Desperate times, desperate measures: Advancing the geoengineering debate at the Arctic Council
I’m pleased to announce that the result of my internship at IISD this summer has been published; my first (real) publication! I worked on it for about a month and a half, and I’m quite pleased with it (if I may say so). It was co-written with Henry David (Hank) Venema, with me as lead author. I owe a lot to Hank, however, who helped me out, jogged my brain circuits, gave me the idea for the paper, and wrote a few crucial paragraphs I was struggling with.
Read the paper:
The Arctic is like the canary in the coalmine, warning us about the increasing impact of climate change, which is felt first there. In 2007, the Arctic ice cap shrunk to its smallest size ever recorded, 37 per cent below the recorded average. Its abrupt decline, which deviates widely from the largely linear and predictable trend observed over the past few decades, has alarmed the scientific community and suggests we may be closer to a dangerous “tipping point” than previously anticipated. At the same time, economic globalization is coming to this marginalized region at last through increased resource exploitation, leading in turn to further emissions of greenhouse gases and further climate change.
As unsavoury as it may be, this paper will argue that we must investigate geoengineering as an emergency option in case the mitigation regime fails. Given the dramatic consequences of climate change in the Arctic and the role of this region in the global climate, the Arctic countries have a special responsibility to lead this investigation and the debate surrounding it. As the only circumpolar governance forum on environmental issues, the Arctic Council is an obvious venue for this process. The paper explores the state of global geoengineering governance and how it should be constructed, and how the Arctic Council can contribute.
So why this topic, and why in the context of the Arctic?
My contract with the IISD was to write a paper about Arctic policy issues in order to position the organisation in the run-up t0 Canada’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council — a circumpolar intergovernmental organisation and high-level forum — starting in 2012. The Arctic has received a lot of attention in recent years following the increasingly pronounced effects of global warming. Worrying events in the Arctic of late indicate that we may be dangerously close to the disintegration of Arctic summer sea ice, and when that happens, it will open up vast new areas for commercial exploitation. There may be a lot of resources in the Arctic — minerals, fish, hydrocarbons — and corporations are lining up even as I write to grab a piece of the action. They know the demand for these resources is almost limitless, because maintaining the high standard of living (and conspicuous consumption) of the North while raising billions of people in the South out of poverty will require greatly expanded production of consumer articles and energy. In a classical display of mercantilism, countries around the Arctic Rim are aligning themselves to protect their territorial and commercial interests, and this includes strengthening their military capabilities in the region.
This is where my interest in the Arctic lies. As one of the largest pristine (relatively speaking) wilderness areas of the world, the Arctic is on the verge of fundamental change — it is about to be ravaged by climate change and torn up by southern capitalists looking for resources. And in a vicious cycle, the resources they do find there will be funnelled into yet more development and consumption, leading to more global warming and more melting in the Arctic.
The cost of development
But we need the resources, you might say, lest we jeopardise the increases we have achieved in the standard of living, and if we are to lift billions of other people up to our level. Besides, surely development in the region can be done in a responsible manner that protects the environment as much as possible.
That may be so, though “as much as possible” is a very vague definition. Who will decide what the appropriate level of protection is? Perhaps we should turn it around and ask instead, “what is the appropriate or acceptable level of environmental damage?,” because that is what the issue really is about. Neoclassical economists would say that development should go on until the marginal costs exceeds the marginal benefits — when the cost of extracting one more barrel of oil from the Arctic Ocean is greater than the benefit to humans derived from that barrel. In any development scenario, nature will be encroached upon. This is unavoidable, they say, and a necessary sacrifice in the name of progress. In many if not most cases, however, the costs and benefits are borne by different people, geographically and politically separated by thousands of kilometres, and this means the marginal cost is far divorced from reality.
The global effects of Arctic climate change
Climate change, however, is different, though we act as if it is not. Immediate environmental degradation, such as depleted fisheries, a collapse in biodiversity, oil spills and thawing permafrost — these problems will be borne almost exclusively by the inhabitants of the Arctic. But climate change is a global problem, and the effects of the disintegration of the Arctic ice cap — which is increasingly a question of “when”, and not “if” — will be borne by us all. The Arctic ice cap is an important temperature regulator, and when it melts, global warming accelerates, because less sunlight is reflected back into space by the brilliantly white ice. The more ice that melts, the more the globe is heated through this positive feedback effect. But even worse, if the thawing of permafrost, which covers vast areas of Northern Russia, Northern Canada and Alaska, continues, we risk releasing billions of tons of carbon stored in the frozen soil. If this process is started in earnest, we may experience runaway climate change — self-reinforcing and virtually unstoppable. We do not know, however, exactly when such a threshold — or “tipping point” — may occur, but we do know they are out there, and too close for comfort. If they do occur, however, the effects on the climate may be rapid and devastating.
Is this not a sufficient argument for taking climate change mitigation seriously? We also know that unless we start bringing emissions down before 2015, it will be extremely hard to limit global warming to less than 2°C of warming above pre-industrial levels, which is the official goal of the EU and the G8. As arbitrary as this number if, scientists believe most positive feedbacks and tipping points lie above this level, but that is small comfort if we are looking at three or four degrees of warming before we are half-way through this century.
So far, however, we perceive little imperative to act. A few more extreme weather events is not enough — we can live with those — and the slow creep of global warming is so gradual we can acclimatise; besides, before it gets really serious, surely we’ll have the necessary technology to take care of it. But most do not consider that there is considerable lag in the climate system. Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, warming would continue for a long time into the future.
2015 is still four years away, but that is not much time when we consider how difficult it is to hammer out a global climate change deal. I sincerely hope the negotiations will be successful, but I’m not optimistic about it. While more countries now perceive the dangers, the same stumbling blocks and flaws that derailed the Kyoto process are still present. Successful resolution looks distant, while the window of opportunity is rapidly closing — if it is not already closed.
For that reason, I believe it would be dangerous not to investigate emergency options as well as other technological solutions that could remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere and sequester it under ground or at the bottom of the oceans. This is called geoengineering; the deliberate manipulation of the planet’s climate. Geoengineering schemes that have been suggested includes mimicking the effects of a volcano by infusing the stratosphere with SO2 particles, and thereby cooling the planet (a giant sunshade); equipping buildings with white roofs to reflect more sunlight into space; stimulating algae blooms to sop up CO2; or building machines to do the same.
Geoengineering has received much flak, and rightly so. The idea that we should look for yet another technological solution to political problems is hubristic, arrogant and possibly very dangerous. Our knowledge about the climate system is both incomplete and uncertain, and to start actively trying to adjust it would seem like the ultimate folly. How do we know that the climate will react the way we think it will? A lot of negative effects can even be predicted, such as disruptions in monsoon patterns, to the potential detriments of billions of people.
Not all geoengineering schemes, however, are borne equal. Schemes that would remove CO2 from the atmosphere obviously address the root of the problem of global warming (though it could be argued that the real root is the emission of greenhouse gases). At any rate, it is quite likely that we will have to augment the planet’s ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, as glaciers melt and as the oceans acidify, which is bad for marine life. Depending on the implementation, such schemes may be relatively harmless and probably very necessary.
Those schemes that change the Earth’s radiative balance (heat transfer between the Earth and space), on the other hand, address only the symptoms of climate change. Some schemes in this category, such as white roofs, may buy us time to mitigate without causing irreversable ice melting, but at the cost of increased ocean acidification. Others, such as a stratospheric sulphur sun shade, could be deployed on very short notice, but could destroy the ozone layer and create acid rain everywhere. It is also possible that we could manufacture a different material with high reflectivity that would not have these harmful effects, though nature has a way of surprising us in ways we could not have thought of (or neglected to think of). Either way, it is envisioned that such geoengineering would only be deployed in a situation of dire need, where the effects of further warming would be far worse than the effects of intervention.
Geoengineering and the Arctic
Dire need, however, may present itself first in the Arctic. The governments of the Arctic need not only to be prepared for that, but they should actually “aid and abet” the process. Working together in the Arctic Council for almost 15 years, the Arctic Eight (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States) have accumulated a considerable competency in Arctic research, not least in relation to climate change. As it is becoming clear that if the danger that geoengineering will one day be necessary is increasing, it becomes imperative that its scientific foundation and engineering implementations can be made as safe and reliable as possible. The Arctic countries and the Arctic Council can be trusted in this regard, and has a clear responsibility to engage with it.
So why the need for this paper?
I fear the Arctic Council and the Arctic countries may shun the issue. It has been subject to taboo for decades, and is on its way to become politically toxic. There is a strong argument for moral hazard, and for the risk that geoengineering may take attention and research money away from mitigation, as cautioned by Britain’s Royal Society, which recently presented a comprehensive report.
But the paper should also serve as a warning to Arctic governments that business-as-usual in the Arctic over the long run will be catastrophic, and that the sort of conventional environmental stewardship will neither be capable of hindering nor handling the disruptive changes that are on the way. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in much recent policy research.
I still believe we can avert catastrophic climate change, but it will not be easy. An awareness of the criticality is an absolute minimum. But criticism should be followed by constructive advice, and my advice is that the Arctic Council engage fully with geoengineering research, and start building the necessary global governance foundation for trials, and if it is deemed necessary, deployment. The best- case scenario is that mere awareness of the issue, and its many adverse side-effects, will lead to a re-doubling of mitigation efforts.