Inside Geoengineers’ Risky Plan To Block Out the Sun

Some scientists say it’s necessary to save the climate. An indigenous-led opposition says it will only save the fossil fuel economy.

Kate Aronoff November 15, 2018

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

We have only 12 years to cut green­house gas emis­sions by 45 per­cent, accord­ing to an Octo­ber report from the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IPCC). The feat, it admits, would require rapid, far-reach­ing” soci­etal trans­for­ma­tion. If we fail, coastal cities will be inun­dat­ed, food will run short and the dam­age will cost $54 tril­lion by 2040, when babies born this year will be old enough to grad­u­ate from college.

While rapid decarbonization is "possible within the laws of physics and chemistry," the politics are tricky: It would mean "unprecedented changes in all aspects of society."

The clear path to curb­ing these cat­a­stro­phes involves rapid­ly phas­ing out car­bon­in­ten­sive fuels, which requires changes on a scale for which There is no doc­u­ment­ed his­toric prece­dent,” the report’s authors note.

But more dra­mat­ic approach­es have crept into pol­i­cy dis­cus­sions, like solar radi­a­tion man­age­ment, known as SRM. First imag­ined by sci­en­tists dur­ing the Cold War, SRM promis­es a com­par­a­tive­ly cheap, quick fix: the con­tin­u­ous dis­per­sal of aerosols into the atmos­phere to reflect and absorb sun­light, cool­ing the plan­et. In effect, SRM means dim­ming the sun.

For proof of con­cept, advo­cates look to vol­canic erup­tions, which spew out plumes of aerosols. The 1883 erup­tion of Kraka­toa, for exam­ple, report­ed­ly low­ered glob­al tem­per­a­tures by 1 degree Cel­sius. The best mod­el­ing sug­gests SRM, too, would work like a charm.

Like a vol­cano, how­ev­er, SRM is enor­mous­ly risky. Side effects could include decreas­ing crop yields, melt­ing the ozone lay­er or irrepara­bly alter­ing the water cycle, flood­ing some parts of the world while caus­ing pro­longed droughts in oth­ers — and those are just the few we are able to model.

If start­ing SRM is risky, so is stop­ping once we’ve start­ed: Stanch­ing the flow of aerosols would risk the Earth rapid­ly warm­ing by sev­er­al degrees with­in a decade, known as a ter­mi­na­tion shock.” This sud­den heat­ing would do more dam­age than the cur­rent, more grad­ual warm­ing, dis­rupt­ing the cli­mate while giv­ing species and ecosys­tems lit­tle time to adapt.

But giv­en the stakes, many SRM boost­ers say the ben­e­fits seem to out­weigh the risk. After all, what choice do we have?

If it sounds like we’ve crossed into sci­ence fic­tion, we have: This sce­nario is more or less the open­ing nar­ra­tion of Geostorm, a crit­i­cal­ly panned 2017 film about cli­mate-con­trol­ling satel­lites gone rogue. The bet­ter-received 2013 class-strug­gle flick Snow­piercer also starts with a sim­i­lar premise: an attempt­ed SRM-like scheme back­fires into end­less winter.

Yet SRM and oth­er risky high-tech cli­mate inter­ven­tions inch clos­er to real­i­ty by the day. The IPCC report has reignit­ed a long-run­ning debate: How far are we will­ing to go, and what risks are we will­ing to take, to keep the Earth from fur­ther warm­ing? Humans have altered the cli­mate for cen­turies by pump­ing out green­house gas­es. What’s so dif­fer­ent about inter­fer­ing with the cli­mate to save the world instead of cook it? Do we have any oth­er options left?

***

Stratos­pher­ic aerosol injec­tion — the type of SRM described above — is one of a suite of tech­nolo­gies aimed at large-scale manip­u­la­tion of the cli­mate, known as geo­engi­neer­ing. There are two broad cat­e­gories: solar geo­engi­neer­ing to block or reflect sun­light (like SRM), and neg­a­tive emis­sions tech­nolo­gies” to suck green­house gas­es out of the air. Neg­a­tive emis­sions tech­nolo­gies have been fac­tored into cli­mate mod­el­ing for years and have a long-estab­lished (if con­tro­ver­sial) role in IPCC mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies; solar geo­engi­neer­ing has been more fringe.

But in the past few years, the gov­ern­ments of the Unit­ed King­dom and Unit­ed States have each spon­sored research into solar geo­engi­neer­ing, out­lets from The New York­er to the New York Times have com­mis­sioned lengthy arti­cles on it, and an edi­tor at The Econ­o­mist wrote a whole book on the sub­ject, The Plan­et Remade. Just after the release of the new IPCC report, Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions Pres­i­dent Richard N. Haass opined that world gov­ern­ments should accel­er­ate R&D on geo­engi­neer­ing,” and Rep. Ro Khan­na (D‑Calif.) called to incen­tivize oil com­pa­nies to help.”

SRM has even found a research base in the Ivy League. Thanks to Harvard’s Solar Geo­engi­neer­ing Research Pro­gram, found­ed in 2017, the first steps toward imple­men­ta­tion may soon float above the Unit­ed States through the program’s Stratos­pher­ic Con­trolled Per­tur­ba­tion Experiment.

Known as Scopex, the exper­i­ment is not an SRM test, per se — to tru­ly test the con­cept would require a glob­al scale. But it is an attempt to go beyond com­put­er mod­el­ing to under­stand the chem­istry and micro­physics of how par­tic­u­lar aerosols inter­act with the stratos­phere. A pro­peller-pow­ered bal­loon will dis­sem­i­nate the aerosols; a small gon­do­la, attached, will car­ry sen­sors. Researchers hope to launch in 2019.

Oppo­si­tion to SRM has increased as well. As IPCC researchers met in South Korea to final­ize their report, 110 civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions across five con­ti­nents, from First Nations peo­ples to think tanks to envi­ron­men­tal NGOs, issued an anti-geo­engi­neer­ing man­i­festo: Hands Off Moth­er Earth, or HOME.

It reads, in part: Geo­engi­neer­ing per­pet­u­ates the false belief that today’s unjust, eco­log­i­cal­ly and social­ly dev­as­tat­ing indus­tri­al mod­el of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion can­not be changed and that we there­fore need tech­no-fix­es to tame its effects.” Sig­na­to­ries fear the devel­op­ment of SRM will be used as an excuse to con­tin­ue the car­bon sta­tus quo, call­ing it a dan­ger­ous dis­trac­tion” from real solu­tions and a fur­ther entrench­ment of fos­sil fuel economies.” Fos­sil fuel cor­po­ra­tions have yet to throw their weight behind SRM specif­i­cal­ly, but Shell’s chief cli­mate change advi­sor, David Hone, prais­es the sul­phur solu­tion” (refer­ring to SRM) as the sim­plest in his book, Putting the Genie Back.

Har­vard sci­en­tist David Kei­th, a con­trib­u­tor to the Scopex project, has emerged as some­thing of a pub­lic face of SRM. He dis­agrees that geo­engi­neer­ing pro­tects fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies, envi­sion­ing it instead as a com­ple­ment to decar­boniza­tion. If solar geo­engi­neer­ing was much bet­ter under­stood, I don’t think it would make all the envi­ron­men­tal forces give up and let Exxon win,” he says. There’s not an alter­na­tive to cut­ting fos­sil fuels. We have to get them out of the ener­gy system.”

Kei­th isn’t push­ing for SRM deploy­ment — just research— and says it’s impor­tant to under­stand all of the risks before mov­ing for­ward. He wor­ries about the Trump admin­is­tra­tion or oth­er fos­sil fuel-friend­ly gov­ern­ments grasp­ing onto SRM as a per­ceived quick fix. Still, he thinks we should be able to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly research SRM and take action against fos­sil fuels.

The HOME man­i­festo, how­ev­er, calls for a ban on open-air field exper­i­ments like Scopex. “[Scopex] makes no sense if you are not going to pur­sue deploy­ment lat­er,” says Sil­via Ribeiro, one of the manifesto’s authors and the Latin Amer­i­ca direc­tor of ETC Group, which address­es the social and envi­ron­men­tal impacts of new tech­nolo­gies. All pow­er­ful tech­nolo­gies have start­ed with small experiments.”

Oxford physi­cist Ray­mond Pier­re­hum­bert, a lead author on the IPCC’s third assess­ment report in 2001, sees Scopex as a cross­ing of the Rubi­con. Pro­ceed­ing to field exper­i­men­ta­tion,” he writes, cross­es a thin red line beyond which lies the slip­pery slope down to ever-larg­er field tri­als and, ulti­mate­ly, deployment.”

Skep­tics also note that SRM only address­es some of the effects of glob­al warm­ing — those stem­ming direct­ly from tem­per­a­ture. It does noth­ing to reduce the amount of car­bon diox­ide in the air, which means ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion would con­tin­ue apace, caus­ing irre­versible dam­age to coral reefs and oth­er ocean life that will rever­ber­ate up the food chain. The con­tin­ued accu­mu­la­tion of green­house gas­es would also height­en the impacts of poten­tial ter­mi­na­tion shock.

Aerosol injec­tions could increase expo­sure to UV radi­a­tion, as well, by wear­ing away at the ozone lay­er, most seri­ous­ly at the North and South Poles, but also around the mid­dle lat­i­tudes where most peo­ple live. Cool­er tem­per­a­tures do mean greater crop yields, which seems to be a mark in SRM’s favor. But a paper released this sum­mer in Nature found that sun­light scat­tered by SRM would impede pho­to­syn­the­sis, negat­ing any pos­i­tive effects.

Study author Jonathan Proc­tor put it this way: If we think of geo­engi­neer­ing as exper­i­men­tal surgery, our find­ings sug­gest that the side effects of treat­ment are as bad as the orig­i­nal disease.”

Even in the best case, the glob­al effects of SRM will be extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to pre­dict, says Janos Pasz­tor, direc­tor of the Carnegie Coun­cil for Geo­engi­neer­ing Gov­er­nance Ini­tia­tive. He is work­ing on a reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work around geo­engi­neer­ing research and deployment.

The most impor­tant impact is hope­ful­ly pos­i­tive, which is the reduc­tion of glob­al tem­per­a­tures — oth­er­wise you wouldn’t do it,” Pasz­tor says. But the most wor­ry­ing effects may be what Pasz­tor calls the unknown unknowns,” impacts we sim­ply don’t know how to pre­dict. The glob­al atmos­phere is unbe­liev­ably com­plex,” he says. We have advanced com­put­er mod­el­ing with super­com­put­ers, but we still don’t real­ly know how to mod­el it.” He believes bet­ter mod­els and bet­ter data should be pre­req­ui­sites for any deploy­ment. We only have one atmos­phere, and we can­not mess it up.”

A small group of researchers in the Glob­al North, dubbed the Geo­clique” by sci­ence writer Eli Kin­tisch, makes the case that it’s too soon to write off SRM, which accounts for a small per­cent­age of cli­mate research over­all. While foun­da­tions and wealthy indi­vid­u­als have spent a few bil­lion dol­lars on these efforts (most notably Bill Gates), clique mem­bers oper­ate on mod­est budgets.

Anoth­er dan­ger is that this so-called quick fix could be deployed uni­lat­er­al­ly, side effects on every­one else be damned. It would cost just a few bil­lion dol­lars a year to mount fleets of jets equipped with spray can­nons, well with­in the means of a small coun­try, a large cor­po­ra­tion or a Bill Gates.

Could a group of low-lying coun­tries, dev­as­tat­ed by storms and ris­ing seas, reach a tip­ping point and pull the trig­ger? Could deploy­ment result from a geopo­lit­i­cal pow­er play between the Unit­ed States and Chi­na? Crit­ics believe that the more SRM is legit­imized through exper­i­ments and pos­i­tive main­stream atten­tion, the more like­ly it is that these spec­u­la­tive sce­nar­ios become real.

***

Regard­less, the scale of the cli­mate cri­sis means more sci­en­tists and pol­i­cy­mak­ers are now will­ing to con­sid­er SRM. But who gets to decide when to roll it out?

The Unit­ed Nations Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change (UNFC­CC) is the body cur­rent­ly charged with nego­ti­at­ing cli­mate pol­i­cy­mak­ing at the inter­na­tion­al lev­el. It took 20 years after par­ties to the UNFC­CC began meet­ing for the world to first agree on a plan to mit­i­gate cli­mate change, the 2015 Paris Agree­ment.

It’s scan­dalous that the Paris Agree­ment took as long as it did and is as weak is it is, but the rea­sons aren’t hard to parse. Inter­na­tion­al pol­i­cy­mak­ing of any sort is noto­ri­ous­ly dif­fi­cult, espe­cial­ly for an issue that affects just about every sec­tor of the glob­al econ­o­my. Even small nation­al del­e­ga­tions must del­i­cate­ly bal­ance the demands of their gov­ern­ing par­ties with actors rang­ing from civ­il soci­ety to indus­try — some of which have been pump­ing out dis­in­for­ma­tion about cli­mate change for decades.

An inter­na­tion­al agree­ment around solar geo­engi­neer­ing could mean start­ing from scratch, begin­ning with a push to con­vince the world’s gov­ern­ments that it’s nec­es­sary — assum­ing no rogue actor launch­es a project on its own, first. But the trou­ble isn’t, as writer Nathaniel Rich sug­gests in his recent block­buster New York Times Mag­a­zine piece on the ear­ly days of inter­na­tion­al cli­mate talks, that human beings are just bad at mak­ing these tough longterm decisions.

The demo­c­ra­t­ic process­es involved here are more about pow­er than psy­chol­o­gy — and cer­tain actors exer­cise a lot of pow­er in the UNFC­CC process. Well before Don­ald Trump took off ice, the Unit­ed States played an obstruc­tion­ist role in UN cli­mate talks, stymy­ing speed­i­er and more ambi­tious action to appease domes­tic fos­sil fuel inter­ests. The Sen­ate failed to rat­i­fy the Kyoto Pro­to­col in 1997, for exam­ple, and the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion argued against legal­ly bind­ing tar­gets. The Unit­ed States isn’t the only par­ty imped­ing action, of course. But it’s very like­ly that the world would have arrived at a more effec­tive cli­mate agree­ment long before Paris were it not for the colos­sal influ­ence of coal, oil and gas com­pa­nies in U.S. politics.

In fact, as the non­prof­it watch­dog Cor­po­rate Account­abil­i­ty has detailed, major pol­luters are now active­ly try­ing to influ­ence how the Paris Agree­ment gets imple­ment­ed. The UNFC­CC Cli­mate Tech­nol­o­gy Net­work, for instance, which advis­es nations in the Glob­al South on cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion and adap­ta­tion, includes the World Coal Association.

The path laid out in the Paris Agree­ment is rel­a­tive­ly straight­for­ward: Stop using fos­sil fuels and start mak­ing mas­sive invest­ments in renew­able ener­gy. But con­sid­er­ing the fight pol­luters are like­ly to put up, many sci­en­tists sus­pect that meet­ing the agreement’s goal of lim­it­ing glob­al tem­per­a­ture rise to 1.5 degrees Cel­sius is, at this point, impos­si­ble, with scant hope of meet­ing even the back-up 2‑degree goal. To avoid sur­pass­ing 1.5 degrees (with­out exten­sive use of neg­a­tive emis­sions tech­nolo­gies), coal use would need to decline by 97 per­cent by 2050, oil by 87 per­cent and nat­ur­al gas by 74 per­cent. While such a change is pos­si­ble with­in the laws of physics and chem­istry,” accord­ing to the IPCC authors, the pol­i­tics are tricky: It would mean unprece­dent­ed changes in all aspects of society.”

Ellie John­ston leads glob­al cli­mate and ener­gy efforts for the non­prof­it Cli­mate Inter­ac­tive to help inform pol­i­cy­mak­ers and the pub­lic. Using cur­rent eco­nom­ic para­me­ters, she and her team tried to cre­ate a sce­nario to keep glob­al tem­per­a­ture rise to 1.5 degrees with­out using large-scale car­bon removal technologies.

They couldn’t do it. In our mod­el, we couldn’t recre­ate sce­nar­ios that fol­low those [steep] reduc­tion rate curves and not adjust things like GDP,” John­ston says. Most mod­els assume eco­nom­ic growth, which is gen­er­al­ly linked to greater con­sump­tion, greater ener­gy use and greater emis­sions. Chang­ing these assump­tions is fraught ter­ri­to­ry that is polit­i­cal­ly very chal­leng­ing in the aca­d­e­m­ic lit­er­a­ture,” she adds.

The IPCC itself, how­ev­er, is start­ing to con­sid­er eco­nom­ic alter­na­tives. Five alter­nate socioe­co­nom­ic sce­nar­ios in the next IPCC assess­ment report will include one opti­mistic future in which the empha­sis on eco­nom­ic growth shifts toward a broad­er empha­sis on human well-being,” accord­ing to the researchers’ sum­ma­ry. The HOME man­i­festo sim­i­lar­ly calls for reduced ener­gy and mate­ri­als use along­side ecosys­tem restora­tion, a just tran­si­tion for work­ers and respect for indige­nous rights. It’s this poten­tial for broad­er change that, for many, helps make decar­boniza­tion desir­able: Done right, break­ing society’s addic­tion to cor­po­rate prof­it cre­ates space for a more equi­table society.

Johnston’s team did find it was pos­si­ble, with­out chang­ing the para­me­ters, to stay well below 2 degrees of warm­ing, if not below 1.5. But, she says, We had to throw every sin­gle lever we’ve got at it: a big car­bon price, maxed-out ener­gy effi­cien­cy, stop­ping deforestation.”

***

Geo­engi­neer­ing is broad­ly dis­cussed by researchers as a tool to allow more time to achieve the goal of decar­boniza­tion, but SRM alone does noth­ing to reduce car­bon diox­ide. Mean­while, neg­a­tive emis­sions tech­nolo­gies — actu­al­ly remov­ing car­bon from the atmos­phere — are seen by many as a core part of the solu­tion. The IPCC report authors expect them to play a cen­tral role in restrict­ing warm­ing to 1.5 degrees.

But the prob­lem, as John­ston says, is that we’re bet­ting on this tech­nol­o­gy that doesn’t even exist.”

It’s still to be proven that there is any­thing called neg­a­tive emis­sions,” Ribeiro con­tends, at least at any scale envi­sioned by the IPCC report. Some neg­a­tive emis­sions tech­nolo­gies do exist, such as the low-tech tac­tic of plant­i­ng new forests. Oth­ers, like car­bon cap­ture and stor­age (CCS) tech­nol­o­gy to suck up emis­sions from fos­sil-fuel pow­er plants, are fur­ther off and still incred­i­bly expen­sive. Accord­ing to the Glob­al CCS Insti­tute, 18 large-scale oper­a­tional facil­i­ties uti­lize CCS world­wide, a small frac­tion of what the IPCC calls for. At 14 of these, the cap­tured gas is sim­ply used to help fos­sil fuel extrac­tion efforts elsewhere.

Oth­er pos­si­ble tech­nolo­gies include what is known as bio-ener­gy with car­bon cap­ture and stor­age” (BECCS). BECCS involves plant­i­ng prodi­gious amounts of fast-grow­ing trees, burn­ing them for ener­gy, then cap­tur­ing those emis­sions with CCS. Because plants take in car­bon as they grow, the process would the­o­ret­i­cal­ly be car­bon neg­a­tive. At scale, how­ev­er, it could involve req­ui­si­tion­ing a land mass twice the size of India, note cli­mate sci­en­tists Kevin Ander­son and Glen Peters. Set­ting aside this much land, some fear, could com­pete with food pro­duc­tion and cause mas­sive human displacement.

Anoth­er infant tech is direct air cap­ture” (DAC), suck­ing car­bon diox­ide direct­ly out of the air rather than from an indus­tri­al process. One com­pa­ny, Glob­al Ther­mo­stat, has part­nered with a soft drink man­u­fac­tur­er to use its cap­tured gas in the pro­duc­tion of bot­tles and car­bon­at­ed bev­er­ages. Anoth­er firm, Car­bon Engi­neer­ing, found­ed by Harvard’s David Kei­th and backed by a host of Sil­i­con Val­ley types, hopes to cre­ate and mar­ket syn­thet­ic fuels with its car­bon har­vest, com­bin­ing it with hydro­gen and water. Ear­ly DAC pro­to­types have been promis­ing, but are still a long way from the kind of scale need­ed by IPCC models. 

***

The HOME man­i­festo oppos­es all of these tech­nolo­gies, wary that they will be used as an excuse to extend the life of coal, oil and gas pow­er, and that their large-scale imple­men­ta­tion would require unsus­tain­able lev­els of ener­gy, land, water and oth­er resources.

The sig­na­to­ries charge that the impacts of this resource use — as well as the oth­er side effects of SRM — would dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly harm small farm­ers and indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, who would be most vul­ner­a­ble to any crop reduc­tions caused by SRM or poten­tial land grabs for bioen­er­gy pro­duc­tion. What’s more, they believe, ear­ly exper­i­ments are being pushed through with­out pop­u­lar consent.

Sim­i­lar charges could also be lobbed at glob­al warm­ing itself: Rich coun­tries are the pri­ma­ry cause, and the glob­al poor will bear the brunt of the effects. Indeed, some of these com­mu­ni­ties may now find them­selves con­fronting two very dif­fer­ent kinds of man-made cli­mate inter­ven­tions at once.

Utqi­aġvik, Alas­ka, has been described as a ground zero for cli­mate change. On Inu­pi­aq land along the Arc­tic Sea, tem­per­a­tures are ris­ing faster than any­where else in the world. Last year, the Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Administration’s tem­per­a­ture mon­i­tor algo­rithms incor­rect­ly reject­ed read-outs for the area as unre­al­is­tic; aver­age Octo­ber tem­per­a­tures, for instance, have risen 8 degrees Fahren­heit since 2000. As a result, per­mafrost is melt­ing, ice is thin­ning and species of insect no one alive can remem­ber see­ing there, includ­ing tree-killing spruce bark bee­tles, are begin­ning to invade.

It’s made life hard­er,” says Adri­enne Aakaluk Titus, an Inu­pi­aq orga­niz­er with the non­prof­it Native Move­ment who works with Utqi­aġvik res­i­dents. We have to trav­el far­ther to go hunt­ing, and the far­ther out you have to trav­el, the more dan­ger­ous it gets.”

For the last decade or so, Utqi­aġvik has also been ground zero for a type of soft” geo­engi­neer­ing known as ice thick­en­ing: spread­ing out white sil­i­ca sand to reflect the sun and pre­vent ice from melt­ing. The project, known as Ice911, is the brain­child of Bay Area-based engi­neer Leslie Field, who has 12 years of field tri­als under her belt.

Geo­engi­neer­ing Mon­i­tor, a col­lab­o­ra­tion between ETC Group and oth­er envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, fears the project could dis­rupt weath­er pat­terns and ani­mal migra­tions, though Ice911 main­tains that, if any neg­a­tive effects arise, the process is eas­i­ly reversible.

Field empha­sized how impor­tant she saw the per­mit­ting process and col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Utqi­aġvik Inu­pi­aq Cor­po­ra­tion, one of sev­er­al for-prof­it Alas­ka Native cor­po­ra­tions set up by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to set­tle land and prop­er­ty claims brought by indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. There are ten­sions, how­ev­er, between Native cor­po­ra­tion exec­u­tives, sev­en of whom each make at least $1 mil­lion a year, and the peo­ple who live with the deci­sions those exec­u­tives make.

Per­mis­sion is easy,” Titus says. You can go into an office and you can sign for a per­mit. That’s the law. Con­sent is anoth­er mat­ter.” Titus says that few of the Utqi­aġvik res­i­dents she had spo­ken with had heard of Ice911, and were sur­prised to learn about its existence.

HOME man­i­festo sig­na­to­ry Tupac Enrique Acos­ta is a long­time orga­niz­er and founder of the indige­nous envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion Tonatier­ra. He sees geo­engi­neer­ing as built upon a preda­to­ry rela­tion­ship with the nat­ur­al world,” and the push to test and imple­ment geo­engi­neer­ing in indige­nous-pop­u­lat­ed areas as an exten­sion of col­o­niza­tion: They put wings on the Niña, the Pin­ta and the San­ta María and they’re fly­ing them up there in the sky.”

For both Acos­ta and Titus, how­ev­er, con­cerns about geo­engi­neer­ing tests extend beyond process. I think [ice thick­en­ing] is a false cli­mate solu­tion,” Titus says. There are so many oth­er things we could be doing. We don’t need anoth­er Band-Aid.”

In the wake of the new IPCC report, the chal­lenges posed by geo­engi­neer­ing aren’t real­ly so dif­fer­ent than those sur­round­ing the cli­mate cri­sis writ large. In both cas­es, the great­est uncer­tain­ties have less to do with sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy than with democ­ra­cy. Who decides what tech­nolo­gies are nec­es­sary, who con­trols them and who prof­its? What sac­ri­fices will be made by whom, and who gets to make that call?

Cor­rec­tion: The print ver­sion of this arti­cle stat­ed that the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion refused to join the Kyoto Pro­to­col. Bill Clin­ton did sign the agree­ment, but did not pass it on to the GOP-led Sen­ate, which was cer­tain to reject it. We have also edit­ed the sen­tence to clar­i­fy that U.S. oppo­si­tion to bind­ing com­mit­ments did not stem from the Clin­ton administration.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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