Sweden may soon be the site for a test of geoengineering technology.Photograph by Markus Thomenius / Alamy
ometime in the next two weeks, an independent advisory committee is expected to issue a recommendation on a request from a team of Harvard scientists to fly a balloon from Kiruna, in Sweden’s Lapland region. The team would test a flight platform that might someday be used to inject a sample of aerosols into the stratosphere. Though this initial request is only for a test of a flight platform, a successful run would likely mean more tests, with aerosols of calcium carbonate and sulfates. These particles could hack the planet’s climate, by reflecting some of the sun’s light back out to space before it can reach the ground. It’s an ominous moment in the planet’s history—and one we should back away from for now.
This so-called solar geoengineering is the ultimate, break-the-glass response to the climate crisis. It’s been in the air, so to speak, for a long time (I wrote about it in 1989, in “The End of Nature”), but the fullest account yet comes in my colleague Elizabeth Kolbert’s marvellous new book, “Under a White Sky.”
The title acknowledges the fact that this atmospheric hack could change the blue dome above our heads to a milky gray—which should give you some sense of the scale of the intervention. The argument in its favor is that humanity has done so little to address the climate crisis, despite thirty years of scientific warning, that we might have no choice but to follow our injection of CO2 with an injection of sulfate aerosols. Think of it as Narcan, on a global scale. “Geoengineering is not something to do lightly,” Harvard’s Daniel Schrag told Kolbert. “The reason we’re thinking about it is because the real world has dealt us a shitty hand.”
Indeed, it’s possible to imagine how this happens—possible to imagine some moment in the future when it’s in the survival interest of both, say, the Marshall Islands and ExxonMobil, and they possess enough moral and financial clout to send us down this path, one fraught not just with metaphysical danger (a white sky?!) but with enormous practical risk. This man-made equivalent of a permanent cloud of volcanic ash might disrupt the monsoons over Asia; it will definitely allow the oceans to continue acidifying; and, as the climate scientist and geophysicist Raymond Pierrehumbert points out, it gets us ever farther out on a limb, because, if we’re masking increasing carbon with sulfur, we’ll never be able to stop without triggering a period of accelerated warming. “The disastrous consequences of termination shock would grow as we cower year after year under the flimsy stratospheric sunshade,” he wrote, “hoping that technology to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere on a massive scale becomes practical before disaster strikes.” It’s also worth imagining how whoever does engineer the sky will be blamed for every weather disaster henceforth—it’s bad enough trying to deal with the cascade of nonsense about green energy causing the Texas power outages.
It would be stupid to say that we will never need to consider a step this horrible: Kim Stanley Robinson, in his masterly new novel “The Ministry for the Future,” makes it a plot point. After an epic Indian heat wave claims millions of lives, Delhi launches a fleet of aerosol-spewing aircraft to cool the planet. But right now, in the real world, progressing with this kind of work takes the heat off our political systems at precisely the moment—to the month—when they’re finally beginning to get into gear. The United States, the world’s largest economy, has finally assembled the will to tackle global warming: last week’s initial meeting of the federal climate team under Gina McCarthy was a Zoom screenshot of what concentrated power in service of the future might look like. Engineers have provided us with cheap solar and wind power, and with affordable batteries to store that power. This means that, if we want to, as a civilization, we can devote the next decade to an all-out effort to transform our energy system. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that, if we do—if we cut our emissions forty-five per cent from 2010 levels by 2030—then we have a shot at limiting the temperature rise to the 1.5-degrees-Celsius target set in the Paris accord. Our attention—all our attention—should be on that goal. If we don’t meet it by 2030, then we need to have a serious talk as a species and start assessing our options. That’s the moment for beginning these kinds of tests, not now, when they will become a rallying point for the people and the interests that want to slow the pace in this decade of transformation.
See related information on work on Harvard’s Solar Radiation Management program and the broader social, economic and ethical questions concerning geoengineering: