Credit: Make Sunsets

Geoengineering Rears Its Ugly Head — Again

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Geoengineering is a hot topic internationally, thanks in part to Luke Iseman and Andrew Song, a couple of guys who want to save the Earth from becoming so hot humans can’t survive on it any longer. They are fairly passionate about that goal and are doing something about it. They are filling weather balloons with helium and sulfur dioxide — the stuff volcanoes spew high into the atmosphere when they erupt. They formed a company called Make Sunsets to promote stratospheric aerosol injection, known colloquially as SAI.

Their concept of geoengineering is simple. When the balloons are released, the helium makes them rise into the upper atmosphere far above the highest clouds. If all goes according to plan, the balloons will burst and disperse the sulfur dioxide into cloud-like formations that will reflect some of the light from the sun away from the Earth and back into space.

The founders claim “the sulfur dioxide clouds stay up for about a year reflecting some of the sun’s rays just like the natural clouds below. Think of it as applying sunscreen spray to protect your skin from the Sun. Just one gram of our clouds offsets the warming effect of one ton of CO₂ for a year.”

Presumably Make Sunsets is a reference to the blood red sky that inspired Edvard Munch to paint his iconic “The Scream.” Most people think it is a surrealistic interpretation by an artist under the influence of LSD, but in fact it appears to be a faithful representation of what the sky over his home near Oslo, Norway, looked like after the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. If so, Iseman and Song have a weird sense of humor.

Going Boldly Into The Geoengineering Age

Credit: Make Sunsets

On the company website, these two intrepid entrepreneurs say, “We believe that we have a responsibility to make bold moves to combat climate change. We’re not afraid of controversy or challenges, and are passionate about developing innovative solutions to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. The science and math back us up, but we also recognize that there are unknowns and risks associated with stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI). With climate change rapidly transforming our world, it’s crucial that we prioritize action over words. We believe the best time to field test and scale SAI is now.”

Being unafraid of controversy as they say, in 2022 they hauled their equipment down to Baja California, where they released several of their balloons to see if their process worked. The Mexican government was not amused. According to Time, it issued a press release saying that it would “prohibit and, where appropriate, stop experimentation practices with solar geoengineering,” citing a lack of international agreements and a 2010 UN moratorium on the practice. The announcement also noted that the startup had not consulted authorities before it carried out the experiments.

Iseman appeared perplexed by the Mexican government’s action. “It was surprising that people feel like we’re trying to sneak around some law when that is not the intent. There doesn’t appear to be some permit that I should have filed for and did not.” He apparently is blissfully unaware that hundreds of climate scientists are unalterably opposed to SAI, saying it constitutes a moral hazard, since it gives polluters the opportunity to argue they can continue emitting greenhouse gasses that cause the planet to overheat since geoengineering will solve any resultant adverse effects on the environment.

There are many other reasons to be hesitant to use geoengineering. What if their clouds make the Baja peninsula more arid, causing local crop failure? Are Iseman and Song prepared to deal with the resulting famine? Or course they aren’t. They are the typical Silicon Valley tech bros who think they have a license to move fast and break things without any consequences whatsoever. Their thinking seems to be composed of equal parts arrogance and stupidity, which, come to think of it, perfectly describes most of the tech trillionaires.

Geoengineering At The UNEP Conference In Nairobi

The Verge reports the Make Sunsets schlamozzle was very much on the minds of the delegates at the UN Environment Program conference in Nairobi recently. A UNEP panel of experts published a report in 2023 that concluded, “With many unknowns and risks, there is a strong need to establish an international scientific review process to identify scenarios, consequences, uncertainties and knowledge gaps.” In June, the European Union called for an international framework for governing geoengineering efforts.

Switzerland came to the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, this week to propose a plan to establish an expert panel to study the “risks and opportunities” of solar geoengineering, according to Climate Home News. But it was opposed by a group of African and Pacific Island nations, Mexico, and Colombia.

Opponents saw that proposal as a veiled attempt to legitimize solar geoengineering. Some countries and environmental advocates are pushing for a tougher agreement that would bar solar geoengineering, full stop. But that also failed to materialize at the summit in Nairobi this week.

“Solar Radiation Modification (SRM) technologies are dangerous and do not have any role to play in our common future. These technologies cannot tackle the root causes of the climate crisis and would instead enable major polluters to delay the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels,” Mary Church, senior geoengineering campaigner at the Center for International Environmental Law, said in a statement.

After all the backing and forthing, the 2010 de facto moratorium on geoengineering is still the only international agreement standing between intrepid startups like Make Sunsets and their plans to try to save — or imperil — the world.

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The Takeaway

We have written extensively about geoengineering here at CleanTechnica over the years. Senior executive editor Zachary Shahan estimates we have written more than half million words long on the topic. Last fall, an author I hold in the highest regard said, “Since the start of this year, solar geoengineering, sometimes known as solar radiation modification (SRM), has been the whole or partial focus of reports published by the European Commission and Parliament, the American government, the Climate Overshoot Commission, and four separate parts of the UN. A common thread in all of them was that, given the world’s failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions fast enough, the pros and cons of SRM should be properly examined.”

In other words, it may be the least worst solution to humanity’s inability to get out of the way of an onrushing train. But there are so many things we don’t know. We are talking about the survival of the human race and if we muck it up, the consequences will be disastrous. Catastrophic might be a better way of putting it. It hardly lends itself to a couple of tech bros running around the desert and having a “hold my beer moment.”

Zeke Hausfather is a climate scientist of some note. This week he told Bill McKibben, “My own position on the issue remains relatively unchanged. It’s worth doing more research to have it as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option for halting warming, but large scale deployments today are a bad idea.”

My old Irish grandfather had an expression for this sort of situation. He would say, “Son, that’s an idea. It’s no damned good but it is an idea!” Oil and gas and coal are our heroin and we are addicts. We are so screwed.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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