It used to be that ‘stepping lightly on the planet’ was considered common sense for addressing global warming, but a brash new breed of planet-savers has a more heavy-handed suggestion. Since action on reducing greenhouse gases is proving ineffective, they argue, it might soon be necessary to deliver Mother Earth a huge technological smack in the climate system. For her own good, of course.
Welcome to the concept of geoengineering – large-scale schemes that propose manipulating planetary systems to counteract global warming. Humans have inadvertently altered the global environment before, but geoengineering differs in that it brings intentionality to messing with our planet. Geoengineering proposals range from dumping iron in the ocean to grow CO2-gobbling plankton, to polluting the upper atmosphere with sulphur particles to mimic large volcanoes. Such volcanoes have occasionally cooled down the atmosphere before. Unfortunately, they can also cause monsoons to weaken and fail, intensifying hunger in the tropics.
Sounds risky and dangerous? Of course it is. Seductive to policymakers? Yes, that too. But as billionaire airline tycoon Richard Branson baldly told the press last year: ‘If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem… we could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars.’
With little or no public awareness, geoengineering has become a multi-million dollar gambit, with private companies and well-known individuals now jockeying to test out their theories on an unsuspecting planet. The US Congress and British House of Commons have just completed a round of hearings to determine how much money they should allocate to the first tranche of real-world geoengineering experiments. In March 2010, almost 200 geoengineers met in California to draw up voluntary codes of conduct on manipulating the planet. Meanwhile, a team of scientists in Russia, led by controversial climatologist Yuri Izrael, has already begun seeding the skies with sulphur and is promising more.
These and other moves are now causing civil society to mobilize. On the eve of this year’s Earth Day (22 April), over 60 national and international organizations launched the Hands Off Mother Earth (HOME) campaign. This campaign insists that geoengineering experiments be stopped and that the integrity of Planet Earth and its people be respected. ‘Not just human beings have rights; the planet has rights too,’ asserts Evo Morales, Bolivian President and host of the recently concluded Cochabamba Climate Change Conference in Bolivia where HOME was launched. The final statement by the 35,000 people attending called geoengineering a false solution to the climate crisis.
‘Planet Earth is our common home and should not be a laboratory for geoengineers,’ explains Neth Dano of ETC Group, based in the Philippines. ‘It’s not safe and it’s not just.’
As Ricardo Navarro of Friends of the Earth International explains: ‘The same countries and companies that have neglected climate change for decades are now proposing very risky geoengineering technologies that could further disrupt the weather, peoples and ecosystems. We simply don’t trust them to do so equitably.’
Since its launch, the campaign has been joined by luminaries of the global environmental justice movement, including Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibben, David Suzuki, Naomi Klein and Frances Moore Lappé. They joined hundreds of individuals, adding their photos online to a petition of out-turned hands that was brought to a UN meeting in Nairobi in May. Some of the palms have messages scrawled on them. ‘Talk to the hand,’ say some. ‘Back off,’ or ‘My home,’ say others.Jim Thomas
To learn more or to add your photo to the petition, visit www.handsoffmotherearth.org