Biochar: A Geoengineering 'Shock Doctrine'

Biochar may be many things, such as a crop yield improvement tool and reclamation device for damaged land. But a climate change panacea, DeSmog’s investigation has shown, is probably not among them.

Despite a lack of scientific proof supporting biochar as a long-term solution to sequestering carbon, a niche but fervent group has continued to push the so-called “black gold” to combat today’s ever-worsening climate change crisis. The push continued despite the American Carbon Registry rejecting the biochar lobby’s carbon sequestration business protocol, after a peer review found its underlying science lacked sufficient rigor.

Upon failing the scientific peer review, funding levels dropped for the main biochar advocacy group, International Biochar Initiative (IBI). This means for now, on a macro-level, biochar has hit a stand still.

Biochar and Geoengineering

Biochar fits within the broader concept of geoengineering, a slew of proposed methods to reverse climate change by essentially vacuuming greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. And while geoengineering has its fair share of ardent enthusiasts, many have cautioned against its use and called it a false solution.

At the forefront of that criticism has been Clive Hamilton, author of the 2013 book Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering. Hamilton says that resorting to geoengineering is akin to climate change denial in a different form.

“The idea of building a vast industrial infrastructure to offset the effects of another vast industrial infrastructure (instead of shifting to renewable energy) only highlights our unwillingness to confront the deeper causes of global warming — the power of the fossil-fuel lobby and the reluctance of wealthy consumers to make even small sacrifices,” wrote Hamilton in a 2013 op-ed published by The New York Times.

In fact, in many instances, the biochar industry has teamed up with the oil and gas industry to promote biochar as both a reclamation offsets tool, as well one coupled with more traditional carbon markets offsets. ConocoPhillips, as a case in point, has served as a key funder of biochar research and development. This has happened despite the fact there is no scientific evidence offsets can do what they profess to do: offset greenhouse gas emissions.

“In the end, how we think about geoengineering depends on how we understand climate disruption. If our failure to cut emissions is a result of the power of corporate interests, the fetish for economic growth and the comfortable conservatism of a consumer society, then resorting to climate engineering allows us to avoid facing up to social dysfunction, at least for as long as it works.”

Naomi Klein, a member of the board of directors for 350.org and author of the 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, has also critiqued geoengineering along similar lines.

“We know this escape story all too well, from Noah’s Ark to the Rapture,” wrote Klein. “What we need are stories that tell us something very different: that this planet is our only home, and that what goes around comes around,” she wrote in a chapter of the book devoted to geoengineering.

Klein continued, “Indeed, if geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative, that one in which so many of us have been indoctrinated by organized religions and the rest of us have absorbed from pretty much every Hollywood action movie ever made. It’s one that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us … are going to be saved.”

Biochar as Shock Doctrine

Klein also wrote in This Changes Everything that geoengineering is a form of the “shock doctrine,” defined as economic plans pushed during a time of crisis (and also the namesake of a previous Klein book).

“This is how the shock doctrine works: in the desperation of a true crisis all kinds of sensible opposition melts away and all manner of high-risk behaviors seem temporarily acceptable,” she wrote of geoengineering. “It is only outside of a crisis atmosphere that we can rationally evaluate the future ethics and risks of deploying geoengineering technologies should we find ourselves in a period of rapid change.”

DeSmog’s research has made this much clear: The only reliable, scientifically supported solutions to climate change involve addressing its root cause — that is, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not attempting to geoengineer them away. 

Biochar: A Geoengineering 'Shock Doctrine'
Steve Horn is a former Research Fellow and writer for DeSmog and a freelance investigative journalist based in San Diego, CA. He currently works as a climate reporter and producer for The Real News Network.