Startup Releasing Particles Into Atmosphere To Tweak Climate

Make Sunsets is already making an effort to monetize geoengineering, a move that is expected to draw harsh condemnation. The startup is releasing particles into atmosphere to tweak the climate.

Startup Releasing Particles Into Atmosphere To Tweak Climate

Apparently breaking a contentious barrier in the realm of solar geoengineering, a firm claims to have launched weather balloons that may have dispersed reflective sulfur particles in the stratosphere.

Geoengineering refers to intentional attempts to control the climate by reflecting more sunlight back into space, a natural phenomenon that occurs following major volcanic eruptions. In principle, spraying sulfur and related particles in large enough numbers could help to mitigate global warming.

Such substances are not theoretically challenging to release into the stratosphere. However, scientists have mainly (though not fully) avoided doing even small-scale outside research. And it is unclear whether anyone has yet injected materials into that exact layer of the atmosphere as part of geoengineering studies.

This is due in part to the fact that it is highly contentious. Little is known about the real-world impact of such large-scale purposeful operations, although they could have hazardous side consequences. The effects could also be more severe in some locations than others, potentially sparking geopolitical strife.

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Some long-term researchers are profoundly concerned that the company, Make Sunsets, appears to have proceeded forward with launches from a facility in Mexico without any public involvement or scientific assessment. It is already seeking to offer “cooling credits” for future balloon flights with greater payloads.

Several researchers contacted by MIT Technology Review criticized the endeavor to market geoengineering at this early stage. According to several potential investors and customers who have evaluated the company’s proposal, it is not a legitimate scientific effort or a credible firm, but rather an attention grab meant to create controversy in the industry.

Make Sunsets cofounder and CEO Luke Iseman admits that the initiative is partly entrepreneurial and partly provocation, a form of geoengineering activism.

He hopes that by going forward in the contentious domain, the business will help drive public debate and advance a scientific field that has struggled to conduct small-scale field studies in the face of criticism.

“We joke slash not joke that this is partly a company and partly a cult,” he says.

Iseman, who was once the director of hardware at Y Combinator, says he anticipates being vilified by geoengineering opponents as well as researchers in the discipline, and he acknowledges that “making me look like the Bond villain is going to be helpful to certain groups.” However, he asserts that more drastic solutions are now necessary because climate change poses such a serious threat and because global efforts to address the underlying issue have advanced so slowly.

“It’s morally wrong, in my opinion, for us not to be doing this,” he says. What’s important is “to do this as quickly and safely as we can.”

Wildly premature

However, some specialists in the subject believe that such initiatives are grossly premature and may have the opposite impact of what Iseman anticipates.

In an email, Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, stated that “the current state of science is not good enough … to either reject, or to accept, let alone implement” solar geoengineering. The project advocates for government, international treaties, and scientific agencies to oversee geoengineering and other climate-altering technology. “To go ahead with implementation at this stage is a very bad idea,” he added, drawing parallels with Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s choice to use CRISPR to modify the DNA of embryos as the scientific community debated the safety and ethics of such a measure.

The actions of Make Sunset, according to Shuchi Talati, a scholar in residence at American University who is establishing a nonprofit organization concentrating on governance and justice in solar geoengineering, could slow the progress of science by reducing funding, reducing government support for reliable research, and advancing demands to limit studies.

The company’s actions confirm long-held concerns that a “rogue” actor could unilaterally decide to geoengineer the climate without any kind of agreement on whether it is acceptable to do so—or what the right global average temperature should be—and without any special knowledge of atmospheric science or the repercussions of the technology. That is due to the fact that it is, at least crudely, inexpensive and technically straightforward to perform.

Political scientist David Victor from the University of California, San Diego foresaw this possibility more than ten years ago. He referred to the Goldfinger character from a 1964 James Bond film, who is best known for murdering a woman by painting her gold, and claimed that a “Greenfinger, self-appointed protector of the planet … could force a lot of geoengineering on his own.”

Make Sunsets has drawn comparisons to an incident that occurred ten years ago when an American businessman reportedly dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate into the water in an effort to create a plankton bloom that would benefit salmon populations and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The practice is known as iron fertilization, and critics claim it breached international regulations on the practice, which were partly motivated by an increase in business proposals to sell carbon credits for such activities. Some people think that it later hindered field research activities.

Pasztor and others emphasized that Make Sunset’s initiatives highlight the critical need for broad-based supervision and clear standards for responsible geoengineering research, as well as help evaluate whether or not there should be a societal permission to proceed with tests or beyond. According to MIT Technology Review, the Biden administration is working on a federal research plan that will guide scientists as they conduct geoengineering research.

Balloon launches

The first two balloon launches, according to Iseman’s own account, were quite elementary. He claims they happened in April, a few months before Make Sunsets was officially formed in October, somewhere in the state of Baja California. Iseman claims to have filled weather balloons with a few grams of sulfur dioxide and the amount of helium he thought would be necessary to lift the balloons into the stratosphere.

At that altitude, he anticipated that they would rupture under pressure and let the particles out. However, because there was no monitoring gear on board the balloons, it is unclear whether that occurred, where the balloons wound up, or what influence the particles had. Iseman further confesses that prior to the first two launches, no permission from any governmental or scientific organizations in Mexico or elsewhere was sought.

“This was firmly in science project territory,” he says, adding: “Basically, it was to confirm that I could do it.”

An environmental, humanitarian, or other kind of organisation might employ this straightforward balloon strategy to implement a distributed, do-it-yourself geoengineering program, according to a 2018 white paper.

Make Sunsets plans to increase the sulfur payloads in its upcoming efforts, add telemetry hardware and other sensors, eventually switch to reusable balloons, and share data after launches.

The business is already making an effort to earn profit off the cooling effects of upcoming flights. It is promoting the sale of $10 “cooling credits” for each gram of particles released into the stratosphere, which it claims is sufficient to counteract the warming effect of one ton of carbon for a year.

“What I want to do is create as much cooling as quickly as I responsibly can, over the rest of my life, frankly,” Iseman says, adding later that they will deploy as much sulfur in 2023 as “we can get customers to pay us” for.

According to the firm, it has received $750,000 in capital from sources including Boost VC and Pioneer Fund, and some of its initial investors have also been buying cooling credits.

‘A terrible idea’

Talati harshly criticized the company’s scientific claims, emphasizing that there is too much ambiguity at this point in the research process for anyone to offer credits that claim to represent such a precise per-gram result.

“What they’re claiming to actually accomplish with such a credit is the entirety of what’s uncertain right now about geoengineering,” she says.

In agreement was Kelly Wanser, executive director of SilverLining, a nonprofit organization that funds studies on the hazards posed by climate change and potential remedies.

“From a business perspective, reflective cooling effects and risks cannot currently be quantified in any meaningful way, making the offering a speculative form of ‘junk credit’ that is unlikely to have value to climate credit markets,” she wrote in an email.

Talati continues, calling Make Sunsets’ claims that they are operating in the public interest disingenuous given that they have not meaningfully engaged the public, particularly those who would be impacted by their actions.

“They’re violating the rights of communities to dictate their own future,” she says.

According to David Keith, one of the world’s foremost specialists in solar geoengineering, the quantity of material in question—less than 10 grams of sulfur every trip—poses no actual risk to the environment; a commercial flight can spew up to 100 grams per minute, he says. Keith and his colleagues at Harvard University have been working for years to advance SCoPEx, a small-scale stratospheric experiment that has been repeatedly postponed.

However, he claims that any attempt to patent or sell credits for the release of core geoengineering technologies, as well as any other form of privatization, worries him because, as he stated in a previous blog post, “commercial development cannot produce the level of transparency and trust the world needs to make sensible decisions about deployment.”

According to Keith, a private corporation would have financial incentives to exaggerate the advantages, minimize the risks, and keep offering its services even after the earth cools to below preindustrial levels.

“Doing it as a startup is a terrible idea,” he says.

The business claims that it is basing its operations on the most up-to-date modeling research and that it will modify its procedures as it learns more. It also expects to work with governments and industry leaders to help direct these initiatives as it scales up.

“We are convinced solar [geoengineeering] is the only feasible path to staying below 2 ˚C [of warming over preindustrial levels], and we will work with the scientific community to deploy this life-saving tool as safely and quickly as possible,” Iseman said in an email.

A study, which was published in the journal PLOS Biology on February 3, looked at 91 studies on the impact of ocean acidification on fish behaviour. It discovered that higher-quality research revealed fewer effects on fish behaviour, and that the studies with the most striking results had tiny sample sizes, rendering them statistically unreliable.

But detractors emphasize that the business should have engaged with experts and the public before injecting material into stratosphere and attempting to sell cooling credits, and that it is now likely to get a cold response from many of those groups.

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1 COMMENT

  1. It is a silly-con con. The tech-centric math-heads, sans real world experience or understanding of the depth and breadth of Mother Earth’s internals can easily be compared to giving a Rolex to a 7 year old and telling that almost person to take it apart and put it together without damage to the mechanism…AND IF SUCCESSFUL, YOU GET A GAZILLION DOLLARS!

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