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Jun 10, 2010

Victoria still talking to controversial geoengineering scientists

The Victorian government continues to engage with scientists on climate manipulation techniques, despite vehement criticism that it funded a conference looking at the last-resort geoengineering methods.

Clive Hamilton — Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University

Clive Hamilton

Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University

The Victorian government is continuing to engage with scientists on climate manipulation techniques, despite strong criticism of its funding of a conference looking at geoengineering methods seen by many as a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Brumby government funded a controversial, invitation-only meeting of geoengineering scientists and venture capitalists in California in March. The International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies was organised by the Climate Response Fund, an ‘NGO’ founded in 2009 to promote research in climate intervention.

The Brumby Government’s role as sole strategic partner of the Asilomar conference was brokered by Victor Perton, Victoria’s Commissioner to the Americas. Speaking from his San Francisco office, Perton told Crikey further briefings are being organised through the government’s Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development (DIIRD).

He said the government is interested in seeing ethical rules set for research and testing of geoengineering methods and in attracting research projects to Victoria. The Brumby Government is committed to both greenhouse gas mitigation and exploring geoengineering options, he said.

“There will be a briefing for Australian scientists on what happened at the last conference,” he said. A spokesperson for Innovation and Environment Minister Gavin Jennings denied the government is planning to host an international conference in Australia, but said some scientists were arranging a “debrief” on the March meeting with the help of DIIRD.

The department may host the meeting, the spokesperson said, but no state money would be used (aside from tea and coffee).

Victoria’s backing of the Asilomar conference has been the subject of robust criticism. Joe Romm at Climate Progress referred to the state’s “brown coal shame” and questioned the organisers for accepting funds from the government of a state committed to further development of its coal resources.

Although some geoengineering proposals are relatively benign, the most-discussed and most-likely large-scale method of climate engineering involves simulating the effects of volcanic eruptions by injecting millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere in order to deflect a greater proportion of incoming solar radiation. The increase in aerosols would offset some of the effects of human-induced warming.

The dangers of aerosol spraying, emphasised in a report by the Royal Society, include the risk that it would become a substitute for reducing emissions, its failure to reduce ocean acidification, the possible disruption of the Indian monsoon, and the possibility of a lone billionaire unilaterally attempting to take control of the “global thermostat.”

Responding to the criticism, Perton said Victoria can walk and chew gum at the same time.

“We can think about and act on mitigation strategies at the same time as investigating other ideas and building new capacities to act if necessary,” he said.

The Asilomar conference was co-organised by the Washington-based Climate Institute, an NGO promoting action on global warming. Tom Roper, former Victorian Labor MP and Minister for Planning and Environment in the Cain Government, is on the board of the Climate Institute.

Around the world, governments have been at pains to distance themselves from geoengineering for fear of being accused of ducking their responsibility to cut emissions.

When in April 2009 it was reported that President Obama’s new science adviser John Holdren had said that geoengineering is being vigorously discussed as an emergency option in the White House, he immediately issued a “clarification” claiming he was expressing only his personal views.

Last November, Science magazine reported the Climate Response Fund has close links to a controversial geoengineering firm named Climos, which was heavily criticised for its plan to profit by selling carbon credits from ocean fertilisation. The President of the Climate Response Fund, Margaret Leinin, is the mother of the founder of Climos, Dan Whaley. Whaley was instrumental in the establishment of the CRF.

Some scientists attending the Asilomar conference were disturbed at the commercial orientation of much of the discussion and the way it obscured evaluation of the public interest. Ken Caldeira, one of the leading scientists researching geoengineering, boycotted the conference citing involvement of people with commercial interests in promoting the science.

Geoengineering as a response to climate change is being promoted by US conservative think tanks that actively deny the existence of human-induced climate change. They see it as a means of getting fossil fuel companies off the hook and of using technology to solve a technological problem, vindicating the role of free enterprise.

The American Enterprise Institute, an influential right-wing think tank that offered scientists $10,000 for papers debunking the IPCC report, has launched a high-profile project to promote geoengineering.

Inquiries suggest the federal government is unaware of Victoria’s role in supporting research into geoengineering.

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9 thoughts on “Victoria still talking to controversial geoengineering scientists

  1. Eponymous

    I don’t really agree with the thrust of this Clive.

    I agree that Victoria could do more to reduce their own emissions. However, you’ve said yourself that we are now unlikely to avoid some pretty dramatic climatic shifts, which will change rainfall and land use. I think it’s reasonable for the Victorian Govt to explore options for understanding and possibly managing these changes.

    They should also close Hazelwood as quickly as possible.

  2. D. John Hunwick

    I might be old and I might be stupid BUT if there is one thing I would oppose to the death is any attempt at geoengineering. How any group of people can possibly believe that they are able to take action to mange the Earth and all the living things therein is absolutely unthinkable. Such unbelievable arrogance, such stupidity in going STILL along the path that has got us into this mess. Turn around and take the path of renewable, ecological sustainability, reduced ecological footprint. If the situation gets so bad that we even think of stooping to geoengineering instead of reduced coal use then it is those who have take their eye off the ball of how nature actually works and stayed myopically focused on the triumph of human engineering that will have produced such an appalling state of affairs.

  3. Robert Garnett

    Dear EP.

    I don’t think what the Victorian Government is interested in is mitigating effects that will occur as a consequence of global warming. The are not talking about adapting to climate change. This exercise is about preventing climate change without doing anything about carbon emissions.

    The Victorian Government is simply the mouthpiece for Big Carbon in Victoria. They know sequestration is uneconomic and in fact probably impossible. They know that retrofitting carbon capture to existing brown coal plants is incredibly expensive and will reduce the output of the plants by 40%. They also know that the average Victorian punter hasn’t got a clue about any of this.

    They can’t do nuclear power politically even though it is the most sensible medium term option. And even if they could do nuclear power politically they would have a chorus of opposition from Big Carbon because of the problem of stranded fossil fuel assets.

    They are doing this to keep brown coal alive. There is 500 years of the stuff in the ground and they can get royalties from it. They might even be able to sell the stuff to India. (After the election of course and the Liberals will do the same. Its all about JOBS.)

    They have also entered into agreements Hazelwood Power station to let them generate for some decades to come. They also know that Loy Yang Power has done a deal with Alcoa for the next twenty years or so for which they would have had to give permission.

    As a consequence of this they will clutch at anything that will allow them to maintain the hope that burning brown coal will be possible without the carbon problem. They probably know that it’s pie in the sky stuff, but they will get a few more years delay by promoting hope over reality. They are the masters of spin. If you heard Minister Holding on the radio yesterday justifying his latest payments to Tiger Woods, you will understand their ethics and their principle tenent that nothing must get in the way of filling aeroplanes, filling hotels and making a dollar.

    The stone age didn’t end because of a shortage of stones any more than the Victorian Brown Coal age will end because of a shortage of coal. It’s just that these people are content-free spin doctors whose only rational is to stay in power and b..gger the future.

  4. Stephen Moreland

    Geoengineering?! Holy flying cane toads Batman, what a great idea! What could possibly go wrong?!

  5. Fireflying

    Researching geoengineering is a very good idea I reckon, it’s in the same direction as terraforming, which would be a massive leap for humankind. Whether or not it is an appropriate solution to global warming I don’t know, notwithstanding I think the field merits research in its own right.

    As for the moral hazard regarding corporations or individuals blackmailing the globe with such technology, it is a moot point. Burying your head in the sand isn’t going to make it go away, isn’t going to stop other jurisdictions from researching and developing geoengineering; we don’t live under a global government. It would be like saying if the Manhattan project were cancelled, there would be no nuclear weapons today, which is absurd.

    An exciting investment in R&D and as a Victorian I consider this one of the very few things Premier Brumby has done right.

  6. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Brumby being right to look at geoengineering is like saying that it is right to look into funeral plans for a family member that it taken sick instead of taking action to get them medical attention.

  7. Malcolm Street

    I just don’t understand geoengineering.

    What is the point of it if global warming is not real?

    If the money is available to run these massive schemes, why isn’t it available for moving to low-carbon technologies? Has anyone actually done the sums and worked out what geoengineering would actually cost?

    Re. putting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, haven’t we spent a couple of decades getting the stuff out of power station exhausts because of acid rain?

    And given past experience, can anyone predict what the full effects of geoengineering would be, what side effects would such massive interventions in the biosphere produce? Surely the only way to predict this would be by the type of extensive computer modelling that is the basis of climate science and regarded as the weak link of the latter. So if we can’t trust climate models, how can we trust models for geoengineering? And if we can’t trust models, how do we know the “cure” isn’t going to be worse than the disease?

  8. dire

    Well its what you get when you have a Premier who doesn’t believe in man made climate change but will do anything to make it appear as if he does and if that means spending millions on quack science that pleases the big polluters well so be it .

    the problem ofcourse is Ted is no better and his team is considerably less talented.

    I can’t help thinking that if the Greens could get their heads out of their arses they might do well come November.

  9. Mark Duffett

    @Malcolm Street, all reasonable questions. That’d be why we need to do research to answer them.

    @John Hunwick, I don’t follow your logic. Evidently humans are capable of affecting planetary processes. I don’t see how it follows that anything we do of our own volition in this realm is bound to be deleterious.