by Joyce Nelson

In 2007, billionaire Sir Richard Branson (chairman of Virgin Group) and Al Gore (former US vice-president) spearheaded a competition called the Virgin Earth Challenge – a contest offering $25 million “to find commercially viable designs to permanently remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.” As Branson put it, “If we could come up with a geoengineeringanswer to this problem [of climate change], then Copenhagen [climate conferences] wouldn’t be necessary. We could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars.”

Branson has really big corporate plans for flying, so a “technological fix” for climate change is something in which he’s been willing to invest millions. Branson’s “carbon war room” is backing a variety of projects, and he has also contributed funding to the UK’s Royal Society for geoengineering research.

Sir Richard Branson is just one of a handful of billionaires who are bankrolling geoengineering research by a small group of climate scientists to manipulate the climate on a global scale. This so-called “geo-clique” is now lobbying governments and international organizations to back and invest public funds into geoengineering research.

Geoengineering technologies and methods are highly controversial. Friends of the Earth has called geoengineering “mad, bad and dangerous.” The Ottawa-based ETC Group calls it “climate-profiteering” and has been calling for a moratorium on real-world geoengineering experimentation.

The ETC Group’s October 2010 report, Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering, blew the whistle on the “geo-clique.” Then, late last year, Clive Hamilton, a professor of Public Ethics at the Australian National University, wrote in The Guardian (Dec. 5, 2011) that “the geo-clique are lobbying for a huge injection of public funds into geoengineering research, justified on the grounds that ‘the world’ (read America in the era of the Tea Party) will never countenance the carbon abatement policies we so badly need.”

Noting that the geo-clique is “working at framing geoengineering positively,” Hamilton stated: “Now that the Beltway is getting involved, the pressure is on for the United States to take control of the geoengineering agenda. While the subject was regarded as taboo only five years ago, the normalisation of geoengineering as a legitimate response to global warming is now proceeding rapidly.”

Critics of geoengineering say that it could have disastrous unanticipated side effects, could be used as a weapon, and involves the same paradigm of controlling Nature that created climate change in the first place; but especially, as Geopiracy puts it, “the geoengineering approach shifts the discussion from reducing emissions to an end-of-pipe solution.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the advocacy/financing for geoengineering’s “end-of-pipe solution” is coming from Alberta tar sands backers. Indeed, some members of the geo-clique are directly involved in the tar sands.

The Tar Sands Connection

On November 2, 2011, the 11 finalists in the Branson/Gore Virgin Earth Challenge (VEC) were formally announced at the Global Clean Energy Congress meeting in Calgary. Many geoengineering researchers and advocates were speakers at the three-day event (along with corporate reps from not-so-clean energy companies such as natural gas giant EnCana, Canadian Oil Sands Ltd., tar sands developer Cenovus Energy, and the Canadian Nuclear Association). All of the 11 finalists will be helped by the VEC to find partners to “bridge the gap between these pioneering ventures and commercially viable businesses.”

One of the VEC finalists is the Calgary-based geoengineering company Carbon Engineering, whose president and majority owner is climate scientist David Keith. Professor Keith – a key member of the geo-clique – has already found some key business partners. Billionaires Bill Gates and tar sands magnate N. Murray Edwards (vice-chair and director of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.) reportedly both own major stakes in Carbon Engineering, whose industrial-scale technology is described as a “chemical-based CO2 air capture system” which traps carbon dioxide directly from the air into a water-based solvent – a process that the Washington Post (April 5, 2012) recently described as potentially using so much water that it would “be depriving 53 million people of water” annually.

Nevertheless, a University of Calgary press release has enthused: “Imagine being able to combat climate change by capturing global-warming emissions from thin air – anywhere on the planet. That’s exactly what a company, created from University of Calgary-affiliated scientist David Keith’s research, located on campus, is working on. Keith is a fellow in the [University of Calgary’s] Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy (ISEEE) and an adjunct professor of physics.”

According to The Dominion (Dec. 8, 2010), the University of Calgary’s ISEEE website lists as its “collaborators” major tar sands corporations such as “Suncor, Total, Shell Canada, and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers” and one NGO, the Pembina Institute. (In the UK, Shell Oil has been criticized for funding geoengineering research at the University of Oxford, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, and University College London.)

The Guardian (Feb. 6, 2012) reports that professors David Keith and Ken Caldeira of Stanford University “are the world’s two leading advocates of major research into geoengineering the upper atmosphere to provide earth with a reflective shield.” Keith’s reflective shield proposal has been described by Report On Business magazine (March 2008) as “photophoretic levitation,” involving the use of a fleet of planes to launch trillions of tiny metallic disks to float above the ozonelayer and deflect sunlight.

The Guardian report continues: both Keith and Caldeira “have so far received over $4.6 million from [Bill] Gates to run the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research (FICER). Nearly half FICER’s money, which comes directly from Gates’ personal funds, has so far been used for their own research, but the rest is disbursed by them to fund the work of other advocates of large-scale [geoengineering] interventions.”

David Keith’s FICER website explains that “Grants for research are provided to the University of Calgary from gifts made by Mr. Bill Gates from his personal funds … While Mr. Gates provides input from time to time on the fund, Drs. Keith and Caldeira make final decisions on projects.”

By 2011, Gates had invested at least $400 million into geoengineering projects and patents, with Fortune (Oct. 17, 2011) calling him “the world’s leading funder of research into geoengineering.”

As the Watershed Sentinel revealed in its “Tar Sands Express” article (Summer 2011), over the past decade, Bill Gates has become a major shareholder in CN Railway, whose “pipeline-on-rails” is bringing tar sands bitumen to US refineries. When Gates and billionaire Warren Buffett (another pipeline-on-rails investor) visited the tars sands in August 2008, they were hosted by fellow billionaire N. Murray Edwards’ tar sands company Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and toured its $9.3 billion Horizon site north of Fort McMurray. Both Gates and Edwards have provided about $6 million in funding to David Keith’s Carbon Engineering company.

Fortune (Oct. 17, 2011) recently reported that Carbon Engineering has received “$2.5 million in Canadian government grants.”

N. Murray Edwards is also the co-owner of the Calgary Flames, President of Edco Financial Holdings, Chair and major shareholder in Ensign Energy (an oil services company), Chair of Magellan Aerospace Corp., and owner of several BC alpine ski resorts (Fernie, Kimberley, Kicking Horse) through his Resorts of the Canadian Rockies.

Selling Carbon Credits

Another Canadian billionaire, Edgar Bronfman Jr., is backing a US geoengineering company called Global Thermostat – also a finalist in the VEC. Bronfman, the former Warner Music CEO and heir to the Seagram’s fortune, has invested $15 million in Global Thermostat, and he is the Executive Chair of the company. Bronfman is also a member of the National Advisory Board at JP Morgan and the Council on Foreign Relations. Edgar Bronfman Jr.’s son Benjamin Bronfman is associate managing director of Global Thermostat, which plans to build an air-capture system for removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The company also plans to make a transportation fuel by extracting hydrogen from water and combining it with the CO2 to make a low-carbon fuel.

One of the founders of Global Thermostat is Peter Eisenberg, a former head of research for Exxon. Several former Exxon engineers are designing Global Thermostat’s geoengineering technology, with multinationals Corning and BASF also involved in development.

Another founder of Global Thermostat is Graciela Chichilnisky, who, according to Fortune, wrote the plan for the EU carbon market that came out of the Kyoto climate talks.

Apparently, most of the geoengineering companies intend to profit by selling carbon credits on such markets. For example, in one of its on-line publications, David Keith’s Carbon Engineering Ltd. states that one of the “near-term opportunities” for profit is “extracting value for the ‘negative emissions’ achieved … under a carbon market such as the European Union Emissions Trade Scheme (EU-ETS).”

On February 6, 2012, The Guardian published a feature article by its environmental editor, John Vidal, on the geo-clique and quoted the ETC Group’s Diana Bronson: “What is really worrying is that the same small group working on high-risk technologies that will geoengineer the planet is also trying to engineer the discussion around international rules and regulations. We cannot put the fox in charge of the chicken coop.”

The Richard Branson-funded UK Royal Society is currently engaged in organizing such discussion, and in February, the US Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs announced that it had begun accepting applications for “geoengineering policy research fellows” in order “to improve understanding of the options for governance of geoengineering,” adding that “selected fellows will be working under the supervision of Professor David Keith” of Carbon Engineering Ltd.

US Government Funding

Both Professors Keith and Caldeira are members of the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Climate Remediation, which in October 2011 urged that the US federal government begin funding research on geoengineering. According to The Guardian (Oct. 6, 2011), the Bipartisan Policy Center “is part-funded by big oil, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies,” and their Task Force is “the cream of the emerging science and military-led geoengineering lobby, with a few neutrals chucked in to give it an air of political sobriety… In sum, this coalition of US expertise is a group of people which smell vast potential future profits for their institutions and companies in geoengineering.”

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force recommended that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy coordinate the geoengineering research. President Obama’s energy chief, Steven Chu, is a former student of Peter Eisenberg (of Global Thermostat).

On Dec. 8, 2010, The Dominion reported that “the Canadian government has shown interest in becoming an increasingly larger player” in geoengineering. “I don’t think the Canadian public, or even Parliament, has any idea that the government of Canada has already invested in geoengineering research,” the ETC Group’s Diana Bronson told The Dominion.

More Canadian Funding?

Now there’s speculation that the Harper government may well be committing millions more to geoengineering, at the same time that it has been cutting almost anything to do with climate science and environmental regulation and protection.

On Feb. 29, 2012, PostMedia News reported that the Harper government is adding $90.3 million in funding at Environment Canada “to support what it describes as its ‘clean air agenda,'” with the money (in the government’s words) providing “a platform to deepen engagement with the United States on climate-change issues and enhancing Canada’s visibility as an international leader in clean-energy technology.”

The Harper Cabinet is also rethinking its $7 billion in research and development funding, with a move to more company-focused research and more direct funding of business R&D.

The website of The GeoEngineering Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston lists “research funding opportunities involving industrial partners” and includes the federal government’s Canada Foundation for Innovation as a source of funding.

This is a government that listens to Big Oil, and as one oil analyst has claimed, “Geoengineering would be much cheaper than reducing emissions, and also much quicker to produce results.”

In June 2011, more than 125 environmental, development, and human rights organizations from 40 countries jointly issued a letter opposing geoengineering as a “false solution to the climate crisis.” The letter was sent to Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) after documents were leaked revealing that the IPCC was organizing a meeting of the world’s leading geoengineering experts in Peru.

The IPCC’s next assessment, due out in 2014, will include several chapters on geoengineering. But, as the letter to Pachauri stated, the international body has no mandate to consider the legality or political suitability of using geoengineering.

Australian professor Clive Hamilton says, “Anyone who has observed the politics of climate change knows that governments are keen to find alternatives to imposing deep emissions cuts. If geoengineering appears to be an alternative to mitigation, then governments will grab it if they can.”

Big Oil, having spent years and millions of dollars funding climate skeptics in order to delay real-world action and sow confusion about climate change, has now become a leader in funding geoengineering. The cynicism is breathtaking; but the potential for climate-profiteering is obvious.

Whether our tax dollars should be shovelled into geoengineering schemes is quite another matter. As a recent editorial in The Guardian put it, “Watch out. This could be the start of the next climate wars.”


Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.


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[From WS Summer issue, 2012]

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