Thursday, November 11, 2010

Geo-engineering: Viable Solution or Pandoras Box?

In the article “Volcano-stimulated Rebound of 2010 Salmon Run Challenges Anti-Science Environmentalism” (November 2010), the author, John Laumer, discusses the rise in pacific salmon population following the 2008 Aleutian volcano eruption. The author tries to argue that this positive effect observed from iron-rich ash being introduced into the North Pacific Ocean should indicate the safety of geo-engineering and dispel concerns about it harms to the environment. The article also criticizes the recent U.N. biodiversity treaty which limits the application of geo-engineering on large scales, implying that it will halt progress in the attempts to address the planets climate issues.

The first issue with Laumer’s position is that he is comparing the effects of a natural event which has occurred an infinite number of times over the history of the planet, to direct human interference with the ocean ecosystem. Aquatic environments can adapt to changes due to natural events, and this affects the species within that system, as seem in the case of the Aleutian volcano eruption. However, just because the ecosystem can sustain iron from the occasional eruption and be fine (with some positive effects noted e.g. rise in salmon population), this does not mean that the same would be observed with a larger and continual addition of iron by humans. Not to mention the damage already done to the oceans by human activity that was previously thought to be harmless. Some potential risks are overpopulation of one species negatively affecting others, or levels of iron being added that would be toxic to some organisms. The effects of the Aleutian eruption do not give us a clear prediction of the outcomes associated with human intervention in the North Pacific Ocean ecosystem, or any aquatic habitat for that matter.

The introduction of iron to induce plankton growth as a way of combating climate change is based on the logic that the larger number of plankton will absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere. The CO2 will be absorbed into their bodies and when the organisms die it will sink to the bottom of the ocean with the organism. However, tests have been done to try to understand the effects and potential for such practices, for example the team of scientists aboard the Polarstern who tested iron fertilisation in the South Atlantic. The team found that the increase was only in one type of plankton, and that its population increase did not lead to any increase in CO2 being sequestered on the ocean floor. The extra plankton was eaten by other organisms that would eventually release CO2 back into the atmosphere.

The unexpected outcome from the Polarstern experiment is also a reminder of the countless examples where humans have tried to fix the negative effects of their interventions with nature with more interventions that only give them a new problem. This is most prominently visible in conservation attempts on islands where new species have been introduced to solve some problem produced by human migration (e. g. control populations of pests such as rats or insects), only to cause problems themselves and become pests. Humans have proven themselves to be short-sighted many times in the past when it comes to controlling the environment. In the context of geo-engineering, Europe could implement some technology to improve its climate; however this could have detrimental effects on Asia, a third party who had nothing to do with the development or use of the technology. When we are looking at possible solutions to global problems through technology, we need to do testing to have some idea of what the outcomes of our actions will be, because if our efforts go awry, it will affect everyone on the planet.

The UN closed its recent convention on Biological Diversity with a moratorium on geo-engineering banning the implementation of geo-engineering techniques by individual bodies without consulting the UN. Laumer interprets this as putting a complete halt on planning for a potential climate “emergency” where geo-engineering would be needed. However the moratorium simply asks that “governments to ensure that no geo-engineering activities take place until risks to the environment and biodiversity and associated social, cultural and economic impacts have been appropriately considered” ( , 2010). Also it prevents small groups of scientists in either the private or public sector from implementing technologies that will potentially affect other nations. It allows research into what we will do in the face a climate disaster but prevents the pre-emptive application of them by individual parties.

This is how it should be, as geo-technologies to reduce CO2, such as iron fertilisation, can easily turn into cheap ways for western industry to “make-up” for their damaging ways, instead of changing them. Introducing geo-engineering too soon will lessen the will of governments, industry, and ordinary individuals to change wasteful habits into sustainable ones. Why bother cutting down on use of fossil fuels if there is a quick fix for the climate? What is the motive for developing sources of clean energy? Using geo-engineering at this point is just putting a bandage on the issue of climate change without addressing the root cause of the problem. The focus needs to be on changing the human behaviour that has gotten us to this point.

Lauman implies that geo-engineering should be allowed to develop without interference from government organisations and that the restrictions on its growth are due to overzealous fear of potential negative effects. Control of geo-engineering is necessary to prevent it’s over use and misuse for economic means, to prevent big industry from continue with wasteful practises, and to keep our attention on the changes necessary to human lifestyle that has brought about the earth’s climate problems. Without remedying these activities humans are likely to end up in some other environmental crisis, even if we could control CO2 levels. The reaction of the ocean ecosystem to a naturally event does not immediately prove that humans meddling with ecosystems will fix all our problems. Geo-engineering should continue to be researched in case humanity does find itself faced with disaster. Putting all our attention to geo-engineering and implementing it right now is illogical and like mopping up the water from an over-flowing bathtub without first turning off the faucet.


Laumer, J. (2010, November 5). Volcano-stimulated Rebound of 2010 Salmon Run Challenges Anti-

Science Environmentalism. In Tree Hugger. Retrieved November 11, 2010, from

Lepisto, C. (2009, March 29). Iron Fertilization Experiment Proves Geo-engineering Unpredictable. In

Tree Hugger. Retrieved November 11, 2010, from

News release: Geoengineering Moratorium at UN Ministerial in Japan. (2010, October 28). In ETC Group.

Retrieved November 11, 2010, from

Erica Gilbeault-Ryan

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