Climate Progress is beginning a multipart series on what has been called the “Woodstock” of geo-engineering.   This historic but controversial event will take place March 22 – 26 in Asilomar, CA. Details can be found here on the website of the conference “developer,” Dr. Margaret Leinen of the Climate Response Fund.

http://grist.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/9780618990610.gifI have been interviewing leading experts on geo-engineering about this conference, including journalist Jeff Goodell, author of the forthcoming book, How to Cool the Planet.

This conference proclaims its lofty goal “to develop norms and guidelines for controlled experimentation on climate engineering or intervention techniques.”  That’s one reason why, as Goodell put it to me, it “needs to be purer than pure.”  It appears to fail that test in a number of respects, as we will see.

Readers know I am not the biggest fan of the geoengineering to begin with (see articles here).

The more you know about geo-engineering, the less sense it makes (see Science: “Optimism about a geoengineered ‘easy way out’ should be tempered by examination of currently observed climate changes”).  The most “plausible” approach, massive aerosol injection, has potentially catastrophic impacts of its own and can’t possibly substitute for the most aggressive mitigation — see Caldeira calls the vision of Lomborg’s Climate Consensus “a dystopic world out of a science fiction story.” I will be publishing an analysis later this week on a central if not fatal flaw of aerosol injection.

For the anti-science disinformers and big fossil fuel polluters, geo-engineering is mostly just a ploy — see British coal industry flack pushes geo-engineering “ploy” to give politicians “viable reason to do nothing” about global warming. For the many uninformed contrarians in the world, it’s a ticket to media controversy and publicity (see Error-riddled ‘Superfreakonomics’: New book pushes global cooling myths, sheer illogic, and “patent nonsense” and  “Superfreakonomics author Dubner is baffled that Caldeira ‘doesn’t believe geoengineering can work without cutting emissions.’ “)

Geo-engineering is, literally, a “smoke and mirrors solution,” though most people understand that the “mirrors” strategy is prohibitively expensive and impractical.

Let me state clearly that those participants I know personally are absolutely first rate scientists and academics, starting with the chair of the Scientific Organizing Committee [SOC], Dr. Michael MacCracken.  I have known him for a long time and have the greatest respect for him and his work (see “Video and PPTs of “The Science of Climate Change” with Dr. Christopher Field and Dr. Michael MacCracken“).

Here’s the conference’s ambitious goal:

The International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies aims to minimize the risks associated with scientific research on climate intervention or climate geoengineering, much as the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA successfully modeled safe and appropriate laboratory management methodologies. The Asilomar Conference will focus exclusively on the development of risk reduction guidelines for climate intervention experiments.

Goals of the Asilomar Conference:

  1. Identify potential risks associated with climate intervention experiments
  2. Propose a system to assess experiment design for potential categorical risks and suggest precautions to assure their safe conduct
  3. Propose voluntary standards for climate intervention research for the international scientific community

Certainly these are laudable goals, assuming one has bought into geoengineering.  Some environmental groups around the world have questioned the whole point of this conference — see the ETC Group’s “open letter to the Climate Response Fund and the Scientific Organizing Committee,” with dozens of signatory groups, which argues:

The priority at this time is not to sort out the conditions under which this experimentation might take place but, rather, whether or not the community of nations and peoples believes that geoengineering is
technically, legally, socially, environmentally and economically acceptable.

I will come back to issues surrounding the Climate Response Fund [CRF] (and perhaps the ETC’s issues) in a later post.

My focus here is on the choice of sole Strategic Partner, The State of Victoria, Australia.

On the one hand, Australia is the canary in the coal mine for human-caused climate change, since it is the most arid habited continent to start with — as I have discussed many times see “Absolute must read: Australia today offers horrific glimpse of U.S. Southwest, much of planet, post-2040, if we don’t slash emissions soon and also Australian Scientists: Contrary to media reports, “our paper does not discount climate change as playing a role in this most recent drought, the ‘Big Dry’. In fact, there are indications that climate change has worsened this recent drought.” So one can greatly understand their desire to explore every option to diminish impacts from greenhouse gas emissions.

On the other hand, as Wikipedia reports:

Brown coal is Victoria’s leading mineral, with 66 million tonnes mined each year for electricity generation in the Latrobe Valley, Gippsland. The region is home to the world’s largest known reserves of brown coal

Brown coal, aka lignite, “is considered the lowest rank of coal“:

Carbon dioxide emissions from brown coal fired plants are generally much higher than for comparable black coal plants, with the world’s worst polluting being the brown coal fueled Hazelwood Power Station, VictoriaThe operation of brown coal plants, particularly in combination with strip mining, can be politically contentious due to environmental concerns.

And here’s some more news:  “In 1992, the station was scheduled to be decommissioned by 2005 due to its excessive carbon dioxide emissions, however, a decision by the Victorian Government in 2005 allowed the power station to remain operational until 2031.”

For an environmentalist perspective on brown coal and Australia, see “Australia’s brown coal shame“:

Here in Australia, we export hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal each year and now the state of Victoria wants to export even more of it….

Australians have the highest carbon impact per capita and it’s no coincidence that Victoria has the highest power generation emissions in the nation; thanks to brown coal.

So maybe Victoria was not the best choice as the sole strategic partner for this landmark geo-engineering conference.

Indeed, Goodell framed this conference as “the moment geo-engineering comes out of the closet.”  He says it’s very easy to dismiss geo-engineering as “crackpot” science and if geo-engineering wants to get taken seriously, “everything needs to be purer than pure.”

Goodell’s book is a must-read if you want to understand the players in geo-engineering.  He told me this conference has been played up as a “historic event” the “Woodstock of geo-engineering,” and that “invites a high level of scrutiny.”  That’s what Climate Progress aims to deliver!

I asked him what he thought about having Victoria be the sole strategic partner for this conference.  He said

I think it looks awful on two levels.

First, there has always been the concern that fossil fuel interests (and others) are promoting what he calls a “fantasy version of geo-engineering” that suggests geoengineering can replace mitigation.  Thus, “To have a big coal state in Australia as a major sponsor is bad politics.”  Second, “this is being played as a historic event.  Why not have more strategic partners?”

He added, “This is a real test for the geo-engineering community and how seriously this is all taken.”

I asked MacCracken for his response to these concerns.  He wrote:

I was not aware that brown coal is the state of Victoria’s leading mineral, nor that it was home to the world’s largest known reserves of brown coal. I have been aware that virtually all of Australia is in severe drought due to the southward shift of the storm track that brings precipitation to most of settled Australia, and that the recent rains they have had were so heavy that they led to extensive flooding. As Dr. Mark Howden of CSIRO made clear in invited guest talks at a recent USGCRP impacts assessment meeting in Chicago, changes in the traditional climate of Australia are having very severe and surprisingly early impacts. Even were the world to go to zero emissions tomorrow, there would very likely be further worsening of the increasing water resource stresses, and so it has not seemed unusual that the State of Victoria is interested in the potential for geoengineering. In pursuing this interest, they have, very much to their credit chosen to be a part of major international consideration of this issue. In addition, were the amount of carbon emissions (total or per capita basis), or the amount of carbon emissions from coal, to be the criterion for deciding what entities could support research on approaches that could complement mitigation (so both adaptation and geoengineering), that would seem to rule out some rather significant entities.

First, the SOC has been set up independent of the CRF to handle the scientific program for and participation at the Conference. The SOC is an internationally distinguished group from a range of countries, types of institution, and interests-they are independent of each other, of the Climate Institute, and of the CRF. By our agreement (which she was instrumental in setting up to ensure independence), Dr. Leinen has not been involved in developing the program for the Conference or on decisions on to whom invitations were extended (invitations were the basis for providing first access to funds to support travel to and from the Conference and the cost of staying at Asilomar).

On the question of the sources of funding, the SOC has asked from the beginning about the funders of the Conference because it is indeed important that none have an interest in the particular outcome of the Conference. Dr. Leinen indicated t
o us that this was also a criterion that she had and was enforcing, including turning down an offer of funding from an entity that was specifically interested in possible carbon permit applications.

With respect to the Conference itself and the State of Victoria, there was an agreement that a number of their leading scientists would be invited to the Conference. The list of those to be invited was prepared by Dr. Graeme Pearman, an internationally leading climate change scientist fro, Australia. The scientists that he recommended to the SOC are all recognized experts in their field and come primarily from academic institutions in Australia, so meeting the SOC requirement.

Thus, we believe that the way in which the Conference has been set up is free of conflicts and biases relating to fossil fuel interests and the interests of particular sponsors. The SOC and CRF both have the view (and have expressed it in various ways) that geoengineering cannot be a substitute for very substantial mitigation (nor for adaptation) and that such interventions do not solve all aspects of the climate change problem (e.g., ocean acidification) and will not return the Earth to preindustrial conditions.

While it might be wished that more had been done in screening of funding, much was done, and the nexus of those interested in providing funds for moving forward with the meeting now (in that research is moving forward) and those without some potential fossil fuel interest is not necessarily large enough and accessible enough in a timely manner to avoid all possible perception problems (e.g., might not the US Government be viewed as suspect, or for that matter any government?). The scientific community has come round to thinking seriously about geoengineering only because the nations of the world have been so slow to limit greenhouse gas emissions and because the pace of climate change and associated impacts have been advancing at what appears to be faster than projected.

Many have yet to realize the limits of emissions reductions to limit climate change, especially if done as slowly and late as is being contemplated. Climate intervention is becoming recognized as possibly a way to counter-balance changes that could cause irreversible losses, initially in high latitudes and within several decades elsewhere. In my view, the key concern for the public should be the apparent failure of the international decision-making process to formally commit to the need for significant near-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The emerging impacts of climate change and the prospects that lie ahead are of enormous concern. Indeed, optics matter so that no one misinterprets the intentions of the scientific community’s focus on geoengineering–that concern is a direct product of understanding the serious trajectory of change to which society and the environment are currently committed. Ensuring that the optics surrounding geoengineering does not detract from the climate challenge before us is critically important. The Conference will discuss issues such as transparency and conflict of interest in an effort to reinforce professional norms and establish new ones where they might not exist. Our intent is to reduce the need for focusing on bad actors, or the appearance of, bad actors, so that societal effort and discourse can stay focused on the enormous challenge that individual nations and the international community are facing.

I also asked Dr. Leinen for her response:

I would reiterate his comments and elaborate.  While the State of Victoria produces substantial coal, many countries produce substantial fossil fuel for consumption and export, including some with very strong emissions reduction records. I do not believe that a key criterion for accepting government funds for climate or climate intervention research or research-related activities should be whether the nation produces fossil fuel.  If this were the case all US government funding for climate research would be considered tainted.  More appropriate considerations are whether the government has imposed constraints on the activity that would constrain freedom of inquiry.  State of Victoria has imposed no constraints at all on the organizing committee (nor did they have any input to its selection), the agenda, or the invitees.

In addition, the State of Victoria has a strong policy on climate change and both the Premier and the Minister of Environment are committed to an aggressive program of emissions reductions.  As Dr. MacCracken indicated, Victoria is experiencing changes in climate that are substantial even with current levels of CO2.

Victoria is interested in whether climate intervention techniques work and what their impacts might be.  In order to answer those questions researchers will eventually have to do field experiments.  Victoria has expressed to us their strong interest for determining whether climate intervention research can take place responsibly and safely.  To determine whether that is possible, they provided funding in support of the conference.  Our agreement stipulates their support will only be used for the development and execution of the conference.  There are no funds for any other purpose.

Neither the Victorian government nor any of the scientists that they suggested be invited have been involved in the organization of the conference, the conference agenda or the selection of attendees.
The State Victoria will continue to work with the Climate Response Fund after the conference to urge other interested nations and organizations to consider the recommendations of the conference in their own deliberations about climate intervention/geoengineering research.

These are important points, but I think the conference could have and should have avoided any such entire issues entirely.  More in Part 2.