Geo-engineering is artificial efforts to mitigate global warming by manipulating weather patterns, oceans, currents, soils and atmosphere to reduce the amount of greenhouses gases. The range of techno-fix ideas include absorbing plankton, growing artificial trees, firing silver iodide into clouds to produce rain, genetically engineering crops to be paler in colour to reflect sunlight back to space, fertilising the ocean with iron nanoparticles to increase phytoplankton, blasting sulphate-based aerosols into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight, covering the desert with white plastic to reflect sunlight and painting cities and roads white. There are serious proposals to launch a fleet of unmanned ships to spray seawater into the atmosphere to thicken clouds and thus reflect more radiation from Earth. Most controversial of all is an idea to fire trillions of tiny mirrors into space to form a 100,000-mile "sunshade" for Earth. The project is for an artificial mini-volcano to block sunlight and lower temperatures. Inspired by the way eruptions can spew particles into the stratosphere dimming the sun and lowering temperatures, the scientists from Bristol, Cambridge and Reading Universities propose to launch a massive balloon system 20-25km into the stratosphere to spray millions of reflective sulphate particles.
Some are being pushed hard by entrepreneurs and businessmen attracted by the potential to make billions of dollars in an emerging system of UN global carbon credits. Research by ETC, the Canadian-based watchdog, shows at least 27 patents have been granted to inventors and assignees including Bill Gates, Dupont, the US government and various corporations. Chemical engineer Michael Markels has four patents, Professor Steven Salter of Edinburgh University and climate change scientist David Keith have two. Bill Gates has put in $400m (£250m) into two projects and is named in a group of people holding a patent to employ a fleet of vessels to suppress hurricanes through various methods of mixing warm water from the surface of the ocean with colder water at greater depths. Richard Branson's "carbon war room" is backing carbon capture and storage technologies. "If geo-engineering techniques move towards actual deployment, the existence of patents could mean that decisions over the climate will be effectively handed over to the private sector," says Diana Bronson of ETC.
In the background is the military. According to US science historian James Fleming, control of the climate gives the military an advantage and so it seeks to "weaponise" every technology, providing a stream of resources for scientists. Star Wars architect Lowell Wood argued in the 1990s that by spending about $1bn per year, the US could put enough particles in the stratosphere to reduce sunlight by about 1%. "It is not easy to see how a serious geo-engineering programme could move forward without some degree of military involvement," says Jeff Goodell, journalist and author of How to Cool the Planet.
"We just do not know how to recall a planetary-scale technology once it has been released. Techniques that alter the composition of the stratosphere or the chemistry of the oceans are likely to have unintended consequences as well as unequal impacts around the world," says Pat Mooney of ETC. 160 organisations from around the world sent an open letter to Rajendra Pachauri, the Nobel prize-winning chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Geo-engineering is too dangerous to too many people and to the planet to be left in the hands of small group of so-called experts," they warned.
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Science, possibly more than most other disciplines, is a prisoner of capitalism. The scientists have to beg at the table of the system for funding to pursue their projects; their sponsors are usually largely mammoth capitalist enterprises bent on discerning means of further enriching their directors and shareholders or capitalist governments dedicated to the overall concerns of national capitalism. SOYMB accepts that when liberated from the profit motive of corporate research and the military machines of capitalist states, science will flourish and will serve the interests of all people. The urgent need for care of the environment will be just one field where research and new technology would be given priority.