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As we head into an ever warming world, some experts and politicians are embracing a possible solution to climate change called geoengineering. Theoretically geoengineering could slow down climate change, stop it, and maybe even remove carbon from the air. It sounds like the perfect answer in for a global political system that just can’t stop burning fossil fuels even if it kills us all. However, it might not be the easy fix we’re hoping for.
We talk to scientists and activists about what geoengineering is and why it could actually be a dangerous way to tackle climate change. We also dive into the moral and ethical questions of testing geoengineering technology on indigenous lands.
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Featuring Music Making Contact Team
Making Contact Team
[Making Contact Button]
Salima Hamirani: I’m Salima Hamirani and on today’s Making Contact.
new clips 1: dire new report out from the United Nations. It’s about the state of the Earth’s climate.
Jessica Partnow: And I’m Jessica Partnow joining as a co host on today’s show. And we’re talking about a possible solution to the very scary situation our planet is in.
new clips 1: Yeah, the organization says urgent action needs to be taken now to prevent a catastrophe.
Salima Hamirani: And as this year has proven, we’re reaching a tipping point in global warming. And some people think it’s time to start using a controversial new technology called geoengineering to stall climate change, and maybe even stop it completely.
Steve Zornetzer: we believe we could slow global warming by as much as a decade before it reached two degrees centigrade.
Jessica Partnow: It sounds like a brilliant solution to all of our problems, but a lot of Indigenous communities and some climate scientists are not so sure.
Basav Sen: if there’s anything we should have learned from the experience of anthropogenic climate change, it is that large scale human interventions in Earth’s ecosystems can have unforeseen dangerous consequences
Salima Hamirani: So what exactly is geoengineering?
Jessica Partnow: And why is it so controversial?
Salima Hamirani: All that and more, coming up.
Salima Hamirani: Welcome to Making Contact, and Jessica, thank you for joining me today. We don’t usually have you on as a co host, and I was wondering if you could share why you wanted to join, why this topic was so interesting to you.
Jessica Partnow: Yeah, well, thank you so much for inviting me to join you this week. And I think that the state the world is in right now just personally feels really scary to me, and I’m feeling an increasing sense of urgency about what we can do about climate change.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, it’s been really frightening to watch the world’s climate get extremely out of balance this year. Just record temperatures across the globe, heat waves in the ocean, devastating hurricanes. Buyers, I mean, it’s been very difficult to maintain a sense of hope.
Jessica Partnow: Yeah. Heat waves in the ocean. I think for most of my life, climate change has been this bad thing, but that it was coming someday in the future. But now it is really, really happening and people are really dying.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, you’re right. You know, I heard that over 61, 000 deaths in Europe last year could maybe be attributed to the heat waves in the summer. Over 61, 000.
Jessica Partnow: Right. And, and that’s in Europe. Uh, in the global South, it is definitely worse. And there’s this 5 degrees thing. So many countries have signed on to this idea that, you know, if we avoid letting global temperatures rise 1. 5 degrees Celsius over pre industrial levels, that’s sort of like, well, we have to do, but basically no one is sticking to their promises about that.
Jessica Partnow: But okay, Salima, I don’t think we want to, like, just scare our audience on the show.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, sorry, we don’t want to just terrify you.
Jessica Partnow: So we want to look at some possible solutions too.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, and you know on that topic, climate change and solutions, some solutions are good ones and some are what we call false solutions. And I think we have to be able to critically understand the difference and not fall into the trap of false solutions. So, here’s a new idea, a response to climate change that’s been coming up more and more.
news clips 2: Scientists call it geoengineering…We leave ourselves no choice but to do some kind of geoengineering …As a result, some of them now support controversial technologies as geoengineering.
Salima Hamirani: Geoengineering. So, this solution to climate change is a pretty attractive concept, and I actually didn’t know much about it before I started working on this piece. And Jessica, I’m wondering if you’ve heard of geoengineering before?
Jessica Partnow: Yeah, I think it’s like when you manipulate the environment to do something good, right? Like, okay, I don’t know, building an ice wall to help keep a glacier from melting.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, you’re exactly right.
Basav Sen: So what geoengineering is, it’s interventions that serve to make the physical manifestations of climate change lessen.
Salima Hamirani: Okay, so that’s Basav Sen.
Basav Sen: I’m the climate policy director at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Salima Hamirani: And I got to talk to Basav Sen a little bit about geoengineering, and he really helped me understand what it is and the different varieties.
Jessica Partnow: Right. I’ve heard of ideas that are trying to reflect the energy of the sun back into space.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, scientists call that solar geoengineering or solar radiation management, and it probably has the most variations.
Jessica Partnow: So how do you reflect solar radiation away from the earth?
Salima Hamirani: Well, you could, and this is really an idea by the way, install giant mirrors in space.
Basav Sen: To prevent the radiation from even entering the Earth’s atmosphere to begin with. Another idea that has been proposed is something called marine cloud brightening,
Basav Sen: which is to make the upper surfaces of clouds reflective, to reflect solar radiation before it reaches the surface of the Earth,
Salima Hamirani: But there are other ideas. Instead of reflecting solar energy away from the earth, you could also decrease the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. For example, you could try to fertilize the ocean.
Basav Sen: To make them absorb more CO2. And even carbon capture and storage and something called direct air capture, sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or out of a smokestack and then burying it in the ground.
Jessica Partnow: Oh, and I’ve also heard about weather modification.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, that’s a good one, uh, where you see clouds to help bring more rain.
Jessica Partnow: Yeah, or things like spraying sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to make the sky darker and reflect the solar energy away.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, that’s another popular one. And we can’t really go into all the different types in detail, but I wanted to sort of zone in on one specific idea that’s being tested right now. And it falls under that solar engineering category, and I thought it would be a good way for us to see what a real life geoengineering technology looks like. And so, this technology is called the Arctic Ice Project. It’s based in Menlo, California. And I actually talked to somebody on the board for the Arctic Ice Project. His name is Steven Zornetzer. Here’s how we explain what the Arctic Ice Project is.
Steve Zornetzer: So, this is a a methodology that was developed by Dr. Leslie field a number of years ago, and it uh, uses the principle of surface reflectivity. Also called albedo and it uses hollow glass, micros, spheres, very small micros spheres that are highly reflective. It looks like white sand, they’re hollow. They float they’re what’s called hydrophilic, which means when they come in contact with water of any sort, they stick to the water.
Salima Hamirani: So, basically, they’ve developed these very reflective, tiny silicon beads, and they put the glass beads onto the ice because they want to slow down the amount of ice melt in the summer.
Steve Zornetzer: In the summertime when the sun shines 24 7 in the Arctic most of the ice now, the global warming has advanced to where it is. Most of the ice melts. Particularly the young ice, the ice, that’s only one or two years old, older ice, which is much, much thicker. Persists during the summer in, in many areas of the Arctic. But even the older ice is diminishing very rapidly.
Salima Hamirani: What they’re suggesting is to cover that young ice, what’s called grease ice because it’s kind of slushy, with those reflective silicon balls before it hardens in the winter so that in the next summer more sun is reflected off the ice, and less of it melts.
Steve Zornetzer: So our goal is to cover this grease ice in certain strategic areas of the Arctic areas that we believe serve as. Nurseries for the formation of ice and the distribution of ice throughout much larger regions of the Arctic
Jessica Partnow: Ice nurseries? Okay, now I’m just thinking about little baby glaciers in bassinets. Um, okay, no, but I think this is making sense. He’s saying that white ice reflects more energy back out into space, making the planet cooler, but dark water absorbs that heat and makes the earth hotter,
Steve Zornetzer: Arctic ocean waters absorb a huge amount of solar energy, which is why the Arctic is warming three to four times faster than the rest of the planet. It’s because of this phenomenon called Arctic amplification where huge amounts of solar energy is being absorbed by those dark Arctic ocean waters.
Jessica Partnow: like wearing dark clothes in the sun and getting really hot, uh, versus wearing all white, which would keep you cool.
Salima Hamirani: Right, that’s a great analogy.
Jessica Partnow: So if they put these microspheres in the ice, that will make more white surface area. And theoretically, if they can increase the amount of ice that lasts through the summer, they can decrease the amount of heat absorbed by the Arctic waters.
Salima Hamirani: Exactly.
Steve Zornetzer: So by doing so, our modeling studies suggest that we can actually. Begin to cool the Arctic and thereby cool the rest of the planet, , in an optimal situation, if everything worked perfectly we believe we could slow global warming by as much as a decade before it reached two degrees centigrade.
Jessica Partnow: I mean, this seems like a pretty good idea. Use something that seems pretty natural to just nudge the rate of climate change a little bit slower. It’s not like we’re introducing invasive species or clear-cutting old growth forests or making dinosaurs out of prehistoric blood samples and frog DNA, right?
Salima Hamirani: I always wonder if anybody’s actually seen Jurassic Park these days.
Jurassic Park clip:
Salima Hamirani: And I mean, a lot of people agree that we should absolutely use geoengineering. have you read The Ministry of the Future, that book by Kim Stanley Robinson?
Jessica Partnow: Oh yeah, I really like that book. I learned a lot about climate change and geoengineering from reading it actually.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, you know, Kim Stanley Robinson is a huge proponent of geoengineering. Um, here he is during an interview for Bioneers in December of 2020.
Kim Stanley Robinson: You imitate a volcanic eruption like Pinatubo. This is how people usually talk about it. Pinatubo erupted in 1991.And the Philippines temperatures were depressed by about a degree or two Celsius globally average for about five years. And then the dust settled out of the atmosphere. And we’re back to where we were before. Nobody proposes it as a single silver bullet solution to our problems. Everybody’s studying. Proposes it as an emergency If you get to those temperatures that are killing people outright, you might wanna do it. Are the side effects bad enough that it was a bad idea. Five years later, you would know, and that effect would be over. You’d either say, Ooh, let’s do it again. That was a cheap fix. And we’ll give us some time or you’d say, oops, bad idea. We’ll never do that again.
Jessica Partnow: Yeah, this is a very familiar line of thinking from his book. , but now I’m having doubts. I mean, I feel like Oops, bad idea. We’ll never do that again. It doesn’t quite match the gravity of what we’re talking about here.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, and that really attractive idea starts to display some warning signs pretty quickly. And I think this might be a good place to stop and think about the possible side effects of geoengineering. Because, you know, when have humans intervened in the environment and it’s gone exactly as planned? Um, here’s Basav Sen again.
Basav Sen: If there’s anything we should have learned from the experience of anthropogenic climate change, it is that Large scale human interventions in Earth’s ecosystems can have unforeseen dangerous consequences. So right at the start, we should have some major red flags about this kind of a large scale technological intervention, which you can do in the lab all you want, but one thing you’re never going to know in the lab is unforeseen things that could happen. So just based on the precautionary principle alone, we should argue that these technologies are too dangerous to commercialize or to implement on any kind of large scale outside of a lab, which also raises the question in that case, why even do it in a lab to begin with?
Jessica Partnow: Okay. So he mentioned the precautionary principle. Uh, what is that?
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, that’s a great question. Um, it’s an idea you find a lot in public health and environmental studies, but basically it’s the idea that you should just kind of be cautious. So instead of applying a technology first and then scrambling to clean up the disaster it could create afterwards, you just don’t apply it in the first place if there are possible very serious consequences. And there are some very, very serious consequences. If we were going to try to apply a geoengineering at a large scale.
Basav Sen: So for instance, any of these solar radiation management techniques that they are called. Could have the effect and there are some climate models that have shown they would have the effect of disrupting the monsoon rains in South and Southeast Asia and parts of Africa.
Jessica Partnow: Disrupting the monsoon rains. That seems like it could have a devastating impact, especially on people in the global South and poor countries are already getting the worst of global warming.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, exactly. Jessica. And really the global North countries are the huge emitters, not Southeast Asia and Africa. You know, so once again, we have a technology that protects the North from the impacts of climate change on the backs of people in the global South.
Basav Sen: Then there’s concerns about unforeseen local ecological impacts. For instance, if we increase CO2 uptake by the oceans as a way to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, that would acidify the oceans further, and we already have an ocean acidification problem, and that could have further adverse impacts on marine life, marine ecosystems, and, you know, ecosystems are obviously worth protecting just for their own sake, but also that would have serious human impacts as well because of fishing populations, again, uh, people in the global south who depend on subsistence fishing as a major source of food.
Basav Sen: Uh, would find their food supply disrupted with more ocean acidification.
Salima Hamirani: there’s also a new technology that all companies are really interested in. We mentioned it at the beginning of the show. It’s called carbon capture and storage. And we don’t have that much time to get into it, but oil companies have actually spent a lot of money on this concept. Basically, they’d capture carbon dioxide out of the air, and then bury it, or encase it, store it, forever.
Jessica Partnow: Okay, but what happens if that permanent solution fails and all of that carbon dioxide was released at once?
Basav Sen: There just isn’t enough data for us to know whether there would be catastrophic releases of CO2. And if there were, we could have several hundred years of climate change concentrated in a terrifyingly short period of time.
Salima Hamirani: And I mean at this point you might be wondering if this technology is so dangerous or possibly so dangerous And we’ve already seen what massive climate interventions can do to the planet I mean, we already have climate change. Why are scientists starting to focus so much on geoengineering?
Basav Sen: You know, that’s a great question. The proponents of geoengineering always claim that this is an essential plan B. It’s something the world supposedly has to do in case climate mitigation fails. However, Those of us who work in the field of climate mitigation, we know that serious climate mitigation hasn’t even been tried. So, it’s like saying we have to go to plan B before plan A has ever been seriously tried. We also know that the actual solutions to climate mitigation, they are not scientifically or technologically that hard. They are hard in terms of the massive scale of public investment that would be needed, the massive reorientation of our social and political systems that would be needed. But fundamentally, what we’re dealing with is the lack of political will. It is not the lack of technological capacity or scientific knowledge. So clearly, If the people who are so ardently backing geoengineering, if they really wanted to solve the problem, they would instead be focusing their energies on pressuring these powerful governments to start actually phasing out fossil fuel production and use.
Jessica Partnow: Yeah, so this was on my mind the whole time. There is a much easier answer to this issue. Like why don’t we just stop with the fossil fuels?
Salima Hamirani: Right. And we’re actually going to do a deep dive into that topic and also look at how geoengineering affects indigenous communities right after a short break.
Salima Hamirani: Welcome back to Making Contact. Today we’re talking about an issue called geoengineering. And Jessica, I wanted to go back to something you said earlier, that the answer to climate change might be something much easier than a complicated new technology.
Jessica Partnow: Yeah, I mean, we’ve been talking about these shiny new tech ideas, space mirrors, cloud seating, things that could slow climate change down, but actually there is an extremely simple solution right in front of us, which is to stop burning fossil fuels,
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, and I want to mention here that a lot of geoengineering projects are funded by oil and gas companies. I mean, carbon capture and storage is a huge investment for big oil companies, for example.
Jessica Partnow: right? Yeah, I guess that’s not surprising.
Salima Hamirani: Mmm, how come that doesn’t surprise you?
Jessica Partnow: I mean, they have an incentive to keep their profits up. You know, by burning and extracting fossil fuels, um, and then carbon capture makes it seem like they’re doing something to address the impact of burning fossil fuels, right?
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, I guess in the end it’s a very profitable feedback loop for them. You know, we actually mentioned at the top of the show that there’s a project called the Arctic Ice Project. So that project was actually started by somebody who has links to oil companies.
Panganga Pungowiyi: Leslie fields who own several patents on the project, began a lot of her career working for Chevron, and HP developing technology on behalf of Chevron.
Salima Hamirani: That’s Panganga Pyngowiwi, and I want to spend the rest of today’s show with Panganga. She’s a community leader and an activist in Alaska.
Panganga Pungowiy: [Panganga introduces herself in her native tongue] So I have a lot of different names.
Salima Hamirani: And the reason I wanted to talk to Panganga was because the Arctic Ice Project wants to test its technology outside of the lab to see if it works in Alaska. But that’s actually where Panganga and her community lives.
Panganga Pungowiyi: A lot of people are very, very concerned and upset that this material is being spread on our lands with the plan to spread up to a hundred thousand square kilometers.
Salima Hamirani: And so, let’s get into why they’re so concerned.
Jessica Partnow: Okay, I think maybe I can guess at the first reason. Is it unintended consequences, like, kind of like we were talking about earlier?
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, and that was actually one of the first things that Panganga brought up. Remember those very small, tiny, silicon bees that the Arctic Ice Project wants to spread in Alaska?
Panganga Pungowiyi: I got a hold of the material size that they used up in KHAK and the material is so small, , that when you open a bag, it poofs out and just kind of lingers in the air, even if there’s no wind, , they’re super, super tiny. And inside the bag, they actually kind of act like a liquid
Salima Hamirani: The size of the beads is an issue, because Panganga believes they will spread into the air and out onto the water.
Panganga Pungowiyi: You know, the, the impact of the materials, getting into areas that are not intended since we know that the stuff floats, , right when you open the bag, it’s not going to stay where they put it.
Jessica Partnow: the scientists at the Arctic Ice Project believe that the beads are non toxic, right?
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, that’s what they say their studies have shown.
Steve Zornetzer: There was no mortality. We couldn’t detect any in indication of illness. I mean, the animals look perfectly normal. And it’s not surprising to me that that’s the case, because basically this is sand. That’s manufactured by humans. I looked up the other day just out of curiosity. If anyone knows how much. Is transported into the Arctic ocean each year from the rivers that empty their waters into the Arctic ocean. And the number was astounding.It was 225 million tons of sand go into the Arctic ocean every year. Well, , we would be using a very small amount of our material relative to that huge number
Salima Hamirani: And I mean, in some ways he’s right, there is a lot of sand, and actually a lot of silica in the Arctic. But, Panganga says that’s actually part of the problem.
Panganga Pungowiyi: And we do have a lot of silica in our gravel. , and we also have very high rates of rheumatoid arthritis. We have high rates of kidney disease, and these are things that have been linked back to silica silica in crystalline form, or, , if it’s jagged and broken. because of the, the small size, it can be inhaled into the lungs and it can, , cause silica, tuberculosis or silicosis in human beings. We don’t know what the impact will be on the animals who. are birthed onto the ice, where the materials will be deployed. , a lot of it will probably sink to the bottom because, , the materials do break. And a lot of the material will end up on the Tundra, which will impact the amount of photosynthesis that gets to the plants, , on Tundra. And it’s also going to impact the living system within the ice itself, which depends on photosynthesis. There’s algae that grows at the bottom of ice.
Salima Hamirani: but, there’s an even bigger issue. And this is really like, a massive black hole sized problem at the heart of all geoengineering.
Jessica Partnow: Okay, uh, let me see if I can guess at this one, too. So, any kind of geoengineering project is going to be on a global scale, right?
Salima Hamirani: Yes.
Jessica Partnow: And, and so then it would have consequences all over the world, but the global South, which is most of the world’s population, uh, is going to be most vulnerable to those impacts because of climate patterns and also because of money and infrastructure, right?
Salima Hamirani: Yes.
Jessica Partnow: So how do all those people consent to this giant experiment?
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, I think you nailed it, Jessica, and there’s no easy way out of this question. I think in the past, the issue of consent was just sort of ignored in science because, you know, science has a very problematic past and present.And if you look at these geoengineering projects, they seem to be tested mostly on indigenous lands. Here’s Basav Sen again.
Basav Sen: The fact that disproportionately, you know, wherever you look in the world, they seem to be done where indigenous peoples live. So, unsurprisingly, a lot of indigenous peoples are looking at it as yet another new frontier in the kind of colonialism that they have faced for the last several hundred years.
Salima Hamirani: And Panganga’s community has been tested on before, and they’re already recovering from the intrusion of Western science onto their lands.
Panganga Pungowiyi: I’m from St. Lawrence island, ,, it was a former defense site. That. Was large enough to sustain 200 troops for two years. And when it was time to leave, they didn’t want anyone to use the base. So they were told to take a backpack, cut the lines and leave. And so they left, , they cut the lines to all of the oil. , they spilled a whole bunch of chemicals, heavy metal, solvents, , PCBs and all of that. waste seeped out into the ecosystem. And in addition to that, historically indigenous people were injected with radioactive iodine to see if we could survive in the cold longer. , we were being tested on, I believe to see if it would be safe for soldiers to use.
Jessica Partnow: I mean, I can see why this is so concerning to Indigenous communities, given that history. I mean, this is their home. Scientists see it as this empty, frozen area to safely experiment in, but for Panganga, it’s where she lives.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah, and you know, she kept reiterating this one idea to me, which I think is really important. Um, let’s listen to this clip.
Panganga Pungowiyi: Our Cosmo vision, our worldview recognizes the very complex living systems within the Arctic. And we recognize the Arctic as a living ecosystem with many, many systems on the inside. We don’t compartmentalize our lives the way that Western society does, , we live amongst. The animals and plants in our ecosystem. , it’s our livelihood, not just for physical sustenance, , , these animals help us express who we are, , through our art, through our language. And so this impacts who we are as human beings.
Salima Hamirani: It’s a big clash of worldviews. So, you know, on the one hand, we have this scientific Western approach, which views humans as actors on nature. And in that vision, the consequences of technology are quantifiable and contained. But in this vision, humans act within nature as part of it. And the consequences of our actions aren’t as easily contained or predictable.
Jessica Partnow: I’m so glad we’re talking about this because I, I agree. This is like the foundation of the whole debate, really. Are we part of nature and the climate and the planet, or are we somehow outside of it?
Panganga Pungowiyi: we are inherently tethered. To mother earth. We have been in relationship with nature for thousands of years and how the land is treated is reflected in how we are treated. ,
Jessica Partnow: and then there’s maybe this other clash of worldviews, like, is expensive technology the way we want to solve our problems? Do we really need to skip? To plan B, like Basav said, we haven’t even tried plan A yet. Um, and I just keep thinking about how simple it is. It’s free. It’s democratically available. It’s social movements and organizing.
Salima Hamirani: Right, this technology, geoengineering, rests in the hands of just a few people. But organizing, social movements, that is something we could all participate in, and it doesn’t require releasing anything into the environment that could, you know, kill all of us.
Jessica Partnow: Yeah, and maybe the answer to climate change should be something that’s democratic and safe, but we’re just about at the end of the show. So we want to ask what you all think. Is geoengineering the miracle technology that’s going to save us all? Is it a false solution? Something else?
Salima Hamirani: Absolutely. Please leave us a comment because we have reached the end of today’s show. What do you think about geoengineering? Visit us online at radioproject. org. I’m Salima Hamirani.
Jessica Partnow: And I’m Jessica Partnow.
Salima Hamirani: Thank you for listening to Making Contact.