Make Sunsets, Luke Iseman’s startup that has at least $500,000 in venture money, has been conducting geoengineering experiments to cool the earth.
Luke Iseman spoke with specialists in the field while he was considering starting a solar geoengineering company. The greatest piece of advise he got was to avoid using the word “geoengineering.”
The phrase refers to modifying Earth’s climate for human benefit, but in recent years it has also come to stand in for “solar geoengineering,” which is the release of chemicals into the atmosphere in an effort to deflect sunlight away from the planet and lessen its warming effects. Because it hasn’t been thoroughly investigated, it is debatable because we don’t know if the unexpected consequences will be better or worse than the effects of climate change.
Make Sunsets, Iseman’s startup that has at least $500,000 in venture money, primarily navigates the hot-button word on its website.
“We make reflective, high-altitude, biodegradable clouds that cool the planet. Mimicking natural processes, our ‘shiny clouds’ are going to prevent catastrophic global warming,” reads the site’s About page. On the FAQ page, Make Sunsets calls what it is doing “albedo enhancement,” a scientific term for reflecting sunlight.
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Iseman, though, addressed it directly in an interview.
“I’m very opposed to geoengineering. I want no geoengineering to occur,” Iseman told CNBC. “Unfortunately, I was born into a world with a poorly geoengineered atmosphere where I, and everyone before me for the last couple hundred years, were emitting huge quantities of carbon dioxide to build the modern world. So I want to do as little geoengineering as necessary to fix that.”
I’m doing this because it needs to be done. And no one else is.LUKE ISEMAN, FOUNDER, MAKE SUNSETS
Launching balloons in Baja and selling ‘cooling credits’
Make Sunsets intends to send three latex weather balloons into the air in January, each of which will spew between 10 and 500 grammes of sulphur dioxide. A flight tracking computer, a geolocating tracking device, and a camera—mostly supplied by hobbyist vendors be included in the balloons. Make Sunsets will provide information about what it was able to find on its website within a week of each flight.
Iseman is an experienced doer. Among his other initiatives are tiny homes made out of shipping containers, a solar-powered, wifi-connected garden sensor, and biochar kilns that were developed, invented, built, and deployed in rural Kenya. Iseman served as the director of hardware at Y Combinator, the top Silicon Valley startup incubator, for an entire year and a half.
He is currently off the grid in Baja, Mexico, on property he purchased a few years ago, where he keeps tinkering. There are 40 projects he wants to create or test, including a solar-assisted composting toilet with time and temperature monitoring, freediving safety equipment, and a floating solar panel, listed in a publicly accessible Google document.
The original purpose of Make Sunsets was to quickly and inexpensively evaluate solar geoengineering.
Iseman claims that the academic consensus begins with investing $20 billion over ten years in the construction of a high-altitude jet or the placement of mirrors in orbit.
For him, that wasn’t practical enough. “Here in reality, I was like, ‘OK, what can I buy, ideally, on my credit card, ideally on Amazon, to see if I can even do this?’ Maybe I’m missing something fundamental about how hard this is.”
Using a 6-foot weather balloon, sulfur, a stainless steel kitchen pot with a lid, a pump that he removed from a water dispenser, and a tank of helium, Iseman conducted his own crude experiment back in April. (That experiment can been seen in the photo here.)
A co-founder of the San Mateo-based venture capital firm BoostVC, Brayton Williams, told CNBC that his company invested $500,000 in Make Sunsets because it was moved by Iseman’s commitment and because addressing climate change is the kind of significant, challenging issue the company prefers to take on.
“We have invested in companies working on banking the unbanked of Latin America, eradicating heart disease, abundant nuclear energy, one-hour global travel and many, many more,” Williams told CNBC. “These are moonshot opportunities, but if they work they really do make a huge positive impact on the world.”
Williams acknowledges that the investment carries some risk, but he emphasises that the firm is still in its infancy and that the specifics may alter over time.
“I always encourage people to not judge an early stage two-person startup like you might a public entity,” Williams said. “If nothing else, I hope Make Sunsets helps encourage a bunch more founders to take action to really make a positive impact on our planet.”
Also providing venture capital money to Make Sunsets was Pioneer Fund, which declined to comment when contacted.
‘Crazy yes, but perhaps sign of the times?’
Because there are currently no international governance rules for solar geoengineering, Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, largely disparaged the Make Sunsets idea.
However, he is not shocked that someone is doing it.
“This all sounds crazy. A for-profit company trying to make money by cooling the planet. Crazy, yes, but perhaps a sign of the times?” Pasztor told CNBC. “The climate crisis is getting worse by the day. The world is getting — and will continue to get — warmer. Governments are not taking their responsibilities seriously enough. And we live in a capitalist society where actors make money in many different ways, like it or not. So how surprising is this?”
UCLA’s Parson expressed his lack of surprise in a blog article for Legal Planet. For a few years, many who follow discussions of active climate solutions have been anticipating — and worrying about — something similar.
The climate crisis is getting worse by the day. The world is getting – and will continue to get — warmer. Governments are not taking their responsibilities seriously enough. And we live in a capitalist society where actors make money in many different ways, like it or not. So how surprising is this?Janos Pasztor, CARNEGIE CLIMATE GOVERNANCE INITIATIVE
Experts in the field are against what they view as reckless and dangerous boundary pushing, which may or may not come as a surprise.
Harvard professor David Keith, who has been researching the issue since the late 1980s, claimed that it “makes no sense as a business or as a statement.”
Keith stated on Twitter that trust is a key concern with solar geoengineering and that it must be properly gained. This was in response to an earlier article about Make Sunsets in the MIT Technology Review.
“There is no reasonable doubt that commercial-off-the-shelf tech could be adapted to cool the planet at a tiny cost using strat aerosols. Science suggests benefits could be far larger than risks,” Keith wrote. “But the research community is thin and distrust is widespread. Trust must be earned with a far broader, more inclusive research effort, one that makes systematic efforts to look for errors and uncertainty.”
Because solar geoengineering has global effects, Pasztor thinks it is improper for one organisation to advance without careful governance systems and support from a wide range of parties.
According to Parson, the balloon launches are not sufficiently defined to yield accurate research results. He also thinks a private corporation shouldn’t be responsible for adding sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere.
Iseman also has some concerns about solar geoengineering being overseen by a for-profit organisation. However, he does not believe that global governments will coordinate and collaborate in a timely manner.
“While we don’t have meaningful enough international cooperation for something like the UN to run this right now, we do have plenty of companies that dominate their category worldwide. So as as depressing philosophically as that sounds, the most likely way that I think this will happen is that one company gets the social permission and government sign off — or at least turning a blind eye — to do this worldwide,” Iseman told CNBC.
“That is millions of lives and hundreds of thousands of species saved — compared to not doing this at all,” Iseman said.