Grant Wilson Gives Lecture on International Law for Geoengineering

On Wednesday 18 September, GCRI hosted an online lecture by Grant Wilson entitled ‘Murky Waters: Ambiguous International Law for Ocean Fertilization and Other Geoengineering’. Wilson is GCRI’s Deputy Director and a recent graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School, where he specialized in international law regarding emerging technologies and the environment. The lecture is based on a draft paper of the same title.

Emphasis on geoengineering comes from increasingly dire projections of climate change, amounting to a significant global catastrophic risk. The international community’s failure to achieve satisfactory reductions of greenhouse gas emissions has prompted increasing interest in geoengineering as a technological fix for the problem. On the surface, geoengineering seems capable of stabilizing average global temperatures much more easily than via emissions reductions. But geoengineering is controversial because (among other reasons) it could backfire, causing more problems than it solves. Indeed, one form of geoengineering, stratospheric aerosol injection, could even cause more of a global catastrophe than climate change alone [1].

This lecture focuses on a different form of geoengineering, ocean fertilization. Whereas stratospheric aerosol injection would lower temperatures by reducing the amount of incoming sunlight (“solar radiation management”, SRM), ocean fertilization would lower temperatures by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (“carbon dioxide removal”, CDR). An advantage of CDR over SRM is that it puts the atmosphere closer to where it would have been without carbon dioxide emissions, resulting in less net climatic change than with SRM.

Ocean fertilization is among the most prominent CDR techniques. It involves putting nutrients into the oceans to stimulate photosynthetic phytoplankton, which then pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While ocean fertilization could not singlehandedly lower atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to desirable levels, they may be able to help. However, there are open scientific questions about how much of the carbon dioxide removed is permanently sequestered in oceans vs. how much eventually returns to the atmosphere.

Wilson’s lecture explored options for international regulation of ocean fertilization. International regulation is important because ocean fertilization (as with geoengineering and climate change more generally) can be conducted from many places around the world and can have global consequences. There are no dedicated international treaties for ocean fertilization. Some existing international law can be adapted for ocean fertilization, including the London Convention / London Protocol (LC/LP), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change & Kyoto Protocol, the 1977 UN Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD), the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and customary international law. Wilson focuses on the LC/LP.

International geoengineering law was tested in July 2012 when the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC) dumped iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean near British Columbia. Wilson finds that the dump may tenuously follow the letter of the LC/LP law, depending on subtle interpretations of the ambiguously defined words “disposal” and “placement”. However, the dump appears contrary to the aims of the LC/LP, to protect marine environments from pollutant dumping. Indeed, the LC/LP had previously passed a resolution stating that ocean fertilization is within the LC/LP’s scope, in response to the 2008 Planktos event. Note the Planktos and HSRC ocean fertilization projects were both led by the same person, Russ George.

Wilson’s research explored Canada’s role in the HSRC dump. A Canadian Access to Information Act request (comparable to USA’s Freedom of Information Act) revealed that Canada knew of the dump and thus potentially could have prevented it. (HSRC claims that Canada actually facilitated the dump). Thus Canada may have run afoul of the LC/LP.

The lecture generated lively discussion. Regarding the use of the precautionary principle for geoengineering governance, the point was made that there are also risks associated with not doing geoengineering. Thus abstaining from geoengineering might not be the more cautious approach. For ocean fertilization, an important unanswered question is what the worst-case scenario would be, and in particular whether that would be worse than the worst-case scenario with climate change alone.

Here is the full abstract of the talk:

In July 2012, the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC) dumped about 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean some 200 nautical miles west of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, Canada. While nominally for restoring depleted salmon stocks, HSRC’s ocean fertilization also served as a geoengineering experiment. This talk first looks at ocean fertilization in the context of global catastrophic risk (GCR)—both as a method to mitigate potentially catastrophic climate change and as a major risk itself with unknown environmental effects. The talk then analyzes the HSRC’s ocean fertilization activities under the London Convention and London Protocol, which regulate dumping at sea, concluding that Canada was probably (but not certainly) required to enact and enforce laws to restrict ocean fertilization. Whether Canada met this burden requires more facts than are publicly available, although Canada’s monitoring of geoengineering and enforcement of relevant laws was clearly suboptimal. The talk then discusses some of the GCR themes relating to the HSRC’s ocean fertilization, such as the importance of monitoring and reporting activities by rogue actors and lessons learned for governing other types of geoengineering, such as aerosol injection. Finally, in light of the ambiguities of the London Convention and London Protocol as they apply to ocean fertilization and other marine threats with unknown effects (such as chemical dispersants), and considering the need to regulate geoengineering more broadly, this paper makes recommendations on how the international community can continue to develop geoengineering governance.

The presentation was hosted online via Skype, with slides in Prezi. Attendees included Aladdin Diakun, an MA Candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Itsuki Handoh, Associate Professor at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Sean Hernandez, a Masters student in economics at the University of Southern California, Tracy Hester, Professor of Law at the University of Houston and director of its Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Center, Joshua Horton, an energy consultant and geoengineering policy analyst, Sarah Jordaan, Assistant Professor of Energy Politics and Policy at University of Calgary, Andrew Lockley, moderator of the geoengineering Google group, Michael Marshall, a journalist with New Scientist magazine in the UK, Subhashree Mishra, Adjunct Lecturer at University of Oklahoma and Postdoctoral Scientist at NOAA/CIMMS, Greg Rau, senior scientist at the UC Santa Cruz Institute of Marine Sciences, and GCRI’s Seth Baum.

[1] Seth D. Baum, Timothy M. Maher, Jr., and Jacob Haqq-Misra, 2013. Double catastrophe: Intermittent stratospheric geoengineering induced by societal collapse. Environment, Systems and Decisions, vol. 33, no. 1 (March), pages 168-180.

This post was written by
Seth Baum is Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.

1 Comment on "Grant Wilson Gives Lecture on International Law for Geoengineering"

  • R Smith says

    Supposedly Russ George has been told that under UN law, his practices of large-scale dumping iron into the ocean is illegal. The sockeye salmon are largely on the decline, iron dumping may have contributed to the decline of the premium salmon. Iron dumping can contribute to poisonous algae blooms. Iron dumping could set off the pH, and can be destructive to coral, fish and other sea life. Iron dumping might deplete oxygen from the ocean and atmosphere. Russ George is suspected of investment schemes ranging from carbon credits, solar scams, Cold Fusion scams. His offices have been raided by authorities, and he has been fired. Don’t let corporate greed destroy the environment.