Royal Society Report on Geoengineering and Climate: Geoengineering or Geo-piracy?

Royal Society Report on Geoengineering and Climate: Geoengineering or Geo-piracy?

By ETC Group

Being under the direction of the president of the Royal Society (Academy of Sciences of the United Kingdom), Lord Martin Rees, and commented by James Lovelock, father of the Hypothesis of Gaia, the recently published report of this academy, which analyzes the possibilities of redesign the world through geoengineering to save it from the climate crisis, it might seem like the embodiment of the precautionary principle. As long as the geopolitical gap between rich and poor countries is not recognized, geoengineering will be geo-piracy.

Being under the direction of the president of the Royal Society (Academy of Sciences of the United Kingdom), Lord Martin Rees, and commented by James Lovelock, father of the Hypothesis of Gaia, the recently published report of this academy [1], which analyzes the possibilities to redesign the world through geoengineering to save it from the climate crisis, it might seem like the embodiment of the precautionary principle. After all, it was Lord Rees himself who, in his 2004 book, Our Final Century, warned us that technological hubris could wipe out a million lives through 'bioerror' or 'bioterror' before 2020. He is a cautious man who is not willing to blindly believe in technological "silver bullets". Likewise, Dr. Lovelock has heightened his alarm about impending climate chaos by leaning toward geoengineering but equally concerned about the "Kafkaesque" possibilities of attempts by scientists and governments to suddenly and voluntarily recalibrate the planetary thermostat.

Media coverage of the report has been confusing. [2] This is not surprising, as the venerable Royal Society, contradicting itself at times, did its best to appear balanced. An acrobatic feat that surpasses most academics! However, there are two unequivocal messages:

1.- It is urgent to take mitigation and adaptation measures to climate change and the first task is to reduce GHG emissions, and

2.- Geoengineering is a credible, but unproven, “Plan B” in case mitigation fails. Although the Royal Society can be applauded for the first part of the message, the phrase has become a mandatory mantra to enunciate the second: that geoengineering must be funded and tested. After all, most of the report's authors have fewer precautionary credentials than Rees and Lovelock. Many are actively involved in geoengineering research and development, and / or seeking financial support and advocating for specific planetary techno-remedies.

From certain points of view, geoengineering as an "insurance policy" may seem sensible, practical, and even precautionary. But, like it or not, those views (whether they be the report's authors or commentators) are geographically or even geopolitically conditioned. Seen in light of real politics, the report's explicit endorsement of geoengineering research and conducting real-world experiments - and its refusal to reject even the most outlandish projects [3] - is highly concerning.

The report can only seem precautionary if it is read from the perspective of the OECD countries, mainly the United States, Europe and Japan. Technological remedies have become the opiate of politicians: they are the best way to avoid making decisions that might seem unpopular for the business sector, leaving the underlying problems to fade (at least until the next election) in the gentle haze blue from a Bunsen burner.

The authors of the report believe that geoengineering would be an unsatisfactory and hopefully distant Plan B, which should only be considered if one or more decisive climatic events bring humanity closer to catastrophe: for example, the rapid emission of methane gas from the Arctic tundra; a sudden collapse of the Greenland ice masses; or perhaps the inability of governments, during the crucial climate change conference in Copenhagen this December, to establish a credible path to save the planet from chaos. The report acknowledges that there are many ways to geoengineered the planet and admits that we know very little about social and environmental impacts. The authors propose that the British government invest the modest sum of £ 10 million annually over 10 years for geoengineering research. Readers are assured that most of this research will be in the form of computer simulations and monitoring; but the report also recommends field tests for various technologies. In direct communications with the Royal Society, they state that, as a scientific group, it would be irresponsible not to study geoengineering and offer governments and society their best analysis of the risks and benefits. They mention the growing media interest in geoengineering in recent months and insist that they have the obligation to take on the thankless task of contributing "scientific rigor" to an increasingly controversial debate.

But again, it depends on your point of view. If you are a member of the G-8 - especially if you are the member of the G-8 that started the industrial revolution that is causing climate change - you have some confidence in geoengineering as a remedy. Only the richest countries in the world can muster the hardware and software necessary to rearrange the weather and reset the thermostat. You can also have some hope that the cost of geoengineering will be much less than the 2 percent of annual global GDP that is conservatively estimated to cost to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. [4] Since it will be your own money, your own scientists, and your companies that will conduct the experiments and implement geoengineering, you feel relatively confident that you will be able to control the process and protect your population. Since you know that the Copenhagen process is difficult and the climate is in danger, it is politically comforting to have a Plan B in your pocket.

But if your perspective is a little to port or starboard of the equator - in the tropics or subtropics - geoengineering looks very different ...

First, the OECD governments that have denied or ignored climate change for decades, and that are responsible for almost all historical greenhouse gas emissions, will have de facto control over the implementation of geoengineering experiments. In fact, while the Royal Society recognizes that UN agencies will have to step in and regulate geoengineering at some point, they propose that research and experiments (possibly involving “public-private partnerships” and proprietary technologies) continue for now. ) using a “voluntary code of practice” that the corporate and public scientists themselves will write! It doesn't help that the major private sector players in geoengineering will inevitably be the energy and chemical companies responsible for climate chaos.

Second, the governments that are talking about geoengineering experimentation are the same ones that did not provide even the slightest funds for mitigation or adaptation. It is unreasonable to think that these governments will not divert the funds they should put into mitigation and adaptation to climate change to geoengineering, if they have the opportunity to do so. After all, they can spend the money on their own scientists and companies on initiatives that are more likely to benefit their part of the world.

Third, to have an impact on the global climate, geoengineering projects will have to be on a massive scale. Projects that alter the stratosphere or the seas will not only have unknown consequences but also unequal impacts, referred to in the report as “spatial heterogeneity”. [5] Just as the "geoengineering" of the Industrial Revolution did much more damage to the tropical and subtropical regions of the planet, new and intentional geoengineering experiments could do the same.

There is no sensible reason for the governments or peoples of most of Africa, Asia and Latin America to trust that the governments, industries or scientists of the OECD countries will protect the interests of the countries of the South in any Plan B After all, these are the governments that recently spent billions of dollars to protect their industries while allowing more than a billion people to go hungry, including the increase of 150 million more during the current food crisis — caused in part by agrofuels and climate change. [6] In the absence of credibly demonstrating the goodwill of governments with real potential to implement geoengineering, governments in the global South have every reason in the world to be suspicious.

There are at least two other reasons to be concerned, depending on where we are geographically and geopolitically:

Science undoubtedly has a role to play in mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis. It is urgent and important that the scientific community work with national and even local governments to monitor and see how to respond to climate threats in the future. This collaborative effort will require a lot of money and a lot of focused energy. But what is needed are a thousand candles of brilliant research, decentralized and supported by local knowledge, learning from the real solutions that peasants, indigenous people and local communities are already proposing, and not a new Manhattan Project. By definition, practical responses to climate change must change depending on the latitudes and altitudes of ecosystems. Although it is profitable for scientists to win a Nobel Prize waving “magic” wands around the world, this will simply divert money from real solutions and can have serious consequences on the planet's ecosystems and balances. Big Science will have to become Diverse Science, learning from those who are already facing the climate crisis.

Finally, despite the mellifluous and cautionary tones of the Royal Society report, James Lovelock is right. Geoengineering is a Kafkaesque solution: we are simply renting a line to catch the cat to catch the mouse instead of drastically reducing GHG emissions and changing our lifestyles. We don't know enough about Earth's systems to take a chance on engineering experiments. We do not know if these experiments will be cheap, as many geoengineers insist, especially if they do not work, if they hinder other more constructive alternatives or if they cause adverse effects. We don't know how to revoke a technology once it has been implemented.

The only ones celebrating the Royal Society report are scientists already conducting geoengineering research, industries that can profit from experimentation and implementation, and governments and companies that hope this silver bullet will allow them to evade the bullet of the public criticism in Copenhagen in December. These groups only needed the Royal Society to shine a "yellow light" on governments, supporting more research and experimentation. They know that it will be very difficult to sell geoengineering to the public, who already distrust science, industry and their governments regarding climate change. They are convinced that a failure in Copenhagen will put the world at their feet. Perhaps unintentionally, the Royal Society played the game for them. Ultimately, the Royal Society's recommendations are built on the sand of ignorance and arrogance.

ETC Group - September 7, 2009 -


[1] Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty, UK Royal Society, 1 September 2009, available online:

[2] See Geoff Brumfiel, “Geoengineering report baffles reporters,” Nature Blog, September 2, 2009,

[3] Even technologies like covering deserts with reflective aluminum polyethylene or putting trillions of mirrors in space, for example, were not ruled out as future possibilities and therefore would be eligible for research funding.

[4] The Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change, available at http: // (…), estimated the cost at 1 percent of GDP in 2006, but lead author Nicolas Stern doubled the estimate only two years later. See Juliette Jowit and Patrick Wintour, “Cost of tackling global climate change has doubled, warns Stern,” The Guardian, June 26, 2008. This new estimate has recently been questioned as being too conservative. See for example:

[5] Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty, p. 62.

[6] The World Bank estimates that 75 percent of the 140 percent increase in food prices between 2002 and 2008 was due to the production of agrofuels. See Asbjorn Eide, “The Right to Food and the Impact of Liquid Agrofuels (Biofuels),” FAO, Rome, 2008, available at (…) and Olivier de Schutter, Background Note: Analysis of the World Food Crisis by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, available at (… )

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