Solar geoengineering, SG, is the latest billionaires’ techno-utopian dream to reverse the impact of climate change.
As we have shown little progress in coming to an agreement to use conventional and sensible measures of climate change mitigation and adaptation, a ‘privileged club’ appears to be pursuing a worrying and ambitious plan to change our global weather.
Politicians and fossil fuel giants may also use SG as a way to buy time and as an excuse to delay the switch to a neutral carbon economy.
Goengineering is a set of technologies used with the purpose to manipulate the weather and the environment to counterbalance the impacts of climate change.
This technology is divided in two categories. The first one is carbon geoengineering or carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which seeks to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The second and most important one is solar geoengineering, solar radiation management (SRM), stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) or stratospheric albedo hacking (SAH), which seeks to reflect fraction of sunlight back into space to cool the planet.
This technology mimics a volcano eruption, where sulfate aerosol (or calcium carbonate, aluminum or diamond dust) is released into the atmosphere creating particles reflecting sunlight back into space, therefore cooling the earth. One of the ideas is to send high-flying aircrafts to inject sulfate dioxide particles into the atmosphere.
There are a considerate growing number of parties interested and invested in deploying this technology for a variety of reasons.
Billionaires, financial and technology institutions within Silicon Valley and Wall Street are funding and supporting the research and governance of geoengineering technology. They consist of a group of individuals and organisations with strong ties to corporate power.
According to Solar Geoengineering Non-Use Agreement, a group of seven organisations in the US have funded at least a couple of SG research projects in the last few years.
FICER is Bill Gates’ fund for geoengineering research, managed by Harvard Solar Geoengineering researchers David Keith and Ken Caldeira. Silver Lining is another firm funded by LowerCarbon Capital and First Round Capital with Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan executives on the board.
Billionaire and co-founder of Facebook, Dustin Moskovitz, and partners Cari Tuna and Holden Karnofsky, formerly Bridgewater Associates, also fund a geoengineering project by Open Philanthropy Project.
Additional players funding such projects include EDF, Environmental Defense Fund, which have partnerships with Citigroup, GE, McDonald’s Shell, Tyson and Walmart. Others include Alfred P. Sloan Foundation of General Motors, Pritzker Innovation Fund, founders of the Hyatt Hotels, and VK Rasmussen Foundation, founded by the Swedish inventor and businessman Villum Kann Rasmussen.
As the fossil fuel industry refuse to commit and scale down production worldwide and transition to renewables, denying and ignoring the negative impact they are causing to climate change and continue to do business as usual, governments, investors and researchers see an extraordinary opportunity to push for geoengineering technology to be deployed sooner rather than later.
The Good, the Bad, and the Very Ugly
What are the advantages of SG?
According to a few scientific studies, this technology would result in an immediate cooling effect worldwide, with a possibility of reducing the rise of sea level, extreme weather and heat waves.
Additionally, other studies also suggest that SG would be a financially attractive solution to climate change. Obviously, cost efficiency is extremely appealing to governments and corporations.
The Aspen Institute Climate Policy Enters Four Dimensions paper by David Keith and John Deutch, suggests that the direct costs of implementing SG appear to be “quite small, with the global annualised costs perhaps under $20 billion per year well into the latter half of the century. By comparison, the damage-reduction benefits could be 100 times this amount”. SG is a fairly inexpensive technology and politically practical.
“Solar geoengineering is not necessary. Neither is it desirable, ethical, or politically governable. The normalisation of solar geoengineering as a research topic and as a speculative policy option must be stopped”, said Frank Biermann, professor of global sustainability governance, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University.
In January, a coalition of over 370 academics, 30 organisations in 54 countries, signed a letter in calling for an international non-use agreement on SG. They argue that this technology poses an unacceptable risk if deployed as a future climate policy option. Signatories include professor Frank Biemann, Utrecht University, professor Melissa Leach, CBE, FBA, Institute of Development Studies, amongst many others.
To some, the proposal of spraying the stratosphere with aerosols to block incoming sunlight in order to cool the planet is allegedly a frightening and dangerous idea. Besides, this technology, which has not yet proven to be successful, could discourage the urgent need to reduce green house gas emissions and put a pause to climate action.
Various concerning negative impacts from SG have been discussed within the scientific community, including the disruption of the climate system, affecting rain fall patterns and increasing droughts. Agriculture would be hit hard and the world would experience extreme famine.
Sulfates injected into the atmosphere eventually come down as acid rain, which affects soil, water reservoirs, and local ecosystems. The spraying of this chemical into the atmosphere forms very fine particles that can cause respiratory illness.
This technology is not entirely understood and not proven to be successful, as research is entirely based on modeling and not on external experiments.
Once SG is deployed, we may be locked into it forever, without a reverse gear. It’s called “termination shock”. Furthermore, once SG is stopped, the natural cycle will take over once again and we will see a rapid rise in temperatures, therefore we would see a disruption of every major system on earth, without time for adaptation and resulting in the destruction of ecosystems.
Who gets to decide on the climate?
Perhaps another frightening aspect of SG relates to geopolitical risks and issues around governance. A single or combination of powerful nations may “lead the pack” and decide to deploy this technology, which will impact and cause immediate and direct harm to other regions.
This technology may be used as a war tool and a form of weaponisation, causing inequality, ramping up disputes and conflicts across the globe. We already live in a political system that has no ability to make collective, serious and fair agreements.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that they are coordinating a five-year research plan to SG technology. Their focus is to develop a cross-agency group to coordinate research on such climate interventions, in partnership with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Department of Energy.
“ You cannot judge what the country does on solar-radiation modification without looking at what it is doing in emission reductions, because the priority is emission reductions”, mentioned Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative.
“Solar-radiation modification will never be a solution to the climate crisis”, Pasztor added.
Political control over SG would affect and impact the poorest and most vulnerable countries. The poorer nations are extremely vulnerable to any changes in their environment and would be threatened the most by side effects that might result from the deployment of SG at a global scale.
We are working against the clock and can’t afford to make even bigger mistakes than we already have. We know what to do about climate change, and yet, the biggest polluters and fossil fuel giants refuse to accept the blame and make the necessary changes in order to reverse the effects of climate change.
For every crisis the world faces, window of opportunities unlock for the ones who have their eyes focused on power, control and profit. The hungry “visionaries”, a group comprising of politicians, capitalists, corporate power, billionaires and scientists, are trying to push for the deployment of an untested technology that my drive us into a steep dive towards a catastrophic and irreversible chaos.
Are we going to continue doing business as usual?