Friday, 22 May 2009

May 2009 - Geo-engineering: Denial on a Global Scale

>>>published on<<<

In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein joined the dots between the commercial manufacture of military weaponry, the marketing of anti-flu pandemic drugs and the foreign construction firms drafted in to rebuild Iraq – three happy projects bound by the shared philosophy of ‘disaster capitalism’. It may be time to add another enterprising scheme to this rather opportunistic programme of panic-driven profit making: Geo-engineering – the intentional, large-scale manipulation of the earth and its ecosystems in response to human-caused climate change.

In an impressive leap from a desperate denial of the causes of climate change, to a triumphant denial of the consequences, frontier capitalism may have stumbled across its best idea yet. The loose band of technologies that offer the mouth-watering prospect of engineering our way out of the climate crisis are straight out of science fiction, yet are being taken seriously by scientists and investors alike.

Schemes vary from injecting the atmosphere with sulphate particles to induce cooling, to fertilising algal blooms with iron filings to cause increased CO2 sequestration, to chemically ‘scrubbing’ CO2 out of the air. And as the Royal Geographical Society event on geo-engineering last week showed, many are seduced by science that dangles the carrot of a technological fix to climate change in front of their noses.

The event provided a fascinating window into the way in which geo-engineering is currently perceived by the scientific community. Professor David Keith, a keen advocate (although far from an evangeliser) of geo-engineering called for a responsible, measured research programme into the possibilities of geo-engineering. The problem with this proposal, however, is that even toying with the idea of geo-engineering opens a Pandora’s Box of climatic and socio-political uncertainty. As the Greenpeace scientist Dr Paul Johnston noted at the same event, even the most elementary research into geo-engineering will involve real-world experiments with the global commons.

Jim Thomas, campaigner with the Canadian ETC Group has observed that if control over this global commons appears even remotely feasible, international conflict will inevitably ensue. Environmental scientists like David Keith are undoubtedly well-meaning in their pursuit of technological solutions to climate change, but their research does not take place in a vacuum – it is conducted in a world that is defined by a deeply unsustainable and inequitable socio-economic system.

What hope is there that geo-engineering will be benignly applied for the greater good? Will the consent of the developing world be sought when we conduct our climatic experiments with their natural resources? Will we share our new found knowledge with everyone, or only those who can afford to buy our patented designs?

As philosophers like John Gray have repeatedly observed, an unwavering faith in human progress often amounts to little more than a secular replacement of religious fervour. In response to accusations that that geo-engineering research would involve taking unprecedented risks with the planet’s fragile eco-system, Professor David Keith replied “This isn’t 1750” – the implication being that while pre-industrial revolution scientists did not foresee the consequences of their actions, today’s crop of experts are too wise to act so carelessly. But while few in the environmental science community would seek to take unquantifiable risks with the climate, there is a hardy band of disaster capitalists that would happily take the risk for them.

Worryingly, several experiments with algal blooming have been driven by commercial pressure from companies keen to sell credits into the emerging carbon-trading market. Never mind that artificial algal blooms are yet to deliver any proven CO2 reductions – large scale geo-engineering projects could be capitalism’s ultimate parlour trick: The design and manufacture of machines that we ultimately become dependent on to neutralise the waste produced by a society of consumption-driven economic growth. The lure of geo-engineering – colonic irrigation for the planet – is almost irresistible. What if it worked – what if we really could scrub the skies of carbon, and without having to reduce our carbon emissions?

Unfortunately, the question of technical proficiency is a red herring. We know we can design technologies that can alter the climate – that’s the problem we’re trying to solve. The more important issue is whether we can engineer our way out of trouble in a way that does not exacerbate existing inequalities. Tackling climate change is perhaps the most critical test of our commitment to social justice we will ever encounter – what could be more fundamental than the intentional management and division of the earth’s natural resources?

But unless significant changes in how scientific knowledge is shared and distributed are achieved, geo-engineering simply cannot address climate change in an equitable way. To believe that the unprecedented power of geo-engineering will not be wielded by the rich and the powerful at the expense of the weak and the vulnerable is more than simply wide-eyed techno-optimism: It amounts to a comprehensive denial of political reality.


Sunday, 17 May 2009

May 2009 - Outbreak of public anger and scrutiny helpful for Fair approach to Climate Change?

“Our politics is on the edge of a cliff”

So said Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, and I think: does he really mean his career is on the edge of a cliff teetering with the weight of his second home allowance? Clegg is of course reacting to the surge of public scrutiny of MPs expenses which has dominated the media this month. People throughout the UK have been angry at a select group of individuals claiming for themselves money and goods that the system let them have, but they weren’t morally entitled to.

two angry members of the public: more angry member of the public:

It would appear that the idea of fairness and having more than your fair share is very much in the public consciousness at the moment. Comparisons between MP’s and people affected by the recession have been often heard this month and the notion that everyone should make sacrifices in the face of a common challenge is aprevalent narrative in the media. It has got to be said this sounds like just the kind of debate that we need to have in the UK in order to front up to climate change.

But hang on, politicians and journalists are saying that the MPs expenses scandal has been very damaging to politics and the democratic process. This is what Party Leaders have each said this week:

David Cameron: "I understand how deep the damage goes. Our politics are reviled. Our parliament is held in scorn. Our people have had enough"

Gordon Brown: “We must show that we have the highest standards for our profession.”

Nick Clegg: “It already feels like both a cliché and an understatement to say that this has been a bad week for politics”

So they sound gravely concerned about the political process but it is hard not to feel that they are primarily gravely concerned about their own careers. There is no doubt that this scandal is hugely damaging for this particular crowd of politicians but does it automatically follow that the democratic process is damaged and that people are ‘switching off’ politics because of it? Some probably are, but some (angry people for the most part) are ‘switching on’. Right through until the end of this week the political panel show Question Time was the second most popular programme after Eastenders on the BBC iPlayer (in the programme people get very angry!) To say this scandal is good for politics might seem a contrary argument to make, but I would say it is good for public scrutiny of politics and avoid the assumption, around and about, that this is automatically damaging to public political engagement. Two thirds of people in a BBC poll this week wanted a General Election - that isn’t an apathetic response.

If there are currently the conditions for discussion of ideas like transparency and fairness, the debate on climate change can surely benefit from this, if it doesn’t carry on getting overshadowed by it (you might say). There are many people and campaigns making the argument for a fair and transparent transition to lower carbon living, like the Fair Shares, Fair Choice scheme based in Bristol

This month - amongst the heat of the expenses row - the leading Climate Change Scientist James Hanson again voiced his fears that the Cap-and-Trade approach (held to be the solution for distributing carbon rights by many politicians coming together for Copenhagen) isn’t a fair system:

“Cap-and-trade is fraught with opportunities for special interests, political trading, obfuscation from public scrutiny, accounting errors, and outright fraud.”
Oops this looks like he is writing about MP’s expenses! Hanson offers an alternative; a flat transparent tax on carbon use:
“A carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account.”
And this seems like a good system for what the MP’s will get in future, a flat accountable rate, for attending the House of Commons!

If people in the UK have remembered (when MPs didn’t) that Politics is, as the maxim goes, about “who gets what, when, where and how” then there is hope that the theme’s of fairness and transparency can be translated into the debate on climate change - and we will be the better for it. A good marker for this will be how The Green Party do in the European elections next month.