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The climate renegade

What happens when someone wants to go it alone on fixing the climate?

Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.
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Deep in the ocean west of British Columbia, salmon eat fish and plankton before they head inland to spawn. Well-fed enough to make it upriver, they swim back toward the coast and past the islands of Haida Gwaii, where the area’s indigenous population fishes them.

That’s how it was for decades. But in the 2000s, fish populations were declining, and unemployment among the Haida was high.

Enter an eccentric entrepreneur named Russ George. He had spent much of his career bouncing between ambitious environmental projects: cold fusion, reforestation, and, most recently at the time, a San Francisco-based startup called Planktos, which focused on something called “ocean restoration.”

In 2011, George told the Haida residents of the village of Old Massett that he could bring back the salmon. The plan? To drop a hundred tons of iron dust in the middle of the ocean, a few hundred nautical miles west of the islands. The method had been tried before, but George was attempting it at a larger scale.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

His theory: that the iron would trigger an algae bloom about the size of Jamaica over the course of the following weeks. The salmon would feed on the algae (and the smaller fish it attracted). And the uneaten algae would take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then sink to the ocean floor when it died off, essentially “capturing” carbon at the bottom of the sea. They’d fight climate change and restore their fisheries at the same time.

With the Haida’s blessing (and money from their economic development fund), George and his crew of 11 ventured into the cold waters of the Pacific in July 2012. The ship, the Ocean Pearl, was outfitted with state-of-the-art oceanographic equipment borrowed from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and with 100 tons of iron sulfate in a fine greenish-brown dust.

The ship zigzagged slowly across the target patch of ocean. The iron, mixed into an acidic slurry, got dumped — and that’s when the trouble began for George. Upon his return to land, he was accused of violating international law. An agency whose equipment he’d borrowed renounced him, claiming they hadn’t known what he was really up to. Canada investigated him for illegal dumping.

“The story was that I was an independent and rogue geoengineer,” George told me this spring. “The facts prove that those are utter lies.”

Seven years later, George’s venture into the Pacific has become a flashpoint in the growing debate over the possibilities and limits of technology and unilateral action to fight climate change.

George points out that, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the year after his venture saw a record salmon harvest. He also insists that the data he was collecting would have demonstrated that he had succeeded in removing carbon, if the Canadian government hadn’t seized it for an investigation.

But environmentalist groups saw things differently, accusing George of illegal dumping and of being a dangerous distraction to better climate mitigation efforts. Experts say the salmon boom is hard to attribute to George’s actions, and the carbon benefits unproven. And in George’s broader ambitions to curb climate change unilaterally, they saw something frightening — the dawn of the age in which actors take matters into their own hands and attempt to solve the climate crisis themselves.

“What would the world do if someone were to decide to go ahead and undertake unilateral action?” Janos Pasztor, the executive director of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative, asked me.

In a recent paper, Pasztor warned of a “chaotic and dangerous future” where “a single country, a large company or indeed a wealthy individual might take unilateral action on climate geoengineering” — perhaps injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, which would change the climate a lot faster than any ocean dumping ever could.

What happens when some individual or country wants to go big in the battle against climate change without buy-in from their neighbors? Could a country unilaterally pursue climate solutions that, unlike ocean iron dumping, pose substantial risks?

The first time we were confronted with this dilemma in the form of George’s voyage, it was a mostly harmless small-scale experiment. We may not be so lucky with future attempts.

Geoengineering and its discontents

One word was frequently thrown around about the work George was doing: geoengineering.

Geoengineering refers to deliberate, typically large-scale intervention in the Earth’s ecosystems to slow or reverse climate change. These proposals commonly fall into two camps. In the first camp is solar geoengineering: to cool the planet by, say, imitating the cooling atmospheric effects of a supervolcano via releasing chemicals into the upper atmosphere.

The second set of proposals involves the removal of carbon from the atmosphere, often via alteration of Earth’s ecosystems to use — and keep — more carbon.

The two strategies are very different, and the term “geoengineering” is sometimes wielded to misleadingly conflate them. But there are important similarities. Both of them might be necessary parts of the climate solution. Both of them can also affect the whole world — but don’t require worldwide buy-in to pull off.

While George’s stunt raises the specter of one form of disaster — zealots or billionaires trying to take the climate into their own hands — many experts think the more plausible scenarios involve nation-states, perhaps driven to desperation by a rapidly changing world.

“As effects intensify, the propensity toward unilateral action will grow stronger,” Florian Rabitz, a political scientist at Kaunas University of Technology, told me. His paper “Going rogue? Scenarios for unilateral geoengineering” explores the plausibility of “rogue rich guy” scenarios as well as geopolitical ones.

While he thinks it’d be easy to shut down future individual actors before they do too much damage, major nation-states could move ahead with a project and leave their neighbors few alternatives but war. “We have countries with serious climate risks, like China, where a lot of the climate centers are in coastal regions. India, similar story,” he told me. “If one of those countries decided to go unilateral, there’s a lot of scope for conflict.”

But while the urgency over geoengineering has been mounting, international policy hasn’t really kept up. And that’s why George’s 2012 excursion was seen as a harbinger of future trouble.

Iron dust in the oceans

The idea George pitched to the Haida villagers was simple. Large areas of the ocean have sunlight but little plant life. There aren’t enough nutrients for many plants to grow there, and things that feed on them can’t grow there either.

Some scientists, starting with oceanographer John Martin in 1990, have argued that the missing ingredient is iron, which would greatly enhance ocean plants’ ability to make use of the rest of the nutrients in the ocean. More plants would lead to more salmon.

That’s the pitch George made to the population of Old Massett. But there was another potential benefit: In theory, you should be able to capture a lot of carbon if you quickly grow a lot of algae.

Here’s how the process works:

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Martin once declared: “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.” Research has proven to be more equivocal. A large-scale iron fertilization experiment in 2000 was unable to detect any significant carbon uptake, leading some to argue that iron fertilization won’t work; a review in 2008 of such research argued that most early studies were poorly designed and wouldn’t have observed carbon capture even if substantial carbon capture occurred.

The 2012 foray wasn’t even George’s first attempt at rolling back global warming with an ocean dump. In 2007, he had planned a similar project winding around much of the Pacific, hoping to dump up to 100 tons of iron into the water.

But the plan was scuttled amid outrage from regulators and scientific and environmental groups. ETC Group, an advocacy organization focused on environmental issues, issued a press release condemning George titled “Geoengineers to Foul Galápagos Seas.” (George and Planktos had been trying to avoid the “geoengineering” label — they prefer “ocean restoration.”) “Climate change should be tackled by reducing emissions, not by altering ocean ecosystems,” Dr. Paul Johnston, head of Greenpeace International’s science unit, said in the ETC Group press release.

Recounting the experience years later, George remains embittered by what he sees as unfair treatment by the media and advocacy groups.

“There was this maelstrom of anti-Planktos, anti-Russ George, anti-ocean restoration publicity,” he told me. He seethed at what he saw as inaccurate claims by critics, including allegations that he’d be dumping near protected areas and their representation of the scientific consensus as having settled that ocean iron fertilization could never work.

“They knew full well that was an utter lie,” he added. (Greenpeace, responding to George’s charge, stands by Johnston’s assessment at the time.)

But that failure did not stop George. One of the dumping grounds he’d been considering for subsequent excursions, if the 2008 voyage had gone better, had been a location off the coast of British Columbia. And he had contacts: In 2004, running a reforestation community, he’d worked with Old Massett’s economic development officer John Disney.

“He told us he was the world’s leading expert on OIF [ocean iron fertilization],” Disney told an interviewer in 2017. Disney, in turn, pitched the plan to locals as a route to financial independence. “Old Massett is controlled by the outside world,” he told residents at these meetings. “You need to create your own wealth to govern yourselves.”

With funding and backing from Old Massett’s community, plus oceanographic equipment borrowed from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to measure the results, the Ocean Pearl set off.

“It worked like a charm,” George told me. “We put 100 tons of rock dust into 10,000 square kilometers. And that area of ocean swirled and mixed and the ocean bloomed immediately. Fish arrived by the tens of thousands, whales arrived by the hundreds.” (Satellite imagery confirmed the magnitude of the algae bloom.)

An image of the algae bloom that grew in the aftermath of George’s ocean iron fertilization venture.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

George argues that the project succeeded at capturing carbon too. There’s no available evidence to back him up — it’s exceptionally difficult to measure the carbon captured by experiments like these, and the results from more carefully controlled experiments are not promising.

But the next year was, as promised, a record one for Pacific pink salmon.

“A near legal vacuum”

It wasn’t until a few months after George’s experiment that the word got out, with a report in the Guardian raising outrage worldwide. Environmentalists worried that experiments like these could trigger ecological catastrophes. “Ministers of the government of Canada stood up inside Parliament and called me a criminal,” George laments.

According to George, the Canadian government had knowledge of the project and had worked with his team in the years leading up to it. But according to the New York Times, Canada’s environment ministry “had warned the venture in advance that its plan would violate international agreements.” The Canadian government at the time said that it had not approved “this non-scientific event.” A spokesman for the Canadian National Resources Council acknowledged to the Globe and Mail that the council had provided funding for the project, but that it was “for research and development of technology that does not involve anything regarding dispensation of iron sulphate in ocean water.” When I asked George for documentation or emails to support his claims, he failed to provide any.

Initial reporting suggested that George might have broken international law. But no law clearly applies, environmental law analysts point out, and the real situation is in some ways even worse — George probably didn’t break international law, mostly because international law is profoundly unequipped to deal with rogue actors.

In 2008, in response to George’s first experiment, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted resolutions frowning on ocean fertilization and geoengineering. The signatories — Canada among them — agreed to “ensure ... that no climate-related geo-engineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place” until there is an “adequate” scientific basis for them or unless they’re small-scale and for the sole purpose of research.

But “it doesn’t have any legal teeth,” Andy Parker, who studies governance for solar geoengineering at the University of Bristol, told me. It’s not clear whom enforcement would fall to or what forms it could take. It’s not clear how disputes are resolved.

Indeed, here are some questions that international law leaves unanswered: If one country undertakes a project that harms their neighbors, can their neighbors demand it stop? Demand compensation? Whose buy-in is needed to embark on a large project?

UCLA environmental law professor Ted Parson told me that these discussions are mired in the same inaction that characterizes international climate negotiations generally. Until we fix that, he argued, George’s project — and other interventions like it — “exist in a near legal vacuum.”

Researchers have conducted extremely small-scale tests of solar engineering, as well as continuing to explore ocean fertilization. These ideas have graduated from fringe proposals to ones seriously contemplated in the IPCC’s most recent report on the state of options for managing climate change.

So geoengineering is being taken more seriously as part of the response to climate change — but geoengineering governance remains stalled at, basically, nothing.

That opens us up to trouble. One 2018 paper outlined one (deeply unlikely) nightmare scenario: some desperate anti-climate change group calling on individuals to release heat-reflecting particles in weather balloons — which would be a chaotic, uncontrolled way to do solar geoengineering. A former United Nations climate official has warned of a different kind of nightmare scenario, “where a country decides to do geoengineering and another country decides to do counter-geoengineering” — escalating tensions and maybe provoking a war.

“At some point,” Rabitz told me, “we might stumble into geoengineering when it turns out that climate change is worse than we thought, and some government might rush into a geoengineering scheme without governance measures in place.”

When Russ George dumped iron filings in the ocean, the world was outraged, critics issued condemnations, and experts talked soberly about the potential for disaster. But we failed — as we have on climate change in general — to build any kind of international consensus about a solution.

In the meantime, we live in a world where anyone can dump iron into the oceans, and where local, commercial, and national actors might move ahead with larger-scale interventions as climate change worsens. Recent papers have outlined new ways that individuals could DIY-engineer our planet out of the climate crisis — or at least try, with uncertain consequences. Are we more prepared for that than we were in 2012? Not really.

Russ George, for his part, considers himself vindicated, and told me he’s continuing to work. In his last email to me, he signed off: “The greatest threat to the environment is waiting for someone else to save it.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include George’s claims that the Canadian government knew about the project in advance, and the Canadian government’s response to those claims.

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