The emergency science to ward off the worst effects of climate change, from space-based mirrors to chemicals blasted into the stratosphere.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Margot O’Neill
TONY JONES, PRESENTER: When it was recently revealed that 100 tonnes of iron dust had been deliberately poured into the Pacific Ocean off the Canadian coast, it was described as the world’s first rogue geo-engineering project, an example of how the Earth’s fragile systems could be tampered with.
Well some environment groups want a ban on any field research for geo-engineering, despite hopes that it might delay or mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change.
But the recent World Bank report, predicting a devastating four degree rise in global temperature by the end of century means more scientists are now willing to consider it.
In a moment we’ll hear from one of the world’s leading geo-engineering proponents, Harvard professor David Keith, whose research is funded partly by Bill Gates.
But first this special report from Margot O’Neill.
MARGOT O’NELL, REPORTER: That red ochre trail in the water is part of 100 tonnes of iron-rich dust poured into the ocean this year off the west coast of Canada by controversial American environmental entrepreneur Russ George.
RUSS GEORGE, ENVIRONMENTAL ENTREPRENEUR: As soon as we did this, on one side of the boat you’d see this brilliant sapphire blue ocean and on the other side of the boat, the ocean had turned to a beautiful emerald green.
MARGOT O’NELL: He says it brought the ocean back to life by generating what might be the world’s biggest man-made phytoplankton bloom. Such blooms can increase fish stocks and the ocean’s capacity to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, a counter to climate change.
RUSS GEORGE: We had vast schools of dolphins that would swim right up to the back of the boat and it was a sight to behold.
MARGOT O’NELL: It was a sight that alarmed critics around the world who warn iron fertilisation is unproven science that can change the chemical composition of the ocean.
JASON BLACKSTOCK, OXFORD UNIVERSITY: People did not know this experiment was going to go on ahead of time and the public was in shock and the political leadership was in shock and other scientists were in shock when this suddenly came out publicly.
MARGOT O’NELL: Russ George says the experiment was done at the requested of the indigenous Haida Gwaii Islanders who were trying to revive salmon stocks.
RUSS GEORGE: The true story is, is a really wonderful story of hope that perhaps the oceans can be recovered, restored and replenished and the fish can come back.
MARGOT O’NELL: But it’s also the story of a desperate science now emerging as a serious option in the battle with climate change. It’s called geo-engineering.
Geo-engineering is the manipulation of Earth’s natural systems to ward off the worst effects of climate change, a sort of emergency back-up if the planet faces climate catastrophe. It could work in two ways.
Firstly, by sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, like iron fertilisation, which increases the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon, or by building artificial trees to scrub out the CO2.
Secondly, by reflecting sunlight to cool the planet, such as with space-based mirrors, or by whitening clouds, or by spraying sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to form a solar shield.
There’s no doubting the scarily epic nature of such interventions.
CLIVE HAMILTON, CHARLES STURT UNIVERSITY: To seize control of the climatic system of the Earth as a whole. This is a massive proposal that humanity is starting to talk about.
MARGOT O’NELL: Environmentalist and author Clive Hamilton has long been a geo-engineering sceptic. But he says it’s an option governments must now consider.
CLIVE HAMILTON: When you consider the almost total failure of the global community to respond to the science of climate change with anything like the urgency that the science suggests … I think geo-engineering is virtually inevitable.
MARGOT O’NELL: He’s not the only one now contemplating the once unthinkable.
Professor Peter Wadhams is one of the world’s leading sea ice experts. He believes the dramatic collapse in summer of Arctic sea ice is a dire step-change.
PETER WADHAMS, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY: The Artic is warming about three times as fast as the rest of the world, so everything that happens in the Artic now is what’s going to be happening to the rest of the world tomorrow.
I’m very reluctant to advocate geo-engineering because sharing I think everybody else’s fear that since we’ve messed up the world with technology, if we try and fix it, we might do something worse inadvertently. But I think in this case we have to consider action.
MARGOT O’NELL: The most talked about scenario is a sulphur shield in the stratosphere. This tries to mimic volcanoes like Mount Pinatubo, which erupted in 1991 and cooled the planet by 0.6 degrees for two years.
CLIVE HAMILTON: It’s technologically simple, it’s relatively cheap, if you don’t take account of the side effects or the unintended consequences. And it could be scaled up and done in fairly short time and it would have an instantaneous effect within a month.
MARGOT O’NELL: Computer modelling shows that it would probably change the colour of the sky, not to sulphur yellow, but to a paler blue with more vivid sunsets. The modelling also shows such a shield could produce uneven results – some places would be cooler than others and rainfall patterns could be disrupted. That raises a prospect of international conflict, because what if some countries want to deploy a shield, but others don’t?
CLIVE HAMILTON: To install a solar shield around the Earth, it’s been estimated would require each year about 1 million flights by jet fighter-sized aircraft. So, who has the capacity to do this? Well, I mean, there’s really only one answer and that’s the military.
So, whoever has their hand on the thermostat is going to have an enormous amount of power and is also going to attract an enormous amount of hostility. My best guess is that it will be China that does it. This has not been revealed yet, but within the last few weeks the Chinese Government included for the very first time geo-engineering research in its top 12 scientific research priorities.
MARGOT O’NELL: With billionaires like Bill Gates stepping in to also fund research, there’s an urgent need for international protocols.
JASON BLACKSTOCK: I think the science is certainly far out ahead of the politics. Most international political figures have either not heard about geo-engineering and the political risk or have only heard about it in the last year or two.
MARGOT O’NELL: Russ George remains unapologetic about his experiment. He says there’s no time to wait for an international treaty.
RUSS GEORGE: I don’t see that happening before the oceans die. Right? The Royal Society of England came out a few years ago and said that by the year 2050 there’d be no harvestable fish left in the ocean. So I don’t think we have time.
MARGOT O’NELL: But no-one knows what the side effects could be and whether the cure could be worse than the disease.
Margot O’Neill, Lateline.
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