!
Perhaps, before the whales, we should consider first asking the opinions of people in majority of the world, living in undeveloped rural communities, who have never actually been asked these "Willingness to Pay" questions (Jamieson 1996). It is assumed that they would not have much money to pay to avoid climate damage, yet why should they? Since they did not cause the problem, they might instead be asked how much they are "willing to accept" as compensation. But there is little hope that economists preparing a cost-benefit analysis of any technical fix, which will have different impacts on different regions (Schnieder 1996), will ask this question. It will just show how to maximise the world production of dollars, and people whose lives are worth few of these, count for little.
These global CBAs draw data from many studies, and the critical number, be it for a climate engineering scheme, a damage estimation, or a proposed carbon tax, is the ratio of dollars/tonne of Carbon (as CO2). For example, Fankhauser's (1995) controversial figure for climate damages, in which life in poor countries is cheap, is equivalent to 20 $/t. These $/t figures have also crept into most papers on climate engineering proposals. Disposal in the ocean or aquifers ranges from 100-300$/t (Ormerod 1994), whilst Iron Fertilisation was once given a figure of 5 $/t and Penner (1993) thinks he can put coal dust into the stratosphere for as little as 0.001$/t (to achieve cooling equivalent to removing the CO2). The NAS report (1992) also contains such figures, but Schneider (1996) recalls that many members of the panel were unhappy that the topic is becoming dominated by such considerations.
Academics may be unhappy, but politicians like to be told such simple costs. Schelling (1996) points out that, whether or not climate engineering is actually cheaper than reducing emissions by reducing consumption, it is administratively simpler and thus convenient for governments. He says "it will involve merely deciding what to do, how much to do, and who is to pay for it". This is considered greatly preferable to the alternative "Social Engineering" which would be required to reduce consumption.
Many natural scientists and engineers have such an attitude. They scorn the softer social sciences, and dismiss any attempt to make the world a better place by changing the structure of society. Technical solutions to a problem are seen as providing opportunities for people, wheras political solutions restrict them. Technology is seen as more reliable than fuzzy and unmanageable political solutions. In the context of global climate change, the opposite may be nearer the truth, but such attitudes die hard.
And thus such scientists assert, there may never be any political solution, so we must develop the technical fixes just in case. Certainly, the lack of progress so far seems to support their case. But such an argument is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the scientists offer to relieve the politicians of this difficult task, they will jump at the opportunity. Today's politicians need to be seen to be doing something, but they will not be held accountable if the scientists' promises prove false in twenty years time. And meanwhile, many scientists are happily employed investigating the details. The less scrupulous amongst them, may be pleased that there is little progress towards a political solution.
The problem is exacerbated by the specialisation of reductionist science. Individuals work on the details of their own field, trusts their methods and those of their colleagues, and assumes that it is not his or her own problem to check the assumptions or quality of research in another field. Everything within the peer-review system is accorded the same trust, and is considered "scientifically correct". Pearce, defending his cost-benefit analysis, claimed the argument was a choice between "scientific or political correctness". His CBA hid many value assumptions, which a paper on ocean chemistry would not. However, he hoped to appeal to his IPCC colleagues' faith in the system, claiming that the economists, like the natural scientists, were merely describing the world as it is, not as it should be. To say that life is cheap in poor countries is descriptive, a "scientific" observation, wheras to insist that all life should be given equal intrinsic value, is prescriptive, merely "politically correct". He says he was just doing the job that IPCC asked him to do. And some scientists find it easier to work with colleagues who just do their job, for that way the specialists do not interfere too much in each other's business. Specialists may feel particularly annoyed when outsiders try to place their work in context, for criticism of their underlying assumptions is misinterpreted as criticism of their expertise, and to suggest that there may be a more responsible alternative "political" solution to the problem, may threaten the status of the niche which they have dug for themselves.
So many scientists effectively discourage political solutions to climate change. Nevertheless, many people do not yet trust their technical fixes, nor the analyses which attempt to boil the problem down to one simple global average $/t ratio. With different value assumptions and unquantifiable positive feedbacks, climate change becomes simply an issue of survival, for themselves and all life on earth. In this case the political solution becomes much clearer: it requires a large (ca 60%) reduction in global fossil fuel consumption, and to get all countries to agree to this, a gradual equitable redistribution of that consumption from industrialised countires to developing countries is inevitable. Detailed proposals of how this might be achieved within a protocol to the Climate Convention, have been drafted by the Global Commons Institue (GCI 1996, also available on the web), and are receiving much interest from delegates. GCI believe that a long term political solution is very achievable, if only climate change is seen clearly as an issue of equity and survival. However, just as equity has been hijacked by economists who talk about "burden sharing" in order to obscure the real distributional issue, so the survival issue is now brought into question by scientists' research into climate engineering schemes. If such "experts" continue to provide such distractions, they may fulfill their prophesy by defeating the political will. Then it will be their turn to deliver the promises.
It should be noted, in contrast, that some of the more astute would-be climate engineers are actually pushing for a "flexible" political agreement, lobbying through fora such as the "Business Council for Sustainable Energy".The market for their "product" depends upon governments or industry having a financial incentive to reduce their CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, or to increase their CO2 sinks if these are included in the budget. This will not happen until a carbon tax or tradable emissions quota system is introduced. On the other hand, they do not want such a political solution too soon, for then real consumption cuts might be made before the new technology is ready. A medium-term political agreement would suit them best.
In an interview following the publication of results from "Ironex 2", Andy Watson hypothesised that Australia might be the most likely country to support a large-scale iron-fertilisation of the Southern Ocean (Pearce F. 1996). He did not believe that the politicians would ever agree to a global solution, and noted that the predicted CO2 drawdown would anyway be limited, perhaps too small to be worth the effort of international coordination. Australia is closest to the southern ocean, and academics there have said they are interested in the idea. On the other hand, this scenario did not provide a clear incentive for the Australian government, whose delegation at CoP 2 in Geneva, dominated by right-wing economists, stubbornly resisted any progress towards agreement. The hypothesis must assume that there has, after all, been an international agreement and some system of carbon emission quotas or taxes has been imposed globally, and thus Australia would try to claim the CO2 credit for increasing the CO2 sink. It also assumes, incredibly to me, that one country has the right to exploit the ecology of the entire Southern Ocean, one of the few remaining true global commons, and trade this off against its own consumption of fossil fuels. This extension of property rights is in itself a horrifying prospect.
Yet it may not end there. One problem with a global political agreement based on national emissions quotas, is how to allocate the emissions of international airlines and shipping ("bunker fuels") to any one country. Another argument against quotas is that they encourage "leakage", if transnational companies (TNCs) move their operations to where emissions are cheaper, rather than investing in cleaner technology. On the other hand, quotas can be allocated to gradually decrease inequity, wheras a flat-rate carbon tax hits the poorer countries hardest. GCI (1996) noted that the leakage and bunker fuel problem might be solved, if the TNCs were required to purchase (but not sell, to avoid speculation) emissions quotas for their own activities, from any government. In other words, TNCs would be included in a global emissions quota trading scheme.
If the TNCs were directly liable to purchase emissions quotas or pay a carbon tax, they also would have an incentive to claim credit for climate engineering schemes to pull CO2 from the atmosphere. So we might envisage several TNCs rushing to claim their own share of the algae in the Southern Ocean. Not even the tiniest creatures in the remotest seas would be independent of the might of the company executives!
Much of the discussion above has assumed that decisions about climate engineering would be taken by governments or even TNCs, and that even if they take little account of wisdom or justice, they would be based on some rational and impersonal economic or political logic. It is as if a climate engineering scheme would be sitting complete on a shelf, and the decision-makers could simply decide whether or not to pick it up. This ignores a very critical factor, the momentum of the research community itself. Researchers who have spent many years on a project do not want to see it abandoned, they want to see whether it really works, and to work on it further. Institutions set up for the purpose need to justify maintaining their staff and overhead costs. The directors of programmes, who have spent so much effort grappling for funds by promising good results, do not want to have nothing to show to their sponsors. And the sponsors do not want to look foolish by admitting it was all a waste of money. So in all there is an enormous vested interest in carrying a project to completion.
There is much evidence that it was factors like these, rather than any rational strategic objective, that led to the tragic decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its development at Los Alamos brought together more bright scientists than ever before or since, many of them motivated by the urgency of the supposed race to produce a bomb before Nazi Germany. When the project was nearly complete and that objective revealed to be no longer necessary, many of the scientists wrote letters requesting that it never be used. But by then the momentum was too great. The middle men, generals between the government and the scientists, were particularly keen to demonstrate the power of their creation. The story of the personalities involved is meticulously described by Jungk (1956) in his book "Brighter Than a Thousand Suns".
Likewise, Jamieson (1996) refers to case studies from medical research, in which a community of researchers functions as an interest group promoting the technology that they are investigating, and he suggests that such momentum is likely to apply to climate engineering projects. Therefore, the decision to begin such a project increases the risk that it will be implemented even if unwarranted. For this reason he asserts "we should reject the idea that ethical and societal concerns are relevant only to decisions about development and not to decisions about research".
Although the history of nuclear physics or genetic engineering may provide useful case studies for the transition from science to technology, beyond that we enter completely unknown territory. For unlike genetic engineering or military technology, climate and ecological systems are inherently unpredictable. They are dominated by a web of non-linear feedback processes, which tends to lead to sudden chaotic changes between different stable states. For instance, warming the ocean increases stratification which decreases the nutrient supply to algae, which cool the planet by removing CO2 and adding DMS to the atmopshere. The latter affects the condensation of clouds, notoriously difficult to model. On land, snow cover is reduced by a northward movement of the tree line, whilst methane may be released from warming permafrost or flooded coastal areas. There may be many feedbacks which we have not even considered. The failure of "Biosphere 2" provides such a warning. It is an enormous greenhouse in the desert, designed to be a closed self-regulating model of the earth (for results of the first two years, see Nelson et al 1994). Among other things, the system's collapse was due to a proliferation of ants which converted Oxygen to CO2. Nobody had predicted that ants could become so significant! Even if we knew all the feedbacks, and could quantify them, to model the consequences of a perturbation to such a chaotic system is a very difficult task, and we are at very early stages. It will be a long time before such models could be used to reliably test climate engineering schemes.
And there is a danger that as our understanding of the feedbacks develops, it will lead to suggestions of more cheap, "elegant" climate engineering proposals, directly manipulating positive feedbacks to get a large response from a small initial effort. For example, the control of deep water formation in the Greenland Sea is currently of great interest, because the descending cold salty water drags behind it the Gulf Stream which warms Western Europe, and sediment records show that in the past this process has rapidly switched on or off, dramatically changing the climate in just a decade. It seems to be a chaotic bistable system, which is dependent on ice melting in the Greenland Sea, and also on freshwater from the St Lawrence river. Some time in the future, people might consider controlling the river flow or the ice albedo, to flip the system. Another physical bistable system, El Nino, affects the climate in the tropics all around the world. We are far from controlling it yet, but many people are striving to understand the critical trigger that causes an El Nino year. Where will we stop when we know?
Biological feedbacks are potentially even more powerful. I have already considered the possibility that a combination of genetic engineering and climate engineering might produce new ocean algae to cool the planet.
Most climate engineering schemes are less dramatic, and are often considered "reversible". But while it is true, that we could stop the initial action - e.g. putting iron into the southern ocean or dust into the stratosphere -, it is by no means certain that the response would cease too. The possibility of a runaway iron fertilisation has already been mentioned. Whether the proposed mechanism is correct or not, we do know that there must be positive feedbacks associated with cooling, since the ice ages began and ended very suddenly. Eventually it might be "reversible", but we might shiver for a long time whilst searching for a reverse positive feedback process to recreate the interglacial.
And even if a climate engineering scheme is truly reversible, this implies that it will not be long lasting. To offset the accumulated greenhouse gas warming, future generations would have the burden of continuously engineering the climate to stay cool. The engineers have to face not only the problems of predicting biogeochemistry and dynamics, but also to get international cooperation and money to sustain it. Economists still assume that growth will continue for ever, and that we will always be able to develop more technology to cope with the legacy of the past. They do not include in their models the possibility of a collapse of world social order, and with it, the programmes to artificially cool an otherwise overheated planet.
James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis observes that the planet is kept in a comfortable state for life, by simple darwinian selection between organisms which have some feedback effect on their local environment. But this process relies on the presence of a diversity of abundant species. If, through modern agriculture and fisheries, pollution, or perhaps climate engineering itself, we drastically reduce that diversity, then we reduce the planet's resilience to bounce back from a perturbation. In this case the task facing our own species would be much harder. He writes "I would sooner expect a goat to succeed as a gardener, than expect humans to become responsible stewards of the earth" (Lovelock, 1991). To force ourselves into a position where we have such a responsibility, where the World Bank has to rule the algae in the sea, because we were encouraged to be complacent by the possession of climate engineering options, would be like, to use another of Lovelock's analogies, running down our kidneys to the state where we have to be permanently attached to a dialysis machine. Steven Schneider (1996) similarly likens fossil fuel consumption to heroin addiction, and climate engineering to injections of the cheaper drug methadone to relieve the symptoms. He prefers to get slowly unhooked from the drug addiction.
Yet, continuing Lovelock's analogy, is it not wiser to have that dialysis machine available, just in case the kidneys, the global ecological feedback systems, do indeed collapse because humans are unable to limit our consumption at a sustainable level? This is the strongest case for continuing climate engineering research. If we cause a catastrophe by unintentional climate engineering (i.e. greenhouse gas emissions), our children will not thank us for failing to develop the technofix solution because it was considered ethically unacceptable or because is risks causing another catastrophe. The counter argument, already developed above, is that to develop technofix solutions just in case political solution might fail, will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Likewise, it could be argued that continued research might both discredit stupid ideas, or instead propogate them, depending on the openness of the science.
There are many such pairs of arguments for and against continued research, most of which are not easily resolved, but have already been discussed in previous sections. Rather than develop them again here, I will simply list them in a table below. Similar arguments on related topics are also well developed in a series of essays appropriately entitled "Science for the Earth" (Wakeford 1995). The earth needs good science, but does it need the transition from that science to technology, as seems to be implicit in the title of the RITE?
|Science of the Earth becomes Technology for the Earth?|
|Should we encourage climate engineering research?|
|non-linear feedback system|
|Might avert catastrophe||Might cause catastrophe|
|Elegant solutions possible||May be terrible surprises|
|responsibility for future generations|
|Useful tool||Terrible burden to maintain|
|Technology is capital asset||Encourage waste now|
|choice of climate|
|Choice is always welcome||Who has right to choose?|
|Can optimise net benefit||Rich and powerful choose, poor ignored|
|Climate best for humans||Other species ignored|
|impact on climate science|
|Wealth Creation"||Will distort the science|
|Good for economy and jobs||Unnecessary effort|
|Industry learns about climate||Patents, Secrecy, Inefficiency|
|More Private funding||Reduced public funding|
|Image: do something useful?||Public Mistrust|
|Foster research community||Unstoppable momentum|
|impact on climate politics|
|Reduce the problem||Encourage complacency, reduce political will|
|Reduce speculation and silly ideas||Propogate and legitimise stupid ideas|
|Preferable to social engineering||Delays inevitable redistribution|
|knowledge is power|
|Be clever||Be wise|
It is the story of nearly all scientific endeavours, that knowledge brings power. Personally, I would prefer that we are wise before we are clever, questioning rather than automatically accepting the benefit of that knowledge. Research should not go ahead on any climate engineering proposal without prior public consultation and an open discussion of the specific ethical issues, including equity between peoples, and the impact on other species. I would also be much happier if industrial sponsorship was channeled through a common international fund. But most of all, we must raise the scientists' awareness of the dirty political game of climate politics, where any excuse to do nothing will be eagerly siezed. Timing is critical: if disaster looms, develop the technical fix before it is too late, but do not invite that disaster by doing so too early. It is a tricky game of bluffing, which is unfamiliar to naive scientists in their specialist shells. We should not race into this game, it is not worth the risk.
It would in any case be futile for me to provide a simple answer to the question, should the research continue? Nobody has such power of censorship, and nor should we desire it. Instead, we might gather together friends and colleagues, to influence public opinion and the media, and to convince decision makers to consider the widest implications of what they are backing. One person may feel powerless to influence decisions, particularly because so many are taken by obscure committees behind closed doors. However, so long as a few people familiar with this research community are willing to bridge these gaps, not afraid to enter the dirty world of climate politics and research agendas, or to talk with politicians and media, then there are open fora in which to raise concerns, and innovative ways to get more people involved in the debate. A non-governmental organisation such as Scientists for Global Responsibility could provide a focus for such activities.
One key event will be the third Conference of the Parties of the UN Climate Convention in Kyoto, December 1997, at which governments are expected to agree some protocol to restrict CO2 emissions. Nobody has high hopes of an effective long term agreement by then, but there will be great pressure to demonstrate that something is being done. At this point, delegates will no doubt be encouraged to visit RITE headquarters which is just adjacent, and see a dazzling array of technical fixes. Problem solved... It is critical that some people are there in Kyoto, ready to present the other side of the story, to raise some of the concerns raised above. I hope this paper will encourage the "environmental" NGOs to be prepared for this well in advance.
Meanwhile the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will be producing new reports, although another comprehensive report is not expected for some years. The IPCC is now chaired by Bob Watson, a former US government climate policy advisor who has recently been working in the World Bank, and the new agenda is becoming very dominated by "western" economists. Integrated assessment is the buzzword, in which cost-benefit analysis can be used to subtly incorporate the value assumptions of those with most dollars and power. Recently circulated "technical working papers" give a foretaste of this. Organisations such as EPRI and RITE may be asked to provide data on the costs of their proposals, and thus become closely involved with the IPCC. They will then want more attention given to climate engineering, probably several chapters, in which it is portrayed much more favourably than in the recent report (IPCC 1996a) which effectively ridicules most proposals.
If we fail to resist this transformation, if the IPCC is effectively hijacked by the economists and engineers of the high-consumption countries, it may be better to risk discrediting it and instead gathering around some alternative authoratative scientific report. Some of the key natural scientists themselves, who were lead authors of IPCC 1996 and earlier reports, may drop out of the process as it becomes infiltrated by the business lobby. One such professor told me of his intention to do this. If many follow suit, the IPCC would have no claim to represent world science, and other organisations such as the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (independent of the UN system but backed by national science academies from many countries) might provide an alternative authority. Again, the environmental NGOs must be ready for this, not to dig themselves into a hole, as at present, from which they cannot be seen to criticise the IPCC.
Bodansky (1996) considers whether climate engineering would actually be permitted under international law. It is, of course, too new to be specifically forbidden, but he considers that there are ways for governments to raise objections, and it would then be very hard to reach international agreement on such issues. In particular, any attempt to fertilise the Southern Ocean (south of 60 degrees) by adding Iron, would be subject to the Antarctic treaty, which has a mandatory procedure for resolving disputes. Any member government might thereby be able to delay even a preliminary experiment. If this happened, the scientists might be forced to wait for several years, and to consider ethical matters and public opinion before rushing ahead with the experiment. They could do this thoroughly, without fearing as at present that another research group might get there first. Concerned environmental NGOs might consider lobbying a friendly government to initiate this procedure.
On the other hand, the treaty might just be ignored. Determined governments are not afraid of international condemnation on isolated issues such as this. We should recall how France and China defied world opinion when conducting recent nuclear tests. Meanwhile the World Court had been asked by the UN General Assembly to advise whether the use of nuclear weapons could be legal, and this July delivered a verdict that it would not. But the nuclear states have little intention of heeding the Court's opinion. Nevertheless, it represents a swing of opinion and sets a hopeful precedent for legal restraint on climate engineering.
Neither individual governments nor specific industries can be relied upon to support a balanced programme of global climate change research. Government sponsored research is biased towards impacts on the rich countries around 45 degrees north (where there is least warming), and industrially sponsored research is biased towards technical fixes which can be a commercial asset. Research into impacts on the poorest, equatorial countries dependent on traditional agriculture does not attract such funds. Nor does research on ways to reduce consumption, to break away from the crazy assumption that continued fossil fuel burning is inevitable and so can only treat the symptoms and not the cause of the problem.
To ensure that such issues receive a fair hearing, and that not all scientists are forced to work under the auspices of "wealth creation", a global climate research fund should be set up, with contributions from both governments and industry, but with no strings attached to the funders. A truly diverse international committee of academic scientists should allocate this money, to proposals sent in by independent researchers. Again, the IGBP might help to play such a role. Since there is no particular incentive to contribute to such a fund, an small international carbon tax, for example, might eventually be set up by the UN climate convention, specifically to collect money from both governments and multinationals for such research.
In addition to this, Jamieson (1996) proposes that new national and international laws could be passed requiring a certain percentage (eg 5%) of all money spent on climate engineering research to be earmarked for ethical considerations and consultation. This is already standard practice in medical research, and would force the scientists to think beyond their narrow speciality.
Consensus Conferences evolved in Denmark (Hansen et al 1992), and are designed to sample informed public opinion on controversial technical matters. A lay-panel of non-specialist members of the public are brought together for several days to hear and discuss the views of the "experts" whom the panel invites, and can question as much as it wishes. When the panel feels it understands the issues sufficiently, it delivers a verdict. The idea was recently imported to the UK, in a much publicised conference on plant biotechnology (Science Museum 1994). Although it was expensive, and some observers felt that the choice of "experts" was biased towards the biotechnology establishment, there was general enthusiasm about the method. Perhaps such a conference should be arranged for climate engineering.
Multinational companies are not invulnerable to pressure from consumers, particularly when the protest concerns an optional activity such as climate engineering research, which they are being asked not to spend money on. Boycotts have also been effectively used against a few governments. But in most cases the public's apathy is jolted only by really horrendous events. The terrible environmental destruction in Ogoniland, Nigeria, and the murder of those who tried to campaign to stop it, brought many first-time protestors out onto the streets. Shell seems slow to respond, but we should keep trying, for there is a less well-publicised facet to the issue. The gas flaring and leakage responsible for those scorched crops and pollution, also emits to the atmosphere 34 million tonnes of CO2, and 12 million tonnes of methane each year, contributing more to the greenhouse effect than all the domestic heating in the UK, for example (figures from Nigerian scientists via the WWF, printed in the Independent November 1995). We should not be protesting about climate engineering, whilst ignoring such an enormous waste which could so easily be prevented, probably at less than zero net cost. The same probably applies to many grab and run oil operations in the crumbling infrastructure of Siberia. That would make another good target for such protest.
Section 4.3.2. told how GCI, a small group of friends with little money, could take on many prestigious economic institutions and win the "value of life" debate in the UN, by exposing to the world the fundamental values underlying the economists' analysis. Their sophisticated cost benefit analysis, with hundreds of equations and hundreds of thousands of pounds behind it, fell due to a few simple questions about its underlying assumptions. This should encourage us to keep asking those questions, and by doing so to revive our respect for the intrinsic value of life and our common sense. This, more than any technical fix from the "experts", will save the earth from climate disaster.
One note of caution regarding the media: We should not create the impression that climate engineering is already the mainstream of global change research. The popular image of science is already biased towards irresponsible inventors who want to rule the world, and we don't need to add to this science fiction, while we are trying to prevent it from becoming reality. We still need to encourage people to support good responsible science, and beware that the media thrives more on controversy than on any intention to "save the world".
I will conclude where I began, with a gathering of "greens" motivated to "save the world", now suddenly concerned about the new prospect of climate engineering. Such potential "new luddites" should bear in mind that this prospect has not arisen primarily due to the overenthusiasm of oceanographers, meteorologists, and biogeochemists. We are already immersed in an enormous global experiment, which began in the industrial revolution, when people first began the large scale extraction of coal and oil. Luddites could lay the "blame" instead on geologists who discovered the oil, physicists who found by chance how to generate electricity, or engineers who invented steam engines, trains and cars. Given that we are already in this predicament, it is better that other scientists have now warned us how the ocean and atmosphere might respond. Green campaigners should concentrate not on criticising individual scientists, but on our "technofix" culture and concept of "progress", and on key turning points where science becomes large-scale technology. For in this case we have only one Earth for the engineers to play with.