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    AmP Countdown: Time left to demand that Congress make health care reform pro-life: 2009-11-07 18:00:00 GMT-05:00

    Thursday, July 12, 2007

    The Vatican and Planktos: strange bedfellows or sign of the times?

    A news wire headline caught my attention this evening:

    "Vatican to Become World's First Carbon Neutral Sovereign State"
    Now what, I asked myself, does that headline exactly mean? So I read on:

    "Planktos/KlimaFa's New Vatican Climate Forest Initiative to Fully Green the Holy See"

    "By agreement with the Vatican, Planktos/KlimaFa is now pleased and honored to announce that the Holy See plans to become the first entirely carbon neutral sovereign state, and it has chosen KlimaFa ecorestoration offsets to achieve this historic goal. In a brief ceremony on July 5th the Vatican declared that it had gratefully accepted KlimaFa's offer to create a new Vatican Climate Forest in Europe that will initially offset all of the Holy See's CO2 emissions for this year."

    I think there's a bit of smudging occurring in this first paragraph. Either the Vatican decided to become the "first entirely carbon neutral sovereign state" and chose Planktos/Klimafa as the means to that "historical goal" or Planktos/Klimafa approached the Vatican and the Vatican in turn signed-off on it. I think the latter is more probably the case, given that the paragraph mentions an offer proposed by Planktos/Klimafa which the Vatican later accepted.

    Now, there's a whole bevy of questions that this decision raises for me, and since this story seems to tie-in many threads that I've been reading through recently, I'm going to give it an extended treatment.

    Planktos/Klimafa's proposal is straightforward enough: plant as many trees as are needed to equalize the Vatican City State's yearly CO2 output. The site chosen for this reforestation (or "ecorestoration" as they call it) is Hungary's Bükk National Park, where they will plant "thousands of hectares of new native species, mixed forest growth...". This plan, in itself, seems unquestionably good to me. Planting trees is a great thing, and I'm happy when it happens.

    What gets me thinking, however, is the whole context of this agreement, and especially the views of Planktos/Klimafa and how they are marketing their cooperation with the Vatican.

    As a further quick clarification, Klimafa is the European subsidiary of Planktos, a for-profit organization that claims to be the "world's leading ecorestoration firm." On the Planktos main website, one can view a picture of Cardinal Poupard (president of the Pontifical Council of Culture) receiving a plaque from the president and chief executive of Planktos, Russ George with the caption "Vatican to Go Green with Planktos/Klimafa" (update: I've placed the same picture at the top of this blog post).

    Clicking through that picture/caption, one can find the Planktos/Klimafa news release which includes a video of the Vatican acceptance ceremony and their full press release. Also included with the press release packet is the text of Cardinal Poupard's address to the leaders of Planktos (available here in PDF), which I've reproduced below (the italicized parts are not included in the Planktos/Klimafa press release text, as I'll make note of next):

    As President of the Pontifical Council of Culture; I am honored to receive this donation from the leaders of Planktos-Klimafa. This donation means an entire section of a national park in central Europe will be reforested. In this way, the Vatican will do its small part in contributing to the elimination of polluting emissions from CO2 which is threatening the survival of this planet.

    As the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, had recently stated, the international community needs to respect and encourage a ‘Green Culture,’ characterized by ethical values. The Book of Genesis tells us of a beginning in which God placed man as guardian over the earth to make it fruitful. When man forgets that he is a faithful servant of this earth, it becomes a desert that threatens the survival of all creation. The earth itself turns against man.

    Environmental protection is not, therefore, a political issue - it's not enough to have a simple commitment from a few people. Instead, it is necessary, as it is underlined by His Holiness, to have the dawn of a new culture, of new attitudes and of a new mode of living that makes man aware of his place as a caretaker of the earth.

    The Pontifical Council of Culture pledges its complete collaboration and deeply thanks those responsible at Planktos-KlimaFa for this significant donation.

    I realize, of course, that for considerations of space Planktos/Klimafa (hereafter "PK") had to limit itself to excerpts from Cardinal Poupard's text. I don't find it surprising, however, that PK decided to drop the somewhat enigmatic line "The earth itself turns against man" [update: Mark Shea contributes] as well as the paragraph that stresses how true environmentalism should not be inspired so much by political considerations as from much deeper and more thorough understandings of who man is and how he is to relate to God's creation.

    PK goes on to claim that the planting of these trees will "offer many rewarding new eco-forestry jobs to struggling rural communities" (i.e., people will be given jobs planting the trees) and there will be "increasing eco-tourism employment opportunities as these beautiful woodlands mature" (i.e. people will be given jobs as park rangers).
    More disturbing to me is this paragraph:
    Planktos/KlimaFa has further committed to work with the Vatican and the Pontifical Council of Culture to develop methods to calculate the CO2 emissions of individual Catholic churches and offer ecorestoration options to turn their carbon footprints green.
    The press release makes no mention about how the Vatican has received this offer, or even if the offer has been presented. But just think for a moment what a huge project this would be - steadily going individual church by individual church and reducing (or "equalizing") their carbon footprint?! Would PK, a for-profit, organization, also donate all the money that such a project would require?

    When PK says it is a for-profit firm, they mean it. At the Planktos Store, you can, for instance, purchase a 100% Vehicle Emission Reduction for a Midsize Vehicle ... for $30:
    The average mid-size or full-size car gets 19-28 mpg and is responsible for 6 tons of CO2 emissions per year. 6 tons of CO2 equivalents will be retired on your behalf to negate 100% of your automobile's annual carbon footprint.
    Do you own a large home? Its yearly carbon footprint can be "erased" for $100. Don't worry, they also do event planning: "Meetings, conferences, weddings, or classrooms, you can green them all. Just fill out the form below and Planktos will contact you. Together we will calculate the carbon footprint for your event." For only $10, you can relieve Mother Nature of 2 tons of its excess, human-created C02 baggage. I'm not making any of this up.

    PK's methods for this "erasing" or "replacing" of human-created carbon footprints is controversial. While they offered the Vatican the option of planting trees, PK's favorite technique for removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere is by artificially creating plankton colonies (because plankton colonies are consumers of Co2 and produce oxygen). Put very simply, the plan involves dumping large amounts of iron into the oceans for plankton to feed upon. This project has encountered fierce, widespread criticism from within environmentalist circles and beyond.

    Indeed, even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a "scientific body set up by the United Nations to assess the risk of human-induced climate change" calls the procedure "unproven." Now, I should note here that I disagree with many of the IPCC's conclusions, but the fact remains that they are considered by many environmentalists to be a benchmark for protocol and, in this case, even the IPCC has doubts.

    The BBC reports:

    In its [the IPCC's] Working Group Three report, released this year, it said: "Geo-engineering options, such as ocean fertilisation to remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere, or blocking sunlight by bringing material into the upper atmosphere, remain largely speculative and unproven, and with the risk of unknown side-effects.

    According to documents passed by the US government to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the company [Planktos] planned to deposit 100 tonnes of iron ore powder this month in a 100 sq km area of ocean hundreds of kilometres west of the Galapagos Islands. The Canada-based ETC environmental campaign group has asked the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to launch an immediate and full investigation into Planktos' activities.

    Just take a pause and look at those numbers. 100 tonnes of iron ore powder this month? Now, read how Russ George (yes, that's the same guy seen above giving Cardinal Poupard his commendation plaque) responds to these concerns:

    Russ George, president and chief executive of Planktos, countered that its work built on many years of study, and that the company would collaborate with "scores of scientists and engineers from international ocean science institutions both aboard ship and ashore to develop this form of ocean stewardship in a scientifically, environmentally, and economically viable form".

    He added: "This is work that must be done if we are to reverse the apocalyptic collapse of the ocean ecosystem as well as the climate crisis it is helping to accelerate.
    "We are the first responders to a planetary medical emergency."

    And this kind of language ("apocalyptic," "medical emergency," etc) when he is on-record with the BBC!

    The controversy that the BBC sites is the tip of the iceburg in terms of the questioning surrounding PK's techniques. Without at all attempting an exaustive coverage, here's one website that links to this website which has a very long story/interview on Russ George and his company:

    Russ George is a California businessman with a big idea: you give him some money and he will seed the ocean with iron, causing phytoplankton to grow. The process is called Iron fertilization, and is designed to take carbon out of the atmosphere to help you mitigate your contribution to global warming. It is one of a number of business ideas that have grown out of the global demand for carbon trading schemes, and it’s becoming a big business. Russ George and his foundation Planktos is creating quite a stir: Nature, the BBC, and a host of major newspapers have reported on his business venture.

    For the past year, through a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, journalist Wendy Williams has been investigating global warming mitigation stories. What she found behind all the media hoopla about Russ George was surprising: A man and his carbon trading scheme sorely lacking in scientific credentials.

    A very troubling quotation from him:

    I asked to see his research papers. They weren’t done yet.

    “It’s really more of a business experiment than a scientific experiment,” he [Russ George] said.

    And finally:
    "To say that George [Russ] has shocked and angered much of the scientific community is an understatement. Indeed I found many who were profoundly concerned by the increasingly popularized notion that scattering iron in the oceans could help solve global warming."
    Now, granted, I can't vouch for the objectivity of these non-mainstream sources I'm citing. It is clear, however, from my research thus far, that there is significant and vocal opposition to some of PK's plans from within the environmentalist community.
    Russ George has responded to these accusations, most notably submitting a letter to the Ottawa Citizen. That letter is available here, along with links to previous stories criticizing PK. Planktos also has a fact sheet published on their website that tries to answer the challenges being voiced. I can't say that I find their counter-arguments enough to totally assuage the criticisms noted and linked.

    For those of you patient enough to have read all of the above - I'll finally come to my point (which, actually, I'll convert into three simple questions):
    • Is Russ George the kind of person and Planktos/KlimaFa the kind of company that the Vatican should be collaborating with and promising future support?
    • Should the Vatican allow its actions to be featured in the press releases of a website that sells ecologically-conscientious people peace-of-mind by seeding the oceans with iron?
    • Did the Vatican do its research on this gentleman and his company's other operations?

    If the answer to these three questions is yes, well then it might be time to purchase a share in Plankton, because their stock is still reasonably-priced and I just gave out one heck of a tip about their new Vatican deal.

    If you are still undecided, go back to this page and re-watch the press release video and ask yourself what you see. Is this a beneficent philanthropist collaborating with the Vatican to plant some trees in Hungary, or is it a business-savy CEO gaining a valuable endorsement for his company and its activities?

    I haven't come to a decision myself. But my unease about the association of the Vatican with a for-profit like Planktos/Klimafa has not been relieved by the research I have done thus far. I remain open to more evidence.

    Update: CNA has brief coverage of this story today.

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