A startup is launching weather balloons capable of releasing reflective sulfur particles into the earth’s atmosphere, with the stated aim of combating climate change through solar geoengineering, while disregarding the negative consequences of such actions.
In solar geoengineering, attempts are made to manipulate the climate by reflecting more sunlight away from earth. Theoretically, releasing sulfur and other such compounds is believed to potentially cool down the planet. Back in 1991, for example, when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, it released large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere that spread around the world and triggered a 1-degree Fahrenheit cooling for the next 15 months. The California-based startup, Make Sunsets, is believed to have launched the weather balloons from Mexico.
In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Make Sunsets CEO Luke Iseman said that he expects to be characterized as a “Bond villain” for what the company is doing. But he insists that climate change is a threat, and that since the world is moving slowly to address the problem, a more radical solution is needed.
“It’s morally wrong, in my opinion, for us not to be doing this,” Iseman said. What’s important is “to do this as quickly and safely as we can.”
Make Sunsets is attempting to make revenue out of its efforts, seeking to sell $10 “cooling credits” for releasing a gram of particles into the atmosphere. The startup has raised $750,000 in funding. It plans on raising the sulfur payload in the future as well as using telemetry devices and other sensors.
A 2018 blog by David Keith, a leading expert on solar geoengineering, explains that he is opposed to commercial work on such technologies due to the fact that commercial development cannot achieve the transparency and trust that is necessary for the world to make decisions on the matter.
Solar geoengineering must only be done by “transparent democratic institutions,” he insisted.
“Solar geoengineering is large-scale climate modification which inherently has global consequences that are difficult to quantify even after deployment. DAC [direct air capture] results in emissions reductions (carbon-neutral synthetic fuels) or net CO2 removal (sequestration), with local impacts that can be measured with reasonable accuracy,” he wrote.
In an interview with MIT, Shuchi Talati, a scholar-in-residence at American University, says that Make Sunset’s actions could end up negatively affecting scientific study on the matter, even leading to reduced funding, boosting calls for restricting such studies, and decreasing government support for it.
“The current state of science is not good enough … to either reject, or to accept, let alone implement [solar geoengineering] … To go ahead with implementation at this stage is a very bad idea,” Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, said in an email to the media outlet.
Solar geoengineering can have devastating consequences for human beings. Such attempts can end up altering the global hydrological cycle, affecting monsoon activity. This can affect agriculture and food security.
Reflecting sunlight to cool down the earth might also make people carelessly pump out more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Excessive CO2 can cause acidification of the oceans.
Moreover, if solar geoengineering were to be stopped suddenly after using it for some time, it could lead to global warming at 10 times more speed.
Solar geoengineering can reduce rainfall on some parts of the earth, thereby affecting the local ecosystem. This would be particularly harmful to evergreen forests and tropical ecosystems.
A change in rainfall, for example, can negatively affect vegetation, which would be bad news for the wildlife that survives on them.