The Australian and Queensland Governments have quietly begun funding feasibility studies looking into manipulation of oceanic and atmospheric conditions to cool down the waters around the Great Barrier Reef. These so-called geoengineering techniques involve shading the reef with a polymer screen, increasing the brightness of clouds (both to reflect sunlight) and mixing warmer shallow waters with colder waters pumped up from the ocean depths.
This is highly controversial stuff, but the situation is now critical. The international community is only beginning to scratch the surface of the complex legal, ethical, technical, political and security issues at stake – with attempts to kickstart a debate in the UN recently blocked by the usual suspects – Saudi Arabia and the US.
Even the most ardent supporters of geoengineering agree that the focus must remain firmly on cutting emissions. And here we are faced with a conundrum. Governments have solemnly agreed to the Paris Agreement’s 2˚C and 1.5˚C global goals, but national targets add up to somewhere upwards of 3˚C.
What to do?
For many veterans of the climate change process, the answer now lies in litigation. Climate change is notoriously difficult to litigate, but the Paris Agreement’s globally agreed temperature goals, coupled with the stark warnings from the IPCC – whose report summaries are formally endorsed by governments – over the impacts of breaching the 1.5 and 2˚C thresholds, is providing legal ammunition for NGOs and concerned citizens.
Governments are being sued for weak policies that are inconsistent with the global goals, or that violate human rights by exposing vulnerable people to climate change. Large fossil fuel majors are being sued for spreading misinformation about climate change. The Urgenda case, which has forced the Dutch government to rethink its climate policy, has blazed a trail for many others to follow.
The coral reef problem in Australia
Coral reefs are among the great natural wonders of the earth, but they are in hot water. The IPCC projects that up to 99% of the world’s coral reefs will be lost with 2C of warming. Even if we meet the Paris Agreement’s most optimistic target of capping warming at 1.5C, we face the loss of 70-90% of the world’s coral reefs. The gradual rise in ocean temperatures will contribute to this loss. But the main driver is the increased frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves. Warm water temperatures cause coral to expel zooxanthellae, leading to coral bleaching. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – a national and international icon – has lost 50% of its coral cover in the past 3 years as a result of just two consecutive bleaching events.
With this recent experience and the prospect of worse to come, it is no surprise that scientists and reef managers are searching for ways to promote reef recovery following bleaching events, and protect the Great Barrier Reef from future marine heatwaves.
Some of the measures being trialled are aimed at boosting coral abundance and recruitment. These include forms of coral “farming” and stabilizing reef rubble to promote coral regeneration. However, more controversial proposals are being investigated to prevent further decline of the reef during extreme conditions, by manipulating ocean or atmospheric conditions to lower water temperatures over part of the reef. The Australian and Queensland Governments are funding research into the feasibility of three such proposals.
Two proposals involve ”shading” the reef to reduce warming of shallow waters from direct exposure to the sun. One proposal is the application of a biodegradable polymer film that can act like a ‘sunscreen’ for coral. The other involves increasing the brightness of clouds over the GBR so they reflect more solar energy back into space. This marine cloud brightening proposal might be thought of as a type of local (or regional) solar radiation management. This proposal involves spraying minute salt particles into low-lying marine clouds to increase their brightness. The third approach involves reducing the temperature of shallow waters near corals by mixing them with cooler waters pumped from 10-30 metres below. This technique is intended to overcome the “stratification” of the water column above and below corals on very hot days, which prevents the natural mixing of warmer shallow and cooler deeper water.
At present, these proposals are all fairly small-scale and would likely be aimed at protecting ecologically, or economically-high-value areas of the reef. The water mixing option, for example, is being considered for an area that has high tourist activity because of the presence of two large recreational pontoons. It’s also worth noting that none of the techniques would prevent coral bleaching where the marine heatwave is due to the arrival of a body of pre-warmed water, as the heat is not then coming from within the water column itself. But the prospect of losing one of Australia’s most economically, culturally and ecologically important natural assets justifies placing all response options on the table, even controversial proposals that involve solar radiation management.
Australia has a strong governance regime for managing the Great Barrier Reef, but the way it applies to these geoengineering proposals is not consistent. Field testing of the polymer film took place this summer under a research permit issued by the national agency with responsibility for managing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Water mixing may not be labeled as a research proposal, but instead as a form of adaptation management activity. It is not even clear that MCB would take place within the jurisdiction of the reef Authority.
These proposals need to be governed as part of a coherent policy that articulates the role for such interventions alongside Australia’s climate mitigation and adaptation agendas. Why do we need more robust governance of such small-scale and early-stage geoengineering research? Experience in the United Kingdom and elsewhere shows that there can be significant public backlash if activities are not subject to proper public consultation and engagement. Australia’s current laws do not guarantee robust governance for field testing or eventual deployment of these technologies. If we are to pursue this suite of climate interventions more actively, we should have clear processes of risk assessment and public engagement at the earliest stages in order to build legitimacy and trust.
The issue of geoengineering governance has been considered for some time at an international level, but recent events suggest that the international law system cannot be relied upon to develop necessary mechanisms anytime soon. In March 2019, efforts to pass a United Nations Environment Assembly resolution calling for a detailed report on solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal – a key first step toward developing more robust governance mechanisms – failed. For the time being, domestic legal systems will have to lead in developing robust governance mechanisms for geoengineering research and deployment. By highlighting the inadequacies of our current laws, these GBR proposals should serve as a wake-up-call for Australia to develop a coherent national policy on climate intervention technologies more generally.
Geoengineering is like GenTech… It’s only 20-50 years later that you figure out you have created mutants… And then it’s too late!