A guest essay from Greenpeace scientists
What follows is a response to that essay from the UK-based Greenpeace Science Unit.
Russ George, CEO of self-professed ‘ecorestoration’ company Planktos, seems increasingly convinced that opposition to his plans for commercial-scale fertilisation of the oceans with iron results from the activities of ‘fringe environmentalists’, ignorant of his former connections with environmental groups and bent on hurting his profits. Perhaps by portraying in this divisive way the profound and widespread concerns expressed by scientists and policymakers alike, he hopes to avoid tackling the real questions about the efficacy, unintended impacts, and overall wisdom of his attempts at planetary engineering? Whatever his motivation, it is worth setting the record straight.
For a start, we are not concerned with Russ George’s past; nor are we passing judgment on the various other activities in which Planktos may wish to engage. Our concerns focus on the plans to seed ten thousand square kilometres of the southern Pacific Ocean with ‘iron dust’ in the hope it will trigger a massive algal bloom, of a scale visible from space. George is convinced that, by doing so, he will greatly increase the transfer of carbon from the atmosphere to the deep oceans and deliver significant reductions in global warming. So convinced, it seems, that he’s already gearing up to sell the carbon credits.
And yet the science accumulated over more than two decades tells us that we can make no such confident predictions. Despite Russ George’s assurances, there is no guarantee that any excess carbon dioxide fixed in the early days of an iron-induced algal bloom will be effectively sequestered in the ocean depths. And at the same time, should iron fertilisation gain a hold in the medium to long-term, there is every possibility for unpredictable, wide-ranging, and potentially irreversible impacts on plankton community structure and on oceanic ecosystems as a whole.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers iron fertilisation to be no more than ‘speculative’ as a climate change mitigation strategy. Others go further. For example, in a recent statement, scientists involved in the ongoing Surface Ocean – Lower Atmosphere Study (SOLAS) stress that “ocean fertilisation will be ineffective and potentially deleterious and should not be used as a strategy for offsetting CO2 emissions”.
More recently still, the scientific groups to the London Convention and London Protocol, which provide scientific advice on protection of the marine environment to governments in more than 90 countries worldwide, concluded that “knowledge about the effectiveness and potential environmental impacts of ocean iron fertilisation currently is insufficient to justify large-scale operations”.
Such statements arise from detailed knowledge of the science and recognition of the huge uncertainties, indeterminacies, and risks involved. These are not ‘snap judgments’; nor are they ill-informed. And given their provenance and basis in critical scientific analysis, one would be hard-pressed to classify them as extreme.
After careful review of the evidence available at the time, Greenpeace first published its own conclusions on iron fertilisation almost ten years ago, as part of a broader review of the state of the oceans. We were strongly opposed to it then. Nothing in the research which has emerged since convinces us of the need to change our position.
In 2001, ocean scientists Sallie Chisholm, Paul Falkowski, and John Cullen warned of a ‘tragedy of the commons’ that could result from cumulative effects of commercial iron fertilisation schemes, suggesting that they should never be eligible for carbon credits. Six years on, society faces that very prospect. Russ George seems intent on pressing ahead come what may. And confidence that Planktos will open its plans to independent scientific scrutiny has been severely undermined by its announcement, in response to regulatory interest from authorities in the United States, to look to other (presumably less-well regulated) flag states for the ship which will carry its cargo of iron-rich dust out into the Pacific.
The over-simplicity and reductionism with which George characterises the arguments of his critics are mirrored in his predictions of a wholly positive outcome from the large-scale ecosystem manipulations Planktos is proposing to undertake. In the fundamentalism stakes, there are few better examples. We should have learnt by now that natural systems rarely behave as we might expect in response to the stresses we place on them. Rather than aspiring to manage ecosystems, we should concentrate our efforts instead on far more cautious management of those human activities which impact on ecosystems.
Apparently, the company motto of Planktos goes something like “save the planet, but make a little money on the side”. Russ George freely admits he expects to make a lot of money should his plans go ahead, selling credits in what would, without doubt, be among the most transient and unverifiable carbon futures imaginable. And all this on the back of a dumping operation in international waters which Planktos has indicated it will go out of its way to avoid having regulated.
Russ George says we should all be working together in his ‘noble quest for truth’. What he really wants is to be left alone to get on with the business of making some money before his ‘voyage of recovery’ finally runs aground.