David Suzuki: Technological fixes can have serious consequences

In 1962, Rachel Carson galvanized a global environmental movement with her book Silent Spring. Before she wrote about the unexpected consequences of pesticides—including bioaccumulation of toxic molecules up the food chain—scientific innovations such as DDT dazzled us with their promise of greater control over the forces impinging on our lives.

We often look to technological fixes without acknowledging our ignorance about how the world works, and then we end up trying to correct the unexpected problems that result. When we began to use CFCs in large amounts, scientists had no idea they might affect the ozone layer. Salmon farms seemed like a good idea, but no one anticipated parasitic sea-lice outbreaks that would harm wild salmon.

Scientists find clever ways to tease out information about our world. And everywhere we look, we discover new challenges because our knowledge is so primitive. Accumulating toxic pollutants in air, water, soil, and our bodies; vanishing species; loss of nutrients in topsoil; ocean degradation—all these provide warnings that human numbers, consumption, and activity are undermining the very things that keep us alive.

Climatologists have accumulated a powerful set of observations and models pointing to fossil-fuel use as the cause of global warming. Obviously, the solution is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we create so the biosphere can sop up the rest.

Some imaginative suggestions would allow us to continue to burn fossil fuels without reduction: giant umbrellas in space to shield the Earth from the sun, aerosols of sulphide to mimic volcanic emissions that reflect sunlight, and so on. Two that have attracted attention are carbon seeding in oceans and carbon capture and sequestration on land.

The first involves putting iron into the oceans to fertilize waters where the lack of carbon limits algae growth. In the lab, it has been shown that adding this carbon to Antarctic Ocean water, for example, leads to massive increases in the algal populations. Companies have been formed on the promise that putting carbon into oceans to induce algal blooms will help absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Now, in a paper in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, scientists report that this process can cause the blooming of plants that produce deadly neurotoxins. Oops.

The second suggestion is carbon capture and sequestration. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has avoided discussion about the serious impacts of climate change on Canada and the economic implications of failing to reduce emissions. Instead, government policy is based on the fear that reducing emissions will be economically destructive, so we will wait instead for the development of methods to pump carbon dioxide into the ground.

This technique is based on an observation that when carbon dioxide is pumped into depleted wells so that more oil can be recovered, the CO2 doesn’t come back out. This has led to a hope that we can capture much of the CO2 from smokestacks, coal plants, and the tar sands and simply inject it into the ground—out of sight, out of mind.

But wait. While we once thought that life petered out at bedrock, we now know that life exists up to three kilometres underground. Bacteria from deep underground are so different from anything we know aboveground that we need entire new categories to describe them. Scientists estimate that the weight of all the organisms underground is greater than the weight of all life above it, including whales, trees, and people! Scientists know very little about the role these organisms play in transfer of heat from magma or the flow of nutrients and water in the subterranean world, yet we are contemplating pumping millions of tonnes of CO2 into that mysterious world.

I once asked Tullis Onstott of Princeton University, one of the world’s top experts on underground life, what effect CCS might have on them. His reply? “I don’t know, but the methanogens will love it.”

“What are methanogens?” I asked. He said they take up carbon dioxide and produce methane, a greenhouse gas 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide!

We have so many ways to reduce our emissions and to save money and resources by becoming more efficient. Yet we avoid doing them on the hope of a totally untried technological promise that could have enormous negative consequences. Does this make sense?

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



Paul Clark

Mar 23, 2010 at 8:11pm

It is good to be informed about the insanity of these environmentalist's solutions so they can be stopped. However, there's no basis for blaming CO2 as the main driver of temperature.

The current levels of CO2 aren't all that remarkable. Zbigniew Jaworowski conducted several expeditions to Antarctica and discovered that the proxies used to substantiate the claim that CO2 is at its highest for 600,000 years are unreliable.


Direct measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere from 1800 show that the CO2 was about 400ppm until it dipped to 280ppm around 1850.


Speaking of models, models show that a warming of the ocean can account for all the CO2 increase since 1850.


The oceans have 6,000 times more CO2 dissolved in them than we produce in a year:


The all time temperature record shows a complete disconnect between temperature and carbon dioxide.


I vote for more CO2 -- we are low.

It's a shame that the real environmental movement was hijacked by believers in AGW. I suppose Suzuki has a lot invested in this scam. Control freaks and ideologues the lot of them. Watermelon environmentalists are actually the real danger here and must be stopped before they destroy our way of life.


Mar 23, 2010 at 10:09pm

'carbon' and 'iron' are used in error:
carbon seeding in oceans...
involves putting iron into the oceans...
adding this carbon to Antarctic Ocean water, for example...

Confuses everyone about this. It's iron seeding. Iron's a limiting nutrient there.


Mar 23, 2010 at 10:21pm

I'll say it again:
There are really only two types of global warming denier: Those who are funded by industry to sow doubt and confusion regarding an issue that 98 percent of the world's climate scientists agree on and those who are ignorant or deluded enough to believe the former.



Mar 24, 2010 at 5:45am

To the previous poster:

Whether or not CO2 levels are low or high is obviously a debatable subject. What isn't debatable is that the way we have started to live our lives since the industrial revolution is very different from the way we lived before that. We don't know the full extent of our new lifestyles on the planet, and yet we continue to push forward. If the scientists are right, and we are having a harmful impact on the planet then we are in for a world of hurt. Even if we are not having that large an impact, why would we not want to live more in harmony with our environment?


Mar 24, 2010 at 9:42am

I'll just simplify for a second and say that this article means that David Suzuki is totally opposed to CCS on the grounds that it is fundamentally dangerous.

I think this is probably the first time I have seen that position stated by anyone. Some have questioned the cost, some have suggested some of the CO2 might leak out, but no one I've heard has said it will directly cause an even greater calamity even if it works (ie, no great leakages).

Rejecting CCS completely would put Suzuki at odds with Prof Mark Jaccard and with articles in publications like Scientific American.

Rod Smelser


Mar 24, 2010 at 4:29pm

I don't know how a comment pointing out a transposition error in the article, (since there seems to be no other way to call it to the authors' attention) ends up getting rated down, but hey. All I wanted to do was clear up that technical error in the article, not comment on the premise. Sheesh. I figured since comments are moderated, the moderator might show a little initiative and maybe check with the authors?

You want comment? I have to admire David Suzuki for banging his head against the concrete of human ignorance for so long and surviving. The way it's going to turn out though is that we're going to push this planet far beyond the margin of safety, and then wildly over-correct with some untestable technological 'fix' that will inevitably backfire. The sensible thing would have been to not encroach on our safety margin in the first place, but it's far too late now, and something called "the logic of prior investment" won't let us change course. More accurately, it's the _individuals_ who hold those prior investments who are the ones denying the damage, and denying us a livable future.


Mar 24, 2010 at 10:24pm

Go Figure.

"...Technological approaches to achieve major reductions in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions range from increased energy efficiency and renewable energy to carbon capture and storage.

The Pembina Institute and David Suzuki Foundation view the study as ..."


Has he had a revelation? Has a spirit come to him in a dream. Is he having a breakdown? Has Tzeporah Berman released him from her spell now that she left town?


Mar 25, 2010 at 2:14pm

Thanks, “notimportant”. As editor and fact-checker for this column, I take responsibility for the confusion between carbon and iron in this column. I encourage readers to click on the link for more information.

For Rod and Seth: The Pembina/DSF report looked at the economic implications of a range of suggested climate change mitigation strategies. Regardless of what one may think of the technology, CCS is where the federal government is putting much of its money, so it would have been a serious omission to have ignored it.

As for the point of this column, Dr. Suzuki is arguing that we must look at all of the possible consequences of technological fixes before we proceed. CCS may be an option, but we have to consider issues beyond just leaks and economic factors – such as the potential impact on life below the ground. Once we have adequate knowledge, we will be in a better position to judge whether or not these technologies offer more benefits than harm.

Ian Hanington
Communications specialist
The David Suzuki Foundation


Mar 26, 2010 at 11:27am

What a crock Hanington. You guys must live for the spin.

From the above link.

“This new analysis shows that with strong policies, Canada can meet a 2 ° C target in 2020 and have a strong, growing economy, a quality of life higher than Canadians enjoy today, and continued steady job creation across the country,” says Dale Marshall, climate change policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation.

What part of clean coal - a major part of study's 2 degree C strategy - is excluded from that quote?

In fact the study was so political - not science based at all - that it excluded nuclear power using an absurd claim of 20 cent a kwh for nuclear when costs are veering to less than 2 cents for new mass produced nukes. This in the face of Arevas's recent Ontario bid - $24 billion for 60 years of 3.3 gigawatts in nukes all costs considered which works out to 1.5 cents a kwh. This was confirmed by a similar 1.5 cent a kwh Korean bid to the UAE at the time of the study.

Nuclear is going to be a huge part of Canada's GHG strategy and is currently a major part of Liberal party policy - it was excluded for the usual tiresome and debunked reasons. That clean coal technology which nobody believes will ever work stayed in shows that Suzuki at least at the time was a clean coal advocate.

Thankfully Tzeporah is gone and in releasing David from her magical clutches he has seen reason and done an about face on clean coal. I assume the study will be reissued shortly.

Mr. Bones

Mar 27, 2010 at 3:05pm

Hey Seth, guess what... uranium is also a limited resource, and supply has already been outstripped by demand. It is also very dirty to mine and dispose of the waste

Unfortunately, as nice as it is to believe in magic bullets, they just don't exist.