Geoengineering Goes Rogue

It was only a matter of time, but I had no idea it would be this soon. Geoengineering has gone rogue.

An environmental entrepreneur whose plan to dump iron in a patch of the Pacific Ocean was shelved four years ago after a scientific outcry has gone ahead with a similar experiment without any academic or government oversight, startling and unnerving marine researchers.

My first reaction is “environmental entrepreneur”? And my second one is “wow, this is a completely new thing.” Never in human history has a small group of humans intentionally tried to manipulate the atmosphere, much less without any kind of oversight. A true ethical novum. Brought to us by our own scientific-technological power. The New York Times continues:

The entrepreneur, Russ George, said his team scattered 100 tons of iron dust in mid-July in the Pacific several hundred miles west of the islands of Haida Gwaii, in northern British Columbia, in a $2.5 million project financed by a native Canadian group.

The substance acted as a fertilizer, Mr. George said, fostering the growth of enormous amounts of plankton that were monitored by the team for several months. He said the result could help the project meet what it casts as its top goal: aiding the recovery of the salmon fishery for the native Haida people.

But marine scientists and other experts said the experiment, which they learned about only in news reports this week, was shoddy science, irresponsible and probably in violation of international agreements intended to prevent tampering with ocean ecosystems under the guise of trying to fight the effects of climate change.

While the environmental impact of Mr. George’s foray could well prove minimal, they said, it raises the specter of what they have long feared: rogue field experiments that could upend ecosystems one day put the planet at risk. Mark L. Wells, a marine scientist at the University of Maine, said that what Mr. George’s team did “could be described as ocean dumping.”

I have discussed geoengineering and the hubristic dangers that accompany it before, arguing that it might seem logical and yet still be, perhaps, a very bad choice. I really do have mixed feelings on it. But what I can say with certainty is that anybody just going out and deciding to do it on their own must be stopped and held responsible for some type of violation.  This is an issue concerning the common good, not just of all humanity, but for the entire ecosphere. We can’t just have individuals going out there and doing giant experiments with no supervision or legitimate authorization (even if this is, in fact, what we have already accidentally done with fossil fuels, chlorofluorocarbons, and so on – this is not a road to continue on).

This is a fascinating test case, and luckily, a rather minor one. Iron dumping for plankton fertilizer is a relatively small thing compared to, say, spewing tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the earth. But now that the threshold has been crossed, we can expect to see more of this, and perhaps states “going rogue” in major ways, and not just one guy and his friends.

Strange times we live in.

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