Bill Gates is now the world’s leading financial supporter of geoengineering research. He is an investor in various geoengineering enterprises, including Silver Lining, a company pursuing marine cloud brightening methods. He is an investor in Carbon Engineering Ltd, a start-up company formed by David Keith to develop technology to capture carbon dioxide from ambient air on an industrial scale. Gates is also an investor in a firm known as Intellectual Ventures, led by Nathan Myhrvold, formerly chief technology officer at Microsoft. The company has developed what it calls the ‘StratoShield’, a hose suspended by balloons in the sky to deliver sulphate aerosols. The device is marketed as ‘a practical, low-cost way to reverse catastrophic warming of the Arctic—or the entire planet’.
Why oil companies back geoengineering
In recent years there has been a flurry of patents taken out over methods to engineer the climate. One of them is so broad that, if enforceable, it would place fertilisation of the oceans in the hands of one man. We are approaching a situation in which international efforts to protect humanity from climate catastrophe could depend on whether or not one company wants to sell its intellectual property.
Oil companies, anticipating a shift in the political landscape, are quietly backing research into geoengineering. Royal Dutch Shell is funding study of liming the seas. The chief scientist at the oil giant BP was the convener of an expert meeting that in 2009 produced an influential report on climate engineering as a response to climate emergencies. Exxon Mobil, for years the principal funder of climate science disinformation, has inserted itself into climate engineering. The corporation’s point man on geoengineering is Haroon Kheshgi, who leads its Global Climate Change program. In 1995, he was the first to propose liming the oceans as a means of reducing acidification due to escalating atmospheric carbon. Through Kheshgi, Exxon has begun to influence various ‘independent’ reports into geoengineering, including one by NASA in 2007.
Burgeoning commercial engagement in geoengineering is creating a constituency with an interest in more research and, eventually, deployment. Such a lobby is naturally predisposed to argue that pursuing emission cuts is ‘unrealistic’ or ‘politically impossible’ and therefore geoengineering is the sensible alternative. This is the slippery slope concern about researching geoengineering. Already the chorus of demands for public funding is loud and governments are beginning to show interest. China recently decided to include geoengineering among its earth science research priorities, initiating a marked shift in the international climate change landscape.
It is fair to expect that if we reach the stage of deployment any move to terminate it (due, for example, to evidence of unexpected environmental damage or international conflict) would be fought by the new industry with complaints of asset devaluation and job losses.
Eroding incentives to cut emissions
Today it may seem absurd that factors like these should play a role in deciding the fate of the entire planet, but the history of environmental policy-making shows that these kinds of decisions are never based solely on scientific considerations. All of which points to perhaps the greatest risk of research into geoengineering—it will erode the incentive to cut emissions. In a political and commercial environment where cutting emissions appears too hard, geoengineering arrives as the next great white hope. Already in the United States, right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, which have for years promoted denial of climate science, are now advocating geoengineering as a substitute for cutting emissions. Economists like the authors of Superfreakonomics have joined in.
Which government would not be enticed by the technofix to beat all technofixes? Think about it: no need to take on powerful fossil fuel companies, no need to tax petrol and electricity, no need to ask consumers to change their lifestyles. And instead of global warming being proof of human failure, geoengineering could be the triumph of human ingenuity.
In short, while climate change threatens to destabilise the system, geoengineering promises to protect it. Yet beneath it all lies a gnawing question: What kind of beings have we become when we believe we can use technology to take control of the climate system of the planet as a whole and regulate it to suit our needs for thousands of years to come?
Background image “Aerosol Eruptions” by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center