Will Geoengineering Plans Get A Boost From Trump Administration?

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Will the Trump administration “open the door” to planet-scale geoengineering experiments? That’s the question posed in an article that I recently came across, one which referenced plans by Harvard engineers David Keith and Frank Keutsch to test in 2018 (in Arizona) the high-altitude spraying of sulphate particles as a means of limiting warming.

The article alleges that under the Trump administration, enthusiasm for solar geoengineering plans — ones where the large-scale, high-altitude spraying of sulphate particles is intended to reduce the extent of future temperature rise (caused by rapidly growing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels) — appears to be growing.

Is this true? The signals seem to say yes.

Keith revealed during a recent geoengineering forum in Washington that he was now ready for field testing of the atmospheric sulphate spraying idea (a planned experiment in 2012 in New Mexico was cancelled). A briefing paper distributed at the forum noted: “The context for discussing solar geoengineering research has changed substantially since we planned and funded this forum nearly one year ago.”

The article from The Guardian provides more: “While geoengineering received little favour under Obama, high-level officials within the Trump administration have been long-time advocates for planetary-scale manipulation of Earth systems.

“David Schnare, an architect of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition, has lobbied the US government and testified to Senate in favour of federal support for geoengineering.

“He has called for a multi-phase plan to fund research and conduct real-world testing within 18 months, deploy massive stratospheric spraying 3 years after, and continue spraying for a century, a duration geoengineers believe would be necessary to dial back the planet’s temperature.”

Those in favor of such a “solution” argue that it would be “an inexpensive way” to reduce the temperature rise that’s now baked in thanks to high (and increasing) atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Critics point out that such a plan amounts to little more than a crap shoot — no one really knows what will happen if such a strategy is pursued.

As an example of what I mean here: suppose the high-altitude sulphate spraying does indeed reduce temperature rise to a notable degree, but … it also shifts rainfall patterns and causes extreme drought in some agricultural regions. How would the country experiencing extreme drought respond to the one performing the geoengineering? Something else to consider is that it would make for very effective rhetoric to simply blame a country’s problems (decreasing crop yields, water scarcity, extreme weather, etc.) on another country’s geoengineering efforts. Where would that lead?

Geoengineering hardly seems to be the silver bullet that some like to paint it as being, even presuming that it can actually be done effectively or economically. It seems rather to be yet another example of the modern world’s most recognizable resident — the sales gimmick. That’s something that sounds great when it’s being sold, but doesn’t come close to living up to the claims that were made (industrial-scale GMO agriculture is a good example of this — sounds great but doesn’t live up to the hype). [Editor’s note: Trump himself is an obvious second example. Though, approximately 36% of the population is apparently still falling for the con.]

The Guardian coverage continues:

“Scientific modelling has shown that stratospheric spraying could drastically curtail rainfall throughout Asia, Africa, and South America, causing severe droughts and threatening food supply for billions of people… A White House report on climate change research submitted to Congress in January called for the first time ever for research into geoengineering. Within Republican ranks, former House speaker and Trump confidant Newt Gingrich was one of the first to start publicly advocating for geoengineering.

“US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also appeared to support geoengineering, describing climate change as an ‘engineering problem.’ ExxonMobil’s funding of the climate denial industry is under investigation by attorney generals in the United States, but it’s less well known that ExxonMobil scientists under Tillerson’s reign as CEO were leading developers of geo-engineering technologies like carbon dioxide removal.

“Asked about solutions to climate change at an ExxonMobil shareholder meeting in 2015, Tillerson said that a ‘plan B has always been grounded in our beliefs around the continued evolution of technology and engineered solutions.'”

Quite a statement. A statement of “belief” it should be noted. To be clear on that: the idea that any “problems” that arise can be “solved” by people, and by human ingenuity and “intelligence,” is a statement of faith. It’s a religious statement. Every bit as much as the idea of the Rapture, or the Golden Age, or the “ultimate victory of the proletariat” ever was.

It should be noted here before this article ends that the Harvard experiment discussed above would be against the intent to the moratorium on geoengineering adopted in 2010 by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity … which was never ratified by the US (the Obama Administration, in other words, never ratified the moratorium).

This moratorium was recently reaffirmed in Mexico (December 2016). Though, of course, not by the US. The US it should be noted is one of the very few countries to not ratify the agreement, despite now having had ~7 years to do so and two different administrations (one Democrat, one Republican). I guess that that makes the issue one that isn’t going to be addressed by either of the two main parties?

Considering that the experiment in Arizona will presumably affect Mexico as well, it will be interesting to see how politicians in that country respond.

A final note: while both China and Russia have agreed to the UN moratorium, if the US pursues geoengineering plans, then they are likely to do so as well … as are probably a number of smaller countries as well.

Cartoons via Stephanie McMillan

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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