As an old reporter I’ve learned to be cautious about definitive statements, preceded by descriptors such as “all” or “first.” So when I reported last week that a Harvard experiment to test geoengineering research technologies would be the first conducted in the atmosphere, it was based on efforts to verify that that through multiple sources.
But I was off some (as were some sources I consulted like this one). It was actually the first test in the stratosphere, the higher layers of the atmosphere, and “the most formal geoengineering experiment to date,” reported James Temple in MIT Technology Review. So I changed the article to reflect that and published a correction. It turns out there have been some experiments which actually went further to spread sun-blocking materials at lower levels of the atmosphere. These experiments only serve to underscore the fundamental point I made in the piece, that any field testing of geoengineering technologies must take place under an international protocol that takes account of the risks.
BLINDSIDED IN SWEDEN
My post covered the proposed June field test of a 1,323-pound propelled rig hoisted by a balloon 12 miles into the stratosphere over northern Sweden. Scientists from the Harvard Solar Geoengineering Research Program, funded by Bill Gates and other philanthropists, wanted to test how the rig would work. That was in preparation for a later test in which the rig would release a kilogram or so of calcium carbonate, essentially chalk dust, and measure its capacity to scatter light. In other words, to create a shield that would block part of the sun’s rays, countering the heat-trapping effects of carbon dioxide.
The Advisory Committee to the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment – SCoPEx for short – called for suspension of the experiment, it came to light March 31. Project scientists agreed and the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) which was to host the experiment pulled out.
After the pandemic moved the first SCoPEx field test from the U.S. Southwest to Sweden in December, it aroused a firestorm of opposition from Swedish environmentalists and the Sammi indigenous over whose lands it was to take place. “David Keith, a Harvard physicist involved with the project, said he doubted that anyone knew how widespread opposition was in Sweden,” reported the New York Times. Scientists seemed unaware that even a small-scale technology test would arouse resistance.
They might have anticipated it moving to Europe where opposition to geoengineering experiments is stronger than in the U.S. For instance, opposition and concerns over conflict of interest caused cancellation of a British-government-funded research project with similar aims to SCoPEx in 2012, SPICE, or Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering. The Boell Foundation, the German Green Party’s think tank, is a center of geoengineering critique.
Harvard scientists also might not have been blindsided if they had spoken with more people in Sweden. Instead, they vetted the launch with a Swedish law firm, which told them the test was legal, and conferred with SSC. The Sammi and environmental allies decried the program’s failure to consult with government or civil society. The Advisory Council belatedly agreed and said it would move ahead with an engagement process. However, that is unlikely to succeed in gaining agreement for the experiment, which in any event is almost certainly pushed back to 2022.
CROSSING THE RUBICON
Geoengineering research has substantially been a matter of computer modeling. Field research which takes it outdoors into the atmosphere arouses the sense of a threshold being crossed. The fear is that small experiments such as SCoPEx aimed at increasing scientific knowledge will eventually lead to larger experiments actually seeking to alter the behavior of the atmosphere. Metaphors such as “slippery slope,” “camel’s nose under the tent” and “crossing the Rubicon” are used. Two concerns come to the fore.
One is moral hazard, a term commonly associated with the insurance industry. If a building is covered by fire insurance, the owner might have less incentive to do costly upgrades that reduce fire risk. If we can reduce the rate at which the atmosphere traps solar radiation, we might have less incentive to eliminate fossil fuel burning which is releasing heat-trapping CO2 into the atmosphere. It becomes an oil company excuse to continue business as usual.
The other concern is that, outside an international protocol regulating geoengineering, individual nations or groups of nations, or powerful private interests, will undertake it on their own. Today’s Wild West environment, in which private institutions such as Harvard conduct atmospheric experiments funded by private philanthropists such as Gates, arouses those concerns by their precedent-setting nature.
Geoengineering’s “potential geopolitical and security implications . . . are not well understood, nor are there any governance frameworks in place to effectively explore those issues or address concerns, which is in itself a risk,” notes the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative. “An immediate challenge is the governance of research, with small-scale outdoor experiments of some methods in development. Research governance could include codes of conduct or independent monitoring or safeguards to ensure research does not change the global climate without appropriate governance and permissions in place, nor lead us down a slippery slope to deployment.”
It does not help that the world’s two largest oil producers, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, in 2019 blocked a U.N initiative aimed at eventual regulation of geoengineering. Switzerland proposed that the U.N. environment arm study geoengineering as an initial move toward an international protocol. But even that was too much for the U.S. and Saudis, who refused efforts at compromise. Switzerland withdrew its proposal. Perhaps that added to the intensity of Swedish opposition to a U.S.-based project advised by a group made up of U.S. citizens and residents.
MORAL HAZARD IN THE WILD WEST
What may be the first actual atmospheric geoengineering test took place in 2009. It is an absolute poster for moral hazard in a Wild West environment. Yuri Izrael, a Russian climate scientist, led an experiment in which particles were sprayed from a car and helicopter flying around 660 feet above the ground. Heat-reducing effects were reported. Izrael, who passed away in 2014, was a close advisor to Vladimir Putin, leader of the world’s third largest oil producer, and second only to the U.S. in gas. Izrael downplayed the effects of global heating in a 2008 presentation to a conference staged by Heartland Institute, a notorious climate denier outfit, titled, “Future Climate Is No Reason for Alarm.”
“Izrael has variously claimed that warming will not be harmful, that the Kyoto protocol has ‘no scientific basis’, and that it would be cheaper to resettle Bangladeshis threatened by sea-level rise,” reported The Guardian in a 2013 article entitled, “Why geoengineering suits Russia’s carbon agenda.” “And he argues for geoengineering instead of emission cuts. Other scientists in Russia seem embarrassed by his antics and describe him as a ‘fossil communist,’ but he remains influential.”
Another experiment involving particle dispersal took place off the coast of Monterrey, California in 2011. While not specifically couched as geoengineering research, it generated information on cloud formation valuable to the process. The Eastern Pacific Emitted Aerosol Cloud Experiment led by Scripps Institute of Oceanography studied the effects of smoke particles released the deck of a research vessel and container ship smokestacks, as well as salt particles released from an airplane.
Satellites looked at albedo effects of the particles, how making clouds whiter increased capacity to reflect sunlight back into space. Scientists reported, “The outcome of these studies revealed that both incidental smoke and ship emissions are effective at modifying cloud albedo, as well as that giant salt nuclei can increase drizzle rates.”
“AN ABSOLUTE FIRST” DOWN UNDER
A third and more recent experiment involved a technology known as marine cloud brightening (MCB) over Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In March 2020, in what lead scientist Daniel Harrison called “an absolute world first,” scientists sprayed misted seawater from a fan mounted in a boat. The goal was to study how salt particles would increase droplet condensation in clouds, making them more reflective. Results were “really, really encouraging.”
The reef has suffered deadly coral bleaching over much of its extent in recent years. To turn that around, the Australian government has created the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP). It funded the MCB experiment. RRAP had considered exploring stratospheric particle injection such as is being researched by SCoPEx, but found it too risky.
“MCB was initially proposed as a means of cooling temperatures at a global scale to offset rising temperatures associated with climate change,” wrote several members of Australian Forum for Climate Intervention Governance, a research initiative to inform geoengineering policies. “However, MCB also has potential to be used at a local or regional scale for cooling effects that might protect high value but vulnerable natural assets from climate change impacts, such as polar regions and coral reefs.”
In contrast to SCoPEx, scientists did talk with reef stakeholders including indigenous people, perhaps explaining why it was not so initially controversial. But criticism did come in a couple of months later.
“Though small in scale, their actions set a dangerous precedent for the deployment of solar geoengineering technologies, which could have profoundly damaging and unpredictable effects on the climate,” wrote the ETC Group, an organization critical of geoengineering. “At first glance, it does not look like much: a few technologists on a boat off Australia’s eastern coast, testing a fan that blows seawater mist into the sky. However, testing geoengineering technology like this is part of a global push to implement technological climate modification.”
Some of ETC’s specific charges have come in for criticism. But the Rubicon crossing argument remains persuasive. A new form of climate-modifying technology is being tested outside of an international framework. The failure to consider global governance implications “does miss the wider implications of MCB for SRM (Solar Radiation Management) interventions,” the Australian Forum members wrote.
COOL IT ON THE FIELD TESTS
Political heat surrounding technological interventions to cool down the climate is great. Emotions are high on all sides. (Responses I received to last week’s post demonstrated that.) What is clear is that field experiments moving forward without an agreed international protocol are only increasing the political temperature. To my view, it is time to call a moratorium on field experiments while the kind of protocols recommended by the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative are developed. People on all sides of the issue should also pressure the new administration to reverse the Trump Administration position that has so far blocked U.N. steps toward regulation.
The essence of the scientific method is identifying and resolving uncertainties. The unknowns surrounding geoengineering field experiments, scientific and political, are too great to proceed without a broader framework of democratic accountability. It is time to call a halt for now on the scientific side while political uncertainties are resolved.