A startup started shooting particles into the atmosphere in an attempt to ‘save the climate’

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As global warming intensifies, controversial geoengineering research plans are emerging. As the latter are still considered theoretical, a start-up has taken the step towards full-size practice, to the chagrin of many experts. She is said to have launched weather balloons containing sulfur dioxide particles into the stratosphere in an effort to manipulate the weather. The negative consequences of this judgment, like the positive ones, are far from being fully known and anticipated.

Geoengineering refers to a set of emerging technologies aimed at manipulating the environment and partially offsetting some of the impacts of climate change. There are two routes of action: carbon or solar. In the first case, the researchers aim to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which would address the root cause of climate change – the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In the second case, scientists are looking to reflect a small fraction of sunlight back into space or increase the amount of solar radiation that escapes into space to cool the planet. However, such solar geoengineering cannot replace reducing emissions or adapting to climate change, but it can complement these efforts.

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In this context, a start-up founded in October 2022, make sunset, has just announced that it has launched its first meteorological balloons with the aim of releasing sulfur particles into the stratosphere, at an altitude of more than 20 km. These reflective particles would form clouds and make it possible, for one gram of cloud, to offset one ton of CO2 emissions. But no organization so far has wanted to take the full-size practice step. Consequences can be as negative as positive.

“A gram offsets a ton of CO2”, utopia or reality?

There are many geoengineering researchers desperately trying to find a solution to the climate crisis, but almost all refrain from directly interfering with the stratosphere.

As pointed out by MIT Technology Review, in part because it is so controversial. Little is known about such interventions, but they can have dangerous side effects. Impacts can also be more severe in some regions than others, which can cause geopolitical conflicts.

Luke Iseman, co-founder and CEO of Make Sunsets, hopes that by entering the controversial space, the startup will help fuel public debate and advance a field of science that has found it very difficult to conduct small-scale field experiments. 🇧🇷

In addition, the company prides itself on copying nature: ” The clouds you see in the sky use the same process and have been studied for years. “. But that’s not what makes the technique safer or more legitimate… Specifically, Make Sunsets intends to release a natural compound (sulfur) through reusable balloons to create reflective clouds in the stratosphere. According to the company, 1 gram of these clouds is worth it the warming generated by 1 ton of CO₂ emissions for a year.After three years, clouds compose and settle on Earth.

By Iseman’s own description, the first two balloon launches were very rudimentary. They took place in April 2022, somewhere in the state of Baja California and then in their location in Mexico. Make Sunsets did not seek approval from government authorities or scientific agencies, in Mexico or elsewhere, prior to the first two releases.

Potential negative consequences for mere business interest

Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative director Janos Pasztor tells the MIT Technology Review 🇧🇷 The current state of science is not good enough to implement solar geoengineering “. Thus, Luke Iseman recognizes that the effort is part entrepreneurial and part provocative, an act of geoengineering activism. An effort of sorts to be taken seriously.

But the scientific community seems unanimous in saying that the company’s behavior is based on old fears. And the risk of a general public appeal for a technique that seems cheap and simple to do, at least in general, must be taken into account. This could ruin serious research and funding efforts.

In fact, we can read it on the company’s website: We are able to offset CO₂ at less than 1% of the cost of other solutions. Uniquely, we can also adapt to offset ‘all’ global warming 🇧🇷

Pasztor and others point out that the Make Sunsets efforts underscore the urgent need to establish broad oversight and clear rules for responsible geoengineering research and help determine whether there should be social license and under what conditions in this case.

Shuchi Talati, a researcher at an American university who is forming a non-profit organization focused on governance and justice in solar geoengineering, sums it up viciously: “ They violate communities’ rights to dictate their own future “. She adds that it is hypocritical of Make Sunsets to claim that it is acting for humanitarian reasons, while moving forward without meaningfully engaging with the public, including those who may be affected by its actions.

Not to mention, spraying sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere directly endangers the Earth and humanity by disrupting the ozone layer, potentially leading to acid rain and respiratory illnesses. Certain regions of the world can suffer from this in an exacerbated way.

The company is already trying to cash in on the chilling effects of future flights. It offers to sell $10 in “cooling credits” for releasing a gram of particles into the stratosphere – enough, they say, to offset the warming effect of a ton of carbon for a year.

David Keith, one of the world’s leading experts on solar geoengineering, says he is concerned about any effort to privatize key geoengineering technologies, including patenting them. He concludes, as early as 2018, in an article by Harvard University: “ Commercial development cannot produce the level of transparency and trust the world needs to make sound deployment decisions 🇧🇷

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