In 2012, American entrepreneur Russ George rented a fishing boat from the Haida Gwaii islands (commonly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) off the west coast of Canada, and dumped 120 tons of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean.
George’s plan was to create a plankton bloom that would sequester carbon and thereby combat climate change by essentially having plankton eat up carbon and carry it with them to their watery grave at the bottom of the ocean, storing the carbon as sediment for a timescale of centuries. His clandestine experiment, viewed by many as violating United Nations’ rules, falls under the moniker of ‘geoengineering’ and might be the first example of real-world environmental engineering—a very controversial area of climate change research. As Naomi Klein related for The New York Times:
The risks are huge. Ocean fertilization could trigger dead zones and toxic tides. And multiple simulations have predicted that mimicking the effects of a volcano [by pumping sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere] would interfere with monsoons in Asia and Africa, potentially threatening water and food security for billions of people...So far, these proposals have mostly served as fodder for computer models and scientific papers. But with Mr. George’s ocean adventure, geoengineering has decisively escaped the laboratory. If Mr. George’s account of the mission is to be believed, his actions created an algae bloom in an area half of the size of Massachusetts that attracted a huge array of aquatic life, including whales that could be “counted by the score.”
This whole area of research is loaded with potential issues, from monitoring (virtually no one knew George was about to launch his experiment), to unforeseeable long-term effects, to foreseeable effects that are disregarded despite their global impact. Klein continued:
By definition, technologies that tamper with ocean and atmospheric chemistry affect everyone. Yet it is impossible to get anything like unanimous consent for these interventions. Nor could any such consent possibly be informed since we don’t—and can’t—know the full risks involved until these planet-altering technologies are actually deployed.
The scariest thing about this proposition is that models suggest that many of the people who could well be most harmed by these technologies are already disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Imagine this: North America decides to send sulfur into the stratosphere to reduce the intensity of the sun, in the hopes of saving its corn crops—despite the real possibility of triggering droughts in Asia and Africa.
She concluded that in addition to geoengineers, governments and the public at large should be openly debating, “What are the real solutions to climate change? Wouldn’t it be better to change our behavior—to reduce our use of fossil fuels—before we begin fiddling with the planet’s basic life-support systems?”