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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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