We live in an era of climate destruction and culture has responded in kind. One of his best avatars is Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film Snowpiercer, set in a Snowball Earth created when scientists released aerosols into the sky in a last-ditch attempt to stop global warming. The plan backfires catastrophically, destroying most life on the planet and leaving Chris Evans and Ed Harris in 2031, trapped aboard a train carrying the last remains of human life and endlessly circumnavigating the Earth. When I first saw the film, I remember thinking, “Thank God no one would be crazy enough to try something like that in real life.”
I was wrong. Over the past six months, several governments and international organizations—including the White House, the EU, the British research agency ARIA, the Climate Overshoot Commission, and several UN bodies—have produced reports that cautiously advocate the same idea: releasing aerosols into the atmosphere to prevent sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface. The concept is known as solar engineering, or solar radiation modification (SRM), and is a specific type of geoengineering that aims to compensate for climate change by reflecting sunlight (“solar radiation”) back into space.
The idea of solar engineering is not new, but for a long time it was relegated to the fringes of the scientific community – and the realm of science fiction. However, as the very existence of these reports makes clear, the concept has attracted increasing attention in recent years, largely thanks to growing panic over climate change. And much of the interest in solar engineering stems from the fact that, unlike other climate mitigation policies, which require decades to produce significant results, “SRM offers the possibility of significantly cooling the planet on a timescale of a few years,” as o The White House report states, even at the “pre-industrial level”, in line with “highly idealized modeling studies”.
That report came on the heels of a 2021 U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) study, “Reflecting Sunlight,” which suggested that “the U.S. should cautiously pursue solar geoengineering research to better understand solar geoengineering options.” response to climate change”. scratchs”. Mark Symes, director of British research agency ARIA, agrees: “Through carefully considered engineering solutions, it may eventually be possible to actively and responsibly control climate and weather on a regional and global scale.” Earlier this year, more than 100 scientists signed an open letter calling on governments to increase research into solar geoengineering.
Scientists point to large historical volcanic eruptions — which result in the expulsion of enormous amounts of sulfur dioxide and dust particles into the atmosphere — as examples of the effectiveness of “stratospheric aerosol injection.” They are not wrong: the Tambora eruption in 1815 cooled the Earth by 0.7°C and led to a “year without a summer”; More recently, the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo cooled the planet by about half a degree Celsius on average over many months. So, the idea goes, by spraying a certain amount of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, we could replicate the effects of a large eruption and cool the Earth. Problem solved?
Not exactly. All reports recognize that there are serious risks associated with modifying solar radiation, which can affect human health, biodiversity and geopolitics. This is because modifying sunlight could alter global weather patterns, disrupt food supplies and, in fact, lead to abrupt warming if the practice were widely implemented and then stopped. But despite such warnings, the very existence of these reports represents a huge opening of the Overton window when it comes to the issue of geoengineering. In fact: “The fact that this report exists is probably the most important component,” exulted Shuchi Talati of the Alliance for Fair Deliberation on Solar Geoengineering after the White House report.
In other words, what matters here is not so much the content of these reports – which rightly highlight the risks of such interventions and the need to proceed with caution – but the simple fact that the issue is treated as a topic of legitimate debate, accustoming few the public to the concept. But even more worrying, perhaps, now that the geoengineering genie is out of the bottle, can we really expect governments and institutions to keep it in check?
After all, we live in an era in which private and corporate power has largely freed itself from any forms of significant public control, when it has not completely merged with state institutions, subordinating the latter to its own logic. As a result, billionaires, philanthrocapitalists and investment funds arguably exert greater influence over society than most governments. And, of course, they love to play God — especially when it offers huge opportunities for profit. So perhaps it’s no surprise that much of the push for solar engineering also comes from this rarefied community.
In a speech given at the Munich Security Conference last year, George Soros supported the use of solar geoengineering to combat climate change. Jeff Bezos has partnered with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and SilverLining, a geoengineering nonprofit closely tied to Silicon Valley venture capital, to help create models that show what would happen if we blocked some of the rays solar. Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Open Philanthropy, is another major funder of SRM projects. And there is, of course, the ever-lurking Bill Gates: in 2021, he supported a solar glare reduction project from the Harvard Solar Geoengineering Research Program called the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), which aimed to pulverize calcium carbonate in the atmosphere in the skies over Sweden to test its effects on scattering sunlight.
The project, however, has been heavily criticized by environmentalists and indigenous groups, with 30 indigenous people groups from around the world calling on Harvard University to abandon Gates-backed plans to test its solar geoengineering technology. “We do not approve of the legitimization of the development of solar geoengineering technology, nor for it to be conducted within or above our lands, territories and skies, nor in any ecosystems anywhere,” stated a letter from the Saami Council, which represents the Saami people throughout Scandinavia and Russia. In the end, the test was cancelled. But this hasn’t stopped the ominous US start-up Make Sunsets, which focuses on injecting stratospheric aerosols – “Cooling the planet, one reflective cloud at a time” – from carrying out several tests in the United States.
This means that solar glare reduction experiments are already being conducted by private companies, with little or no oversight or regulation. And the transformation of this technology into reality is part of a more general phenomenon in climate action: the emergence of a “climate power bloc” comprising liberal-technocratic politicians, certain climate scientists, environmental NGOs, “green” philanthropists and Silicon Valley. ”. climate capitalists.” At this intersection of ideology, class and economic interests, extreme and ambitious ideas like solar engineering find fertile ground. And they are poised to grow even further in popular consciousness – which has already been conditioned to think of climate change as an apocalyptic threat and, therefore, to accept “do or die” solutions.
Activists and scientists began to react. We have already seen successful prevention from the SCoPEx test. Then, last year, more than 60 senior climate scientists and governance academics from around the world published an open letter, since supported by more than 450 academics, calling for an “International Solar Geoengineering Non-Use Agreement.” They emphasize the very serious risks: to human health, but also to the ecosystem itself, with disturbed precipitation patterns, vegetation and agricultural production.
The problem, as is often the case, is mission advancement – the gradual broadening of the original objectives of a given program, often under the influence of technological dependence. Once a technology comes into existence, it tends to be used for the sake of it, especially if it has been normalized for the public. Therefore, the call for “solar engineering research” is, intentionally or not, setting the stage for its future adoption. And its defenders have an existential discourse on the climate on their side. SRM lobbyists can always claim that the alternative is worse – if that alternative is planetary extinction. As Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati, a low-lying Pacific island state threatened by rising sea levels, told New Yorker last year: “It has to be geoengineering or total destruction.”
In this sense, the debate over solar engineering is symptomatic of the way we interpret climate change: as a utopian speculation created in response to the dystopia that we increasingly see as our future. This logic is intended to encourage humanity to act, to find answers to the climate crisis that avoid perverse socioeconomic costs – which is why some skeptics of radical decarbonization are sympathetic to solar geoengineering. This is also why climate change activists like Greta Thunberg oppose it – because it would threaten commitments to decarbonization. We should oppose this binary logic. We should not have to choose between radical decarbonization and geoengineering: fueled by a drive towards climate destruction, both are dangerous in their own ways.