The deadlock between on the one hand environmental NGOs warning of the dangers of global warming and on the other hand spokespersons for the United States government has on the face of it many similarities with the inertial deadlock of the later Cold War period (as analysed by the theorists of the non-aligned peace movements in the 1980s).
Just as the SALT treaties for the reduction of strategic nuclear armaments were continually obstructed by Republicans in the U.S. Senate in the 70s, so the 1997 Treaty of Kyoto – a very inadequate first step towards curbing carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere – is being blocked by the intransigence of their present-day counterparts (including, once again, a Russian element, for the Russian government’s support for Kyoto has been looking decidedly shaky since early December 2003).
The anti-nuclear weapons movement that arose in Europe in the 80s represented an attempt to break through the deadlock of the Cold War system. The approach was epitomised in the writings of E.P. Thompson, whose answer to the question: ‘What is the Cold War about?’ was: ‘It is about itself. The Cold War is a show which was put, by two rival entrepreneurs, upon the road in 1946 or 1947.’
The nuclear arms race, which should have been brought to an end in 1991, was an objective product of the Cold War deadlock. The global warming deadlock has generated a corresponding ‘objective product’, whose outlines can be seen emerging in the global warming debate that was taking place in the mid-nineties. It is called ‘geoengineering’. At the time of the Kyoto conference (and for a time afterwards) a number of articles were appearing in the popular scientific press that appeared to be trying to rally public support for geoengineering.
One of their favourite themes was that global warming is a technical, not a moral problem and so should not be allowed to be the monopoly of ecological non-governmental organizations pursuing an anti-development agenda. Such organizations were later said to be responsible for the decision at Kyoto to impose a fifteen percent cut on global emissions of greenhouse gases over the next decade. Economically this was seen as an indefensible decision , one likely to cost in the order of $250 billion a year, without taking into account the cost of losing the goods, services and innovations whose production would be halted or forgone.
The geoengineering proposal of consciously altering atmospheric chemistry and conditions, of mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases, was put forward as an alternative to calling for reduction of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions.
Geoengineering included land, sea and air-based components. Some of the remedies it was proposing, like large-scale planting of trees, appeared uncontroversial and in fact worthy of support. Others, such as the ‘Geritol’ cure of sowing iron filings into the oceans to stimulate the growth of carbon-consuming phytoplankton, seemed more problematic. Others again, such as the ‘sunscreen’ proposal of scattering millions of tons of metallic particles in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space before it could be emitted in heat radiation and then absorbed by carbon dioxide, were probably judged by most geoengineering theorists to be virtually impossible to sell to the public.
Nevertheless, in the mid-nineties, valiant attempts were made to give geoengineering a good name. Gregory Benford, professor of physics at the University of California, estimated that the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans could be seeded with iron dust for between $10 million and $1 billion a year. 15 ships steaming across the polar oceans all year long, dumping iron dust in lanes, would bring the total to around $10 billion. ‘This would soak up about a third of our global fossil-fuel generated carbon dioxide emissions each year.’
‘Even better than dust would be microscopic droplets of sulphuric acid. Sulphate aerosols can also raise the number of droplets that make clouds condense, further increasing overall reflectivity. Coal-burning freighter ships releasing sulphates into the atmosphere could also spread iron dust into the sea, combining both approaches, with some economies.’
Probably the best-known of the aerial geoengineering proposals was that put forward in 1997 by Edward Teller and entitled ‘Global Warming and the Ice Ages: Prospects for Physics-Based Modulation of Global Change’ subsequently popularised in the Wall Street Journal in an article entitled ‘The Planet Needs a Sunscreen’.
Teller proposed deliberate, large-scale introduction of reflective particles into the upper atmosphere, a task he claimed could be achieved for less than $1 billion a year, between 0.1 and 1.0 percent of the $100 billion he estimated it would cost to bring fossil fuel usage in the United States back down to 1990 levels, as required by the Treaty of Kyoto.
Characteristic of the politics of Teller is the fact that he both ridiculed the idea of global warming and at the same time put forward what he represented as a solution to global warming. ‘For some reason,’ Teller observed sarcastically, ‘This option isn't as fashionable as all-out war on fossil fuels and the people who use them.’
Teller, who is of course known to history as the father of the hydrogen bomb and of the Star Wars missile defence programme, has not always succeeded in getting his pet schemes adopted. His ambitious plan, for example, for using hydrogen bombs to construct harbours in the United States, never made the move from the drawing board into reality. His sarcasm reflected a genuine problem: that of persuading the public that permanent mobilisation of thousands of aircraft to fly day and night, 365 days a year, over land and sea spraying toxic metals over the human, animal and plant populations underneath is a desirable, or even in any way defensible, proposal.
Gregory Benford was sensitive to the public relations difficulties. He said: “If geoengineers are painted early and often as Dr. Strangeloves of the air, they will fail. Properly portrayed as allies of science--and true environmentalism--they could become heroes. Not letting the radical greens set the terms of discussion will matter crucially. ”
One theoretician who helped keep radical greens out of the debate, and may even have succeeded in co-opting some radical greens into the debate, was the Stanford University environmental law student Jay Michaelson, whose ‘Geo-engineering: A Climate Change Manhattan Project’, was published in 1998 in his university’s environmental law journal. Like the name of Edward Teller, the title of Michaelson’s paper is a standing reminder of the continuity between geoengineering and the nuclear arms race. The paper is a masterful attempt to defend the indefensible. Asserting that geoengineering offers hope for solving climate change ‘beyond the too-little, too-lates of Kyoto’, Michaelson’s basic thesis is that ‘in a world where it is very expensive to reduce greenhouse emissions, those who care about the problem should support a policy that will work with those who don’t.’
Michaelson outlines three possible responses to climate change: 1) addressing its root causes, 2) doing nothing and adapting to climate change as it occurs and 3) trying to solve the climate change problem directly via geoengineering.
The impediments to addressing the root causes are the economic cost of cutting back on fossil fuel use, the social costs in a context of generalised dependence on automobiles, the question of equity, given the objection of the nations of the South to having to bear the cost of problems created by the North, and the harsh fact that enforcement of a regulatory regime forces most countries to go against their immediate interests.
The advantages of the second alternative, doing nothing, is that if predictions are correct, climate change is soon going to cease to be what Michaelson calls ‘an absent problem’. Increasingly disastrous evidence of the reality of climatic change will probably make it easier to gain consensus on preventive regulation. But the problem by then will have become one of choice of priorities: what and who should be saved and what and who abandoned?
These disadvantages led Michaelson, as he says, to the third solution of geoengineering. Geoengineering would shift priorities away from researching into whether the globe is warming into practical solutions that can be started immediately. It would not necessitate making greater demands on the developing world than on developed countries. It would indeed allow the developing world to be ‘a free rider’ on a project financed mostly by the industrialized nations. ‘Because it would restrict growth in the developing world less than regulation would, it would allow developing nations to progress more quickly away from the serious environmental threats of unsafe water, unhealthy air, and topsoil loss, through proven means such as sewage treatment, newer (cleaner) automobiles and factories, and modern agriculture.’ By relying on technological innovation and development, geoengineering would increase the role of private actors relative to that of government. Instead of requiring widespread enforcement of complex and growth-threatening rules, geoengineering would give private firms a financial incentive to help solve the climate change problem.’
For all his ostensible commitment to geoengineering, Michaelson conceded that in the final analysis ‘geoengineering runs afoul of almost every major trend in contemporary environmentalism.’ “‘Geritol cures’ and ‘earth sunscreens’ treat shallow symptoms, not deep causes, and fail to ‘kill two birds with one stone’ as would a serious programme of combating deforestation or cutting greenhouse gas emissions’”. There is much circumstantial evidence that he would really have liked the controversial character of his own proposals to contribute to developing a political climate that would make possible the implementation of real solutions to global warming. ‘If serious debate were to emerge,’ he says, ‘shock at geoengineering might wane in the context of rational reflection of the costs of climate change.’ But for the emergence of such a serious debate to be triggered by public shock at realisation of what is being proposed, and not only proposed but done, by the geoengineers, geoengineering must be publicly acknowledged, must be the subject of public debate, like genetically modified foods, cloning or nuclear power, all of which have interest groups publicly lobbying for and against them.
The wholehearted public embrace of geoengineering advocated by Benford, Michaelson and others in the nineties has not happened. The media has not tried to make geoengineers into heroes and portray them as allies of science and true environmentalism. Many global warming sceptics are even on record as saying that reports of geoengineering activities - aircraft engaged in large-scale spraying of aerosols in the upper atmosphere, could not be genuine - that such activities could not be occurring because they are not needed and would be criminal.
The big environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth or WWF do not try to glamorise or otherwise promote geoengineering. They simply act as if it is not occurring. Their silence, to look at its positive aspect, possibly reflects a refusal to be associated with the task of making geoengineering look respectable.
The ‘invisibility’ of geoengineering is perpetuated through official denial. The US Air Force, whose KC-135R and KC-10 tanker planes have become a familiar sight in many different parts of the world as they engage in the daily particulate scattering operations of the ‘sunscreen’ programme, on its official site describes eyewitness accounts of these operations as ‘a hoax that has been around since 1996.’ ‘The Air Force’, it says ‘is not conducting any weather modification experiments or programs and has no plans to do so in the future.’ The ‘hoax’ accusation is energetically echoed by the seemingly large numbers of ‘debunkers’ frequenting chemtrail/geoengineering discussion forums, generating considerable confusion, as well as resentment at their characterisation as ‘chemmies’ (a variant on ‘commies’) those who wish to draw attention to the mysterious lines in the sky. Moreover, all elected politicians in the world above the municipal level, if they have heard at all of geoengineering, believe, or profess to believe, the official story that the sunscreen climate mitigation programme is ‘a hoax’.
One reason for the successful conspiracy of silence may well be the still unresolved status of geoengineering under international law. This is an issue that was being investigated, again in the mid-nineties, by the environmental lawyer Bodansky. Among the questions he raised were: who should make geoengineering decisions? Should all countries be able to participate in decision-making? (since all will be affected and there will be both positive and negative impacts). How should liability and compensation for damages be handled? From the legal viewpoint, schemes to inject particles into the atmosphere are purportedly among the most problematic of all geoengineering proposals because the atmosphere above any country is part of its airspace. Nations lay claim to their airspace and may act on the claims, for example, by shooting down aircraft. Geoengineering activity in the atmosphere could be viewed as infringements of national sovereignty. Obviously, the simplest way of dealing with legal problems of this kind, pending negotiation of the necessary adjustments to international law, is to deny that any such activity is occurring.
The publication on the internet in 2003 of an interview with an alleged ‘insider’ of the sunscreen programme (this is not its official name) working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory cast further light on the difficulties involved in trying to promote a favourable image of geoengineering. Starting from the question of why polymer threads embedded with ‘biological material’ have been found in residues from aerosol spraying, the insider (given the pseudonym ‘Deep Shield’) explained that ‘since the suspended particles eventually do settle into the lowest part of the atmosphere and are inhaled by all life forms on the surface, there is an attempt to counter the growth of mould by adding to the mixture mould growth suppressants, some of which may be of biological material.’
Deep Shield acknowledged the potential of the aerosol spaying to cause sickness: ‘Some people are more sensitive to the metals, while others are sensitive to the polymer chemicals. It is true that people will get sick, and some will die. The World Health Organization has carried out most of the relevant studies. Some have said the ill effects will be minimal, along the lines of a million or so, while others have found the numbers to be far higher – 3 or 4 billion. The Accepted Estimated Casualties (from the World Health Organization) is 2 billion over the course of six decades. The majority will be either the elderly or those who are prone to respiratory problems.’
Emphasising the ‘globalist’ aspects of the operations and the need to ‘ensure the chemicals are not tampered with’ Deep Shield claims that ‘they are mixed and sprayed over random nations. This means that chemicals produced in the USA have a good chance of being sprayed over Russia. Russian planes may be seen in US skies, but so too will US planes be seen in Russian skies. The canisters are sealed in a third nation that has no idea where its canister is going. All of this is to ensure that that the shield is not used as a weapon. Non-participant nations are sprayed by participant nations, who must spray in order to get enough material to maintain their nation’s shield. It is understood that not spraying is as much a military offence as shooting at the planes.’
One implication of this spraying of non-participant nations by ‘participant nations’ is that, following the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime in Iraq, all of the Middle East – possibly including Israel, where spraying has started in recent months – is now being sprayed from bases in Iraq.
According to Deep Shield ordinary commercial aircraft are involved in the particulate scattering operations and are not diverted from their regular flight paths. ‘But the combined resources of the nations of earth are not enough to allow constant spraying. Though we have achieved a high level of technology, there is a great surface area that needs to be covered nearly daily. Large sections of ocean are all but ignored. The remaining land masses are more than what can be covered efficiently.’
Far from seeing his work as something to be proudly publicised, Deep Shield sees the existing secrecy as necessary to maintain public calm for as long as possible: ‘The Earth is dying. Humanity is on the road to extinction. Without the shield, mankind will die off within twenty to fifty years. Most people alive today could live to see this extinction take place. This means that an announcement of the situation we face boils down to telling every man, woman and child on earth that they have no future, they are going to be killed. People would panic. There would be economic collapse, the production and movement of goods would collapse. Millions would die in all cities on earth. Riots and violence would reduce civilian centres to rubble within days.’
The secrecy of the sunscreen project was justified to him, Deep Shield says, on grounds of national security. ‘All those who know are expected to remain silent. All those who suspect are either faced with trying to prove the virtually unprovable or are faced with good enough reasons to remain silent. I would assume that this situation is worldwide and this could be considered as one of the dangers of the project. I can see why there is a desire to repress the information, not that spraying is taking place but the face that we are facing a period of human history which might be the end of civilization.’
The stance of Deep Shield is deeply irrational, permeated by the same psychosis as the US government’s ‘War on Terrorism’. People whose conscience is clear do not think in this way. What Deep Shield says is nothing more or less than what many, particularly in the ecological milieu say to themselves, and to others, every day: that humanity is on the path to self-destruction. National security classification of the sunscreen project is absolutely unjustifiable and in total contradiction to the logic, however unconvincing, within which geoengineering was proposed as one of a number of possible answers to climatic change. Geoengineering was meant to be not simply a substitution for real action on the environment, but also possibly a facilitator of, and adjunct to, real action on the environment. Something it cannot be if it remains secret.
David Stewart, who took the ‘Deep Shield’ interviews, has quoted Deep Shield more recently as saying that the project is failing to do what it should do. He reports arguments (screaming matches) among the top brass and civilian-dressed military who come and go at the Lawrence Livermore laboratory. The arguments appear to Deep Shield to be about the expense of the project, the effectiveness and, more generally, the long-term outlook for humanity. Although there is no visible stack of bodies, as Stewart puts it, of people killed by the aerosol spraying, there is growing evidence of people dying from diseases plausibly traceable to the project. One black spot for casualties is in East Texas, where the initial tests for the spraying materials were carried out in the mid-90s. Projections of 1000% increases in Alzheimer’s disease, one of the side-effects of excessive exposure to aluminium, over the next decades, have emerged in the media in the last year or so.
The sunscreen project is not the only reason for which aerosol spraying is taking place in the atmosphere. Spraying is also being carried out to increase electrical conductivity in the atmosphere, facilitating the operations of HAARP, the High Frequency Active Aural Research Program, in Alaska. Also, some reports of the presence of disease bacteria in aerosol spaying do not fit in with Deep Shield’s explanation of biological materials being spayed to combat the growth of mould. This suggests that black operations are also in progress, parasitic on the pseudo-public-interest applications of geoengineering technology and on personnel who believe that the purpose of their work is the mitigation of climate change. If the sunscreen project is being used as a cover for other even more illegal and apparently criminal purposes, this is another argument for opposing its secrecy.
Many other issues require investigation. Is the current bonanza of cut-price airline tickets being supported by state subsidies to airlines for their services in spreading particulate matter? If so, and if Deep Shield’s statements on the financing of the sunscreen project are correct, then this is being done at taxpayers’ expense. Quite apart from any economic aspects, how sane is it, to have ever larger numbers of aircraft clogging the skies and burning ever larger amounts of fuel, in order to facilitate management of global warming caused by excessive burning of fossil fuel? Can a policy of moving to non-fossil-fuel based economy really be developed side by side with climate mitigation policies of this kind, if that is what they are?
Since the appearance of the first comprehensive study of global warming by the American National Academy of Sciences in 1992, the geoengineering debate has passed through a number of stages. The mid-nineties (the period before and after Kyoto) was the period of hype, of extravagant claims. The post-Kyoto period, apparently the period when policy began to be implemented, was the period when the respectable proposals of the day before suddenly became 'conspiracy theory'. The present period is one of controlled re-introduction of the subject, in such a way as not to expose the lies and omissions of the preceding phase.
A recent article in the British ‘Guardian’, under the title: ‘Earth is 20% darker, say experts’, reveals that ‘Human activity is making the planet darker as well as warmer.’ Scientists believe that ‘levels of sunlight reaching Earth's surface have declined by up to 20% in recent years because air pollution is reflecting it back into space and helping to make bigger, longer-lasting clouds.’ A certain Jim Hansen, climate scientist with Nasa, is quoted as saying; "Over the past couple of years it's become clear that the solar irradiance at the Earth's surface has decreased." The article claims that global dimming is probably caused by ‘tiny particles such as soot, and chemical compounds such as sulphates accumulating in the atmosphere.’
Returning to the subject of the deadlock over the Treaty of Kyoto engendered by the argument between defenders and opponents of global warming (or by the unilateralism of the United States government, as European and other international politicians like to tell us), the international environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF have shown through their silence on geoengineering that they are unwilling to help make it respectable by lending support to it. They should be given credit for that. But there remains the task of breaching the secrecy that surrounds the subject. Given that the ecological organizations are clearly not going to do this, we must initiate discussions with them to decide who should be assigned the task. Who is going to bell the cat?
(The author is a founding member of ATTAC-Hellas). Reader's comments or further information on this subject are very welcome.