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In response to growing concerns about climate change, scientists are exploring ways in which they could, with international agreement, manipulate the Earth’s climate. But what if this technology were to be hijacked by a rogue state or individual?

Geoengineering can refer to many things, but it is most often associated with a scientific field that has come to be known as “solar radiation management”. The basic idea is that small particles could be injected high into the stratosphere to block some of the incoming solar energy and reflect it back into space, much as severe volcanic eruptions have done in the past. In stark contrast to decades of technological evolution and political disputes about overhauling energy infrastructure to reduce greenhouse emissions, solar radiation management would act quickly and would be cheap to implement – though side-effects may make it a very expensive option.

Most research has focused on sulphur injection via aircraft. Recent studies suggest that a small fleet of aircraft could inject a million tonnes of sulphur compounds into the stratosphere – enough to offset roughly half of the global warming experienced to date – for US$ 1 billion-US$ 2 billion annually. In theory, the technology would be tantamount to a planetary thermostat, giving humans direct control over global temperature. The direct impact of dimming the sun would be felt within weeks to months.

However, a long series of ethical, legal and scientific questions quickly arises about countless additional effects that might be much more difficult to assess. The problem is that incoming solar radiation drives the entire climate system, so reducing sunlight would fundamentally alter the way energy and water move around the planet. Almost any change in weather and climate patterns is likely to create winners and losers, but determining causation and quantifying impacts on any given region or country would be a huge challenge.

Nobody envisions deployment of solar radiation management anytime soon, given the difficulties in resolving a suite of governance issues (evidenced by the fact that even the relatively simple SPICE experiment in the United Kingdom foundered in the midst of controversy). Beginning with the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, many academic and policy bodies have called for cautious research as well as broader conversation about the implications of such technologies.

But this has led some geoengineering analysts to begin thinking about a corollary scenario, in which a country or small group of countries precipitates an international crisis by moving ahead with deployment or large-scale research independent of the global community. The global climate could, in effect, be hijacked by a rogue country or even a wealthy individual, with unpredictable costs to agriculture, infrastructure and global stability.

The problem is that the only way to truly test solar radiation management is at scale. This potentially conflates large-scale research with deployment, thereby giving rogue nations political cover under the guise of science. Much research has gone into whether a programme could be targeted at the Arctic, for instance, where the impacts of global warming are being felt the most, but some researchers suggest that the impacts could quickly migrate from the Arctic to other regions. Many say that a true test of solar radiation management would have to be global.

Due to such complexities, most of the science to date has been conducted via computer modelling, although scientists are looking for ways to test these ideas with local experiments. But overall, despite calls for more coordinated government science programmes, the funding landscape for this kind of science remains spotty.

This leaves a gap for unregulated experimentation by rogue parties. For example, an island state threatened with rising sea levels may decide it has nothing to lose, or well-funded individuals with good intentions may take matters into their own hands. There are signs that this is already starting to occur. In July 2012, an American businessman sparked controversy when he dumped about 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Canada in a scheme to spawn an artificial plankton bloom. The plankton absorbs carbon dioxide and may then sink to the ocean bed, removing the carbon – another type of geoengineering, known as ocean fertilization. Satellite images confirm that his actions succeeded in producing an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres.

The individual hoped to net lucrative carbon credits, but his actions may have been in violation of two international agreements.Observers are concerned that this may be a sign of what’s to come.

Author: Risk Team

See also: X Factors, the risks that bite back

Image: Coronal Mass Ejection is captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory REUTERS/Handout