Could GeoEngineering Spawn Rogue Planet Hackers?
January 14, 2013
Standing in a quiet gallery in Washington DC some time ago, I listened in on a chilling conversation with some well informed players in the politics of climate.
What if climate change begins to slip out of control? What if some misguided group, or even wealthy individual decides climate is out of control, and sets out to do something about it? Some names were bandied about.
The technology exists for a nation, or subnational group, or even an individual, to begin unilateral geo-engineering efforts, in an attempt, misguided or otherwise, to hack the climate system. I’m not talking about conspiracy theories of chem-trails or other fantasies. There have already been serious attempts at this.
Theoretically the technology has long existed to affect, if not control, global energy balance. The problem is, tinkering unconsciously with that balance is kind of what got us into this mess in the first place.
As the consequences of global change have become more real for policy makers in recent years, the issue is coming into focus.
Let’s say, 20 years down the road, leadership in China is looking at some dire situations related to climate change – desertification, water shortages, extreme weather, crop failures – and decided, in the absence of a global agreement, to do something about it unilaterally. They initiate one of the several possible schemes.
And it works. Deserts recede. Temps cool. Crops grow.
But, oops – it stops raining in the US grain belt.
A new report details the emerging debate.
The World Economic Forum has put out a new reporton global risks for 2013, and the report’s chapter on “X factors” — concerns more remote than the report’s primary risks, but still worthy of note — includes a section on rogue “geoengineering” experiments.
Geoengineering involves large-scale efforts to either remove carbon from the atmosphere, or to remake the atmosphere’s chemical or physical make-up to offset the effects of climate change. The most plausible scenario mentioned by the report uses aircraft to inject particles into the atmosphere to mimic the way eruptions of volcanic ash block sunlight, and thus cool the climate. More far-fetched scenarios go so far as deploying mirrors into orbit to reflect sunlight.
Such projects involve a host of funding and deployment problems, as well as the serious risk of unintended consequences for both the climate and the billions of humans who rely on it. For instance, a project at the UK-based Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project, or “SPICE,” working on the idea to mimic volcanic ash, was delayed in October over environmental concerns. Unfortunately, this leaves an opening for smaller nations or even commercial interests to begin experimenting with geoengineering unilaterally, say researchers at the World Economic Forum:
“The global climate could, in effect, be hijacked. For example, an island state threatened with rising sea levels may decide they have nothing to lose, or a well-funded individual with good intentions may take matters into their own hands,” the report notes. It said there are “signs that this is already starting to occur”, highlighting the case of a story broken by the Guardian involving the dumping of 100 tonnes of iron sulphate off the Canadian coast in 2012, in a bid to spawn plankton and capture carbon.