The first ever stratospheric test of geoengineering technology, funded by Bill Gates, has been suspended under pressure from the indigenous people over whose heads it would take place, the Saami of northern Scandinavia. It may be moved back to the United States.
At the recommendation of the project’s Advisory Committee, the scheduled June test has been called off. That became public March 31.
When Bill Gates $4.5 million investment in geoengineering research came to light in 2010, one of the scientists he put in charge of the project, Ken Caldeira, said the money was not funding any field experiments. But as the project has grown and moved to Harvard, that line was crossed. In a first-of-a-kind test of geoengineering technologies in the stratosphere, the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment – SCoPEx for short – intends to release around a kilogram of calcium carbonate, essentially chalk dust, from a propelled balloon-gondola rig 12 miles up. Particles would cover the equivalent of 11 football fields and test the material’s potential to block a portion of solar radiation, countering the heat-trapping effects of carbon dioxide. The June test would not have released any particles, only tried out the rig’s technologies.
Last December SCoPEx announced it was moving the rig test to Sweden because of the pandemic. It was to have been in Arizona and New Mexico. The new test site was to be Swedish Space Corporation’s launch center at Kiruna near the Arctic Circle, the Saami homeland. Trouble was, nobody had talked to the Saami or anyone else in Sweden.
The Saami Council, which defends the rights of the reindeer-herding people from Norway to Russia, on Feb. 24 sent a letter to the SCoPEx Advisory Committee opposing not only the experiment, but the entire premise of geoengineering research outside an international consensus. It was co-signed by leaders of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Friends of the Earth Sweden and Greenpeace Sweden. Environmental groups had previously weighed in on their own.
The Saami have reason to be concerned about what’s flying over their heads. Winds from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster dumped radiation on their villages and reindeer grazing lands. Thousands of animals had to be slaughtered, and decades later reindeer meat must still be tested for radiation. The Saami have also taken an active stance on climate, persuading Norway’s second largest pension fund to divest from fossil fuels. And they showed up at Standing Rock in 2017 to support tribes resisting the oil-carrying Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River.
HAZARDS MORAL AND OTHERWISE
The letter from the Saami and their allies economically summarizes the fundamental contradiction of the Harvard research and geoengineering experiments in general – private governing bodies assuming powers and making decisions of such immense potential impacts that democratic accountability is required.
Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI), write the Saami and environmentalists, “entails risks of catastrophic consequences including . . . uncontrolled termination . . . ” – If it was stopped, the heat-trapping effect of carbon dioxide would kick back in and cause sudden heating, like a junkie having withdrawals from addiction – “and irreversible sociopolitical effects that could compromise the world’s necessary efforts to achieve zero-carbon societies.” In other words, geoengineering would provide an excuse for powerful interests to continue burning the fossil fuels that add to atmospheric CO2. By offering protection from risks it would reduce the incentive to eliminate them. This is known as moral hazard. “There are therefore no acceptable reasons for allowing the SCoPEx project to be conducted either in Sweden or elsewhere.”
The ways research creates moral hazard is illustrated by Alex Lenferma, a South African climate analyst writing for the Carnegie Council. “David Keith (a lead in the Harvard project whom Gates tapped to help distribute his 2010 funding) tells us that geoengineering could be very inexpensive. According to him, it would cost just $10 billion (annually), or one ten-thousandth of global GDP, whereas its benefits could be more than 1 percent of global GDP—a return one thousand times greater than its cost. While Keith warns that solar geoengineering does not spare us the need to reduce emissions, other team members do not seem so convinced.
“Fellow Harvard teammate Richard Zeckhauser tells us that ‘solar geoengineering is the most promising technology we have today.’ It is so promising that Zeckhauser says he would be fine if we redirected some of our efforts from greenhouse gas emission reduction to geoengineering, a statement that borders on encouraging moral hazard . . . “
Research illustrates the dangers of moving ahead in a Wild West atmosphere of independent initiatives taken outside a global governance structure. Releasing solar shielding particles in the northern hemisphere alone could increase droughts in India and the Sahel of Africa even as it benefits the north. Jacob Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative, told Carbon Brief, “If one country decided to put its own interests first – say the leader of that country thought ‘our country needs cooling down, let’s do some regional solar geoengineering’ – that could have potentially catastrophic effects in other parts of the world.”
Keith was the co-author of a 2020 modeling study that downplayed the danger. Previous studies showed solar shielding worsening climate impacts over 9% of the Earth’s land area. But if shielding aimed to reduce just half of warming it “would only exacerbate change over 1.3% of the land area,” said co-author Peter Irvine. “Our results suggest that when used at the right dose and alongside reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, stratospheric aerosol geoengineering could be useful for managing the impacts of climate change.”
“There is a real potential, maybe a significant potential, to reduce the risks of climate change this century – by a lot,” Keith said.
Research showing geoengineering could be cheap, reduce climate damage and have minimal impacts in “the right dose” has the appearance of making a case for geoengineering. Even though the scientists acknowledge uncertainty, such research at least entertains moral hazard. This is particularly so absent a framework of global governance or democratic accountability.
THE SAAMI CALL OUT HARVARD
The Saami and their allies took direct aim at the accountability issue and the Harvard-appointed Advisory Committee. It is worth quoting at length. There are “serious problems in terms of governance and decision-making in relation to SCoPEx. We find it remarkable that the project has gone so far as to establish an agreement with SSC (Swedish Space Corporation) on test flying without, as we understand, having applied for any permits or entered into any dialogue with either the Swedish government, its authorities, the Swedish research community, Swedish civil society, or the Saami people, despite the controversial nature of SCoPEx . . . “
“It is noteworthy that Harvard University considers it reasonable for a committee whose role it is to decide whether this controversial project should go ahead, to not have any representation from the intended host country, Sweden. Instead, the committee is composed of almost exclusively US citizens and/or residents. We note that SCoPEx ‘independent’ Advisory Committee appears to be extremely homogeneous, is far from representative and appointed through Harvard itself, without any inclusion of affected groups and without directly critical and non-US voices. (Members are listed here.)
“The SCoPEx project’s comment on its Advisory Committee’s draft ‘Engagement Process for SCoPEx’ highlights core issues and shows the project’s problematic approach to ethics, responsibility and decision making. The SCoPEx project states that no one research project should have to answer questions such as ‘Does solar geoengineering research or deployment pose a moral hazard? Is it ethical to deploy solar geoengineering, and who should decide? Can solar geoengineering deployment be governed, and can we trust that governance? Is research a slippery slope to deployment?’. The SCoPEx project states that under such requirements research would have to halt, and complains that this has not been the case for other areas of research, and therefore ‘should not be the burden for solar geoengineering research.’
“We state that precisely because of the extraordinary and particular risks associated with SAI, this technology and SCoPEx cannot be treated like other research. The type of key issues cited above must be considered first, and in forums that are significantly more representative and inclusive than the SCopEx Advisory Committee. Experimentation and technology development through projects such as SCoPEx must therefore be halted.
“We call on the SCoPEx Advisory Committee as well as SSC to recognise these shortcomings, and to cancel the planned test flight in Kiruna. The SCoPEx plans for Kiruna constitute a real moral hazard . . . Stratospheric Aerosol Injection research and technology development have implications for the whole world, and must not be advanced in the absence of full, global consensus on its acceptability.”
Indigenous and environmental opposition has backed SSC and Advisory Committee down. On March 31, MIT Technology review reported that the SSC had withdrawn from the project, and the committee in “an unexpected move” advised suspending the June test. The group said it has begun a public engagement process to “help the committee understand Swedish and Indigenous perspectives and make an informed and responsive recommendation about the equipment test flights in Sweden.” SCoPEx principal investigator Frank Keutsch said flights will be suspended until the committee can make a recommendation “based on robust public engagement in Sweden that is broadly inclusive of indigenous populations . . . “
It is likely tests will not be conducted before 2022 and not in Sweden. With the pandemic abating the tests may return to the U.S.
It took the Saami and environmental allies calling out the Harvard project and the Advisory Committee to begin a consultation process. That it came as an afterthought underscores the basic point. In geoengineering as with so many crucial issues, private institutions and individuals are acting as de facto governments, making decisions potentially affecting billions of people without democratic accountability. Harvard, the premier university in the U.S. and the world, is a preeminent case in point. Resistant to campaigns for fossil fuel divestment, it is researching technologies that could diminish the drive to end fossil fuel burning. A poster for moral hazard. To move toward the first stratospheric experiment of highly controversial geoengineering technology in a foreign country without thinking to consult the country’s civil society, let alone indigenous people over whose lands you will conduct that experiment, evidences a certain HAA-VUD “we-know-better-than-you” arrogance. It is the essence of private government over democratic accountability.
SHOULD SCIENTISTS LEAD?
Announcement of the suspension came only days after release of a National Academy of Sciences report calling for a program of geoengineering research.
“This proposal is dangerous,” wrote Frank Bierrman, Utrecht University professor of global governance and founder of the Earth System Governance Project. “Solar geoengineering technologies remain speculative and assume a level of understanding of the planetary system that does not exist. Numerous studies have pointed to the risks especially for developing countries and vulnerable populations if anything goes wrong with ‘hacking the climate’. Most importantly, the governance challenges of solar geoengineering are unsurmountable in today’s global political system.”
“The NAS report’s vision for global governance is clear: it is the United States that should lead the way, at least for now. Other countries are invited to join, but there is no indication that the NAS authors envision to place geoengineering technology under global control with a binding veto power for those countries in the Global South that are most vulnerable . . . Instead, the vision of the NAS report seems to be that scientists should lead, especially US scientists. Based on that, a global network of experts could autonomously govern research. It is widely known, however – and acknowledged by the NAS report itself – that this global research community is vastly skewed in favour of a few industrialized countries. Research governance by experts is governance by the Global North, with some ‘consultation’ of others on the side. It is, as I argued earlier, a ‘rich man’s solution’.”
Penn State Climatologist Michael Mann, a member of the NAS, issued his own concerns. “A report like this is as much about the policy message it conveys as it is about the scientific assessment, for it will be used immediately by policy advocates. And here I’m honestly troubled at the fodder it provides for mis-framing of the risks . . . the report itself, in my view, really puts a thumb on the scales. It falls victim to the moral hazard that I warn about in The New Climate War . . . “
Mann quotes from the widely acclaimed new book, “A fundamental problem with geoengineering is that it presents what is known as a moral hazard, namely, a scenario in which one party (e.g., the fossil fuel industry) promotes actions that are risky for another party (e.g., the rest of us), but seemingly advantageous to itself. Geoengineering provides a potential crutch for beneficiaries of our continued dependence on fossil fuels. Why threaten our economy with draconian regulations on carbon when we have a cheap alternative? The two main problems with that argument are that (1) climate change poses a far greater threat to our economy than decarbonization, and (2) geoengineering is hardly cheap – it comes with great potential harm.”
GATES: ENGINEERING OVER POLITICS
Gates has made several other geoengineering plays. He joined with Microsoft’s old chief technology officer, Nathan Myhrvold, and his company, Intellectual Ventures, in which Gates is an investor, on a 2008 geoengineering patent application that envisions using cold sea water to tamp down hurricane intensities. In 2010 he announced an investment in Sea Spray, a company researching a technology that would spray seawater into the atmosphere to seed sunlight-reflecting white clouds. Gates also funded David Keith to create a company that captures CO2 directly from the atmosphere. Carbon Engineering has built a plant in British Columbia and plans another with partner Occidental Petroleum in the Permian Basin of Texas, one of the fracking centers of the continent. CO2’s current market is for enhancing oil recovery by pumping it into wells. Chevron and BHP are other oil company investors in Carbon Engineering, as is Alberta tar sands financier N. Murray Edwards.
Criticism of Gates’ investments ranges well beyond geoengineering to the disproportionate influence his foundation exerts in global health and development as well as education policy. The foundation’s support for industrialized agriculture models in Africa and the teach-to-test-oriented “Common Core” plan for U.S. education have come under scrutiny. Critical reviews of his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, have called out his focus on technology as opposed to political solutions.
Wrote climate activist Bill McKibben in his New York Times review, “ . . . politics . . . is where Gates really wears blinders. ‘I think more like an engineer than a political scientist,’ he says proudly — but that means he can write an entire book about the ‘climate disaster’ without discussing the role that the fossil fuel industry played, and continues to play, in preventing action . . . That’s why we’ve wasted almost three decades of scientific warning. ‘I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change,’ Gates writes, but in fact he does: He founded, and his foundation is a shareholder in, a company that has donated money to exactly the politicians who are in the pocket of big oil. A Bloomberg analysis last fall found that Microsoft had given only a third of its contributions to ‘climate-friendly’ politicians.”
NOBODY’S SMART ENOUGH ON THEIR OWN
In today’s world, money and power are being super-concentrated, aggregating to massive corporations, wealthy individuals such as Gates, and influential institutions such as Harvard. There is a tendency, especially among the successful, to believe their success translates into broad insight on how the world should be managed. With their money, resources and prestige, they speak with the loudest voices, often drowning out others.
But no matter how brilliant or even well intentioned we may be, each one of us human beings is limited by our own perspectives. We all have blind spots. We all make mistakes. The greater our reach, the more injurious the potential impact. That is the downfall of the private governance structures becoming ever more powerful in the world. Inclusive frameworks of democratic accountability are required to gain the widest range of knowledge and insights, reflect the broadest interests, and avoid pitfalls.
The Saami, speaking with the growing moral authority of the indigenous, along with their environmental allies, have brought a crucial voice to the geoengineering table. That they were not asked their views, but had to raise their voice, says everything about the flawed assumptions of private government. This is true for the range of challenges confronting our world. It is nowhere truer than in a field with such global and potentially catastrophic impacts as geoengineering.
This first appeared on Patrick Mazza’s substack blog The Raven.