More than 200 years ago a volcanic eruption on Mount Tambora in Indonesia enveloped the planet with swirling dust and sulphurous gases, blotting out the sun, leading to what is known as ‘The Year without a Summer’. Average temperatures plummeted. There were severe food shortages in Europe and China. The strange weather, as Amitav Ghosh mentions in his book, was also the setting for Mary Shelley to begin writing the first great work of science fiction, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Today, climate engineers inspired by the sun-dimming properties of atmospheric particles are counting on it as a possible means to counter the heat being trapped by our high consumption industrial civilisation. This is cause for serious worry.
Fighting climate change by controlling the amount of sunlight hitting earth or capturing and locking away carbon has been called geoengineering and its advocates include many an interesting character among them erstwhile climate deniers and fossil fuel producers. However, the most recognisable face in this group is Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft. In his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Gates while arguing lucidly about the need to target zero emissions, goes on to suggest solutions like ‘faster and smarter’ deployment of solar and wind besides proposing the need for supplementing with ‘breakthrough’ technologies. Among these are carbon capture and storage.
In the troubled road to climate justice, where activism of the young clash with politics, economics and vested interests, the proponents of geoengineering seem to appear like guardian angels with their sulphate spraying F-15 Eagles or bioluminescent algal blooms from ocean-seeding experiments, purveying hard-to-test fantasies in the darkness of our carbon nightmares. Their redeeming mantras call for fertilising the ocean with iron to spur the growth of carbon-hungry algae, capturing carbon from natural gas, planting of genetically modified waxy crops to reflect sunlight, sending giant mirrors into orbit or artificially brightening clouds to reflect the sun. The immediate problem with such measures is that they can act as a licence to pollute more and continue in the trajectory of high consumption, fossil fuel-driven economic growth.
Gates’ book and his wide-ranging influence through their foundation have implications for acceptability and adoption of certain geoengineering methods that he advocates. Apart from techno-utopianism and his focus on private entrepreneurship for solving climate change, a credibility issue stems from the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Trust has substantial holdings in Berkshire Hathaway, which invests in natural gas, and in a railway company which transports coal and petroleum.
Later this year, the Gates-backed SCoPEx project plans to send up balloons from a small Swedish town to the upper atmosphere where they will test how calcium carbonate, which can reflect sunlight, interacts with its environment. Activist groups are naturally up in arms against such experiments as the effects of many geoengineering measures are unpredictable and hard to test at small scale, necessitating invocation of the precautionary principle. For example, it has been pointed out that aerosol spraying in the upper atmosphere of the Northern hemisphere can trigger droughts in the Sahel region of the Sahara, not to speak of the dystopian possibilities of a rebound effect when such measures are abruptly terminated.
Also, any kind of major geoengineering effort is fraught with the problems of ownership, rules and rights, including rights to land. Who will own, regulate and govern such efforts that have implications on a global scale? How do we guarantee that people and not private profit motive will have a say? What if geoengineering is weaponised?
Most importantly, why at all opt for geoengineering when alternatives are available? From agroecology to reduced consumption and increasingly cheaper renewables, from cutting emissions to planning for de-growth, there is a whole menu of possibilities and community-driven initiatives that can be employed to tackle climate change without help from fancy technologies. The planet is already buckling from the heat of a wrong technological turn taken at the dawn of the industrial revolution and there is only folly in deploying utopian machinery in repairing the damage this has done. Leaving it all in the hands of corporates could just add fuel to that fire.
Writer and climate activist