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Week 25: Welcome to the age of modification!
Emotional platitudes don’t help. They never did. The world is, and has been, a tough place through the centuries. Those able to adapt and cooperate have a chance. Those with money and power have a triple chance. If you want to swim with sharks, you need to be able to afford a cage. If you don’t? Let’s look at the state of the world for what it is. We don’t want to change. No, we don’t. But as in any story, we have developed a zillion modifications to help us continue not changing.
Modifications. We love it. We modify and we adjust. Some of these modifications are becoming (despite how bananas they may sound) a topic for debate as well as, for some people and leaders, a potential to not change anything.
Have you heard about stratospheric aerosol injection? It’s a very exotic thing. Instead of trying to change the way we operate our existing systems and adjust them to our needs, not our wants, our leaders plan something far more exotic and grandiose for us. We should be grateful. A stratospheric aerosol injection is what we need, and in the future, generations will read about the moment when the human species truly became divine. You can almost see the posters with politicians pointing at the sky while bewildered kids, with a smile on their faces, look towards the sky with that content in their gaze.
We must see it for what it is. Completely and utterly crazy, since we have no idea how these injections would alter a myriad of intertwined systems as well as the face we don’t have any idea of the boomerang effects it can create. But it helps us not to change and it is exotic!
Climate manipulation to save us all…
The EU has waded for the first time into the highly controversial debate on geo-engineering, a contested technology that involves manipulating the weather to fight climate change. The European Commission on Wednesday is set to call for international efforts to assess “the risks and uncertainties of climate interventions, including solar radiation modification” and for research into how to regulate it globally.
The statement will be the first time that a national or regional governing body has officially recognised the growing interest in a science that essentially involves interfering with weather patterns in order to cool the earth. Among the most controversial techniques? A process called stratospheric aerosol injection which would involve flying a vehicle around 20km-25km above the earth’s surface, shooting out micron-sized particles that reflect the sun.
Aircraft able to carry such loads at that height have not yet been built. But it is calculated the process would have similar results to volcanic eruptions, such as that of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, the clouds of material from which led to mean global cooling of 0.3C to 0.5C for the following two years, according to the UN Environment Programme.
Other methods being researched include thinning cirrus clouds to allow more infrared rays to leave the atmosphere and launching sunshades into space. The EU text, which is not legally binding and could still change before publication, shows the extent of concern that humanity will not be able to keep global warming within the targeted 1.5C limit.
Geo-engineering can also refer to carbon capture and storage, which is being scaled up as a means of taking emissions out of the air. All these methods, which are still in embryonic stages of development, remain ungoverned.
An effort, led by Switzerland and backed by a dozen countries including Mexico, Burkina Faso and South Korea, to have a resolution on assessing geo-engineering technologies adopted at the UN Environment Assembly failed in 2019. In its most recent report on so-called “solar radiation management”, which encompasses different techniques for adjusting the sun’s rays, the UN Environment Programme described the technology as the “only” way to cool the planet in the short term. But, the authors warned, several factors, including costs that could run into “tens of billions of US dollars per year per 1C cooling," made medium to large-scale deployment “unwise”. Interfering in the globe’s natural climate could damage the ozone layer, redistribute the impact of climate change across ecosystems, cause geopolitical tensions and, if suddenly stopped, cause a sudden recurrence of global warming that would be sharper and more dangerous, the report warned.
Scientists are also keen to underline that weather-altering technologies should not take away from efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions overall.
The explanation for this apparent cognitive dissonance is simple. As a new analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law shows, many of those advocating geoengineering have worked for, been funded by, or stood to profit from the fossil-fuel industries that created the climate crisis in the first place. The oil, gas, coal, and utility industries have spent decades researching, patenting, and promoting geoengineering technologies – including, for example, CCUS – with the goal of safeguarding the dominant role of fossil fuels in the economy.
Research shows that the primary effects of geoengineering would be to entrench that role further, contribute to increased CO2 emissions, and lock in fossil-fuel infrastructure for decades or even centuries to come.
This is clearly a counter-productive strategy for addressing the climate crisis. But that does not matter to geoengineering boosters, many of whom – including the American Enterprise Institute, US Representative Lamar Smith, and former US Secretary of State (and ExxonMobil CEO) Rex Tillerson, are climate-change deniers who oppose mitigation policies. If global warming ever does become a real problem, they argue, we will just geoengineer our way out of it.
EU Frankenfoods: in a supermarket near you soon?
Modify age is here indeed. And we move on for yet another modification! Forget organic, forget ecological, the new kid in town is gene-edited food.
Brussels plans to lift controls on some genetically modified crops to help farmers cope with climate change in a move likely to reignite a Europe-wide debate about the controversial techniques.
A draft EU regulation seen by the Financial Times proposes that many modified plants should be approved as conventional rather than go through the bloc’s existing GMO regime, which is laborious and expensive. The plan would establish a category of plants that have used gene editing to create new varieties but could have been achieved through traditional breeding techniques. They include wheat that can withstand drought, tomatoes resistant to fungus and potatoes containing less acrylamide, which becomes carcinogenic when fried.
EU officials say the new techniques are vital to maintain crop yields as farmers contend with changing weather patterns, such as drought and floods. They would also reduce the use of pesticides, fertilisers and other chemicals. The proposal could still be changed before being put forward by the European Commission on July 5.
The proposal sets out different regulatory options but favours a light-touch regime for most new plant varieties — which would be “treated similarly to conventional plants and would not require authorisation, risk assessment, traceability and labelling as GMOs”.
A transparency register would be established for these plants, according to the draft. Gene editing is a form of engineering in which genes can be deleted or added from the same or similar species, accelerating a traditional process where scientists blend different species of plant. An example would be splicing a variety of wheat with a large ear, leading to high yields, with one with a thick stem, making it more resistant to wind.
It is distinct from genetic modification, which introduces DNA from foreign species. Plants using gene editing that could not arise naturally would require full GMO authorisation. However, “measures would be introduced to incentivise plant products that could contribute to a sustainable agri-food system," and crops judged as such would not have to carry a GMO label.
Only a handful of GMOs have been authorised in the EU, mainly to feed animals, because of public and political opposition to so-called Frankenfoods. Lifting an effective EU ban on gene-altered crops will also help the developing world, which is nervous to plant them if they cannot be exported to the EU.
“This can have positive global consequences,” said an EU official. “Other countries, especially in areas where food security issues are more acute, are watching what we do. This can be important for them to deal with climate change.”
Advocates of genome editing, including big seed companies, say the technology is simply speeding up what already happens in nature or through traditional breeding methods, and that therefore, the risks are minimal. They also argue that tools like CRISPR-Cas9 are more precise than earlier genetic engineering techniques, so there is less risk that a useful gene is destroyed in the process.
Critics contend that genome editing can create a range of changes to the genome in plants that pose risks to biodiversity, water and soil, human health, and organic food production. Some are concerned that such crops could outcompete natural species and create broad monocultures, which could wreak havoc on ecosystems. Some of the risks aren’t fully understood, many argue. There are also ethical and social questions about when and where the technology should be used, and who has access to the seeds. Read more here.
Twisting truths: dark money and climate deception
Modifying the truth is well known and this one is dark, even with the lights on.
The Senate budget committee held a hearing on Wednesday morning to scrutinize the role of oil- and gas-linked “dark money” in delaying climate action – and tearing through local and federal budgets.
The hearing was led by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who has held 10 climate crisis-focused hearings since he took the helm of the budget committee this past February.
It follows an inquiry launched by House Democrats in 2021, which focused on big oil’s alleged efforts to mislead the public about the climate crisis.
“I am shining a light on the massive, well-documented economic risks of climate change,” said Whitehouse, who has also given nearly 300 speeches about the climate crisis on the Senate floor. “These are risks that have the potential to cascade across our entire economy and trigger widespread financial hardship and calamity.”
In his opening remarks, Whitehouse described the well-documented misinformation campaign that fossil fuel interests have waged on the American public.
“Beginning as early as the 1950s, industry scientists became aware of climate change, measuring and predicting it decades before it became a public issue,” he said. “But industry management and CEOs spent decades promoting climate misinformation.”
Ranking member Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said the hearing was a “missed opportunity to work together on a responsible budget”. He also claimed Democrats obtain “much more secret or dark money than Republicans”.
Committee Democrats invited three witnesses. First to the stand was the Harvard history of science professor Naomi Oreskes. “Climate change is a market failure, and market failures require government action to address,” she testified.
Fossil fuel interests’ efforts to disrupt climate policy had come at great expense to the US, including not only financial costs, but also human suffering and lives lost, said Oreskes, who has written several books on oil industry misinformation.
Christine Arena, former public relations executive at the firm Edelman who now works in social impact film-making, and who was also invited by Senate Democrats, drew comparisons between the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long misinformation campaign and how the tobacco industry tried to cover up the harms of smoking.
“Just like the tobacco executives before them, [fossil fuel executives] characterize peer-reviewed science and investigative journalism that illustrates the extent of their deceptions as biased or inconclusive,” said Arena, who is now the founder of Generous Films.
I wish you all a great ‘solar radiation-managed’ week with a pinch of stratospheric aerosol injection (modified of course).
ESG Radio: Reshaping the sustainability narrative
This week on ESG Radio, I’m joined by Thomas Sonne, founder and producer of Common Ground discussing:
- how the ESG narrative is changing; the problem with green splashing and green washing;
- how banks and financial institutions are communicating around the topic of ESG;
- the latest news from the week including a heading in the US on the 'dark money' used by the oil and gas industry to divert messaging, and the Church of England divesting from oil majors, BP & Shell.