Why Billionaires Are Obsessed With Solar Geoengineering End-shutdown

TOn the Munich Security Conference last week, George Soros took the stage to speak about the existential risk that climate change poses to human civilization, as well as what seemed to be the 92-year-old Hungarian-American billionaire’s preferred method of address it: illuminate the clouds over the Arctic to reflect the sun’s energy away from the melting polar caps. But aside from questions about whether Soros, ridiculously maligned in conspiracy-minded right-wing circles, is the best proponent of solar geoengineering, he’s not the only billionaire recently interested in returning the sun’s rays to space. Among the world’s ultra-rich, plans to reject the sun’s rays as if they were capital gains taxes (to, as it were, apply a generous help of sunscreen to the earth’s atmosphere) have apparently been all the rage.

Bill Gates, for example, endorsed 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 eventually canceled after protests by local indigenous groups and environmentalists). Jeff Bezos put the capabilities of Amazon’s supercomputer work modeling the effects of plans to inject large amounts of sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere later that year. Earlier this month, Dustin Moskovitz, a billionaire co-founder of Facebook, invested $900,000 in funding for scientists in Mali, Brazil, Thailand and other countries to study the potential effects of solar geoengineering. Even the smallest fry are getting in on the action, with venture capitalists giving a total of $750,000 to a company that commits to implementing a planetary solar geoengineering project using SO2. That company, Make Sunsets, conducted its first tests in the US last week, launching balloons containing SO2 in Nevada.

Such proposals to essentially hack into the atmosphere, known as solar geoengineering, have long been controversial in the world of climate science due to potential spillover effects on global climate. feasibility concernsand the risks of so-called “moral hazard,” essentially the concern that promoting the potential for a quick fix could distract political pressure and popular will to address the underlying problem of carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.

read more: Inside a controversial startup’s risky attempt to control our climate

Basically, the situation is this: emissions cuts are plan A for climate action. It’s a no-brainer: we’re spewing millions of tons of planet-warming gases into the atmosphere, and we really need to stop it. It’s actually a plan B to E as well. Plan F (an awfully dangerous plan by comparison) would be to stop trying to reduce emissions now and instead hope that putting different chemicals, like sulfur dioxide, into the atmosphere nullifies the effects. . But with time running out and global emissions still heading in the wrong direction, the scientific debate has changed in recent years; Some scientists argue that we should at least do some work to better understand that risky option in Plan F, should we ever have to use it (the White House, for example, 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; basically, if emissions cuts don’t come fast enough, we can look to geoengineering to flatten the peak of global temperatures in the short term and then ease it off. as emissions fall and the earth begins to absorb some of the billions of tons of carbon we have pumped into the skies.

Some of the billionaires interested in solar geoengineering probably understand the pros and cons, or are being advised by people who do, and the changing scientific debate is likely driving where their money is flowing. The plan Soros is touting, for example, is one put forward by Sir David King, a former UK government chief scientific adviser: that a fleet of ships positioned around the Arctic could spray salty water into the sky that could help form the sun. blocking clouds.

But there are likely other reasons why, if you’re someone with a net worth equal to the government budgets of some nations, geoengineering might appeal to you. On the one hand, many of these people made their money in technology, and have absorbed the ethos that neat engineering solutions are the solution to most of life’s ills. And then there’s the fact that tackling climate change will require a truly mammoth global effort. Part of that involves changing things we already do, like transitioning our power plants from fossil fuels to renewable energy and switching from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles. But part of this may also involve much more fundamental changes around what and how we consume, an understanding that society cannot simply exist as a project to extract ever greater amounts of resources without eventually hitting some kind of wall. . If your life story involved working really hard at a few things in your 20s, and then paying it off so substantially that you can spend the rest of your life working on passion projects while everyone around you tells you that you’re an amazing, great genius. you are, you probably are not, at a fundamental level, overly enthusiastic about some kind of change at the societal level. In his experience, things have worked very well, so what we’re doing now is probably pretty good. But also this climate change thing is definitely not good. to do

Solar geoengineering may seem like an answer to that question. Spraying a couple of million tons of SO2 into the stratosphere is terrifying to some, but to others, the idea is comforting, an assurance that there really is a quick fix to climate change, that we can try, roll the atmospheric dice. some neat technical solution, and then keep 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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write to Alejandro de la Garza to alejandro.delagarza@time.com.

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