Will a Fishy Geoengineering Experiment Raise the Stakes of Global Environmental Law?

It may have taken someone dumping iron into the ocean to make the world take notice.

Young Isaiah with his Haida clan members at a welcome opening at the Haida Heritage Center.
Haida people in Haida Gwaii, Canada, in 2008.

Photo by Farah Nosh/Getty Images.

On Monday, the Guardian reported that “the world’s largest geoengineering experiment” to date took place in July when entrepreneur Russ George, former president of the defunct “ocean seeding” company Planktos Corp., dumped 100 tons of iron in international waters near the Haida Gwaii islands of British Columbia. The Haida First Nations community of Old Massett backed him with $2.5 million in the hopes of saving the area’s floundering fishing industry. Facts are still emerging, and the Canadian government is investigating the project. But much about the affair smells fishy. It probably won’t result in any usable scientific evidence, and it may have violated the incredibly vague international law governing the still-developing field of geoengineering.

Geoengineering is the attempted manipulation of the Earth’s climate on a large scale to stave off the effects of climate change. George seems to have sold the project to the native Gwaii Trust on the basis that fertilizing the ocean with iron causes algae to bloom, which could revitalize local fisheries by creating more food for salmon. He also seems to have convinced them that the investment would pay for itself in the form of carbon credits, apparently to be paid out by Schoppmann, a German firm that doesn’t list carbon credits among its services. (Furthermore, though carbon offsets are a kind of green Wild West, credits for algal blooms remain purely theoretical.)

More than healthy salmon, though, George seems to have craved data. The project’s press releases claim that the new information derived from the experiment will improve our stewardship of ocean pastures by increasing our understanding of phytoplankton growth and ocean eddies. If observations showed that algae grown from iron were descending into the ocean and unlikely to resurface, that could help validate George’s former company’s business model, which aimed to sell the carbon locked away within the algae to businesses looking to offset their carbon emissions. Planktos Corp.’s sequestration experiments were shut down by sharp public criticism, culminating in 2007, when Spain stopped Planktos’ ship from docking at the Canary Islands. (George launched Planktos Science, an “ecorestoration” company unaffiliated with Planktos Corp. in 2008 and conducted the current experiment under the aegis of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp.) Since then, two U.N. treaties have placed a moratorium on ocean iron fertilization: the London Convention on Dumping and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Yet George has called this moratorium “a mythology”—and he’s not completely wrong. The CBD and the London Convention offer only what legal scholars have called “toothless” and “explicitly advisory language.” The CBD guidelines exempt “small-scale” experiments in “coastal waters,” while the London Convention (which arguably takes legal precedence) exempts “legitimate scientific research.” George will likely argue that both treaties permit what he did and that they are nonbinding and unenforceable anyway. Furthermore, individuals cannot violate these treaties, so in coming weeks the question will be whether Canada broke the law by implicitly condoning George’s experiment, and if so, what consequences await.

So what did George find out? It’s too early to tell. Satellite images show an increase in algae in the test site, and instruments (apparently provided by NOAA) have been measuring ocean chemistry and other characteristics to better understand why the salmon are floundering. Even though George claims to have “a mountain of golden data like nobody has ever seen,” marine experts condemn his exuberant methods. 

Still, if George’s iron dump didn’t harm the local environment, why not call it a case of no harm, no foul? Because much more is at stake than the “rogue field experiments” fretted over by the New York Times. Critics of experiments like George’s are not just concerned with the environmental impact of field studies. Many are worried that the mere promise of a technological fix—however speculative—will create a false sense of reassurance and give us more excuses not to clean up our carbon mess. Committed research could have an inertial effect, making deployment of geoengineering technology more likely even if those who might be most affected by it haven’t consented to—or been properly made aware of—the risk.

Whatever its effects on the Haida’s salmon, ocean, and pocketbooks, George’s experiment unquestionably tested the boundaries of global environmental law. Geoengineering scholars have, for years, raised the specter of Greenfinger—a well-meaning, but nevertheless Bond-villain esque, billionaire who independently funds large-scale geoengineering experiments (or even full-scale deployment) with little oversight. George is far from Greenfinger—his questionable dealings with the Haida aside, all he did was dump a few truckloads of iron dust in the ocean. But the dump also fell into a very tricky conversation between scientists, international policymakers, and everyday citizens about the right set of responses to a super-wicked problem that could push our planetary boundaries into strange new configurations.

So maybe, just maybe, George’s experiment will end up being a good thing. The scale was small enough that it probably won’t do much damage. But the worldwide attention—and outrage—it has sparked may finally prompt real, strict international guidelines around geoengineering experimentation. Of course, these laws won’t magically appear. Social systems are at least as complicated as the natural systems they affect.