Can massive geoengineering projects stem the worst effects of climate change in the Arctic?

Reductions to emissions might not be enough to halt catastrophic climate change. Is there enough political will to try geoengineering?

By Martin Breum - May 30, 2019
A 2009 satellite image taken over the North Pacific shows clouds forming around the exhaust of passing ships. (NASA)

In 2016 an interdisciplinary team of scientists from Arizona State University suggested as a means to combat global warming that millions of windmills be erected in the Arctic Ocean. These mills would drive pumps that would lift seawater onto the remaining Arctic sea ice where it would turn into new ice that would help restore the power of the Arctic sea ice to reflect solar radiation.

The proposal was published in an established scientific journal, but did not, as any traveler in the Arctic Ocean will discover for herself, lead to much action by governments or others.

But watch out. Related proposals based on sophisticated techno-thinking currently feature as centerpieces in a new controversy within the international debate on global warming.

Increasingly, some involved in the tricky global climate discussion are worrying that it may already be too late to avoid calamitous disruptions of global weather patterns — even if most larger nations instantly and sharply begin to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Still more politicians and scientists find that our response to global warming must also include some of the technological mega-projects which have so far been rejected because they might, in the eye of the sceptics, be more damaging to the planet than the global warming they propose to combat.

The thesis is that we have to interfere urgently in the inner workings of nature itself — rebuild polar ice, block the sun, change the ways of ocean waters, suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere — in order to prevent the catastrophic impacts climate change will otherwise bring.

All this is known as geoengineering and it is suddenly moving fast. I learned this first from Danish scientist Olaf Corry, a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen and an expert in climate politics, geoengineering and security. He shared insights with me on the phone from Great Britain where he is currently doing research at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University:

“One has to remain focused right now,” he said.

“The technologies have crept up on us not the least through the Paris Accord of 2015, which stipulate that global warming should be kept within 1.5 or 2 degrees centigrade, and then through the climate scenarios from the UN International Panel on Climate Change, where they count on the technologies in order to reach the goals of the Paris Accord. In this way, we are already theoretically dependent on technologies that do not yet exist”.

Alarming Arctic news

The push for technological solutions are strengthened by the surge of bad climate news. In March Cyclone Idai affected 2.6 million people in southern Africa; the details are horrifying. The  Secretary General Petteri Taalas of the World Meteorological Organization included Idai in WMO’s annual climate resume in late March: “Extreme weather has continued in the early 2019, most recently with Tropical Cyclone Idai, which caused devastating floods and tragic loss of life in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. It may turn out to be one of the deadliest weather-related disasters to hit the southern hemisphere,” he said.

A few days earlier I read in The Guardian how the UN Environment Programme now thinks that the Arctic will warm by three to five degrees before 2050 — no matter what we do, since past emissions will continue to cause warming. This claim has met resistance, but there is more: Norway’s meteorological institute recently let us know that temperatures in Svalbard for all of the last 100 months have been above normal.

One strand of climate engineering known as solar radiation management is particularly controversial. The aim here is to block or reflect portions of the solar rays that cause warming. Several techniques are being investigated, especially in the U.S. and not the least at Harvard University. Here and at other scientific centers, scientists probe how artificial clouds of particles of water, limestone, sulfuric acid or other substances may be used to reflect solar radiation back into space.

In another branch of geoengineering, a team of scientists are trying to strengthen and expand polar sea ice in Alaska (working so far on local lakes). One can follow proceedings at Project ICE-911 here and see how the people involved use tractors to distribute large amounts of tiny silica capsules onto the ice in order to increase its ability to reflect solar radiation.

Others — including Chinese scientists — are investigating how to speed up the oceans with large pumps that would move nutrient-rich and therefore CO2-absorbing waters from the deep closer to the surface. In another field, tech-companies like Climeworks in Switzerland build large techno-plants that suck CO2 from the atmosphere and transform it into solid matter. Climeworks runs a plant in Iceland, where CO2 is captured and buried in Iceland’s deep lava layers. Scientists from other groups propose huge CO2-sucking forests or other country-sized greeneries, possibly combined with the production of biofuels to replace diesel and gasoline.

The U.S. in political controversy

None of these technologies are yet tested in any large-scale projects. Politicians have been reluctant to let science roll in this case, fearing side-effects that would be hard to undo. But the call for emergency efforts has grown so insistent that tough political fights have now broken out between those who see advantages in the technologies and those who fear irreparable damage to the planet and political undermining of the so-called green transition. The skeptics think that geoengineering will be used as an excuse by Saudi Arabia, oil companies, and leaders such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to continued their pursuit of coal, oil and gas.

At a UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March, where leaders from some 160 nations congregated, the conflict reached its most heated moment so far. A small group of governments headed by Switzerland and Mexico suggested a series of first steps toward global overseeing of the new climate technologies.

“There is a risk that geoengineering could be applied by someone without any international control, and we are very concerned about that,” Franz Perrez, head of the international affairs division at Switzerland’s Federal Office for the Environment, told Climate Home News. “Some are already testing solar radiation management, scientific research is already going on. We cannot close our eyes anymore and say ‘This is only science fiction’,” he said.

The attempt, however, failed. Diplomats from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Brazil led a counter-offensive and nothing was agreed. According to Scientific American, U.S. diplomats insisted that only the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should be mandated to deal with the issues, perhaps because the IPCC is basically an apolitical institution with a limited mandate, while UN Environment is a forum for governments mandated to focus also on social and economic sustainability, biodiversity and such.

The big bad fix

The controversy reaches far into the environmental movements and the Arctic. On the frontpage of the latest issue of The Circle, a magazine published by the Arctic Program of the World Wildlife Foundation, the pertinent question is raised: “What happens after 1.5 degrees C?”. Follow-up articles on geoengineering advocate more scientific research into the matter.

This is noteworthy since other environmental groups and think tanks have more often presented geoengineering as — at best — a series of speculative ventures that may harm the planet. In a 80-page report from 2017 titled “The Big Bad Fix – the case against geoengineering,” the widely respected Heinrich Böll-foundation in Germany and two other green groups, ETC Group and Biofuelwatch, compiled a comprehensive series of arguments against geoengineering, highlighting how much research into geoengineering has been funded by oil companies and their associates. Criticism was continued in February this year in “Fuel to the Fire: How Geoengineering Threatens to Entrench Fossil Fuels and Accelerate Climate Change” from the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington. “The evidence outlined in this report points to a simple but essential truth: Almost all geoengineering proposals serve to entrench and benefit fossil fuel interests rather than solve the climate crisis,” it says.

Can we afford not to?

Critique, obviously, has not stopped the wave. In The Circle, Peter Wadhams, a respected British oceanographer and an expert in polar sea ice, recommends that the international community focus urgently on extracting CO2 from the atmosphere. Wadhams assumes that some 20 billion tons of CO2 have to be extracted annually — and indefinitely.

“We need to immediately assess which direct air capture methods offers the best chance of success, and check out other gentler methods that have been proposed, such as afforestation on a gigantic scale, or methods involving marine CO2 absorption on algal mats,” Wadhams writes.

Also in The Circle, Frank Keutsch, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, explains how he is investigating the risks related to a project on solar radiation that he is keen to pursue.

He recognizes that solar radiation management could have adverse effects and he certainly does not rule out that oil-fixated governments may use the prospect of geoengineering as an excuse to continue their pursuit of fossil fuels. But he intends to carry on nonetheless:

“The idea of putting millions of tons of sulfuric acid into the stratosphere would probably strike many people as crazy or scary. But if you look at the reality of climate change, I think the direction we’re headed right now is also really scary,” he says.

Weather as weapons

Olaf Corry from the University of Copenhagen is particularly interested in the interplay between geoengineering and security politics.

“Geoengineering in itself is unlikely to be interesting as a means of military attack but the strategic strength won by those who would eventually control the climate should not be underestimated,” he explains.

Solar radiation management would demand perhaps that some 400-500 specially equipped aircrafts are kept constantly in the air, and Corry assumes that only military organizations would be able to muster such capabilities. Solar radiation management would also have to be protected against sudden shutdowns since these would cause abrupt hikes in global temperatures. The planes and other infrastructure would have to be safeguarded against terrorists and hacking.

“Geoengineering will be interesting for any great power, even if it is other powers who control the technologies, so right now great attention is paid to who develops what and which kind of governance evolves”, he says.

The use of weather as weapons is well known from recent history, in particular the Vietnam war, where the U.S. Army attempted to prevent the movements of the Vietcong guerilla by spreading silver iodide onto the cloud cover to increase monsoon rainfalls. U.S. military planes did some 2,000 runs to make it happen. The results were unclear, but in 1978 the operation led to a global ban on the use of weather as weapons, the UN Environmental Modification Treaty, the world’s first attempt to regulate geoengineering.