This year the Global Challenges Foundation has included synthetic biology and geoengineering in its annual assessment of the catastrophic global risks faced by the planet. The organisation defines a global catastrophic risk as any “risk of events or processes that would lead to the deaths of approximately a tenth of the world’s population, or have a comparable impact.”


In many of the global climate scenarios in which temperature increases are restricted to under 2 degrees, geoengineering technologies play a prominent role. In fact, some argue that we cannot possibly reach the 2 degree target without using geoengineering.

One of the most promoted and supported of these technologies is a solar radiation management technology which involves the spraying of sulphur aerosol particles into the upper atmosphere. The particles mimic volcanoes and if sprayed at a global scale these particles would theoretically bring global temperatures down.

The spraying of sulphur, however, would only mask rising temperatures and it has been promoted as a technology that could potentially buy us time to find more permanent ways of drawing down carbon dioxide. The cost of buying that time, however, could be huge.

The report identifies 4 different potential catastrophic risks associated with this technology:

    1. Impacts on global precipitation;
    2. Unilateral deployment by individual states;
    3. Sudden termination of spraying leading to a rapid spike in warming;
    4. Research into the spraying of sulphur resulting in a reduction in support for initiatives that reduce CO2 levels.

The risk of catastrophic climate change is currently high and that risk will increase the incentive to use geoengineering. An absence of any global governance standards regarding geoengineering research, experimentation or use increases these risks further.

Synthetic biology

Our emerging capacity to create novel genetic structures through gene synthesisers has created a veritable raft of new global risks. The catastrophic risk identified in the Global Challenges Foundation’s report is the engineering of viruses from digital files.

Generally, lethal viruses are constrained by evolutionary forces, as the most lethal viruses tend to kill their host before spreading too widely. Synthetically created viruses have the potential to bypass that constraint and could lead, potentially, to viruses that are highly lethal and easily transmitted.

In 2001, Australian researchers accidentally created a highly lethal and vaccine resistant form of mousepox. Several recent papers have identified how to create bird flu, which it is believed could cause hundreds of millions of fatalities. Intentional production and release is the biggest concern, but as the technology becomes more available and expertise in synthesising genes becomes more common, the chances of both accidental and intentional release are likely to increase.

These risks need to be properly managed

Little is being done in Australia to examine, control or regulate these emerging technologies and so the dangers are amplified further.

Unfortunately the Australian Government is particularly prone to technophilia – a belief that all problems can be solved by technology. ‘Innovation’ is heralded as an admirable goal, with hundreds of millions of dollars of public money thrown into it, without distinguishing good and safe technologies and those that are likely to cause more harm than good. Most disturbingly of all, the regulation that is needed to ensure that technologies are developed safely and responsibly is viewed as a ‘barrier to innovation’. This means that society as a whole carries all of the risks associated with these new technologies, while corporations reap the benefits.

Friends of the Earth campaigns for a precautionary approach to new technologies such as geoengineering and synthetic biology. We are wholly reliant on donations from individuals like yourself to fund our work. Please consider supporting us with a tax deductible donation.