So imagine the reaction in 2007 when one company reportedly approached the governments of the Philippines, Malaysia, Chile, and Morocco with a plan to do much the same by dumping up to 1,000 tons of nitrogen-rich urea into their offshore waters. The Australian-based Ocean Nourishment Corporation was looking to test its patented technology to cultivate oceanic gardens of phytoplankton that would suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a major factor in global warming. It theorized that once the microscopic plants die, they carry some of the carbon to a watery grave on the ocean floor. This could allow Ocean Nourishment to sell credits in carbon-trading markets. While public opposition forced the company to scrap its plans, it has been able to carry out smaller tests. (Another ocean fertilization firm, Planktos, which filed for bankruptcy in 2008 after environmental groups thwarted its plan to dump more than 50 tons of iron ore about 200 miles from the Galapagos Islands, also built its business model on selling carbon credits.)
Ocean Nourishment is one of a new class of companies developing saleable “geoengineering” technologies to counter the effects of global warming. Geoengineering is sometimes defined as “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system in order to moderate global warming.” An indication of the complexity involved can be gleaned from the geoengineering experiment humanity has been conducting since the mid-18th century. Having dumped more than 200 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere since then, we’ve known for decades that we’re dramatically altering the biosphere. Hundreds of institutions and thousands of scientists have been trying to understand global warming for years, yet the effects are constantly surprising, whether it’s methane (a potent greenhouse gas) pouring out of the arctic permafrost, oceans suddenly absorbing less carbon dioxide, the rapid spread of invasive species and pathogens, or mountain glaciers melting faster than expected.