Rocket debris is a risk to Inuit food security


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Marine waters are an important source of food for Inuit.
(Judith Slein/Flickr), CC BY-SA

Tiff-Annie Kenny, University of Ottawa and Tad Lemieux, Carleton University

When the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a satellite into orbit on Oct. 13, it did so despite opposition from Inuit leaders in Canada and Greenland over its potential to contaminate an important Arctic area.

Most, but not all, of the rocket’s highly toxic fuel is burned during the launch. So, when the second stage of the rocket detached and fell back to Earth, it may have contained up to a tonne of unburned hydrazine fuel that was “deliberately deposited” into the North Water Polynya in northern Baffin Bay, between Nunavut and Greenland.

The polynya, or Pikialasorsuaq in Inuktitut, is an area of open water surrounded by sea ice. It is a critical habitat for Arctic species such as narwhal and seals, and is one of the Arctic’s most biologically productive areas. It is also considered to be an important part of the food supply for the Inuit communities who fish and hunt there.

Prior to the launch, the former Prime Minister of Greenland, Kuupik Kleist, called the deposit of potentially dangerous rocket fuel into the Pikialasorsuaq “unacceptable.”

According to a study published earlier this month, at least 10 similar launches have discarded rocket stages in Pikialasorsuaq or in the Barents Sea, off the northern coasts of Norway and Russia, since 2002.

Article 29 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples asserts that states must ensure hazardous materials are not disposed in Indigenous territories without their consent. However, last week’s launch — like the others before it — involved no prior consultation with Inuit.

For Inuit, the rocket launch transcends geopolitics. It strains their ongoing concerns over food safety and food security. It also raises tensions over the rights of Indigenous peoples in contemporary Canada, including their right to food.

In Nunavut, food security remains a serious public health issue. More than two-thirds of Inuit households lack reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food. Climate change, environmental contaminants, high food prices and low income all
affect food security.

The average cost of healthy foods in Nunavut is considerably more than the average in Canada, including chicken ($13.54 vs. $7.17 per kilogram), apples ($6.70 vs. $3.85 per kilogram) and carrots ($5.93 vs. $2.03 per kilogram). Meanwhile, employment income in small Nunavut communities such as Arctic Bay is less than half the median income of $32,800 that is the norm across Canada.

What if something goes wrong?

Hydrazine is an extremely toxic chemical now rarely used by space programs due to its immediate dangers. Researchers know little about how humans may be affected by long-term exposure to hydrazine, nor have they studied its behaviour in Arctic marine environments.

Hydrazine was used in last week’s ESA atmosphere-monitoring satellite launch from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. The ESA has denied the rocket stage presents any threat to the Arctic environment and Global Affairs Canada deemed risks to the marine environment as “very low.”

Yet Micheal Byers, Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, has highlighted that no information currently exists on how much unused hydrazine actually hits the water.

The Sentinel-5P satellite was launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia on Oct. 13, on a rocket using highly toxic hydrazine fuel.
(ESA/Stephane Corvaja)

In theory, debris from the rocket will burn up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and never reach the surface. But what if something goes wrong?

The Government of Nunavut has said the likelihood of fuel reaching the Earth remains low. But there should be no risk at all. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) has demanded that space agencies use less toxic alternatives.

When governments evaluate risk, they must evaluate the probability of an event and its potential consequences. History shows they could do better.

When Nunavut Justice Susan Cooper struck down the Eastern Canadian Arctic Seismic Experiment in August 2010, she acknowledged these consequences. Inuit communities feared irreparable harm to the animals vital to their food system if the experiment went ahead. In her decision, Justice Cooper wrote that while only the “potential for harm” was established by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, such potential was sufficient to grant an injunction due to the degree of harm, which equated to a “loss of culture… no amount of money” could compensate.

As Inuit have repeatedly pointed out, any risk associated with the Arctic environment may have an impact on their food security, nutrition and health, as well as on their livelihood and culture. To what extent have the potential harms to Inuit food systems been taken into account when governments evaluate the risks associated with falling rocket debris or other industrial activities?

‘This is our home’

Even though much of the Arctic is far removed from the world’s industrial centres, global pollution is having a profound effect on the North. Contaminants can travel long distances along ocean currents, rivers and streams, and in the atmosphere, reaching high levels in Arctic ecosystems.

Inuit generally prefer to eat food obtained through fishing, hunting and gathering, collectively called country foods. It is mostly through these country foods that Inuit are exposed to environmental contaminants such as persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals such as mercury. Studies show that Inuit living in Nunavut have higher levels of contaminants in their blood than the general Canadian population.

Contaminants are among many contemporary pressures on Inuit food systems.

In July 2017, the Nunavut hamlet of Clyde River won a bid against the National Energy Board (NEB) in the Supreme Court of Canada to halt a seismic survey in Baffin Bay. The hamlet’s lawyer argued that the potential impacts of the seismic survey on food security, which had been dismissed by industry representatives and the NEB as minimal, were a central concern.

“Hunting and gathering, this is how we live. This is our humanity,” said Jerry Natanine, the former mayor of Clyde River. These mounting pressures on marine ecosystems highlight how country foods are an existential matter for Inuit.

Inuit food systems can no longer simply be an afterthought to international sovereignty disputes and risk assessment. Indigenous Peoples in Canada and globally have drawn attention to the false imagination of their homes, lands and waters as a terra nullius – an empty no-man’s land.

The ConversationAs Okalik Eegeesiak, former chair of the ICC, has said of previous launches: “This rocket will not be falling into no-man’s land… This is our home.”

Tiff-Annie Kenny, Nereus Program Fellow; Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Ottawa and Tad Lemieux, PhD researcher in sovereignty and rhetoric, Carleton University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why you need to get involved in the geoengineering debate – now

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Atakan Yildiz/

Rob Bellamy, University of Oxford

The prospect of engineering the world’s climate system to tackle global warming is becoming more and more likely. This may seem like a crazy idea but I, and over 250 other scientists, policy makers and stakeholders from around the globe recently descended on Berlin to debate the promises and perils of geoengineering.

There are many touted methods of engineering the climate. Early, outlandish ideas included installing a ‘space sunshade”: a massive mirror orbiting the Earth to reflect sunlight. The ideas most in discussion now may not seem much more realistic – spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, or fertilising the oceans with iron to encourage algal growth and carbon dioxide sequestration through photosynthesis.

But the prospect of geoengineering has become a lot more real since the Paris Agreement. The 2015 Paris Agreement set out near universal, legally binding commitments to keep the increase in global temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and even to aim for limiting the rise to 1.5°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that meeting these targets is possible – but nearly all of their scenarios rely on the extensive deployment of some form of geoengineering by the end of the century.

Some geoengineers take their inspiration from supervolcanic eruptions, which can lower global temperatures.

How to engineer the climate

Geoengineering comes in two distinct flavours. The first is greenhouse gas removal: those ideas that would seek to remove and store carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The second is solar radiation management: the ideas that would seek to reflect a level of sunlight away from the Earth.

Solar radiation management is the more controversial of the two, doing nothing to address the root cause of climate change – greenhouse gas emissions – and raising a whole load of concerns about undesirable side effects, such as changes to regional weather patterns.

And then there is the so-called “termination problem”. If we ever stopped engineering the climate in this way then global temperature would abruptly bounce back to where it would have been without it. And if we had not been reducing or removing emissions at the same time, this could be a very sharp and sudden rise indeed.

Most climate models that see the ambitions of the Paris Agreement achieved assume the use of greenhouse gas removal, particularly bio-energy coupled with carbon capture and storage technology. But, as the recent conference revealed, although research in the field is steadily gaining ground, there is also a dangerous gap between its current state of the art and the achievability of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Paris Agreement – and its implicit dependence on greenhouse gas removal – has undoubtedly been one of the most significant developments to impact on the field of geoengineering since the last conference of its kind back in 2014. This shifted the emphasis of the conference away from the more controversial and attention-grabbing solar radiation management and towards the more mundane but policy relevant greenhouse gas removal.

Geoengineering measures.

Controversial experiments

But there were moments when sunlight reflecting methods still stole the show. A centrepiece of the conference was the solar radiation management experiments campfire, where David Keith and his colleagues from the Harvard University Solar Geoengineering Research Programme laid out their experimental plans. They aim to lift an instrument package to a height of 20km using a high-altitude balloon and release a small amount of reflective particles into the atmosphere.

This would not be the first geoengineering experiment. Scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs have already begun experimenting with various ideas, several of which have attracted a great degree of public interest and controversy. A particularly notable case was one UK project, in which plans to release a small amount of water into the atmosphere at a height of 1km using a pipe tethered to a balloon were cancelled in 2013 owing to concerns over intellectual property.

Such experiments will be essential if geoengineering ideas are to ever become technically viable contributors to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. But it is the governance of experiments, not their technical credentials, that has always been and still remains the most contentious area of the geoengineering debate.

Critics warned that the Harvard experiment could be the first step on a “slippery slope” towards an undesirable deployment and therefore must be restrained. But advocates argued that the technology needs to be developed before we can know what it is that we are trying to govern.

The challenge for governance is not to back either one of these extremes, but rather to navigate a responsible path between them.

How to govern?

The key to defining a responsible way to govern geoengineering experiments is accounting for public interests and concerns. Would-be geoengineering experimenters, including those at Harvard, routinely try to account for these concerns by appealing to their experiments being of a small scale and a limited extent. But, as I argued in the conference, in public discussions on the scale and extent of geoengineering experiments their meaning has been subjective and always qualified by other concerns.

My colleagues and I have found that the public have at least four principal concerns about geoengineering experiments: their level of containment; uncertainty around what the outcomes would be; the reversibility of any impacts, and the intent behind them. A small scale experiment unfolding indoors might therefore be deemed unacceptable if it raised concerns about private interests, for example. On the other hand, a large scale experiment conducted outdoors could be deemed acceptable if it did not release materials into the open environment.

Under certain conditions the four dimensions could be aligned. The challenge for governance is to account for these – and likely other – dimensions of perceived controllability. This means that public involvement in the design of governance itself needs to be front and centre in the development of geoengineering experiments.

A whole range of two-way dialogue methods are available – focus groups, citizens juries, deliberative workshops and many others. And to those outside of formal involvement in such processes – read about geoengineering, talk about geoengineering. We need to start a society-wide conversation on how to govern such controversial technologies.

Public interests and concerns need to be drawn out well in advance of an experiment and the results used to meaningfully shape how we govern it. This will not only make the the experiment more legitimate, but also make it substantively better.

The ConversationMake no mistake, experiments will be needed if we are to learn the worth of geoengineering ideas. But they must be done with public values at their core.

Rob Bellamy, James Martin Research Fellow in the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.