Why Geoengineering Suits Russia’s Carbon Agenda

Published in the Guardian, 24 September 2013

News that Russia is calling for geoengineering be considered by the IPCC as a possible response to global warming makes a perverse kind of sense.

No government, not even those of Canada and Australia, has been more eager to open up new sources of fossil energy than Russia’s. By offsetting the effects of global warming—by, for example, coating the Earth with a layer of sulphate particles to reduce the amount of sunlight—geoengineering promises to allow the world to have its carbon cake and eat it.

The contradictions of geoengineering appear most starkly in the Arctic. Melting summer sea ice has made the Arctic global warming’s ‘canary in the coal-mine’, the place on Earth that most keeps climate scientists awake at night.

Yet the Arctic, a large portion of which is controlled or claimed by Russia, is a new carbon El Dorado, holding up to a quarter of the globe’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves. According to one energy industry insider: ‘Climate change is opening up one of the last frontiers for hydrocarbons on our planet. The Arctic … could be set for rapid change and development as exploration, production and infrastructure will have an inevitable, irreversible impact.’

In a provocative move, in 2007 a Russian submarine managed to plant the national flag on the seabed under the North Pole, and a year later Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared: ‘Our first and main task is to turn the Arctic into Russia’s resource base of the 21st century’.

He was not talking about solar collectors. The Russian Government’s determination not to allow obstacles to get in the way of Arctic exploitation was demonstrated last week when commandos boarded a Greenpeace ship and pointed guns at the activists’ heads.

Russia’s control over exports of gas and oil to Europe is its biggest strategic bargaining chip. Its bullying of former Soviet satellite states is well known, but even Germany’s dependence on Russia for over a third of its oil and gas supplies is enough to lead a military-linked think tank to urge the Merkel government to soft-pedal in its diplomatic dealings with its Eastern neighbour.

So global efforts to reverse the world’s dependence on fossil fuels threaten Russia’s plans for its economic and strategic future. Challenging IPCC science would marginalize it from the global negotiations, so carrying the torch for geoengineering—it would be the first nation to do so—has a kind of logic to it.

In 2010 Russia joined with Japan in an attempt to water down a resolution to restrict research into geoengineering at a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

In pursuing the climate engineering agenda, a Russian Government is likely to face fewer domestic constraints than more developed democracies. Pro-geoengineering analysts writing for a US conservative think tank have argued that nations with weak environmental lobbies—meaning China and Russia—will be able to deploy ‘solar radiation management’ with muted internal opposition.

This, they wrote, is one of its advantages. If true, solar radiation management is the dictator’s technology of choice. China, increasingly fearful of environmental catastrophe, has recently included geoengineering among its earth sciences research priorities.

There is a long history of attempted weather modification in Russia, especially as part of the Cold War arms race. In 1960, in a book titled Man versus Climate, two Russian meteorologists matched American technological hubris when they wrote:

‘Today we are merely on the threshold of the conquest of nature. But if … the reader is convinced that man can really be the master of this planet and that the future is in his hands, then the authors will consider that they have fulfilled their purpose.’

The world’s most vigorous proponent of geoengineering is the Russian scientist Yuri Izrael. As Director of the Research Institute of Global Climate and Ecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, he was the first to carry out tests of aerosol spraying, albeit at low altitudes from helicopters, to gather data on the optical characteristics of various particles.

Although never a formal adviser, Izrael is said to have been close to President Putin. Although an IPCC vice-chair until 2008, Izrael at times gives the impression of being a climate science denier. He invited the guru of American deniers Richard Lindzen to a conference of the Russian Academy of Science in 2004 and himself featured at a 2008 conference of the Heartland Institute, which was excoriated last year after it compared climate scientists to the Unabomber.

Izrael has variously claimed that warming will not be harmful, that the Kyoto Protocol has ‘no scientific basis’, and that it would be cheaper to resettle Bangladeshis threatened by sea-level rise. And he argues for geoengineering instead of emission cuts. Other scientists in Russia seem embarrassed by his antics and describe him as a ‘fossil communist’, but he remains influential.

Izrael has frequently collaborated with Andrei Illarionov, once President Putin’s top economic adviser. Invoking nationalist resentments Illarionov described the Kyoto Protocol as ‘war’ against Russia. In the Moscow Times he wrote that it was killing off the world economy like an ‘international Auschwitz’.

There are some more reasonable Russian voices talking about geoengineering, including a handful of scientists modeling the impacts of sulphate aerosol spraying. However, they argue that geoengineering is inevitable because carbon emissions are growing by more than the IPCC’s most pessimistic projections: ‘Therefore, humankind will be forced to apply geoengineering to counter the unwanted consequences of global warming’.

It’s an argument echoed in the text now being put forward by Russia to modify the summary of the latest IPCC report.

In 2009 I met a Siberian meteorologist at a conference. She told me that many people in Siberia would welcome a couple of degrees of warming. She knew enough about how the Earth system works to understand that any benefits from warming would be fleeting, as the Earth is unlikely to call a convenient halt once it reaches that threshold, and certainly not once the Arctic has thawed. But that is a piece of science many have yet to learn.

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© Copyright Clive Hamilton