Will eco-warrior billionaires hack the earth?

ABC projects
“Our failure to act on climate change could encourage an underground movement to take action and fix climate change through geo-engineering. It’s a real threat according to leading academics. And the ethics of geo-engineering were explored at a Victorian government backed conference in California earlier this year,” says science commentator Tim Thwaites.

Shock? Horror? Why should we be surprised? As climate provocateur, Bjorn Lomborg pointed out to Robyn Williams recently on the ABC’s Science Show, many geo-engineering possibilities are inexpensive enough to be with the reach of a billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson —and Governments seem hamstrung about coming to agreement on any other action. This makes the ABC online drama project Bluebird timely, as it explores these very issues.

“The major challenge [with geo-engineering] is not technological, it is acceptability and governance,” Peter Cox of Exeter University, who helped prepare the Royal Society of London report on geo-engineering, told Williams.

And, while not necessarily advocating geo-engineering, Cox went on to argue that anyone who wanted to go ahead with it would be likely to do so unilaterally…and in secret.

“When I’m at my most cynical I can’t imagine us reaching an agreement on how we would set the thermostat, say, for sulphur aerosol when we can’t agree on what we should do in terms of targets for cutting CO2 emissions. So, from my perspective, I can’t see anything happening unless it is done unilaterally and…it’s done secretly.”

If you really want to do something significant about climate change, what are the options? They seem to be three, although not mutually exclusive. First, get serious about reducing carbon emissions. Second, adapt to whatever climate change throws at us. Or, third, engineer changes on a global scale to counteract the increase of carbon in the atmosphere.

Clearly, the most sensible and predictable solution is to reduce carbon emissions rapidly and significantly.

It’s sensible, because enormous amounts of work have already been poured into how to go about it. And the best estimates, from eminent economists such as Prof John Quiggin of the University of Queensland, are that it wouldn’t cost the world—only about a year’s worth of economic growth.

It’s predictable, because we already know how a world with less atmospheric carbon operates.

But any question of significantly altering the way we organise society to reduce carbon emissions seems to send conservatives and business interests with a vested interest in the status quo into a frenzy. So progress is glacially slow.

In Australia, we even have an alternative Government which espouses policies of winding back the clock, in the face of overwhelming evidence from the nation’s peak research bodies that the climate is already changing.

It seems these people feel happier with adaptation—coping with climate change as it occurs. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they clearly don’t believe that whatever change happens will be worse than anything in living memory. Therefore, they argue, we can cope with climate variation as we have in the past.

And into this impasse rides geo-engineering which, according to those that have studied it, could be relatively inexpensive and implemented quickly.

The problems here are twofold. First, it doesn’t remove the root cause of climate change—the fact that we are putting too much carbon out into the atmosphere—and so would only be partially successful. For instance, reducing the amount of solar radiation hitting the Earth by whitening the clouds may slow global warming, but it does nothing about the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and impact that has on making the oceans more acidic. At best, it would buy us time.

Second, geo-engineering is unpredictable. We don’t know enough about its impact. After all, we are only just beginning to understand the consequences of hacking the Earth by adding carbon to the atmosphere. We know next to nothing about what would happen if we fertilised the ocean or sprayed sulphur into the stratosphere.

And, at present, there is no international body to regulate the research that needs to be done or that can rogue operators from moving ahead in any concerted way. In fact, the first attempt at establishing some form of governance for geo-engineering occurred about two months ago, an International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies held at the Asilomar Conference Center in California.

The goals of the conference were to ‘identify potential risks associated with climate intervention experiments, propose a system to assess experiment design for potential categorical risks and suggest precautions to assure their safe conduct, and propose voluntary standards for climate intervention research for the international scientific community’. Yet many concerned scientists did not attend, because the conveners had links with the commercial geo-engineering industry.

Interestingly the ‘strategic partner’ and a major donor to the conference turned out to be the State of Victoria—to the tune of $250,000, according to The Age.

All this makes the ABC’s Bluebird project topical. It’s an intriguing way to explore the ethics of climate action through the medium of an alternate reality drama/game that plays out this week.

Where do you sit? Join the debate. Become part of the action. Get involved in Bluebird, the alternate reality. Firm up your views. Fence-sitting is not an option. If we do nothing about climate change, someone else may take things into their own hands.

Science commentator Tim Thwaites is available to talk on the science and issues of geo-engineering at (03) 9398 1416 or 0422 817 372. And Sam Doust, creative director of Bluebird AR, is available to discuss the ABC alternative reality program—contact Gemma Gray,  Marketing Coordinator, ABC Innovation T: 03 9626 1987 E: gray.gemma@abc.net.au.

For further information:  Niall Byrne, +61 (3) 9398-1416, niall@scienceinpublic.com.au or Carolyn MacDonald, Head Marketing, ABC Innovation on 03 9626 1982 or Macdonald.Carolyn@abc.net.au.