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How Bill Gates-Funded Solar Geoengineering Could Help End Climate Change

How Bill Gates-Funded Solar Geoengineering Could Help End Climate Change

The record-number of fires burning
across Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has prompted renewed global outcry over
climate change and big spending. Five million dollars from Leonardo DiCaprio,
10 million pounds from the U.K. Meanwhile, Bill Gates is
backing the first high-altitude experiment of one radical climate change solution,
creating a massive chemical cloud that could cool the earth. It’s
called solar geoengineering, and it’s highly controversial. How long will it be that
countries keep experiencing these climate impacts before someone gets desperate and says, hey,
we need to cool the planet with solar geoengineering? It would look something like this: thousands
of planes would fly very high and use nozzles to inject millions
of tons of light-reflecting particles into the stratosphere. It would create
a thin chemical cloud of those particles around the whole planet,
blocking some sunlight from reaching the surface. It would mimic a giant
volcanic eruption, which we know cools the earth. Back in 1991, Mount
Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines. It was the largest eruption to
affect a densely populated area, creating avalanches and giant mud flows that left
more than 700 dead and 30,000 homeless. It also spewed a cloud of
20 million tons of sulfur dioxide particles into the stratosphere. That chemical cloud was hundreds of miles
across and reflected about 2% of sunlight back to space. And in 1992, the earth
was cooler than in 1991. That is part of the mechanism. But you do this in a controlled way. Modeling studies have found that it
could reduce the intensity of heat waves, for instance. Apparently it could reduce the
rate of sea level rise. It could reduce the
intensity of tropical storms. But it also comes with
significant risks and uncertainties. Things like mass famine, mass flooding,
drought of kinds that will affect very large populations. It could weaken monsoons in India,
China and Africa enough to affect crops. It could eradicate blue sky. You start increasing the amount of diffused
light and you have less direct light, which is the same thing as
saying it looks hazy and white. And if the global community
decides it should stop? So you stop injecting it and after a
year, the cloud is gone and you get this rapid warming at a rate much faster
than you would get if we had done nothing. If you’ve taken out the greenhouse
gases that are adding to the warming, then the temperature won’t go
up and stay what it is. So if we don’t stop emitting
greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we don’t try as hard as we can to
do that, then there’s no point in doing solar geoengineering. A 2016 opinion poll conducted by
the Harvard group doing solar geoengineering research found that 67 %
of subjects support its use. One reason this technology
is appealing it’s cheap. One study estimates it would
cost an average of $2.25 billion globally every year for the
first 15 years of deployment. Compare that to the half
a trillion dollars the U.S. government estimates it will
cost just the U.S. by 2100 if no action is taken
against climate change, or the $1.6 to $3.8 trillion projected global spending
by 2050 on low-carbon energy production. You can also compare it
to direct air carbon capturing, another climate change solution backed by
Bill Gates and by big oil. It involves sucking billions of tons of
carbon out of the air and at $100-$200 a ton, it
could be big business. Solar geoengineering, on the other hand,
is so cheap that nobody currently stands to make money
from the process. But just because a solution is cheap doesn’t
make it make it a good one. It’s cheap and dangerous. It doesn’t require a
lot of materials. It doesn’t require a big innovation. It basically affects the whole
planet with one project. So that is not necessarily a situation
that has a lot of profit opportunity, right? Because there’s not gonna be a lot of
different people that can do it and compete in a marketplace. Bill Gates is among a dozen
individual donors and 14 foundations backing the first stratospheric solar geoengineering
experiment out of Harvard. It’s called Stratospheric Controlled
Perturbation Experiment, or SCoPEx. A high-altitude balloon will lift instruments
about 20 kilometers into the stratosphere, where it will release less
than two kilograms of different naturally occurring chemicals like calcium
carbonate and sulfates, and then measure the change in
atmospheric chemistry and light scattering. The Harvard group that runs SCoPEx
and other experiments has raised more than 16 million dollars, more than
double any other solar geoengineering effort. And annual global funding has gone
up from $1 million in 2008 to $8 million in 2018, with the majority
of that funding coming from the U.S. The first phase of SCoPEx will cost
around $3 million, with much more needed for wider research
on solar geoengineering. To this point, stratosphere injections have
only been tested with climate modeling. In the U.K., a government-funded solar radiation management
test called SPICE was cancelled in 2012 because
of issues with patents. And we’re not trying to develop any
technology that is patented or where we want to make money
with this later on. A study last year found that
no existing aircraft can inject the stratosphere at a
high enough altitude. But developing a new high-altitude
tanker would not be technologically difficult or prohibitively expensive. Nozzles still need to be designed
that can continuously blast out trillions of particles. And scientists still
need to decide what chemicals those particles should be made of. But unlike cloud brightening, which
is another solar reflection technique, the tech needed for stratospheric
injections is not far off. The technology is not the main
thing that’s holding this back. The main thing that’s holding it back
is the uncertainty about what the exact effects would be and the positives
and negatives of its effects and the governance and decision making
process for implementing it. Other radical attempts to control climate
change have been tested in the past. Like when one California businessman dumped
100 tons of iron dust in the Pacific to spawn the
growth of carbon-absorbing plankton. But unlike small, sometimes
rogue experiments, planet-wide solar geoengineering will require buy-in
from the international community. You know, in our simulations, we found
China got warmer and drier relative to the past when you stabilize global
temperature and India was now cooler and wetter. So you can see
there how, you know, international relations around using this technology
could become complicated. I mean, we can’t even decide on
what to do about emissions of greenhouse gases. And so how are we going
to decide on setting the planetary thermostat? There’s this real concern that we won’t
be able to reach agreement, we being the entire planet. And so there’s the prospect that countries
just go ahead and do solar geoengineering. And that causes
disagreement, conflict, tension, even possibly war. Three years ago, the international community
did come together when almost 200 countries signed the Paris Agreement
on climate change, agreeing to limit global temperature rise to
less than two degrees Celsius. Since then, President Trump has stated
his intent to withdraw from the agreement. The Paris Climate accord is simply
the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that
disadvantages the United States. And global emissions are not being
reduced fast enough to reach these goals. We know what we should be doing. What we should be doing
is reducing carbon emissions. So we’re creating a moral hazard. We are providing an out for you where
you can say, well, I’m going to fix this technologically instead of doing the
ethically right thing to do. It’s way too early to give up
on much more ethical approaches to climate change. If future generations were literally in
the room to question us on our dubious arguments, we wouldn’t get far
with some of the kinds of arguments we’re trying to offer
for neglecting conventional climate policy and going down this path. For now, the failure to rapidly
reduce emissions has prompted more exploration of alternative solutions like
carbon dioxide removal and solar geoengineering. But scientists warn we
will still need to reduce emissions, too. If we’re not cutting CO2 emissions at
the same time, from my perspective, there is little point in doing this
because you would have to start using ever increasing amounts. No responsible scientist says that
it’s a silver bullet. All the responsible scientists say this is
something that we deploy if we had to, alongside all the other stuff
that we already have to do. The U.S. Academies of Sciences is holding
a series of meetings to study solar geoengineering, including one
at Stanford this month. The committee will issue a report
next year with recommendations for how or if solar geoengineering
research should continue. Some scientists say the research is
necessary in order to arm future generations with the ability to enact
this backup plan, even though it seems nearly impossible now. We ought to start working on
this solar climate engineering problem right now with as much urgency as we can so
that if we want to deploy it in a decade or so, we understand
what we have to do. This is a real moral horror, especially
in a situation where we’re not doing all the things that we could
be doing to minimize the risks of climate catastrophe now. But experts do agree that more
public awareness is needed around solar geoengineering, because within a couple decades,
for better or worse, it could be part of the solution
helping return the planet to pre-industrial temperatures. Modeling evidence gathered over the
last decade has pretty consistently found that a moderate amount
of solar geoengineering could significantly reduce many of the
impacts of climate change. But it can’t be a solution because
it doesn’t return the climate system back to how it was. It doesn’t
do anything about things like ocean acidification. So whatever happens, we’ve got
to cut our CO2 to zero. So right now, we need more research
to understand this better and a broader conversation so that all of the
world’s nations have a seat at the table when this is discussed.

1 comment on “How Bill Gates-Funded Solar Geoengineering Could Help End Climate Change

  1. It's sad when people have to make a profit to do something for our planet. Isn't keeping the Earth safe and healthy profit enough?

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