It’s not clear if controversial solar geoengineering will be exactly what the planet needs
Make Sunsets: A solar-geoengineering startup that releases solar radiation to cool the earth and counteract the climate change impacts on the Earth
When US startup Make Sunsets released two weather balloons into the skies above Mexico’s Baja California peninsula last year, it kicked up a fierce debate about one of the world’s most controversial climate solutions.
The plan was for the balloons, filled with helium and a small amount of sulfur dioxide, to float high into the stratosphere. The sulfur dioxide particles would come out and cool the earth just a tiny bit.
Chris Field told CNN that there are reasons to be skeptical of the practice of solar engineering. He stated that if it could provide a path for decreasing the impacts of climate change on millions of the world’s most vulnerable people we have a responsibility to explore the opportunities and risks.
Clouds areseeded with particles from the air in an attempt to thin them so they don’t trap heat.
Make Sunsets launched balloons into the sky to release sulfur dioxide in order to make the atmosphere more reflective. The goal of solar-geoengineering is to partly counteract climate change by bouncing solar radiation into space. Make Sunsets’s experiments were not public knowledge until MIT Technology Review published a piece on them last December (see go.nature.com/3xvcb).
Trees are able to store carbon dioxide. They release it when they die, burn, or are cut down. It’s not a permanent fix. Make Sunsets is not trying the kind of solarengineering that it is capable of. The startup has a $10 credit that is supposed to be spent on cooling, because sulfur dioxide doesn’t linger long in the atmosphere.
Iseman: Climate Solutions Needn’t Change, Even in the Presence of Monsoons — A Comment on Okereke
The world is on track to pass critical warming thresholds, beyond which the chances of extreme flooding, drought, wildfires and food shortages increase dramatically.
Scientists have even proposed blowing moon dust toward the Earth in order to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet.
I want there to be no geoengineering. Iseman told CNN that he was the founder of Make Sunsets. He said there are no other realistic options to stay under 2 degrees.
The world needs to cut emissions, “no question,” David Keith, professor of applied physics and public policy, at Harvard University told CNN. We can not afford to ignore other climate solutions, he said.
There are fears that changing the planet’s thermostat could cause harm to crops, because of the potential affect on monsoons.
“When things go wrong, it is usually the poor people that suffer the most,” said Chukwumerije Okereke, professor of global climate and environmental governance at Alex Ekwueme Federal University in Nigeria.
People are already suggesting African countries as a testing ground for the technologies, Okereke said. It is a distraction from policies that should be coming to Africa.
The Challenge of Global Research: Model-Based Solar Geoengineering and the Economic Implications for the Sustainable Development of the Solar Atmosphere
As the aerosol particles do not tend to remain in the atmosphere for more than about a year, solar geoengineering would have to be continuously maintained. If halted, there is a risk of “termination shock,” unleashing all the pent-up warming “waiting in the wings, ready to slap the Earth in the face,” Raymond Pierrehumbert, professor of physics at Oxford University, told CNN.
It would require an international cooperation that was never before seen, according to Frank Biermann, professor of global governance at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “It would mean that countries have to collaborate forever,” he said, including those currently at war.
In 2019, Congress allocated $4 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for stratospheric research, some of which was for solar geoengineering. And last year, the Biden administration announced a five-year research plan to explore the concept.
Funding is provided by research organizations. The Degrees Initiative, a UK-based organization, announced in February that $900,000 was being spent on research in several countries to examine how the technology could affect the Global South.
Second, we must have more diversity in the field. A field dominated by men will be overly optimistic due to women being risk averse than men. Researchers from powerful, well-resourced countries might be more optimistic about agency in global decision-making than those from poorer places.
Without diversity, research won’t be seen as legitimate by the full range of global stakeholders. If you are a scientist working on solar geoengineering in Europe or North America, where most of the research has been done, you should work to broaden participation in the field, geographically and demographically.
Model-based research should be used to reflect realities. Current models assume global cooperation is possible but it is difficult to accomplish in the real world. The models should reflect the likelihood of uncoordinated and regional schemes.
A few studies have modelled regional approaches — one by my group found that reversing a drought in northern Africa causes one in East Africa (K. Ricke et al. Geophys. Res. Lett. 48, e2021GL093129; 2021). More are needed, and different research groups should tackle regional possibilities in their own ways. Patterns emerge that can inform policy.
Make Sunsets: Exploring a Solar-Geoengineering Startup to “Make the Most Huggable Objects in the Sky”
This approach has resonated with decision-makers, such as a group of diplomats and civil servants in Latin America and the Caribbean that I met with last summer. The interactions help to generate research questions.
The irreverence with which Make Sunsets tackles such a loaded topic is easy to see from its website. We will find a time to try and convince you if we debate anyone on this, and just confirm an audience of at least 200 people, but I would like you to stop doing this. The company blog post attempting to explain what SAI is was mostly written using ChatGPT. Andrew Song said that he was able to get a new slogan, “Sunset for the Earth,” by using the chatbot to teach a five-year-old about engineering.
The rough and tumble experiments of the startup are even more telling. Song and co-founder Luke Iseman lit up fungicide on a grill to create the sulfur dioxide gas in a cringey scene Time describes as a “sulfur barbecue” in a Reno parking lot with families passing by cluelessly. Make Sunsets then funnels the gas into three weather balloons to unleash the small amount of sulfur dioxide on the stratosphere.
Iseman points to an FAA NOTAM alert issued to notify pilots as the reason for the discrepancy between the Make Sunsets post and the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority’s response. They just confirmed receipt of the NotAM, and did not issue any official approval, as there was none to be issued? In the email, Iseman writes.
“In spite of being the most huggable objects in the sky, many people have been nervous about balloons lately. Fortunately, aviation officials kept clear heads and were examples of government working to facilitate safe, small-scale, innovative experimentation,” Make Sunsets says in the blog.
Why Make Sunsets? What the FAA doesn’t say about geoengineering: Comments on a recent NASA science conference, and a comment on the blog by Newman
In an email, the FAA states that it is an aviation safety agency and its regulations pertain to aviation safety. In other words, it’s not in charge of monitoring any attempted geoengineering. Policy just hasn’t caught up with that kind of atmospheric tampering. While there’s a quasi-de facto moratorium on large-scale geoengineering from a 2010 United Nations biodiversity conference, it’s vague and excludes small-scale scientific research.
What Make Sunsets isn’t trying to be scientific, experts say. Paul Newman, chief scientist for Earth sciences at NASA, didn’t know what to call it in a January interview. “Science is about numbers. If you got no numbers, there’s no science. It was not even a technology demonstration.
Since it couldn’t confirm whether the balloons reached an altitude greater than 20 km, Make Sunsets did not count them towards fulfilling cooling credit orders. But the company was haphazard with that decision, too. “A friend who is also a customer” released the third balloon in Reno without any tracking device at all, according to Make Sunsets’ blog. Per the friend / customer’s wishes, that balloon counted despite lacking any concrete data on its success. “They decided to count this as fulfilling their order of 1 Cooling Credit: first paid deployment done!” The author says so in the blog.
Climate Change and Its Impact on the Earth and the Planet: The Problem with Strategic Aerosol Injections Isn’t Supposed to Be Deployed
There is a possibility that SAI will have an impact on Earth’s ozone layer. “We’re confident that you would probably make the Antarctic ozone hole worse, and significantly worse if you began to do [stratospheric] aerosol injections,” Newman tells The Verge.
The other major challenge, he says, is making collective decisions on how to deploy this kind of planet-altering technology. That’s just the opposite of a couple guys grilling sulfur in a parking lot, letting their balloons fly, and trying to turn a profit from it.
A group of prominent scientists published a letter yesterday that warns that this kind of climate intervention is nowhere near ready to be commercially deployed and probably never should be. A big name on the letter is James Hansen, a former NASA scientist who’s now at Columbia University and is famous for sounding the alarm on climate change in a 1988 testimony to Congress.
So if you want to make an impact this way, you have to develop a habit. It becomes addictive if this kind of climate intervention is ever effective. The world starts to warm up fast once you stop injecting reflective particles into the atmosphere. Volcanic eruptions that caused more sulfur dioxide to be released have had a fleeting impact on global temperatures. After the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the surface of the Earth was cooled down for two years.
Climate change is caused by greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuel powered power plants, factories and gas-guzzling vehicles. Humanity’s failure to slash that pollution is what got us into the conundrum that has some scientists considering a move as drastic as geoengineering now. Carbon credits are not going to prevent pollution, even if they are from solargeoengineering or traditional tree planting schemes.
The world is already struggling to kick its fossil fuel habit. Credit can be addictive, too. If we aren’t careful, we may be able to waste all the time we have left to take meaningful action on the climate crisis.