Hacking the Planet

Arun Gupta Nov 19, 2009

By Arun Gupta
Illustrations by Gary Martin

Don’t believe that politicians and corporations lack the will to address climate change. They have the will to deny the science of climate change, the will to sabotage negotiations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the will to foist half-baked schemes on us to address global calamity.

This is why Copenhagen will not be a failure. It will be a stunning success. The wealthy and powerful have succeeded in blocking, for now, the shift to a society, economy and polity that sustains the vast breadth of humanity and the planet.

Instead, we will be given shoddy fixes. One will be a technological fix, geoengineering, which has been described as “hacking the planet.” The second will be a market fix, cap and trade, which aims to turn pollution into a tradable commodity in a new privatized atmosphere. The aim of both is to sustain extractive industries, the fossil-fuel economy, consumer capitalism and globalized inequality and deprivation. Moreover, both fixes will give the appearance, but not essence, of urgent action; create new modes of accumulation for industrial and financial capital; and accelerate ecological devastation.

So what is geoengineering? In a broad sense it is manipulation of the biosphere. By this definition, we have been geoengineering the earth over the last 250 years by spewing nearly 500 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

There are two forms of geoengineering. One would alter the “albedo,” or the ratio of sunlight reflected back into space. The other involves scrubbing the atmosphere of excess carbon and storing it. Managing solar radiation works faster, but the drawbacks are greater than carbon capture and storage.

The proposals sound like science fiction: launching a trillion mirrors into space to shade the earth, deploying fleets of robotic ships to spray saltwater mist to brighten clouds, erecting artificial forests to filter atmospheric carbon, juicing the oceans with iron to stimulate phytoplankton that will gorge on carbon.

All are untested, and all have known drawbacks and unknown consequences and would turn the atmosphere into one more human artifact to be managed by bureaucrats and capitalists. But it’s already started. Technology firms from California to Australia are dumping iron and urea in the ocean, recycling carbon dioxide emissions and capturing carbon from the air. The potential market for these fixes ranges from tens of billions of dollars to trillions. The payoff is being able to sell the results as “offsets” in carbon-trading markets. And guess who foots the bill?

To even consider such risky ventures assumes we are too weak and shortsighted to stop mining coal, driving cars or torching rainforests, but we are mighty and wise enough to reconfigure the entire planet to fit our desires. Then again, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world, as the pedestrian blockbuster 2012 does, than an end to driving SUVs to big-box stores to buy more junk we don’t need.

There is a virtual inevitability to geoengineering. On the one hand, capitalism can continue business as usual, on the other it can create a new industry at the public’s expense. Plus, with no regulation in place, any company, government or billionaire is free to start geoengineering the earth.

Prominent government bodies including the National Academy of Sciences and Britain’s Royal Society, have been holding workshops and releasing studies on geoengineering. Last year, the Council on Foreign Relations held a workshop on with the ominous title, “Unlilateral Planetary Scale Geoengineering.”

Ready or not, here comes Earth 2.0.

In Carbon Trading, perhaps the definitive work on the subject, Larry Lohmann writes that “there is only one way of addressing the climate crisis: to keep most remaining coal, oil and gas in the ground.”

Reducing greenhouse gases to the level where they no longer threaten cataclysm means “net negative emissions,” which involves phasing out coal, engaging in continental-scale reforestation and radically different agricultural practices and figuring out how to sequester huge amounts of carbon safely for millennia.

But this would mean a completely new global political economy based on sharing resources and reducing inequality. This terrifies the rich.

So rather than offering a plan for slashing carbon emissions, at Copenhagen they will demand carbon trading and offsets as the cure-all.

Trading pollution was pioneered in the United States decades ago, and its supporters, such as liberal oracle Paul Krugman, always cite trading in sulfur dioxide as a stellar case of an efficient pollution market.

Yet, proponents rarely acknowledge that this market was extremely narrow, involving one polluting gas and a few hundred participants, industrial polluters. The rights were given away for free, amounting to billions in public subsidies. The actual reductions were modest, and absolutely no innovation was spurred in alternative energies or conservation. Coal still accounts for roughly half of all U.S. power generation.

Other systems such as the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme have been unqualified failures for reducing emissions but smashing successes for increasing profits. One study by the NGO International Rivers found that some 76 percent of projects approved under the CDM had already been completed. In essence, these projects would have happened anyway so they provide no additional emissions reduction. It’s just an accounting trick.

Advocates of carbon trading contend there can be a manageable global market where projects to reduce emissions can be properly evaluated, instituted, measured, regulated, managed and then traded for profit free of corruption. This flies in the face of decades of epic fraud and corruption in global financial markets.

For example, Lohmann discusses the pop group Coldplay’s release of A Rush of Blood to the Head. The band said it would “offset” part of the album’s carbon footprint by planting 10,000 mango trees in southern India. It turned out that half the trees had never been distributed or were dead within a few years.

In the world of offsets, this qualifies as a success story. In a case involving General Motors, Chevron and American Electrical Power, the Nature Conservancy purchased 50,000 acres of Brazilian Atlantic forest in 2002 either to use as offsets or to trade. Local and native communities who used the land for food and materials have been banned from the forest.

According to Mother Jones, the international carbon market developed under Kyoto “now accounts for more than $126 billion in offset transactions.”

By 2012, the Financial Times recently speculated, the global carbon trading market could amount to $1.2 trillion if the United States commits to a cap-and-trade system. Virtually every investment bank in the world has a carbon trading division; it could be the largest commodities market in the world by 2020, and outfits like the New York Stock Exchange, J.P. Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs are developing “carbon-trading platforms.”

The goal of carbon trading and geoengineering is twofold: new areas of profit, and new forms of enclosure that turn the entire biosphere itself into commodity units; forest, farmlands and oceans, mainly in the global south, will be seized under these markets because property rights will be enshrined above all else. Ultimately, even the sky will be commodified by turning the carbon cycle itself into a tradable, privately owned asset.

7 Ways to Geoengineer the Earth


Use high-altitude weather balloons, airplanes and even naval guns to disperse sulfate particles into the stratosphere to block sunlight. This is based on the effects of the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, which injected an estimated 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, cooling the planet by 0.5 degrees Celsius for more than a year.

DRAWBACKS: Arctic ozone depletion; a more acidic environment; decreased soil moisture and rainfall; uneven regional effects; impact on Asia’s monsoons, which could prove disastrous for billions; unknown effects on photosynthesis; reduced effectiveness of solar power; no change in increasing ocean acidification; and the need to keep the sulfate pump working continuously.


Launch a trillion mirrors or more into space where they would reflect some of the sunlight back, thus reducing the global mean temperature.

DRAWBACKS: The cost could be in the hundreds of trillions of dollars (makes the Wall Street bailout look like peanuts). There are the usual hazards of decreasing solar radiation, such as no effect on ocean acidification and less solar power. Then there’s the fact that the global water cycle is more sensitive to a change in solar radiation than the carbon cycle. Simply put, lowering temperatures to the pre-industrial norm would push global rainfall below the norm. And the sunshield could be used as a weapon. Imagine the Pentagon threatening to block a “rogue nation’s” sunlight.


Dump iron filings in the oceans to spawn blooms of phytoplankton that soak up carbon dioxide via photosynthesis. The theory is that when the phytoplankton die they will sink to lower depths carrying the carbon with them. At least two California companies, Planktos and Climos, are already trying to cash in by selling ocean fertilization as offsets.


DRAWBACKS: The only way to test ocean fertilization is to do it on a massive scale for decades in an environment in constant flux, making it extremely difficult to measure results. Effects include nutrient robbing and oxygen depletion. According to Nature, the weekly science journal, “even if the entire Southern Ocean were fertilized forever with iron” this would sequester only one-eighth of the carbon now being generated annually. Another recent Nature study found that in one case of natural iron fertilization, the amount of carbon sequestered in lower depths “was almost 80 times smaller than the amount that scientists had determined during a similar study.” In other words, it doesn’t work.


Construct huge white, plastic islands and float them in the oceans to mimic the reflectivity of polar ice. Melting ice is one critical feedback loop that is speeding up warming. Snow-covered ice reflects up to 85 percent of solar radiation, while open water reflects a paltry 7 percent. So as sea ice melts, the ocean absorbs more heat, causing more ice to melt.

DRAWBACKS: The amount of area to be covered could amount to hundreds of thousands of square miles, resulting in an immense and expensive engineering project. It’s uncertain how this would affect weather patterns and sea life under the islands. The growth and shrinkage of northern sea ice plays a critical role in heat transfer from the oceans to the atmosphere, which is already affecting weather patterns throughout the northern hemisphere, whereas fake islands would remain fixed in size and place.


Known as “marine cloud brightening,” this technique involves deploying thousands of robotic ships to spray atomized saltwater mist into the lower layer of stratocumulus clouds that cover about 25 percent of the world’s oceans. Theoretically, these brightened clouds could reflect enough solar radiation to offset the global warming expected from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which we’re quickly headed toward.

Drawbacks: Apart from the usual problems of tinkering with sunlight, the effects would likely be regionalized. According to Nature, brighter clouds also cool only during the day and do best in summer, whereas global warming is an around-theclock phenomenon. There are questions about whether it is technologically possible to create small enough salt droplets and what the feedback would be on the cloud layers. Since all sorts of climatic activity is driven by temperature differences between the land and oceans, no one knows how weather patterns will be affected.


Klaus Lackner, a physicist at Columbia University, has teamed up with Global Research Technologies in Arizona to construct artificial trees coated in an absorbent material like limewater to bind with carbon dioxide. The carbon would then be removed and stored in used gas and oil reservoirs where it would supposedly stay put for eons.

DRAWBACKS: Cost is a huge issue. Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimates in a new report that it would take 10 million trees at about $20,000 each to absorb just one-eighth of carbon dioxide produced annually. Removing half the world’s carbon dioxide by this method comes to $800 billion and the report notes this is only 20 percent of the costs, with most of the expense coming from “recovery from the sorbent filter material.” Plus there are unknowns as to whether captured and stored carbon would actually stay in the ground; if it started to leak on a large scale, warming could snap back.


This is the most outlandish idea, while admittedly tongue in cheek. Writing in the journal Astrophysics and Space Science in 2001, three scientists described how to “slingshot” an asteroid about half the size of Long Island past Jupiter and then the Earth, transferring the orbital energy in the process. Voilà! Earth’s orbit is nudged about 30 miles further out, reducing incoming solar radiation. Repeat as needed.


DRAWBACKS: The asteroid could cause a speed-up in the Earth’s rotation; the asteroid’s tidal bulge would be 10 times the force of the moon’s, “leading to likely tsunamis, immense storms and other disruptions”; other planets may have to be moved as the Earth is moved, which could destabilize the whole solar system; “it seems that the Moon will be lost from Earth orbit during this process”; and a wayward asteroid could smack into the Earth, effectively sterilizing the biosphere of life.

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