/ 19 December 2016

Governments remain silent about bids to geoengineer the climate

A cascading mudflow of volcanic debris from Mount Pinatubo engulfs a river in Porac
A cascading mudflow of volcanic debris from Mount Pinatubo engulfs a river in Porac

There’s a race happening that affects all of us. It involves planes spraying chemicals across the sky and robots tinkering with oceans’ ecosystems. But no government will talk about its attempts to geoengineer the climate. Their work has potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity.

Unwilling to do more to stymie global warming, governments have turned to geoengineering. This covers anything that changes weather patterns, helps to store carbon emissions, and stops the sun’s rays coming through the atmosphere. The activities range from spraying chemicals into the sky to create rain clouds to putting mirrors in the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s rays. One experiment in Canada — a rare case of these being made public — involved dropping iron filings into the ocean to kill plankton so it would sink to the bottom of the ocean and trap carbon dioxide.

But where climate change begins is in nature — with volcanoes. When these erupt they have a dramatic effect on global temperatures. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines dropped global temperatures by half a degree in 1992. An eruption in the 1600s of Huaynaputina in Peru — the largest recorded volcanic eruption in South America — created half a decade of cold summers on that continent.

Eruptions throw vast quantities of ash and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere; five cubic kilometres of waste were thrown up by the Pinatubo eruption. This waste reflects sunlight and cools the world. Importantly, that change happens within a few months when it normally takes centuries for that magnitude of warming or cooling to happen.

A quick-fix such as the Canadian experiment has become attractive to governments in their quest for an easy solution to runaway global warming. All but one of the hottest years on record have been in this century, with 2016 breaking all previous records. The Paris Agreement has countries committing to keep warming below 2.7°C. But that’s bad news because a 1.5°C increase will make Africa’s interior too hot for farming.

Geoengineering is for the greater goal of cooling the planet. But problems arise when countries tinker with the climate for their own gain. Imagine country A — a big state with a big army — sprays chemicals into the atmosphere to cause the moisture blowing through the sky to fall as rain. That means the moisture meant for country B — a small state with little political muscle — doesn’t materialise, and now country B has a drought.

Country B should be able to protest against this. Treaties regulate anything from bolt sizes to how outer space should be settled but none exists on how countries can geoengineer the world around them.

This year’s United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity took a tentative step towards this, asking countries to adopt the precautionary principle in the field.

But its official record of decision on “climate change geoengineering” merely asked countries for more information, noting that “very few” had responded to previous requests. And so there is no oversight on how countries tinker with the world’s climate.

Imagine a scenario in which country B decides to fight back.