Last month I went to a Cafe Scientifique talk by Dr Alan Gadian. He's part of a team with Mike Smith at the University of Leeds and John Latham who are experimenting with cloud-seeding.
Their idea is that if you whoosh up great quantities of sea water into the air then the salt crystals will encourage clouds that reflect solar energy, thereby reducing the amount of heat trapped by greenhouse gases.
The big problem with this and other climate geoengineering projects is that they allow an escape route for the carbon emitters. Desperate to do anything other than reduce our energy consumption and attendant emissions, they fired off the decoys of climate denial, followed by carbon offsets and biofuels. Anything to distract us, to give us the hope that there'll be some swift, simple magic bullet.
NOT REDUCING CO2
The geoengineering schemes that reflect the sun have a very serious problem. They mean that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will keep rapidly increasing. This will have serious impacts on plantlife but seemingly more serious is the impact on the oceans. It will cause them to acidify, killing the coral reefs and making many species unable to properly form shells. This isn't taking out one or two species, this is hacking out a huge length of the food chain. The knock-on effects scarcely bear thinking about.
Dr Gadian said that the scheme, should it work, would require £1.5bn worth of whooshy boats. All things going well they'll make the desired sort of clouds, although the might make the wrong ones and actually dissolve the present level of reflective clouds and make the situation worse.
He told us that it's not that dangerous a plan because sometimes 'clouds are naturally like that'. Hmm, taking something that naturally occurs and increasing the amount of it in the atmosphere, that's not a problem is it? Can anyone say 'carbon dioxide?'
Dr Gadian says his scheme is less risky than other reflection schemes as if anything untoward is discovered it's rapidly switch-offable. All artificially-induced clouds should be gone within two weeks of the boats stopping their work.
The problem is that by then it may be too late. Not only are there the unforeseen side-effects and having to get someone who's invested over a billion dollars to admit they're wrong and take a massive loss squarely on the chin, but more importantly there's what hasn't happened. We haven't cut our emissions because we were banking on this scheme. To stop making the clouds is to allow more sun in and let all the emissions from the time when we chose the scheme to the swithc-off date heat the climate.
Even if it doesn't affect weather in the least and even if altered cloud cover has no adverse ecological effects, this will be used to delay real action. It means if it doesn't work well enough we're stuffed. It means we permit - we actually choose to cause - all the other effects of spiralling quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere.
THE BREVITY LIE
Dr Gadian said it mightn't be that much really, because that his scheme mightn't be long-term, it could be 'just for ten years or so until we change'.
This is the central lie of the geoengineering lobby. They cannot argue that their ideas are safer or more effective than carbon cuts, so they argue that they're just a stopgap until we make such cuts.
The time it takes to develop, test for effectiveness and the very high degree of safety, and then scale up and deploy any of their schemes is at least as long as it'd take to make serious carbon cuts. And who do we think would invest billions of dollars in a scheme that's trying to be as short term as possible?
The investors will want something back for their money, and the benefits of any climate geoengineering will almost certainly be sold as 'carbon credits' to the polluting industries and nations. It will not be done in tandem with emissions cuts but instead of them. Geoengineering will not be a tool of mitigation but of exacerbation.
THOSE WHO WANT IT DON'T KNOW ENOUGH
Dr Gadian's grasp of the threat from carbon emissions was graphically illustrated by the astonishing declaration that 'my biggest fear is that we will run out of fossil fuels in two or three centuries'.
If we get to the point of actually running out of fossil fuels as opposed to abandoning them then the mere running out will not be our biggest problem.
If it gets to that stage then, given the ecological devastation and our inability to wean ourselves off fossil energy, it would truly be a case of 'would the last species on earth please turn out the lights?'.
Dr Gadian plainly said that humanity will burn all the fossils it can, so geoengineering is necessary to mitigate this inevitability. Like him, I'm old enough to remember another certainty of global politics, the inevitable nuclear war with the Soviet bloc. Those who treat these things as certainties make them more likely, when in fact they are avoidable.
To move ahead with geoengineering is to divert efforts from elsewhere, it is giving up on the pressure, education and resistance that can still prevent those emissions. The geoengineers' main purpose is to be a tool of those who wish to continue burning fossil fuels.
WHAT ABOUT CHINA?
He fell back on the standard fossil-enthusiast's argument that 'we can't tell China and India that they can't have our standard of living'.
This is bollocks. Firstly, they can sit there saying 'why should we cut back when you won't?'. Everyone is using everyone else's inaction as an excuse for their own.
As a medium sized industrialised country nobody is better placed than the UK to be the leading light in showing that a swift transition to a low-carbon economy is possible. And as the nation with the greatest historical responsibility for carbon emissions, we are also the most morally obliged to be the leader in the solutions.
And all this is before we start to point out that Chinese per-capita emissions are half of ours, and that figure, in turn, is before we take into account that around a third of their carbon emissions are from manufacturing goods for export. Much of 'their' emissions are just us outsourcing ours.
There is no need for China and India to unswervingly follow our path, instead they can leapfrog the high-emitting decades and go straight into what the 21st century should look like.
THOSE WHO KNOW ENOUGH DON'T WANT IT
Dr Gadian says Met Office disapprove of the cloud-seeding plan. He sarcastically suggested that it was because the idea came out of a university and it threatens their supremacy. Nothing to do with the fact that the Met Office do have a large and leading role in concern about climate change as opposed to a scientist who readily admitted that he isn't motivated by concern for the climate but is primarily concerned with finding out how clouds are formed.
The issue is too important to let such head-in-the-sands be charged with solutions, and certainly too important to let such infantile catty attitudes have any part in dismissing as august a voice as the Met Office.
That this scheme will undoubtedly be used to distract us from cutting carbon emissions; that it will not be a short-term precursor to responsible action but an excuse for long-term emissions; that it will allow carbon emissions to assault marine biodiversity that could lead to major extinction events and threaten food supplies for many species and peoples; that they haven't even asked people in Chile where they're doing their experiments what they think; all these things make it an outrage and something to be opposed as strongly as we oppose new runways or coal power stations.
His final words on the subject haunt me. After I named those reasons why the scheme is so wrong Dr Gadian said, 'I agree, it's ethically unsound'.
The major crime of our culture is that we know what we're doing but we do it anyway.