Crank of the Week - November 10, 2008 - Dan Whaley, CEO of Climos

One of the less attractive sides of hard cold capitalism is the tendency for some people to try to make money off of other's misfortunes. In this case Climos, a San Francisco, California-based ocean fertilization start-up headed by Dan Whaley, wants to combine an idea posited by geoengineering scientists with the cap-and-trade carbon trading scheme dreamt up by politicians. Their aim is to make some green of a decidedly non-ecological type. Climos wants to dump iron into vast stretches of ocean water, causing algal blooms that would absorb carbon and sink to the bottom of the sea. The profit comes from selling credits from capturing that carbon on the cap-and-trade market to companies who are continuing to emit greenhouse gases.

Ocean Iron Fertilization (OIF) was first proposed nearly 20 years ago by oceanographer John Martin, at the time the Director of Moss Landing Marine Labs in California. Scientific experiments have dumped elements such as iron or nitrogen into the open ocean to stimulate the growth of plankton blooms (Science, 30 November 2007) confirming Martin's hypothesis. Since 1993, up to 3 tons of iron at a time have been released in multiple small-scale fertilization experiments. A number of prominent scientists believe the technique, if scaled up, could sequester up to 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year as the blooms grow and die. While that sounds like a good idea it doesn't take into account collateral damage inflicted on other ocean life by the blooms.

Whaley, a self trained computer programmer and amateur oceanographer, struck it rich in the Internet travel business. In 1995 he founded the first company to commercialize travel reservations over the net, The company went public in 1999 and was sold to Sabre in 2000. Having achieved financial independence He traveled the world until having an epiphany. In his own words:

“A few years ago, I drove from here down to Buenos Aires. Somewhere along the way, I think I woke up and really fully realised that there were some extraordinary challenges out there facing us that were much more pressing than most people had been giving them credit for. Challenges that were much more important than whether people could book their travel online, for instance. GetThere was a powerful lesson to me that I could set my mind to something and achieve it, but it was also a little numbing at times too -- sometimes I wondered just exactly what I was really contributing to the world.”

Happily for Dan he found a way to merge his new found ecological awareness with his capitalist instincts. In a press release announcing a $3.5M financing deal with Braemar Energy Ventures, the Climos CEO remarked, “The threat of climate change demands that we take immediate action. First we need to immediately lower fossil fuel emissions through conservation, efficiencies and the use of renewables. However, while we retool our energy infrastructure, opportunities to safely mitigate atmospheric greenhouse gases must also be explored.” What could be better—save the planet and make money at the same time. The only problem is how Climos wants to clean up Earth's atmosphere.

On October 31, 2008, the United Nations' International Maritime Organization (UNIMO) placed restrictions on experiments designed to fertilize large swaths of the world's oceans for the first time. Meeting in London, delegates from 85 nations noted that such experiments “may offer a potential strategy for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere” by producing algal blooms that would absorb CO2 with the intention of fighting global warming. Citing impacts on oxygen levels and food webs, and the possibility that such actions could promote the growth of toxic species, delegates agreed unanimously to set scientific guidelines for proposed fertilization experiments and limit future experiments to “legitimate scientific research.”

2002 release of iron in the Southern Ocean. Photo credit MBARI.

The conference attendees didn't define the phrase “legitimate scientific research” and that could complicate plans to commercialize the approach. Both scientists and environmental activist groups have voiced concerns about possible bias in results reported by commercial companies looking to fight global warming by exploiting ocean fertilization for profit. But Whaley, who says his specialty is “turning dreams into reality,” defends his company's ethics, noting that the resolution doesn't explicitly bar commercial projects. Opining that “no one is saying not to grow trees because you are changing the balance of the planet,” Climos still hopes to abide by the treaties and obtain permits for operations previously scheduled in 2010. They face competition from Ocean Nourishment Corporation, an Australian company also trying to sequester carbon dioxide, but using urea instead of iron.

If anyone questioned why we spoke out against cap-and-trade for carbon emissions in The Resilient Earth—preferring instead a straight forward carbon tax—this illustrates our concerns. Turning emissions control into a commodities market like opportunity to make money only promotes ill thought out and hair-brained schemes. Whether proposed by the well intentioned or hustlers and scam artists the effect is the same: given our poor understanding of how climate really functions, tinkering with Earth's climate, on what is necessarily a gigantic scale, is like letting a child play with matches inside your house. We don't doubt Mr. Whaley's good intentions but a bad idea is a bad idea.

Most people are skeptical of such grandiose schemes to alter the way Earth's climate system functions—we certainly are. The law of unintended consequences has a tendency to come back and bite those who act in hast, not understanding the enormity and complexity of the forces they are meddling with. Anyone who has seen dead fish washed up on a beach closed by a red tide can see why inducing very large algae blooms could be a very bad thing. While we at this website don't usually find ourselves in agreement with Greenpeace and other hyperactive pro-ecology groups, in this case the opportunity to do more harm than good is obvious. Better to leave Earth's oceans intact, helping to regulate the climate naturally. So thanks for being a poster child for the new class of eco-entrepreneur Dan, this Crank of the Week is for you.