Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Four)


Contemporary Projects 

As the discussion of geoengineering has developed and emerged from the scientific fringe, the development and research of technologies has accelerated and “the first few field trials have taken place” (Preston, 2013: 27). Programmes involving weather modification have grown in number around the world over the past thirty years (Garstang et al., 2005), and modification programmes, at least concerning cloud seeding, remain a “large-scale though scientifically controversial endeavor” – Kintisch (2010) cites estimates that “up to $100 million” a year is spent on cloud seeding programmes “in more than thirty-five countries” (88). The support atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen (2006) gave to geoengineering has led to “even committed environmental advocates” changing their stance about the feasibility of climate intervention to stave off the climate crisis (Factor, 2015: 310). More importantly however, the IPCC’s (2013) decision to include geoengineering as a possible policy option in the Fifth Assessment Report “gives permission to those who have been supporting geoengineering in private to do so in public” (Hamilton, 2014).

Confirmed projects include current efforts in California to reduce the impacts of the historical drought by using cloud seeding to induce rainfall (Pentland, 2014; Abraham, 2015), and in China “agencies are involved in a significant level of weather modification activity” (Beijng has its own “Weather Modification Office” (Feblowitz, 2010)) as shown by efforts to ensure the presence of clear skies during the 2008 Olympic Games (Edney and Symons, 2014: 320). Ocean fertilisation efforts were first initiated in 1993 in the Pacific Ocean under the name “IronEx-1” where the “iron hypothesis” was first proved on a small scale (Factor, 2015). In more recent years an American businessman “dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean” in 2012, creating “an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres”, prompting a legal backlash (Lukacs, 2012).


Geoengineering efforts haven’t been able to proceed without restrictions. Conventions prohibiting or restricting such programmes emerged partly as a backlash to such projects like Operation Popeye or ocean fertilisation efforts.

The “Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques” or ENMOD is an international treaty prohibiting the military or hostile use of environmental modification techniques which could have severe spatial or temporal effects (UN, 1976). Signed by over seventy nations, it was prompted by the backlash against weather modification efforts after Operation Popeye was disclosed to the public and came into force in 1978 (Kintisch, 2010; Buck, 2012). However ENMOD contains a loophole which could be exploited in the coming years of climate crisis – Article 3.1 of the convention reserves “the entitlement to use weather and climate modification ‘for peaceful purposes’” (Bellamy et al., 2012: 598).

Additionally there is the “Convention on Biological Diversity of 2010”, which bans geoengineering until “there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts”, although small-scale experiments are exempted from this moratorium (Pearce, 2010). Further the “London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter” was recently invoked regarding Russ George’s (1) geoengineering experiments as it prohibits “for-profit ocean fertilisation activities” (Lukacs, 2012).

The Impacts

In the interests of objectivity it has to be highlighted that were geoengineering efforts to be successful, there is significant potential to “lessen an enormous amount of human suffering and environmental harm from global climate change” (Preston, 2013: 24), and the use of SRM could “generally lead to less extreme temperature and precipitation anomalies” compared to uncontrolled climate change (Ricke et al., 2010: 537). But as the IPCC dryly reports, “CDR and SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale” (IPCC, 2013: 29). It is unsurprising therefore that “most scientists concur that geo-engineering should be used only as an emergency response to a climate crisis” (Brown & Sovacool, 2011: 128). Were geoengineering efforts to begin, what impacts would we see?

There is scientific confirmation that geoengineering efforts would indeed reduce global temperatures, especially compared to baseline predictions with no emission reductions (Ricke et al., 2010; Grandey and Wang, 2015). These temperature reductions would have a myriad of unintended impacts. One of the most obvious issues is that of land use change, especially associated with CDR-related afforestation efforts which could affect competition for land for agriculture or population growth unless only marginal land is used (Becker et al., 2013). SRM efforts could adversely affect crop productivity (Preston, 2013) although temperature reductions in a “high-CO2 climate” could cause some crop yields to increase (Pongratz et al., 2012). The most adverse impacts would, however, affect precipitation.

Though there is evidence that SRM geoengineering could reduce extreme weather-related flooding and hurricane risks (Moore et al., 2015) most studies predict extraordinary variations in precipitation on a regional and global scale (Grandey and Wang, 2015). Ferraro et al (2014) predicted that SRM would “put the brakes on a mechanism of atmospheric turnover and cause a sharp drop in rainfall in the equatorial belt” causing massive reductions in tropical rainfall. Rasch et al (2008) identified regional “significant” changes in rainfall (and temperature) as well as potential ozone depletion due to sulphate aerosols (4007). Robock et al (2008) found that SRM geoengineering would “disrupt the Asian and African summer monsoons, reducing precipitation to the food supply for billions of people”, and producing a hotter and drier climate for sub-Saharan Africa than under climate change scenarios (2). These issues seem somewhat obvious in context – the Pinatubo eruption that is used as an analogy for SRM “also caused a global drought and substantially reduced river flows” (Jackson and Salzman, 2010: 70).

Precipitation issues do not just concern SLR however – some CDR techniques have been estimated to cause “rainfall response[s]” that would “adversely affect water resources” (Grandey and Wang, 2015). As Trenberth and Dai (2007) wryly suggest in their own analysis of SRM, “creating a risk of widespread drought and reduced freshwater resources for the world to cut down on global warming does not seem like an appropriate fix”.

There is in fact evidence of a trade-off between geoengineered temperature reductions and precipitation alterations. Ricke et al (2010) found that “it is physically not feasible to stabilize global precipitation and temperature simultaneously as long as atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise” (537), and Kleidon and Renner (2013) found that interventions in the atmosphere to compensate for GHG-induced surface warming meant that “the changes in hydrologic cycling” cannot be prevented (455). As a result “reflecting sunlight by geoengineering is unlikely to restore the planet’s original climate” (EGU, 2013).

So geoengineering efforts will no doubt create unintended impacts that could adversely affect the lives of billions. Despite this research and enthusiasm continues. Who would gain from geoengineering, and what drives the continued interest in planetary modification programmes? As we shall see geoengineering offers opportunities for business-as-usual capitalism to maintain its process of accumulation whilst maintaining regional geopolitical inequalities, while in the sidelines a latent technocracy that sees geoengineering as a quick-fix, or even a weapon, are waiting for their moment to shine.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Part Five coming soon

(1) Russ George is an American entrepreneur who founded the (now defunct) company Planktos and was former head of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, both of which were engaged in oceanic iron fertilisation experiments (McClain, 2012; CBC News, 2013).

(2) Klein (2014) cites a scientific report on geoengineering that acknowledges that Solar Radiation Management ‘could conceivably lead to climate changes that are worse than the ‘no SRM’ option’ (261). Indeed Philip Rasch, “one of the world’s experts on solar radiation management” (Preston, 2012: 196) told the US House Committee on Science and Technology in 2010 that “it is important to recognize that geoengineering is a gamble” (Rasch, 2010: 2).


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8 thoughts on “Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Four)

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