Scientists Eat Crow on Geoengineering Test. Me, Too

Harvard’s David Keith calls it the “goofy Goldfinger scenario”  – a rogue nation, or even an individual, would conduct an unsupervised geoengineering experiment — and he confidently predicted in a story I wrote last month that it would never happen.

It took about a month for him to be proven wrong. In mid-October, the Guardian reported that an American named Russ George had dumped 100 metric tons of iron sulfate into the waters off western Canada, triggering a bloom of algae. George claimed he did it with the knowledge of Canadian authorities, using equipment lent to him by NOAA (which said it didn’t know of his plans).

Some species of algae produce dangerous toxins for both sea life as well as humans. The term “red tide” is often associated with these algal blooms.
Credit: NOAA

Scientists (presumably including Keith) were outraged that such a thing could happen. It’s not that they have anything against algae, but rather that the project was a type of geoengineering —  a suite of anti-climate-change strategies that are highly controversial because they have the potential for triggering significant unintended consequences.

But triggering an algae bloom is also a way to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and along with spewing particles into the stratosphere to block some of the sun’s heat, it’s one of the main techniques geoengineers talk about using if efforts to limit those emissions ultimately fail.

Before they would be prepared to take such a major step, however, responsible scientists would take baby steps first: they would do small-scale experiments, under controlled conditions, with the supervision of some sort of regulatory or funding body that could take an independent look at the potential risks.

In 2009, climate scientists met to try and figure out a system of voluntary standards to guide geoengineering research, much as molecular biologists met in 1975 to assess the potential risks of biotechnology.

Nothing much came of the 2009 conference, but at least it raised the consciousness of those who might be interested in going ahead with real-world experiments. The lack of any governing authority for geoengineering is partly why scientists decided to cancel a proposed U.K. test known as the Stratospheric Particle Experiment for Climate Engineering, or SPICE, in the spring of 2012.

Andrew Parker of the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government told the New York Times that George’s actions had apparently violated an international convention on ocean dumping and a U.N. convention on ocean fertilization for geoengineering purposes, along with a set of voluntary principles on geoengineering developed at Oxford. (George maintained that he wasn’t geoengineering at all: he was just trying to help the indigenous Haida people who live the region to re-invigorate their salmon fishery by increasing the fishes’ food supply.)

The scientists were outraged, in short, because someone went ahead and did an experiment they were too principled to do. But since there is no enforceable international agreement on geoengineering, outrage is pretty much all they’ve got.

For my part, I was outraged because I’d been so convinced by Keith and others this sort of rogue behavior was nothing to worry about. There’s not much chance of a binding treaty on geoengineering in any case, they said (and on that I agree). But the prospect of widespread finger-wagging by scientists would almost certainly be enough to stop any rogue geoengineer in his or her tracks.

Evidently not.

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