November 01, 2012

Waiting for Godot

Yellow and brown colours show relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll in August 2012, after iron sulphate was dumped into the Pacific Ocean as part of a controversial geoengineering scheme. Photograph: Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center/NASA

Three months ago, says the British Guardian, American businessman George Russ dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate two hundred miles west of Queen Charlotte Islands that lie off British Colombia, Canada. This geoengineering process- “iron seeding” or “ocean fertilisation” - is a means of stimulating a phytoplankton boom. Phytoplankons are small, sometimes microscopic marine organisms that contain chlorophyll. Large numbers of plankton spawned by geoengineering- the Russ kind- absorb carbon dioxide and fall to the ocean floor,  effectively burying the CO2 and mitigating, somewhat, the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

More than somewhat, actually. The Carnegie Institution says that large-scale iron-seeding could help us sequester around one percent of all emissions on earth.

Nonetheless, George’s move has many –environmentalists, lawyers, the UN and others- up in arms. The fact that Russ is a businessman may have something to do with it; this commercial seeding is meant to make him considerable money using the carbon credits route. Then, Russ’ has a controversial history. He tried- and failed- to do similar stuff off the ecologically sensitive Galapagos and Canary Islands earlier, an attempt that had the US, Spanish and Equadorean governments clamping down hard on him. That episode pushed the UN into passing an international moratorium limiting ocean engineering experiments. There is also a London convention banning such activity, and the Biodiversity Conference held this month in Hyderabad had some nations calling for a comprehensive ban of geoengineering.

His critics say that Russ’ experiments are dangerous, that there are fears amongst scientists that commercial dumping will harm more than it will help, and that seeding may actually make waters more toxic, acidic or inert and so kill marine life. Says Dalhousie Univerity’s John Cullen, "Some possible effects, such as deep-water oxygen depletion and alteration of distant food webs, should rule out ocean manipulation. History is full of examples of ecological manipulations that backfired."
Seems to be an open and shut case, by the looks of things. Except that Russ’ experiment has- on the face of it- worked.

As the map shows, significantly higher concentrations of chrophyll have been detected after Russ’ ocean seeding. Satellite images show that an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres has been catalysed. Difficult to argue with that. Russ says, somewhat optimistically, "We've gathered data targeting all the possible fears that have been raised. And the news is good news, all around, for the planet."

This is the conundrum: For decades, international organisations, academicians, world leaders and scientists and envriomnetalists have all sat on their thumbs, debating global warming, researching ad infinitum, holding conferences and participating in junkets that are all Shakespearan sound and fury, eventually signifying nothing. All attempts at setting targets have gone nowhere. All protocols and conferences have failed even before Kyoto. Hidden agendas, corruption, bureaucratic lethargy, research funding imperatives and greed have combined to ensure that the same litany is repeated year after year without any concrete action forthcoming.

In this scenario, a wealthy individual can, as George did with a million dollar stake, go ‘rogue’ and start commercial dumping. The ocean is a big place and difficult to police (and so is the air- another controversial proposal is to spray sulfates into the air to cool the earth. In any case, many of the ideas to combat global warming are cheap). If there are commercial advantages to this- as Russ finds there are, with money to be made in carbon credits- one can rest assured that the people the rest of the world considers rogues- even environmental groups or nations on the edge of the climate change knife- will find a way to circumvent regulation, especially if it is useless, frustrated, coming in the way of solutions or otherwise difficult to enforce.

In any event, what the Russ controversy tells us is this: it is time to get off our backsides and actually do something about global warming instead of debating the issue until Christmas comes.

Or Godot.

Or Armageddon.


1 comment:

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