Geoengineering a new climate: a story of moral hazard

In the latest episode of his satirical news show Mad As Hell Shaun Micallef made light of the inefficacy of European Union’s emissions trading scheme – due the economic slowdown the carbon price has dropped so severely that it no longer serves as a disincentive pollute.

“Isn’t the market and the need for economies to continue growing generally the problem? If the whole point of the exercise is to reduce carbon emissions and save the planet surely it’s in everyone’s interest for the financial crisis in Europe to continue. If no one makes anything and the factories keep closing, then it doesn’t matter what you’re charging to use your emissions.”

He’s both funny and right. Our economy is one that is based on the burning of fossil fuels that pollute our atmosphere and warm our earth. It can’t be stressed enough how bad this will prove for life on earth if we don’t rectify global warming. To say that an overwhelming amount of science predicts an absolute disaster would be a massive understatement.

The solution is obvious. We need to wean our economy off fossil fuels and onto renewable energy and green technologies. But governments have ignored Kyoto Protocol agreements, and did not come anywhere near reaching new binding resolutions at Copenhagen and Rio.

The reason? Mainly, we’re very invested in our current way of life, and a few players are very invested in keeping the tide of fossil fuel consumption from retreating.

Instead of actually solving the problem, new ‘solutions’ are starting to be offered that will allow us to keep burning fossil fuels and grow our economies while ignoring the cause of the problem – burning fossil fuels.

Enter Clive Hamilton’s new book Earthmasters: Playing God with the Climate. In his new book Hamilton details the newest, most distressing ways we are avoiding our divorce with fossil fuels – geoengineering.

In a nutshell, geongineering is all about undertaking large scale engineering programs to modify our natural environment to create conditions aimed at counteracting the effects of greenhouses gas emissions on climate.

Some of the more frightening of the methods proposed include:

  • Making the ocean more carbon-absorptive through Iron Fertilization – a process which involves dumping huge amounts of iron into the seas to breed more flora that will hopefully act as a carbon sink.
  • Ocean Liming to offset acidity in the oceans (acidic seas absorb less carbon) by creating a new industry whose sole purpose would be to dump enormous amounts of lime rock into the seas.
  • Solar Radiation Management, which is literally blocking the sun, through a process of either spraying sulphate aerosols into the upper atmosphere or by brightening clouds by seeding them with special particles.

With the help of a few of his science friends Clive Hamilton, himself a layman, routinely dispels all of the suggested geoengineering techniques for the charlatans they are. It is a fantastic and revealing book.

The most interesting parts of the book, however, are those that delineate the relationship between geoengineering and the fossil fuel lobby. Big Fossil Fuel has funded the climate scepticism and denial industry since it became apparent that using their product was destroying the atmosphere. Now, the same lobby is funding the study and advocacy of the geoengineering industry.

Royal Dutch Shell is shovelling money into Ocean Liming research through Cquestrate, an open-source not-for-profit in the UK. British Petroleum’s chief scientist Steve Koonin convened a meeting for the Novim Group which produced an influential report that argued climate engineering is a suitable response to climate emergencies.

But ExxonMobil is by far the most prolific. CEO Rex Tillerson said climate change is an engineering problem with engineering solutions. The company funded a report concluding sulphate aerosol spraying is a cheaper response to global warming than phasing out fossil fuels.

ExxonMobil also funded Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank that habitually denies climate science as a hoax. The Institute has endorsed geoengineering, with enthusiasm, as the answer to a problem whose existence they don’t acknowledge. They have also funded Hoover Institution, another think-tank with a long history of maintaining a position of climate denial whilst embracing geoengineering.

The Royal Society, in 2006, wrote ExxonMobil asking it to stop funding dozens of groups that distorted climate science by outright denial of scientific evidence.

Eric Bickel and Lee Lane wrote a paper on the economics of different methods of geoengineering that evaluates costs and benefits, placing dollar values on various effects over 200 years, before concluding that the benefits of geoengineering vastly outweigh the costs. For instance, they say that $25 will be returned for every $1 spent on injecting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere.

It’s just too bad that Lane is a scholar for the climate denying American Enterprise Institute and Bickel is an engineer and a consultant to the oil and gas industry who recently appeared in Cool It, Bjorn Lomborg’s film denigrating climate science.

Their paper originated at the American Enterprise Institute and was published by Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre. ExxonMobil also funded the paper.

Everyone’s favourite bearded sad-man, Paul Krugman, described a moral hazard as “any situation in which one person makes the decision about how much risk to take, while someone else bears the cost if things go badly.” Funding geoengineering is a morally hazardous insurance policy. Life on earth bears the cost if things go wrong.

I spoke to former Greens leader Bob Brown at his photography exhibit in South Melbourne last week on the subject of geoengineering.

“You show me the scientist that knows all of the results from Iron Fertilization, or aerosol sulphate spraying and I’ll have a think about it,” he said.

“I’m not in favour of the sky turning yellow through geoengineering,” Brown said, “I like it blue, but I’m old fashioned, maybe people will think a colour change will be the In-Thing.”

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