The Pinatubo Option and Geo-Imperialism

Alexander Barnstone - Science and Technology


The year is 2137. Contemporary society was unable to shift course and reduce emissions enough to address the problem of climate change. The United States runs the greatest feat of human engineering ever created; an eternally erupting volcano launching sulphate into the atmosphere. The sky is grey. Geo-Imperialism is on the rise.

The Pinatubo Option, named after its inspiration the Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines, is often cited as the exciting geoengineering fix to the cataclysms of climate change and global warming.

The promethean solution for a heating planet was conceived following the eruption of the volcano in 1991. When the volcano erupted in the Philippines it launched an immense cloud of sulfate particles into the atmosphere. This volcanic detritus spread across the world, covering the earth in a light blanket of microcosmic mirrors. The year following the eruption global temperatures fell by half a degree.

One special component of sulphate is its reflectiveness. When Pinatubo erupted, the particles of sulphate spread across the world, reflecting some of the rays of sunlight headed toward earth. Once scientists developed an understanding of this phenomenon the world had its most advertised geoengineering solution to climate change.

This purported solve, however, is not without faults.

The fact that the technology to engineer such a feat does not currently exist is an aside to the potential ramifications, both political and environmental, that the Pinatubo Option could cause.

The sky may never be blue again. As more and more sulfate is launched into the stratosphere to counteract an ever heating planet, generations of children may be neglected one of the most fundamental beauties of the earth. A blue sky. The children of our children could, under these circumstances, live in a perpetual gloom of our own making.

The Pinatubo Option would also necessitate a consistent, unfathomable economic cost. Eruptions would have to be constantly manufactured to keep temperatures under control. Maintaining pre-industrial temperature levels is an unknown economic cost, and the manner in which it could restructure our economy is unknown.

Beyond upkeep, there are inherent risks in the management of weather. Miscalculation on one end could fail to address the problems of a heating climate at wasted expenditure, on the other it could usher in a new ice age.

But assume the economics are settled. The calculations are correct. And our children know no better. A future that relies on the Pinatubo Option is a dystopia for an entirely different reason. It is a future that would see the rise of an entirely new brand of imperialism.

An imperialism predicated on the location of the launch, and the effect that it would have on rain patterns. A man-made volcanic launch of sulphate could cause massive droughts. In 2008 a paper by Alan Roback explained this in the journal for Geophysical Research. Sulfur dioxide injections into the stratosphere “would disrupt the Asian and African summer monsoons, reducing precipitation to the food supply for billions of people.”
The monsoons provide freshwater crucial to the survival of billions of people. India, for example, receives between 70–90% of its total amount of annual rainfall during the June-September monsoon season.

An often under-discussed repercussion of the actual volcanic eruption of Pinatubo in 1991 was severe drought in the year of 92. In 1992 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported that South Asia experienced a drought that was the “most severe in the last century.” It was estimated that around 120 million people were affected. Half the population of Zimbabwe required food aid that year. Crop loss across the region was upward of 50%.

Furthermore, the way in which the eruption affects the earth changes depending on the launch site. If you launch sulfate into the stratosphere from the northern hemisphere, southern countries are likely to suffer more based on the current modeling. If you launch from the southern countries the reverse is true. It is improbable that the global powers - all located in the northern hemisphere - would agree to construct the operation to the benefit of less privileged. Since such a geoengineering feat would require immense capital and economic might, countries currently positioned best to fund the operation would likely dictate the coordination of the project, condemning the less economically capable and impoverished nations to unwanted suffering.

The effect that this sulphate solve would impose on impoverished nations of the southern hemisphere would further weaken their global economic position. As crop harvests yield weaker returns due to a lack of rainfall countries in the global south could become more and more dependent on their northern neighbors. Unable to cope with the new environmental conditions their reliance on aid from less impacted, wealthier countries would weaken their political position, forcing them to acquiesce to the interests of developed nations.

Geo-imperialism manifest.

Written by Alexi Barnstone

Alexi Barnstone is a current Honours student at the University of Sydney studying political philosophy.  Having graduated majoring in psychology and philosophy, his fascination with climate change centres around how the human condition and government will be altered in the years to come.

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