Opposition to Geoengineering: There’s No Place Like H.O.M.E. (Opinion Article)

ETC Group (2013) – Opposition to Geoengineering – Click for Download

ETCIn April 2010, the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, brought together more than 25,000 campesinos, teachers, students, engineers, activists, diplomats, elders and ordinary
folk to discuss how best to minimize the impacts of global warming and to respond to the failure of negotiations at the UN Framework Climate on Climate Change to bring about reductions in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Seventeen working groups contributed to a Peoples Agreement, which explicitly rejected geoengineering as a “false solution” to climate change.[1] From Cochabamba, the “Hands Off Mother Earth” (HOME) campaign to oppose geoengineering experiments was launched.[2]

 Since Cochabamba, a small but influential group of researchers has increased calls for governments to support geoengineering experiments as part of developing a “Plan B” or “insurance policy” in the event of a “climate emergency”[3] – despite the adoption of a decision to restrict geoengineering activities by the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in October 2010.

 The CBD is an international legal instrument whose aim is the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. 193 countries are Parties to the Convention (only the Holy See, Andorra, South Sudan and the United States are not). At its Conference of the Parties held in Nagoya, Japan in 2010, the CBD extended a decision that restricts one specific geoengineering technique agreed upon in 2008 (on ocean fertilization) to apply to all geoengineering activities, while allowing small-scale scientific research studies that meet certain criteria.[4] For many states, the CBD meeting provided the first opportunity to discuss the kinds of geoengineering technologies under development and to consider their risks.

 The push for Decision X/33 at the CBD, which we, and others, consider a de facto moratorium on geoengineering, came largely from governments of the global South – including the African Group and ALBA countries as well as coastal countries such as Philippines and Tuvalu, the majority of whose peoples rely on oceans for their livelihoods.[5] Sunlight-reflecting stratospheric sulfate injections are expected to alter
precipitation patterns, particularly in the tropics, and ocean fertilization techniques deliberately alter ocean
chemistry in an attempt to increase absorption of carbon dioxide.

 Some hailed the CBD’s decision as a prudent and necessary measure until international regulations can be developed and impacts can be properly assessed, while others questioned the decision’s relevancy or enforceability.[6] The Economist saw the UN’s attention to geoengineering as the first chapter in its “coming of age” story.[7] HOME campaigners interpreted it as a stop-gap until a global ban on any unilateral attempt to engineer the climate can be negotiated. In any case, the CBD decision signaled the first baby steps toward inter-governmental regulations – something that has been opposed by advocates of geoengineering research such as those attending the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention, who expressed their preference for a voluntary system of self-governance.[8]

 From some perspectives, geoengineering as “Plan B” or “insurance policy” in the event of a “climate emergency” may seem prudent, practical and even precautionary. But geoengineering’s prudence will not be universally obvious. If you are the G-8 member that launched the Industrial Revolution causing climate change and your GHG emissions keep going up instead of down – it may be easier to appreciate the attraction of a “techno fix”. As it is likely that only the world’s richest countries will be able to develop the hardware and software necessary to reset the global thermostat, it will be the governments that are responsible for almost all historic GHG emissions and have either denied or ignored climate change for decades, which will also have de facto control over the deployment of geoengineering experiments. Those same governments have failed to provide even minimal funds for climate change mitigation or adaptation. It defies reason to suggest, as some have, that geoengineering will not divert funding and intellectual resources from mitigation and adaptation; it already has – the UK’s Royal Society, the American Academies, the IPCC, to name a few, have all spent money and time bringing experts together to consider geoengineering’s prospects.

 Further, to have an impact on the earth’s climate, geoengineering projects will have to be on a massive scale. Projects that alter the stratosphere or the oceans will
not only have unknown implications but also unequal impacts across the globe.[9] As much as the unintentional “geoengineering” of the Industrial Revolution disproportionately harms tropical and subtropical parts of the planet, intentional geoengineering experiments could well do the same. Put bluntly, many South governments lack a blind faith in technology to solve the problem of climate change, and, in our view, a lack of trust in the governments, industries or scientists of the North to protect all the world’s people is justified. In the absence of demonstrable goodwill and humility from the governments likely to conduct geoengineering, it would only be sensible for the peoples and governments of the global South to be suspicious.

 A rejection of geoengineering is not a denial that science has an important role to play in dealing with climate change. It is urgent and important that the scientific community work with national and even local governments to monitor and address the climate threats ahead. This collaborative effort will require a lot of money and focused energy. The practical responses to climate change must change with the latitudes, altitudes and ecosystems.

 “Hands Off Mother Earth” campaigners assert that not enough is known about the Earth’s systems to risk geoengineering experiments in the real world. No one knows if these experiments are going to be inexpensive, as is often assumed – especially if they don’t work, forestall more constructive alternatives or cause adverse effects. We don’t know how to recall a technology once it has been released. Beyond those uncertainties and inadequacies, we must acknowledge the geopolitical realities of climate change. Without that acknowledgement, geoengineering can only be geopiracy[10] and it is a threat to the entire natural world, including each one of us calling Earth HOME.


 Alleyne R. 2009. “Geo-engineering Should Be Developed as Insurance Against Dangerous Climate Change.” The Telegraph. 1 September. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/6122322/Geo-engineering-should-be-developed-as-insurance-against-dangerous-climate-change.html

 Asilomar Scientific Organizing Committee (ASOC). 2010. “The Asilomar Conference Recommendations on Principles for Research into Climate Engineering Techniques.” Climate Institute, Washington DC, 20006. www.climate.org/PDF/AsilomarConferenceReport.pdf

 Caldeira, K. and D. W. Keith. 2010. “The Need for Climate Engineering Research.” Issues in Science and Technology. http://www.issues.org/27.1/caldeira.html.

 Connor S. 2009. “Man-made eruptions – ‘Plan B’ in the Battle for the Planet.” The Independent. 2 September. http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/manmade-eruptions-ndash-plan-b-in-the-battle-for-the-planet-1780268.html

 Convention on Biological Diversity. 2010. “Climate Related Geoengineering and Diversity.” Accessed Jan 15 2013: http://www.cbd.int/climate/geoengineering

 The Economist. 2010. “Geoengineering: Lift Off. ”4 November.

 ETC Group 2010a. “Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering.”  Communique 103. Accessed Jan 15 2013: http://www.etcgroup.org/content/geopiracy-case-against-geoengineering

 ETC Group 2010b. “What does the UN Moratorium on Geoengineering mean?” 11 November. http://www.etcgroup.org/content/what-does-un-moratorium-geoengineering-mean

 IISD Reporting Service. 2010. “Summary of the 10th Conference of the Parties to the CBD, 18-29 October 2010.” Earth Negotiations Bulletin 9 (544): 1-30. http://www.iisd.ca/vol09/enb09544e.html

 Kintisch, E. 2010. “Proposed Biodiversity Pact Bars ‘Climate-Related Geoengineering.” Science Insider. 26 October. http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2010/10/proposed-biodiversity-pact-bars-.html

 Rayfuse, R. and S.V. Scott, eds. 2012. International Law in The Era of Climate Change. Cheltenham and Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing.

 Rotman, D. 2013. “A Cheap and Easy Plan to Stop Global Warming.” Technology Review. 8 February. http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/511016/a-cheap-and-easy-plan-to-stop-global-warming/

 Shepherd J, P. Cox, J. Haigh, D. Keith, B. Launder, G. Mace, G. MacKerron, J. Pyle, S. Rayner, C. Redgwell, and A. Watson. 2009. Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty. London: The Royal Society.

 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. 2010. “The Peoples Agreement.” Accessed Jan 15 2013: http://pwccc.wordpress.com/support/

[1] The Peoples Agreement is available online: http://pwccc.wordpress.com/support/.

[2] ETC Group is a founding member of the HOME campaign: www.handsoffmotherearth.org.  ETC Group considers any technique developed intentionally to intervene in the Earth’s climate systems at scales that alter those systems to fall under the rubric of geoengineering. Accordingly, we consider techniques such as “solar radiation management” to be geoengineering, but biochar and other carbon sequestration techniques can be as well, depending on the scale and nature of their application. ETC Group specifically opposes open-air geoengineering experiments. : In our view, a distinction between research conducted inside (e.g., computer modelling, contained laboratory tests) and research conducted outside is useful; a distinction between field experimentation and deployment is not; others have argued similarly. For a recent example, see Raymond Pierre­humbert in Rotman 2013.

[3] “Plan B:” John Shepherd, quoted in Connor 2009; “insurance policy:” John Shepherd, quoted in Alleyne 2009; “climate emergency:” Caldeira and Keith 2010.

[4] Decision X/33, para 8 (w): “Ensure, in line and consistent with decision IX/16 C, on ocean fertilization and biodiversity and climate change, in the absence of science based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms for geo-engineering, and in accordance with the precautionary approach and Article 14 of the Convention, that no climate-related geo-engineering activities** that may affect biodiversity take place, until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts, with the exception of small scale scientific research studies that would be conducted in a controlled setting in accordance with Article 3 of the Convention, and only if they are justified by the need to gather specific scientific data and are subject to a thorough prior assessment of the potential impacts on the environment;”

** (footnote to decision X/33 para 8 (w): Without prejudice to future deliberations on the definition of geo-engineering activities, understanding that any technologies that deliberately reduce solar insolation or increase carbon sequestration from the atmosphere on a large scale that may affect biodiversity (excluding carbon capture and storage from fossil fuels when it captures carbon dioxide before it is released into the atmosphere) should be considered as forms of geo-engineering which are relevant to the Convention on Biological Diversity until a more precise definition can be developed. It is noted that solar insolation is defined as a measure of solar radiation energy received on a given surface area in a given hour and that carbon sequestration is defined as the process of increasing the carbon content of a reservoir/pool other than the atmosphere.

[5] IISD 2010. For CBD Decision X/33 as a moratorium, see, for example, Rosemary Rayfuse in Rayfuse and Scott 2012, 172.

[6] See, for example, comments by ETC Group’s Pat Mooney and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Kintisch 2010. See also, ETC Group 2010b.

[7] The Economist 2010.

[8] The explicit goal of the 2010 Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention organized by the Climate Response Fund was to suggest precautions to assure safe conduct of experimentation and to “propose voluntary standards for climate intervention research.” See Asilomar Scientific Organizing Committee 2010.

[9] Shepherd et al 2009, 62

[10] See ETC 2010a.

3 responses to “Opposition to Geoengineering: There’s No Place Like H.O.M.E. (Opinion Article)

  1. This article covers issues of power and politics on the one hand e.g. G8 vs the rest ( but where is China ) with arguments which ring true. On the other hand geo-engineering is painted a a bogey man and yet it is diverse as the nations of man. Some techniques bundled into the term have well understood consequences e.g. the simulation of volcanic eruptions to induce cooling others not so. Frankly I find the term unhelpful and each issue e.g. ocean fertilization, forest fuel reduction, hydro dams etc needs consideration on its merits or otherwise. Meantime the issue of the Arctic Methane Emergency http://www.ameg.me needs immediate attention.

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