February 15, 2014

Geoengineering Is Not Environmental Justice...So Why Are Environmental Activists Not Talking About It?

Recently I participated on a panel with Clive Hamilton, author of “Earthmasters,” at American University hosted by Washington Geoengineering Consortium www.dcgeoconsortium.org, we discussed geoengineering and environmental justice. Before the panel discussion Mr. Hamilton lectured on his book and ended his comments with a question, “Why are the Environmental Justice NGOs not a part of the conversation on geoengineering?”

Honestly, after the panel discussion I have not stopped talking about it, reading everything that I can get my hands on, trying to understand how to make the connections between the environmental justice movement and the potential impact that geoengineering could have on vulnerable communities and populations around the world. My response to his question at the time was that the wrong people are sitting at the table to have these discussions. It should not be the talking heads of the movement but the actual people and communities who are being impacted by climate injustice and who will ultimately be most impacted by geoengineering. 

It is no longer prudent for the environmental movement to think of geoengineering as a closeted secret of quack scientist or something out of an Isaac Asimov novel.  The conversation is not about planting a million trees in New York City as a solution (although that has been done). It is about solar shields over the Arctic, manipulating precipitation, deflecting the sun’s rays away from earth and fertilizing the ocean with iron.460

There is an urgency that is required of the environmental movement to talk about what failure to win on mitigation or adaptation on large scale meaningful ways could likely result in – geoengineering/climate engineering of the environment as the only option. There is a responsibility to inform and help frame the conversation around such possibilities in a way that civil society can understand and question the effectiveness as well as potential impacts on people and the planet.  

Who better to ask the difficult questions as well as point out the complexities of what is being proposed as a simple solution than environmental justice activist? And yet there is a deafening silence on an issue that is quietly transforming the political landscape and narrative on climate change.

Some environmental justice NGOs do not want to discuss geoengineering for fear that it will validate the “mad science” and distract civil society, governments and business communities from focusing on less drastic measures that will have impact on climate change. I have tried to have the conversation with colleagues within the movement and it has provided lackluster responses. Although many of them seem to know about geoengineering there does not seem to be an urgency to make it a part of the narrative of the climate change movement in more poignant ways. Perhaps, in part it has to do with a false sense of “never going to happen because geoengineering is not cost effective”, or that it is “just research,” or an even more dangerous argument “we don’t have money to talk about this issue.” It seems that the wait and see if it will happen approach is the prevailing position. Thus the constant game of catch up to engage in a fight against an issue that already has momentum continues to be the modus operandi of the climate movement.

Once geoengineering picks up speed (and it seems to be doing just that) and is deployed there may be no time to recover from the shock and awe of it.  There will not be enough time to fundraise around an issue that billions of dollars will have been spent on to market and brand the benefits of geoengineering to civil society as the cure all to the devastating impacts of climate change.  In fact the money has already started pouring in to persuade decision makers. Let me be clear that I am not abdicating that there should be no research into geoengineering.  But it cannot be used as a panacea on the issue of climate change.

Civil society, governments and business communities must accept that if there is no change in the way that we live on this planet and do something to reduce drastically the carbon footprint and dramatically increase access to renewable energy now through tougher regulations an overhaul of the fossil fuel industry (stop subsidizing the polluters and begin funding the human solutions to climate change) that the planet will continue to change in devastating ways. Since people are the problem causing climate change then it would seem logical that people have the power to make a course correction on climate change that would make an impact.

So I agree with Mr. Hamilton that environmental justice NGOs cannot ignore or pretend that this is not happening. There should be ideas on ways to use the conversation of geoengineering to educate, prepare and offer alternative solutions that would make the scientific manipulation of the planet taboo once again. Geoengineering, however, is coming out of the shadows whether we are a part of the conversation or not. By opting out of the conversation we are doing a great disservice to the people, communities and environment that we say we are fighting with and for.  

If we do nothing and allow for the desperate implementation of geoengineering without public discourse and a better understanding of its potential impacts to further change the environment in ways that no one fully understands the consequences on people and the planet then I believe that we will have failed the movement. But if we join the conversation provide a counter perspective and argument in the public sphere and organize our constituencies we will have changed the players seated at the table thus changing the conversation and narrative to refocus on the human responsibility to be the change.