As scientists ponder ‘hacking the climate,’ poor countries are wary

Could geoengineering the planet to curb climate change leave people in poor countries better—or worse-off?

famine in Ethiopia
A woman from Amba-Alaje in Ethiopia grows her farm, June 28, 2016. In 2015, El Nino induced drought, the most severe in 50 years, meant no crops grew in the area. Image: Feten Haiftu, CC BY 2.0

As a child during Ethiopia’s deadly famine of 1984, Asfawossen Kassaye remembers watching people from the countryside flock to his town, desperately looking for food after a drought devastated their fields.

He knows first-hand how much damage climate change has done to his region of East Africa, where scientists say it is making droughts worse, longer and more frequent, putting millions at risk of hunger.

“Climate change is something that is part of the life of the people there” said Kassaye, a geology professor at Addis Ababa University.

The growing risks are driving a small but increasingly vocal group of researchers to explore using technology to reduce the threats, in essence by re-engineering the climate.

Such “geoengineering” proposals include large-scale, controversial projects that aim to dim sunlight or capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The proposals - some of which sound like science fiction - are for the most part still in early stages of testing. But campaigners say poor countries might, once again, suffer the most devastating consequences if some of the technologies are used.

Geoengineering is a humanitarian concern. It is not only about degrees Celsius and global temperature. It is about people.

Pablo Suarez, researcher, Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre

Poor countries have disproportionately born the brunt of climate change even as they had little to do with causing it. In 2015, the United States alone emitted more planet-warming carbon dioxide than the African continent’s 54 countries.

The build-up of climate-changing gases in the atmosphere has driven unusual and extreme weather linked to climate change across the globe, bringing record floods and droughts and more severe storms.

But poor countries have suffered the most serious economic damage and loss of lives, in part because they have limited resources to prepare for and cope with the changes, experts say.

“This is something that we haven’t caused, that we are paying a bigger price for,” Kassaye, of Ethiopia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a climate conference in Berlin.

The question scientists are now trying to answer is: Could geoengineering methods leave people in poor, climate-vulnerable countries better off than unabated climate change?

“What the African farmer wants it to know is if there will be rain next year, if that rain is going to come at a predictable time, and if it’s going to be enough for the crops,” Kassaye said.

Hacking the climate

Worldwide, rising temperatures are now on track to exceed goals set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Those excess emissions are blamed for stoking heatwaves, downpours, more powerful storms and a rise in sea levels.

As a result, research into geoengineering is ramping up and scientists say large-scale projects to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere will be needed by the 2030s to hold the line against climate change.

If geoengineering solutions fulfill their promises, they could reduce global warming, limit sea-level rise, and make extreme weather events such as hurricanes and droughts less frequent.

But there is little research about the potential effects of some of the technologies on poor countries.

Some studies have suggested, for instance, that spraying sun-dimming chemicals into the upper atmosphere could affect global weather patterns and shift monsoons that are vital for millions across Asia and Africa.

“Geoengineering is a humanitarian concern,” Pablo Suarez, a researcher for the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Berlin. “It is not only about degrees Celsius and global temperature. It is about people.”

Other ideas for easing climate impacts include planting carbon-absorbing forests across large areas of the world, then harvesting the wood for energy, with the emissions produced pumped into storage underground.

Such a process could suck carbon out of the atmosphere and is likely to feature in an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report next year.

But scientists say planting forests on the scale needed to limit global warming could take up to a third of the land that can be used to grow crops, threatening food security and land rights, particularly of poor people.

Some climate change-related problems also are left unresolved by climate engineering, experts say.

Dimming sunshine to cool the planet, for example, would not reduce the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, something that is making oceans more acidic and threatening sea life that millions rely on for food.

Leap in the dark

While many scientists have studied the potential for engineering solutions at a global level, models used to predict climate change and weather patterns in the future are not precise enough yet to predict regional changes accurately, experts say.

And different regions have different priorities when it comes to fighting climate change. Scientists in east Africa, which often struggles with long droughts, for instance, are worried about the impact that efforts to reflect more sunlight away from the planet could have on rainfall.

In the Caribbean, just battered by a series of deadly hurricanes, the focus is on the potential for geoengineering making extreme weather events less—or more—frequent.

South Asian researchers, whose home countries saw over a thousand die this year after the worst flooding in a decade, are interested in the impact of the new technologies on monsoons.

But those involved in studying geoengineering have predominantly been from rich countries in Europe and North America, rather than from poorer countries.

Last week, a new research fund aimed at scientists from developing countries was launched to help them study the impact of “solar radiation management”—or reflecting away more sunlight—on their regions.

“Developing countries are typically on the frontline of climate change. They are more vulnerable to environmental change - change caused by global warming or by geoengineering,” said Andy Parker, a project manager at the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, which launched the fund.

Voices from poor countries have to be more central to discussions about geoengineering, he added.

“Nobody likes to be a rat in someone else’s laboratory,” Suarez, of the Red Cross’s Climate Centre, said at last week’s Climate Engineering Conference 2017 in Berlin.

“There is a symbolic difference between (change) happening as a by-product of people using their cars, heating their homes or chopping their trees versus someone intentionally changing the climate,” he said.

A welcome distraction?

One thing many campaigners and scientists agree on is that they don’t know enough about the potential impacts of geoengineering.

But some fear that pinning hopes on technology to fix the climate is a distraction from making needed emissions cuts and could divert funding from pressing efforts to adapt to the changes underway.

“To prevent more droughts, you need to think about alternatives, about solving the causes of the problem with agriculture, restoration of forests,” said Silvia Ribeiro, Latin America director at environmental group ETC, which opposes the use of geoengineering technology.

“That doesn’t only provide environmental benefits, it also provides food and employment for many people,” she said.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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