Private Geo-engineers Are Just Winging It To Shade The Planet - Plush Ink Private Geo-engineers Are Just Winging It To Shade The Planet - Plush Ink

Private geo-engineers are just winging it to shade the planet

There is no law or treaty to prevent a private company from tinkering with geo-engineering—say, releasing sulphur dioxide high in the stratosphere to alter the climate. And so there will be no fines or arrests following recent news that a startup quietly pulled off such a release last year by launching two balloons over Mexico. This sort of manipulation can alter the energy balance between the sun and Earth. In the upper atmosphere, sulphur dioxide forms suspended particles of sulphuric acid that act to scatter sunlight and cool the planet. The US 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 is Make Sunsets, and their plan, as per MIT Technology Review, was to counter global warming. They’d make money by selling carbon credits, so firms could pay them to release cooling particles that would allegedly nullify their emissions. Each gram of sulphur would cost $10 and offset 1 tonne of CO2.

The main problem is that it would not work. Sulphuric 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 side effects from doing this at any useful scale. Parson has called it a case of “a rogue pseudo-scientist claiming to help the environment.”

Luke Iseman, CEO of Make Sunsets, told me he was obsessed with geoengineering after reading the sci-fi novel Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson, in which a Texas billionaire launches sulphur into the stratosphere. He says he understands the scientists’ criticisms that the effects of the sulphur 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 called by the National Academy of Sciences, have looked at the possibility of geoengineering to battle global warming, but no field experiments have been done. What we know so far comes from a couple of a natural events. Volcanic eruptions, such as at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, can cause a year of cool weather and scientists have calculated that components of smog are holding down the global temperature about 1° Celsius, though smog also causes respiratory illness.

The good news is that private releases 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 to track. But using 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. Yet, scientific experiments might tell us how natural and human-generated sulphur works up there and under what circumstances it might be reasonable to release [for its possible sun-shade effect]—say, if it gets so hot in India that millions are at threat, a scenario described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future.

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

Make Sunsets’ private action vaguely resembles what happened in 2012, when a businessman dumped iron off the coast of British Columbia to fertilize an algae bloom that was supposed to absorb carbon and feed salmon. He claimed success with salmon, but we have [no scientific-method data to conclude if it did]. Perhaps this sort of thing comes with today’s startup culture, with all its money and hubris. Parson says it’s important that Make Sunsets’ plan to sell potentially bogus carbon credits doesn’t get traction. And after that, we need a rational discussion about thermal 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 borders. What happens there affects us all. That’s true of many activities, from cutting down rain forests to activities that risk releasing viruses. ‘Move fast and break things’ might work for startups, but it doesn’t inspire confidence when we’re talking about our one and only planet.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science.

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