This firm is working to control the climate. Should the world let it?

The Washington Post – By Shannon Osaka – Jan 09, 2023

In April 2022, in the Baja California region of Mexico near the Sea of Cortez, a man named Luke Iseman took a few grams of sulfur, lit it on fire and pumped the resulting gas into a six-foot helium balloon he bought on Amazon. Then he released the balloon into the bright sky, letting it sail. In the high atmosphere, he hoped, the balloon would burst and release sulfur dioxide particles — reflecting the sun’s rays and microscopically cooling the Earth.

To some scientists, this move, first reported by MIT Technology Review, was a pointless stunt. To others, it marked the first-ever-recorded act of stratospheric solar geoengineering — a controversial technology that could blunt the Earth’s rising temperatures.

Iseman is the founder and CEO of Make Sunsets — a two-person firm that plans several more test flights this month. His start-up has triggered the worst fears of researchers who have struggled for decades to establish ground rules for solar geoengineering. The technology has almost always been seen as a last resort to counter runaway warming. Make Sunsets is not only promising to deploy this break-the-glass approach now — but to sell it for profit.

Iseman, 39, acknowledges that he is, in many ways, a geoengineering novice. A former director of hardware for the start-up incubator Y Combinator, he got interested in the subject by reading Neal Stephenson’s novel “Termination Shock.” (The book features a rogue Texas oil billionaire who uses a gigantic gun to fire sulfur into the air.)

The idea of reflecting sunlight to curb climate change has been around almost as long as humanity has been worried about an overheated planet. The very first climate report given to a U.S. president — Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1965 — suggested brightening the oceans’ surface, rather than curbing fossil fuel use.

Researchers have largely focused on the idea of injecting sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere, 12 miles into the air, to reflect sunlight and cool down the Earth. Nature does this already: After Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, sending 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide spewing into the atmosphere, global temperatures fell by about 1 degree Fahrenheit the following year.

Now, as temperatures around the world continue to rise, “stratospheric solar geoengineering,” as it’s called, is inching ahead. In 2021, the National Academies of Science released a report recommending that the United States “cautiously pursue” solar geoengineering research given the urgency of climate change. The White House is coordinating a five-year research plan. A major project at Harvard University to use balloons to test releasing sulfur particles in the atmosphere, SCoPEx, has been in the works for years.

Trying it out in the real world, however, remains contentious. In 2021, SCoPEx researchers planned to launch a balloon and gondola in Kiruna, Sweden — not to release any particles, but to test their instruments. They ultimately canceled the experiment in the face of public opposition from Indigenous and environmental groups.

Most scientists agree that even research into geoengineering — let alone actually releasing sulfur particles — should involve consulting local communities and governments. While the risks of small-scale releases are low, critics fear they could pave a path to larger ones that would affect agriculture and temperatures around the world in unpredictable ways.

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Posted by Teri Perticone

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