What’s missing from David Keith’s climate change charm offensive
by Jim Thomas
This article was originally published by the Media Co-op.
Last Sunday, CBC listeners across Canada enjoyed their morning coffee and took care of a few chores around the house while the calm, mellifluous vocal cadences of Michael Enright and his guest David Keith washed over them. Keith, Enright said while introducing his guest, is a prominent and well-respected scientist, and the author of “The Case for Climate Engineering.”
Although both David Suzuki and Al Gore had branded Keith’s proposals “insane, utterly mad and delusional in the extreme” Enright took pains to reassure listeners that his guest — a Harvard professor — was perfectly sane. Enright was kinder to Keith than Stephen Colbert had been a few months previous, and so unfortunately avoided a number of tough questions.
Climate Geoengineering is the process of attempting to counteract climate change by large-scale methods other than reducing carbon emissions. These include spraying tonnes of sulphuric acid into the atmosphere (Keith’s preferred option), mounting giant space mirrors to reflect sunlight and slow its warming effects, dumping tonnes of iron filings into the ocean to stimulate plankton growth, and sucking carbon out of the atmosphere with giant fans.
These measures have been opposed both because of their unpredictable effects and the fact that they give an excuse to rich countries to continue to increase carbon emissions on the basis of trumped-up techno-promises. In the same breath, Keith acknowledges and dismisses these criticisms.
Environmentalists who oppose geoengineering, Keith told Enright, are “more committed to their answer to the problem than really thinking in what I feel is a morally clear way about what our duties are to this generation and reducing the risks that they feel.”
Keith made the case for geoengineering, but he also made the case that those who oppose geoengineering are doing so because they have priorities other than slowing down the effects climate change. He aligned geoengineering with concerns about “how we want to leave the planet for our great-grandkids.” He took the time to talk about kayaking trips, and how he was motivated by a love of the natural world.
Keith didn’t take the time to mention a few other details. For those who are skeptical about Keith’s case for geoengineering, here are five things that Keith didn’t mention, and Enright kindly didn’t bring up.
1. David Keith runs a geoengineering company funded by tar sands money
In addition to being an author and a professor, David Keith heads up Carbon Engineering, a Calgary-based startup that is developing air-capture technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The company is funded by Bill Gates, who is also a geoengineering proponent, and by N. Murray Edwards, an Alberta billionaire who made his fortune in oil and gas. Edwards is said to be the largest individual investor in the tar sands, and is on the board of Canadian Natural Resources Limited, a major tar sands extraction company. Carbon Engineering hopes to sell the carbon dioxide it extracts to oil companies to help in Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR)- a technique for squeezing more fossil fuels out of the ground which will in turn be burnt to produce more atmospheric carbon.
2. The geoengineering that Keith proposes could be disastrous for the Global South
A study of the likely effects of one of the methods Keith is promoting, spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere with the aim of reflecting sunlight could cause “calamitous drought” in the Sahel region of Africa. Home to 100 million people, the Sahel is Africa’s poorest region. Previous droughts have been devastating. A 20-year dry period ending in 1990 claimed 250,000 lives. Other models predict possible monsoon failure in South Asia or impacts on Mexico and Brazil, depending where you spray the sulphur.
3. Keith’s geoengineering proposals are deeply aligned with the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry
If oil, natural gas and coal companies can’t extract the fossil fuels that they say they’re going to extract, they stand to lose trillions of dollars in stock value, $2 trillion in annual subsidies, and about $55 trillion in infrastructure. David Keith’s enthusiasm for geoengineering plays to the commercial interests of these companies whose share value depends on their ability to convince investors that they can continue to take the coal out of the hole and the oil out of the soil. This may be why fossil-sponsored neoconservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute have been so gung-ho for geoengineering research and development along exactly the lines that David Keith proposes. For example there is very little difference between what Keith proposes and what the American Enterprise Institute’s Geoengineering project calls for.
4. Climate scientists just issued a new round of criticisms of geoengineering
In the most recent report of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released before Keith’s interview aired, climate scientists loosed a new salvo of problems with various geoengineering schemes. “Geoengineering,” according to the report, “poses widespread risks to society and ecosystems.” In some models, Solar Radiation Management (SRM) — what Keith is pitching — “leads to ozone depletion and reduces precipitation.” And if SRM measures are started and then stopped for whatever reason, it creates a risk of ”rapid climate change.”
5. There’s already a widely-backed moratorium on geoengineering
While David Keith discussed possible ways of governing geoengineering internationally he failed to mention that at least one UN convention was already dealing with the topic. The broadest decision yet on geoengineering, a 193-country consensus reached at the UN Convention on Biodiversity specifies that unless certain criteria are met, “no climate-related geo-engineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place.” The moratorium is to remain in effect until geoengineering’s impacts on biodiversity and livelihood are analyzed, scientific evaluation is possible, and “science based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms” exist.
In the interview, Keith said outright that he wants to bypass such a system. He considers the input of Africa and South America, and much of Europe and Asia as unnecessary in order to move forward with a geoengineering scheme. It would be enough, he told Enright, to gain the agreement of a small but powerful “countries with democratic institutions,” citing China as an example, along with the US and the European Union. David Keith has been recognized for his achievements in applied physics, but when it comes to political science, it may be time for him to hit the books.
Jim Thomas is a Research Programme Manager and Writer at ETC Group.
A new article published in Environmental Research Letters has made media headlines such as “Burning trees ‘may help global warming”. It is not unknown for the media to hype up and even misrepresent announcements by scientists, but in this case, the authors’ own press release indeed promises amazing prospects from Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS): “What we demonstrate in our paper is that even if we fail to keep temperature increases below 2°C, then we can reverse the warming trend and push temperatures back below the 2°C target by 2150.”
Yet another study questions shows how dangerously simplistic the assumption that dumping iron filements into oceans will sequester carbon is. This latest study, by Ellery D. Ingall et al, published in Nature Communications, looks at a particular type of phytoplankton, a diatom which soaks up iron from oceans and stores it in its skeleton and thus, when the phytoplankton dies, on the ocean floor. Continue reading →
Amongst geoengineering methods, ‘afforestation’, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and biochar are commonly promoted as ‘safe’, benign’ or ‘soft’ options – unlike, say, shooting sulphur particles into the stratosphere.
Will declaring a ‘climate emergency’ help to finally prompt radical action to address climate change? A growing number of campaigners as well as scientists think so and hope that a major wakeup call about unfolding climate disasters will spur governments and people into action.
It’s clear from the tweets on HOME’s homepage that the news is already known: SPICE is out; the ‘Trojan Hose’ won’t spout.
But in case you missed it: On May 15, the Principal Investigator (PI) for the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project announced that a planned field trial associated with the project won’t happen. The intention had been to test hardware that could be used to inject aerosols into the stratosphere to block sunlight as a way to artificially cool the planet, a form of “solar radiation management.”
Everyone who voiced opposition to the geoengineering experiment since last September – including those who signed the HOME campaign’s open letter to the funders of SPICE asking for its cancellation – should feel heard. (The open letter, signed by more than 70 organizations from around the world, can be found here.)
SPICE’s PI cited both governance issues and potential conflict-of-interest as the principal reasons for cancelling the field trial – no argument here, though there are plenty more reasons to oppose SPICE. Namely, the entire geoengineering enterprise is dangerous, wrong-headed and counter-productive. What is certain, however, is that the cancellation of SPICE doesn’t signal the end of geoengineering or of field trials to test its feasibility. Other real-world experiments are already in the works. There will be lots of HOMEwork in the near future!
The Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a moratorium on geoengineering activities in 2010. The Secretariat was instructed to prepare two papers as part of that decision: one on the impacts of geoengineering on biodiversity and the other on regulatory frameworks. Those papers are now
available for peer review. Please provide your comments if you can at this website. If you would like to see the main comments submitted by
ETC Group on the first draft of the paper on the impacts on biodiversity, check out this document
The Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy presents the Jack Nissenson Dialogue at Concordia University, Montréal, Canada
The Politics of Climate Change: Climate Technofixes: Rio +20 or Silent Spring -50
By Pat Mooney, ETC Group
Having the “proof of principle” that industry can change the climate, the folks who caused the problem are proposing new technological solutions. Unfortunately, there is no “proof of principle” that they can do it right. Pat Mooney, author and award-winning director of ETC Group will provide an overview of the politics behind some of the most critical issues facing the planet today: unsustainable agriculture, corporate concentration in the life industries and geoengineering.
Desirée McGraw (Co-founder, Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project in Canada and Canadian delegate to the Rio Earth Summit) William Marsden (Author of Fools Rule: Inside the Failed Politics of Climate Change) Patrick Bonin (Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique (AQLPA))
CBD Notification 2012-021 – Online Discussion Forum for Indigenous and Local Communities on the possible impacts of geo-engineering techniques on biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural considerations