The geoengineers are just winging it

4 Mins read

THERE is no law or treaty to prevent a private company from tinkering with geoengineering — in this case, releasing sulfur dioxide high in the stratosphere in order to alter the climate.

And so there will be no fines or arrests following the recent news that a startup quietly pulled off such a release last year by launching two balloons over Mexico. This sort of environmental manipulation can alter the energy balance between the sun and Earth. In the upper atmosphere, sulfur dioxide forms suspended particles of sulfuric acid that act to scatter sunlight and cool the planet.

The Clean Air Act isn’t set up to deal with this sort of thing — it’s focused on power plants, cars, and regional air-quality standards, said UCLA environmental law professor Edward Parson.

The startup responsible is called Make Sunsets, and their plan, according to MIT Technology Review, was to use this scheme to counter global warming. They’d make money by selling carbon credits — companies emitting greenhouse gases could pay them to release cooling particles that would allegedly nullify their emissions. According to the plan, each gram of sulfur would cost $10 and offset one ton of CO2.

The main problem is that it wouldn’t work. Sulfuric acid particles can only mask global warming for a year or so. Then they settle out of the atmosphere while the carbon stays up there for thousands of years. And there are likely going to be side effects from doing this at any useful scale. Parson called it a case of “a rogue pseudo-scientist claiming to help the environment.”

Luke Iseman, the chief executive of Make Sunsets, told me he became obsessed with the idea of geoengineering after reading the science fiction novel Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson, in which a Texas billionaire launches sulfur into the stratosphere. He says he understands the scientists’ criticisms that the effects of the sulfur don’t negate emissions, but he believes it’s the only feasible way to buy the time needed to stay below “a catastrophic level of climate change.” He said he plans to make two more launches this month from Mexico, and that his ultimate vision is to spend the next 20 years releasing “as much as I possibly can while doing it safely.”

But there’s no scientific consensus that geoengineering is the only way to avoid catastrophe. Scientists, including several panels assembled by the National Academy of Sciences, have looked at the possibility of using geoengineering to battle global warming, but no field experiments have been carried out.

What we know so far comes from a couple of a natural and unintentional experiments. Volcanic eruptions, such as the one at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, can trigger a year of cool weather, and scientists have calculated that components of smog are holding down the global temperature about 1 degree Celsius, though smog also causes millions of deaths from respiratory illness.

The good news is that the releases from Make Sunsets are too tiny to cause any harm. But the bad news is that it won’t advance science.

For years, scientists have been trying to do a small release they could track. But so far, doing this through official channels has run into resistance. Scientists have tried to run an experiment called SCoPEx from Mexico and Sweden but been blocked by environmental groups.

Carefully monitored scientific experiments might give us useful knowledge about how natural and human-generated sulfur works in the atmosphere and under what circumstances it might be a reasonable thing to release — say, if it gets so hot in India that tens of millions of people are likely to die, a scenario described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future.

Harvard physicist David Keith, who has studied the prospects of geoengineering, said it’s possible to calculate how many lives you could save from heat and extreme weather, balanced with lives that might be lost to geoengineering’s side effects. But of course, there are unknown unknowns, and geoengineering is a very bad substitute for technologies that reduce emissions or capture carbon.

One past incident that vaguely resembles this one happened in 2012, when California businessman Russ George dumped iron into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of British Columbia with the goal of fertilizing an algae bloom that was supposed to absorb carbon and feed salmon. George claimed the iron caused the salmon to rebound the following year, but since it wasn’t a controlled scientific experiment and salmon populations fluctuate normally, there was no way to know if his actions had any effect.

Perhaps this sort of thing comes with the startup culture of the 21st century — the flow of vast quantities of money around Silicon Valley, the hubristic sense that the private sector can solve a problem that has stymied governments, and a fashion for looking like you’re doing good for the planet.

Parson, the environmental lawyer, says the most important thing right now is to make sure this company’s plan to use sulfur releases to sell bogus carbon credits doesn’t get any traction. And after that, we need a rational discussion about geoengineering. “Who gets to say it’s okay to do this, and if it’s done, how much is done and where and under what protections and with whom in charge?” asks Parson. “These are unexplored questions.”

The upper atmosphere has no regional or national boundaries. What happens in one place affects everything. That’s true of many activities now — from cutting down rain forests to activities that risk releasing viruses.

“Move fast and break things” might be a motto that works for startups, but it doesn’t inspire confidence when we’re talking about our one and only planet.