At the Munich Security Conference last week, George Soros got onstage to talk about the existential risk that climate change poses to human civilization, as well as what appeared to be the 92-year-old Hungarian-American billionaire’s preferred method of addressing it: brightening the clouds over the Arctic to reflect the sun’s energy away from the melting ice caps. But questions aside as to whether Soros—ludicrously maligned in conspiracy-minded right-wing circles—is the best advocate for solar geoengineering, he’s not the only billionaire who’s recently become interested in bouncing the sun’s rays back into space. Among the world’s ultra-rich, plans to swat back the sun’s rays like they’re capital gains taxes (to, as it were, apply a generous helping of sunblock to the earth’s atmosphere) have seemingly been all the rage.
Bill Gates, for instance, backed a project by Harvard University scientists to test an idea to spray calcium carbonate into the atmosphere in the skies over northern Scandinavia in 2021 (the project was ultimately canned after outcry from local Indigenous groups and environmentalists). Jeff Bezos put Amazon’s supercomputer capabilities to work modeling the effects of plans to inject huge amounts of sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere later that year. Earlier this month, Dustin Moskovitz, a billionaire Facebook cofounder, plowed $900,000 into funding for scientists in Mali, Brazil, Thailand, and other countries to study the potential effects of solar geoengineering. Even the smaller fry are getting in on the action, with venture capitalists giving a combined $750,000 to a company pledging to implement a planetary solar geoengineering project using SO2. That company, Make Sunsets, conducted its first U.S.-based tests last week, launching balloons containing SO2 in Nevada.
Such proposals to essentially hack the atmosphere, known as solar geoengineering, have long been controversial in the climate science world due to potential side effects on global weather, feasibility concerns, and risks of the so called “moral hazard”—essentially the worry that promoting the potential of a quick fix solution could distract political pressure and popular will from addressing the underlying problem of carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Basically, the situation is as follows: emissions cuts are the plan A of climate action. It’s a no-brainer: we’re hurling millions of tons of planet-warming gasses into the atmosphere, and we really need to just stop it. It’s really also plan B through E. Plan F (a horribly dangerous plan by comparison) would be to give up on trying to cut emissions now and instead hope that putting different chemicals, like sulfur dioxide, into the atmosphere will roughly cancel out the effects. But with time running out and global emissions still going in the wrong direction, the scientific debate has shifted in recent years; some scientists are arguing that we should at least do some work to better understand that risky plan F option, just in case we end up having to use it (the White House, for instance, has developed a five-year research plan to study it). Other scientists have argued that some amount of solar geoengineering can work as a kind of climate stopgap—essentially, that if emissions cuts don’t come fast enough, we can pursue geoengineering to flatten the peak of global temperatures in the short term, then ease off as emissions fall and the earth starts to absorb some of the billions of tons of carbon we’ve pumped into the skies.
Some of the billionaires keen on solar geoengineering probably understand the trade-offs, or are being advised by people who do, and the shifting scientific debate is likely what’s steering where their money is flowing. The plan Soros touted, for instance, is one being put forward by Sir David King, a former chief scientific advisor to the U.K. government: that a fleet of boats positioned around the Arctic could spray salt water into the sky which could help form sun-blocking clouds.
But there are likely other reasons that, if you’re an individual with a net worth equivalent to some nations’ government budgets, geoengineering might appeal to you. For one thing, a lot of these people made their money in tech, and they’ve absorbed the ethos that neat engineering fixes are the solution for most of life’s ills. And then there’s the fact that addressing climate change is going to take a truly gargantuan global effort. Part of that involves changing things we already do, like transitioning our power plants from fossil fuels to renewable energy and trading-in gasoline powered cars for electric vehicles. But part of it may also entail much more fundamental changes around what and how we consume—an understanding that society can’t simply exist as a project to extract ever-greater quantities of resources without, eventually, hitting some sort of wall. If your life story involved working really hard on some stuff in your 20s, and then it paying off so substantially that you’re able to spend the rest of your life working on passion projects while everyone around you tells you what an awesome, cool genius you are, you’re probably not, on a fundamental level, too excited about some sort of society-level change. In your experience, things have worked out really well, so therefore the thing we’ve got going right now is probably pretty good. But also this climate change stuff is definitively not-good. What to do?
Solar geoengineering can seem like an answer to that question. Spraying a couple million tons of SO2 into the stratosphere is scary to some, but for others, the idea is comforting, a reassurance that there really is a quick fix for climate change, that we can just try it out, roll the atmospheric dice on some neat tech-fix, and then get on with doing things basically the same way we’ve been doing them up until now. Hey, it’s worked pretty well so far, at least for some.
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