Geoengineering and Environmental Capitalism: Extractive Industries in the Era of Climate Change
This essay is co-published with Science for the People. It is drawn from a special issue on geoengineering that marks the first new publication since 1989 from Science for the People, a pioneering organization of activist scientists that has been recently revived.
If, as history shows, fantasies of weather and climate control have chiefly served commercial and military interests, why should we expect the future to be different? — James Fleming, Fixing the Sky 1
After decades of lurking in the shadows of secretive military research, geoengineering has recently resurfaced in conversations about climate change and crept into the mainstream of international climate policy. 2 A small group of climate scientists, elite policy advisers, and industry representatives from high-polluting countries in the Global North are increasingly vocal about their support for geoengineering — large-scale technological interventions in the climate system — as a means to weaken or suppress some of the symptoms of climate change.
There are two basic categories of geoengineering technologies. The first is a suite of technologies that aim to reduce the amount of incoming sunlight to artificially cool the climate, Solar Radiation Management (SRM). Proposed SRM projects include shooting aerosols into the stratosphere and brightening clouds or ocean surfaces to reflect sunlight back into space.
SRM has thus far only been simulated in computer models, but it could leave the lab as early as 2018. Backed by a multimillion geoengineering fund provided by Bill Gates, Harvard University scientist David Keith, and colleagues working on the high profile Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI) project known as “SCoPEx” plan to run first field experiments in Tucson, Arizona, this year. Hardware-testing of the Marine Cloud Brightening Project, a research project with financial and professional connections to SCoPEx, is slated to take place in Monterey Bay, California, on Indigenous territory. Ice911, a self-proclaimed “Silicon Valley moonshot,” is already testing their geoengineering solution to lower global temperatures by restoring ice in the Arctic.
The second category of geoengineering interventions in the Earth system fall under the umbrella of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR). CDR aims to suck CO2 from the atmosphere at a global scale and bury it underground or in the oceans. 3 While pilot-scale facilities on land filter CO2 from ambient air, they are so far unable to permanently remove CO2 from the atmosphere. David Keith’s Carbon Engineering company, for example, produces synthetic fuel from captured CO2. Climeworks in Switzerland lists food and beverage, agriculture, and automotive manufacturing as (potential) industries for their product. In all cases, the captured CO2 sooner or later returns to the atmosphere when the products made from it are combusted, consumed, or otherwise disposed of.
Carbon Dioxide Removal schemes are not limited to land. As one of the most prominent marine geoengineering technologies, Ocean Fertilization applies iron or other nutrients in large oceanic areas to stimulate phytoplankton growth that sequesters atmospheric CO2. The phytoplankton eventually sink to the ocean bed when they die, supposedly taking the sequestered CO2 along. This idea has been tested a dozen times — with meager results for the technology’s efficacy (much of the sequestered CO2 was released again via the marine food chain), but with detrimental impacts on the marine environment.
Across the two basic categories of SRM and CDR, geoengineering aims to intervene in the world’s oceans, soils, ecosystems, and atmosphere. Most geoengineering technologies are largely hypothetical, and major uncertainties remain as to whether they could ever work at all.
A Climate "Technofix"
Geoengineering is an attempt to solve the problem of climate change — a social, political, and ecological crisis — through large-scale technological projects. This “technofix“ mentality lends itself to a systematic disregard of risk, adverse impacts, and unintended side-effects associated with unproven technologies. Side-effects are particularly threatening to strained natural ecosystems and populations that are economically or ecologically vulnerable.
Some consequences are fairly straightforward: the technological system known as BECCS is meant to couple bioenergy production with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies that bury CO2 underground. If rolled out at a climate-relevant scale, BECCS would lead to fierce competition over land and resources, widespread land grabs and forced displacement, and sharp increases in global food prices.
Computer simulations have predicted other possible impacts of geoengineering schemes on the natural world. Injecting aerosols in the stratosphere could suppress rainfall and potentially interfere with monsoon patterns. Carbon farm monocultures threaten to destroy natural ecosystems at a massive scale. Given that natural processes and systems are complex, non-linear, and in some measure chaotic and unpredictable, the overwhelming majority of effects that will ripple through our global ecosystems might only become apparent after geoengineering technologies are actually deployed.
The systematic dominance of physical science and engineering perspectives in geoengineering research encourages a neglect of social and environmental impacts. This negligence is characteristic of an approach that addresses symptoms but aims to leave the underlying conditions that spawned the problem in place. Yet the socio-political and socio-economic implications of large-scale technological schemes to “fix” the climate are profound: under existing global power relations, geoengineering is bound to be exploited for corporate and strategic interest.
The Perfect Excuse for Continuing Business-as-Usual
Finding a technological shortcut to climate change is in the interest of those responsible for the bulk of the problem. Were we to address the root causes of environmental destruction, major pollutants would bear the political and economic costs. It is therefore no surprise that fossil fuel companies and their representatives often draw on geoengineering as part of the "solution" to climate change. 4 If pollution can be cleaned up after the fact and global warming and other symptoms of climate change technologically suppressed, then the industries responsible for environmental crisis can continue business as usual.
Oil industry moguls and their representatives, such as Haroon Kheshgi at ExxonMobil, have been at the forefront of developing geoengineering technologies, particularly to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. 5 Kheshgi is also an author of the upcoming IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C, which for a broad range of over 100 international civil society organizations constitutes a flagrant conflict of interest. 6
In many cases, there is direct overlap between oil industry interests and geoengineering projects branded as environmental solutions. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), an important enabling technology for Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), was originally developed by the oil industry as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), a technique to flush out the final drops of oil from nearly-depleted wells and reservoirs. Both fossil CCS and CCS coupled with bioenergy (BECCS) or CO2 from the atmosphere (Direct Air Capture and CCS, or DACCS) are now touted as contributions to climate change mitigation.
For a long time, geoengineering was too controversial for big corporations to publicly endorse. Yet as Steve Horn revealed in his DeSmog Blog article, “How the Biochar Industry Pushed for Offsets, Tar Sands, and Fracking Reclamation Using Unsettled Science,” big industries have lobbied extensively for geoengineering initiatives like biochar.
Much remains to be uncovered about the entanglements of the fossil fuel industry and geoengineering initiatives, but as geoengineering becomes less taboo, corporate interests are increasingly apparent. Business magnates such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, have openly donated large sums of money toward geoengineering research and technology. 7 Private and corporate investments contribute to the highly undemocratic and unaccountable nature of the field of geoengineering research and development.
Fossil fuel industries have much to lose from socioecological transformation and restructuring that our economies and societies urgently need to undergo as an adequate response to climate change. An entire mode of production — highly polluting, highly exploitative of humans and nature — is utterly indefensible in the face of climate change and the global social injustice environmental degradation perpetuates. In treating some of the symptoms of climate change but not tackling the root causes, geoengineering can be understood as a desperate attempt to maintain a failed economic status quo.
New Industries for Engineering the Planet
Geoengineering schemes aim to intervene in natural ecosystems at a global scale. Current climate mitigation scenarios include the possibility of several hundred to more than one thousand gigatons (Gt) of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere over the course of the twenty-first century and stored underground or in the oceans. 8 In 2017, global CO2 emissions stood at around 40 Gt. This amounts to a staggering amount of ten to twenty-five times of the current global emissions per year that would need to be sucked from the atmosphere.
Given the magnitude and scale at which the proposed geoengineering initiatives would need to be rolled out to be “climate-significant,” their implementation would consume enormous amounts of energy, land, water, minerals, and other natural resources. They would depend on the establishment of new transnational, large-scale extractive industries.
BECCS, for example, requires cultivating, harvesting, and transporting fast-growing, usually water- and fertilizer-intensive biomass, burning biomass in bioenergy plants, sequestering the carbon dioxide that arises in the combustion process, and transporting CO2 to sites of final disposal. In other words, implementing BECCS means developing cross-border and industrial-scale infrastructure, processing plants, pipes and tubes, roads and railways, and storage facilities. And who is better equipped to erect and maintain such industrial infrastructures than existing transnational industries currently engaged in mining, transportation, fossil fuel production, and conventional agriculture?
Other CDR technologies come with similar costs. Global-scale Enhanced Weathering (EW) involves distributing finely ground rock material (olivine or basalt) several millimeters thick on agricultural fields — and not just some agricultural fields, but the largest part of the tropics. A 2010 study estimated that Enhanced Weathering could require olivine mining at the scale of present-day global coal mining. 9
The additional emissions that arise throughout the entire life cycle — from industrial-scale mining to processing, transportation, and distribution — cast doubt on the ability of proposed CDR technologies to ever effectively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Moreover, extractive industries have a recognized, long-standing track record of human rights abuses and environmental destruction. The political economy behind geoengineering schemes threatens to further entrench industry power and marginalize the rights of local communities and the integrity of their ecosystems.
Engineering the Climate for Profit
Geoengineering schemes are not only in the interest of the traditional fossil fuel producers and extractive industries. They also promise market expansion, commercial gains, and greater power for new and emerging economic actors and corporations. The recent increase in registered geoengineering patents and burgeoning commercial interest in geoengineering technologies make clear that tech entrepreneurs expect to profit from "fixing" the looming climate crisis. 10
In the current absence of a significant carbon price or government regulation, it is incumbent upon “carbon geoengineers” to come up with commercially viable products made from the CO2 they capture. Strategies to make CDR commercially viable include attempts at generating carbon offsets to use captured CO2 for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) or, in the case of David Keith’s direct air capture company, for synthetic fuels for the transport sector. 11 These commercial goods might eventually be profitable, but certainly have no climatic benefit.
Convergence of New and Emerging Technologies
Virtually any geoengineering scheme, for technical or political and governance reasons, would require a globe-spanning grid of measuring sites to monitor and control climatic and weather parameters. This is especially true for SRM technologies such as Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI) and Marine Cloud Brightening that maintain artificial cooling by constantly recharging the climate with substances such as sulfur dioxide. Once such an intervention was implemented, halting it would trigger a “termination shock,” unleashing a sudden uptick in temperature, with rates of climatic change well beyond what many species, including humans, could adapt. 12
Similarly, permanent monitoring, reporting, and verification of carbon sequestration and storage in soils, biomass, the oceans, and underground would demand the extraction of massive amounts of data. Deploying such technologies and maintaining them over centuries is infeasible without constant universal surveillance of the climate and other Earth systems. Big Data has much to gain from reshaping and controlling the climate system.
Beyond Big Data, we can trace tenuous connections to other new and emerging technologies, such as synthetic biology and genetic engineering. Trans-industrial proposals include genetically redesigning crop leaves to make them more reflective, engineering fast-growing tree species for afforestation and bioenergy plantations, and reconfiguring carbon-sequestering microorganisms for algal geoengineering schemes.
Finally, even the emerging Artificial Intelligence market has a potential stake in geoengineering. A late 2017 paper found that the deployment of a specialized algorithm and machine learning led to better results in fine-tuning injection sites and optimal dosages of sulfur dioxide in solar geoengineering deployment than depending on human intelligence. 13
These large-scale, transindustrial geoengineering proposals not only share technologies, but are also motivated by common underlying economic interests and corporate power. Public accountability and democratic governance of research and development recedes into the distance in the face of such powerful, globe-spanning, and planet-altering projects.
The Cool War: Hacking the Planet for Strategic Interest
Besides commercial and industry appetite, there are also serious military and security implications around the deployment and possible weaponization of geoengineering.
Even under the ideal deployment conditions that SRM computer simulations assume, impacts and side-effects — an overall suppression of rainfall, as well as regional droughts, hurricanes, and floods— will be unevenly distributed, resulting in regional winners and losers. This in itself has significant ramifications for international peace and security. Industrial CDR infrastructure would inevitably place excessive demand on water, energy, minerals, and other resources. These are bound to give rise to a new wave of conflict over precisely these resources.
Geoengineering will produce adverse impacts and side-effects for some regions and populations, rendering it difficult to imagine establishing consensus around deployment. Who would voluntarily accept the potentially devastating consequences of such technologies? As geoengineering expands outside the realm of labs and computer models into the real world, political conflict risks being exacerbated by a systematic bias toward powerful nations more readily positioned to develop and deploy geoengineering in their favor.
This situation is exacerbated by global leaders’ sustained inability to agree on meaningful and mandatory climate action. Under conditions of unreliable multilateralism and fragile accountability, the international community lacks reliable mechanisms for holding potential geoengineering interventions responsible for liabilities. Geoengineering is essentially impossible to govern democratically on the international level.
David Keith, one of the most prominent supporters of climate engineering, and his co-authors in a recent article are surprisingly frank about the weaponization potential of certain geoengineering technologies. The global security threats posed by unilateral or mini-lateral SRM deployment, they argue, necessitate counter-measures or “counter-geoengineering” as a tactical device to deter other states from unilaterally deploying the technologies to their advantage.
According to Keith and co-authors, “counter-geoengineering” could be effected through “counterveiling with a warming agent, i.e. injecting even more GHG into the atmosphere, and neutralising impacts with a physical disruption.” 14
Counter-geoengineering represents the final step towards climate militarization and borrows directly from Cold War deterrence thinking. The authors are unfazed by this explicitly militaristic dimension: “Military action to stop SRM deployment by a powerful state would likely only be launched by another powerful state or states, potentially triggering a systemic war.” 15
It is no coincidence that in the United States, geoengineering is supported by individuals and think tanks with ties to the military. 16 At the end of 2017, a bill was introduced into Congress, which, if approved, would develop a strategic research agenda for Solar Radiation Management. 17
The upshot of the US officially pursuing a geoengineering research agenda while simultaneously withdrawing from the Paris Agreement might be a strategic intensification of existing geoengineering research elsewhere, such as the government-led research programs in China and Russia. 18 It is not only the deployment of geoengineering that has high-stakes geopolitical and security implications, but also the current pursuit of strategic technology development.
Power, Profits, and Authoritarian Control: Petrifying the Status Quo
High-risk and global-impact technologies are inherently difficult to govern democratically. Under real-world political conditions, they are likely to privilege powerful states, granting marginalized populations little say in the new engineered climate regime.
The infrastructure required by geoengineering also limits the autonomy of less powerful countries and independent actors. Although small states and rogue climate hackers could theoretically develop and carry out a one-time SRM intervention, as David Keith and his coauthors concede, “contrary to the common assumption that the ability to engage in solar geoengineering would be widely distributed among states, practical requirements related to delivery infrastructure, technical capacity, and ability to withstand external pressure would likely mean that SRM capabilities would be limited to major powers or coalitions.” 19
Authoritarian regimes could readily exploit geoengineering technologies. Imaginary global climate control is itself an authoritarian fantasy on the part of a small technocratic elite. Measures to artificially cool down the planet as envisioned by Solar Radiation Management only suppress certain symptoms of climate change. The looming threat of consequences such as “termination shock” would demand constant control and surveillance over the global thermostat over the course of decades, centuries, or possibly millennia.
A Deeper Crisis
Despite attempts to present a neutral facade, geoengineering schemes are far from apolitical, “last-resort” stopgaps for the environment. Not only is geoengineering not a remedy to the looming climate crisis, it is likely to worsen climactic issues in the long term.
Geoengineering is clearly opposed to the interest of the general public, from the risks posed to human communities and natural ecosystems to the ease with which it could be appropriated to serve extractive industry and military interests. Geoengineering is about more than just the climate: it is an attempt to uphold the failed status quo of fossil fuel and extractive industry power. It is a project amenable to authoritarianism, militarization, and weaponization. Increased private sector and military investment in climate engineering technologies and research represent an attempt to thwart the deep socioecological transformation our societies and economies urgently need.
The world does not need more technological quick-fixes. We need a rapid phaseout of global coal, oil, and gas production and a rapid deconstruction of fossil fuel infrastructure. We need a shift to one hundred percent decentralised renewable energy production and supply from solar and wind. We have exciting, sustainable alternatives to the current status quo: a global transition towards peasant agroecology would produce significantly lower emissions than conventional industrial agriculture and simultaneously pave the way for food sovereignty. 20
We can reduce the absolute energy and resources consumed by the global economy by adopting an agroeconomic model that does not depend on endless growth. We must redistribute global wealth and income, both between and within countries, to reduce socioeconomic inequality and increase climate resilience. Our solutions to the climate crisis, in reality a socioecological crisis, must be climate-just. The problem ahead is not an engineering problem — it is a problem of power and the vested interests of global industry in preventing real environmental justice.
1. James R. Fleming, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control. Columbia University Press.
2. See Earth‘s Future 2016 issue “Crutzen +10: Reflecting upon 10 years of geoengineering research.” Link: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/toc/10.1002/(ISSN)2328-4277.GEOENGIN1.
3. For more information on geoengineering technologies and their impacts, key actors, and supporters, political developments and international civil society opposition to geoengineering see GeoengineeringMonitor, a civil society-run information hub.
4. Shell, “Sky. Meeting the Goals of the Paris Agreement,” Shell Scenarios, 2018, https://www.shell.com/promos/meeting-the-goals-of-the-paris-agreement/_jcr_content.stream/1530643931055/d5af41aef92d05d86a5cd77b3f3f5911f75c3a51c1961fe1c981daebda29b726/shell-scenario-sky.pdf; ETC Group, Biofuelwatch, Heinrich Böll Foundation, “The Big Bad Fix. The Case Against Climate Engineering,“ 2017, pp. 40ff. Link: https://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/bigbadfix.pdf?dimension1=division_iup.
5. See, for instance, Haroon S. Khesghi, "Sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxideby increasing ocean alkalinity," Energy, Vol. 20, No. 9, 1995, pp. 915-922. Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/036054429500035F
6. GeoengineeringMonitor, Civil Society: "Oil Companies Should Not Author IPCC Report," May15, 2017. Link: http://www.geoengineeringmonitor.org/2017/05/civil-society-oil-companies-should-not-author-ipcc-report/
7. ETC Group, Biofuelwatch, Heinrich Böll Foundation, “The Big Bad Fix,“ p. 40.
8. See Jan Minx et al., “Negative emissions – Part 1: Research landscape and synthesis,“ Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 13, No. 6, 2018. Link: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aabf9b
9. Peter Köhler et al., “The geoengineering potential of artificially enhanced silicate weathering of olivine,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 107, 2010, pp. 20228-20233. http://www.pnas.org/content/107/47/20228
10. ETC Group, Biofuelwatch, Heinrich Böll Foundation, “The Big Bad Fix,“ p. 41.
12. Trisos, C. H. et al., "Potentially dangerous consequences for biodiversity of solar geoengineering implementation and termination,“ Nature Ecology & Evolution 2, pp. 475-482, 2018. Link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-017-0431-0
13. Kravitz, B. et al., "First Simulations of Designing Stratospheric Sulfate Aerosol Geoengineering to Meet Multiple Simultaneous Climate Objectives," Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 122, pp. 12,616-12,634, 2017. Link: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/2017JD026874
14. Parker, Horton, Keith, "Stopping Solar Geoengineering Through Technical Means," 2018. Highly recommendable is a video produced to go along with the research paper, in which David Keith, Peter Irvine, and Joshua Horton discuss the notion of counter-geoengineering and reflect on their new research: https://player.vimeo.com/video/269265108
16. ETC Group, Biofuelwatch, Heinrich Böll Foundation, ”The Big Bad Fix,“ p. 43.
18. ETC Group, Biofuelwatch, Heinrich Böll Foundation, “The Big Bad Fix,“ p. 38ff.
19. Andy Parker, Joshua Horton, and David Keith, “Stopping Solar Geoengineering Through Technical Means: A Preliminary Assessment of Counter-Geoengineering.” Earth's Future, 2018.
20. ETC Group, “Who Will Feed Us?“, 2017. Link: http://www.etcgroup.org/whowillfeedus.
Linda Schneider works with the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Berlin with a focus on international climate policy. She is active in the German climate justice and Right to the City movements.