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The War on Nature: Geoengineering and the Climate Crisis

Climate

Biofuelwatch

By Rachel Smolker and Almuth Ernsting

Will declaring a "climate emergency" help to finally prompt radical action to address climate change? A growing number of campaigners as well as scientists think so and hope that a major wake up call about unfolding climate disasters will spur governments and people into action.

Whether a lack of scary-enough facts about climate change has been holding back real action is questionable. After all, it requires a fair amount of psychological denial to not be alarmed by the escalating heat waves, droughts, floods and destructive megastorms.

Studies about psychological responses to climate change suggest that messages built on fear can cause people to feel disempowered and less likely to take action at all. Still, constantly playing down the scale of the unfolding destruction of climate and other planetary life support systems so as not to be "alarmist" seems somewhat disempowering to me. Personally, we much prefer to hear climate scientist James Hansen speak of a "planetary emergency" (in view of last year’s record low Arctic sea ice cover) than to read excessively cautious comments about uncertainties and the need for more research before concluding what seems obvious, for example that Arctic sea ice is in rapid meltdown and that extreme weather events are already far worse and more frequent than scientists had predicted.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Yet, while the language of "climate emergency" may or may not spur more people to action, the crucial question is exactly what type of action is being advocated. James Hansen’s conclusion: “If we burn all the fossil fuels, we create certain disaster" should be beyond dispute. Action on climate change will be futile unless fossil fuels are left underground.

Unlike James Hansen, some academics and campaigners are calling for a very different type of "radical action" in response to the climate emergency. Amongst them is the small but vociferous Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG). AMEG does not mince words about the seriousness of the crisis:

Abrupt climate change is upon us. Farmers are in despair. Food prices will go through the roof. The government’s climate change policy is in tatters. The government should have acted years ago. Now it may be too late.

The abrupt climate change scenario put forward by AMEG is, briefly, as follows:

The rate of warming is greatest in the Arctic and the rate at which Arctic sea ice has been melting is accelerating. The loss of sea ice triggers different impacts which in turn make Arctic meltdown, global warming and extreme weather across the Northern Hemisphere even worse. One of those effects is the release of methane trapped in permafrost, Arctic peat and under the Arctic Ocean. This could release so much methane at once that it would greatly increase the rate of global warming and lead to “unstoppable runaway warming.”

The first part of this analysis should be beyond dispute. However, the prediction of an imminent abrupt and catastrophic methane release from the Arctic is much less widely accepted amongst climate scientists, many of whom predict a slower release, over thousands of years—one which will worsen climate change in the long run but (importantly) not surpass the impacts of our own carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.  

One of the scientists challenging AMEG’s predictions is methane expert, Dr. David Archer who stresses:

The worst case scenario is “what CO2 will do, under business-as-usual, not in a wild blow-the-doors-off unpleasant surprise, but just in the absence of any pleasant surprises (like emission controls).”

Is he right? We have no idea how much of the methane in the Arctic will end up the atmosphere by when. Some recent climate change impacts and findings have turned out to be much worse than what scientists had previously predicted. For example, a recent New Scientist article observed:

We knew global warming was going to make the weather more extreme. But it's becoming even more extreme than anyone predicted.

But the argument regarding AMEG’s claims is not just a speculative argument about what might happen in future. It is also—and primarily—an argument about how we think about climate change and what we want to do about it. In this respect, we unequivocally agree with Archer’s view: Business-as-usual will guarantee the worst possible climate disaster. Arguing about just how bad that worst-case scenario might be seems futile when we should be doing whatever we can to stop greenhouse gas emissions, including fossil fuel burning and ecosystem destruction. This, however, is very different from how AMEG views the climate disaster.

What AMEG most fears is not what humans are doing—it’s the (methane) monsters lurking in nature. Preserving most life on Earth, in their view, thus requires nature to be better controlled and its monsters to be tamed. As AMEG’s Strategic Plan puts it, the "common enemy" that’s to be fought, the underlying cause of abrupt climate change isn’t us, it isn’t the fossil fuel economy—it’s the "vicious cycle of Arctic Warming and sea ice retreat.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

They demand “something akin to a war room” and the war they want governments to fight is a war against nature—and specifically a war against the way in which nature responds when humans drastically alter the planet’s atmosphere by increasing its greenhouse gases. The tools for fighting this war that they suggest we use are a range of geoengineering strategies: Large amounts of sulphur aerosols which they want pumped into the lower stratosphere starting as soon as March/April 2014, the development of new reflective particles to be pumped into the stratosphere in future, marine cloud brightening, chemicals to destroy cirrus clouds, marine geoengineering, weather modification and more.  

Changing our own society and economy is ancillary to this quest. Here are the changes which AMEG’s demands in relation to our energy and transport sectors: Postpone drilling in the Arctic, reintroduce a ban on polar flights, relax requirements to clean up "bunker fuels" burnt in ships (because sulphur aerosols have a short-term cooling effect), scrub black carbon but not sulphur dioxide from coal power stations—and that’s it. Burning more coal and diesel is fine, in their view, as long as we emit lots of sulphur dioxide with it. Never mind the illnesses and acid rain caused by sulphur dioxide. Indeed, AMEG members are even, bizarrely, promoting Arctic methane hydrate mining for energy. One of the most widely cited AMEG members, British oceanographer Peter Wadhams, has been criticized by Greenpeace after praising Shell’s credentials for "safely" drilling in the Arctic in front of a Parliamentary Committee.

Not all AMEG members appear this unconcerned about ongoing fossil fuel emissions and some clearly do want to see real emissions reductions—in addition to geoengineering. AMEG is a very mixed group: Some supporters clearly have no financial interests in geoengineering and have joined AMEG purely out of the conviction that AMEG has the most credible answer to climate change. Some are academics who have gained a much greater public profile thanks to AMEG’s campaign—such as Peter Wadhams. And some have major financial interests in geoengineering—including Ken Caldeira. Caldeira, together with David Keith (not listed on AMEG’s website) has received more than $4.6 million from Bill Gates’ personal funds, around half of it for personal research on geoengineering, the other half to fund "research" by other geoengineering advocates. He is also listed as an inventor on a patent for a geoengineering device called StratoShield, held by Intellectual Ventures, a company linked to Gates.

All of them, however, are united in their faith that geoengineering can work and that humans can avert an even greater climate disaster by manipulating the planet’s atmosphere and biosphere. They do not appear concerned about what unilateral action taken by a government to deliberately manipulate planetary systems might mean for democracy and the rights of most of the world’s population. This is perhaps because they are convinced that geoengineering is the only way of keeping the planet habitable (at least for most humans). But this conviction is not derived from scientific knowledge—it is based on unwavering faith in human ability to master and control nature through engineering and technology.

The possibility that their proposals could possibly backfire and end up making climate change even worse, even faster has, it seems, not occurred to AMEG. Yet what the science confirms is that the full impacts of geoengineering on planetary and climate systems are by their nature unpredictable and that they might well render the climate yet more unstable. In a recent joint briefing by Biofuelwatch and EcoNexus, we summarized some of the highest risks of the types of geoengineering promoted by AMEG: Destruction of the ozone layer, acid rain, possible virtually instant and massive disruption of rainfall patterns, especially in the tropics and subtropics (which could mean a failure of the African and Asian monsoon), vegetation die-back which would release yet more carbon—and those are just some of the known risks.

If we want to have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, we clearly need radical action—but that radical action must be aimed at stopping the burning fossil fuels and reversing the destruction of ecosystems (including soils). The very last thing we and the planet need is yet another “war room” and a new battle-front in the war against nature.

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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