why is this “sheer madness”?

Scientists feared him. Their nightmare is coming true. A startup has just announced that it has carried out the first tests to release sulfur into the stratosphere. The first steps towards solar geoengineering. For Heïdi Sevestre, our expert in glaciology, “It’s pure madness” ! Slimane Bekki, a CNRS researcher with whom we discussed the matter a few months ago, finds it hard to believe.

“We always see technology as a kind of magic that saves us from everything. » That’s what Frédéric Neyrat, a philosopher we met in the spring of 2021, told us to reflect on geoengineering and its implications. And in view of the information that just dropped at the end of the year, his observation seems to want to be verified. An American start-up called Make Sunsets – get it, “create sunset” – has just announced the launch of weather balloons capable of launching sulfur particles into the stratosphere!

Will injecting sulfur into the atmosphere save us from global warming?

For all those who didn’t follow “the case of geoengineering” from the beginning, and perhaps also for others, some explanation is undoubtedly necessary. Let us first remember that behind geoengineering hides – rather badly – ​​the idea of ​​intervening on a large scale in our climate to mitigate the consequences of anthropogenic global warming. Without seeking to act on the causes of this warming. In other words, our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And this is the first criticism that climatologists have leveled at geoengineering. “These technologies divert attention – and funding – from real solutions to reducing our consumption of fossil fuels”repeats Heïdi Sevestre, whose blood boiled when she read the Make Sunsets ad. “Many companies are betting on geoengineering to avoid addressing the causes of climate change”Frédéric Neyrat had been pointing us out for almost two years. “Geoengineering is like a kind of ideological veil that we throw over something that is bubbling up and that we don’t want to see. And that something is society itself. »

Effects worse than global warming

Another criticism: the side effects of geoengineering could, ultimately, turn out to be even more harmful than the global warming it seeks to combat. Especially when it comes to what is called solar geoengineering. The one that Make Sunsets is betting on.

So perhaps the time has come to reconsider your principle. The idea is to inject sulfur into the stratosphere to produce aerosols there that will become miniature mirrors capable of reflecting part of the solar radiation back into space. Which, at least on paper, effectively cools the planet. And at a lower cost. David Keith, physicist at Harvard University (USA) and specialist in solar geoengineering, even estimates that with only 0.00001% of world GDP, “we could recreate an ice age”.

At least on paper? Or just on paper? Because, for experts like Slimane Bekki, a CNRS researcher we met at the end of 2020, solar geoengineering is not a miracle solution. He then quoted us in particular the impacts that the operation would have on the water cycle. “Monsoons weakening and changing with potential consequences for the lives of two to three billion people worldwide. »

Our climate under perfusion

“Not content with disrupting our climate system a little more, geoengineering also literally puts it on life support.adds Heidi Sevestre. Because once installed, the slightest interruption can raise temperatures considerably in a very short period. » The violent climate catch-up that Slimane Bekki has been conjuring up for over two years: “With the increase in carbon dioxide (COtwo), we will have to inject more and more sulfur into the stratosphere. But the more sulfur we inject, the less we can stop. Because a sudden stoppage of injections could take us 2-3°C in just a decade. » We understand why “no climate scientist” What does Heidi Sevestre know? “does not see geoengineering as a good idea”.

And with the announcement of Make Sunsets, it is a fear that was also raised during our meeting with Slimane Bekki, who today potentially takes a step closer to reality. A private company, without any particular knowledge of the science and the possible implications of these technologies, has just decided unilaterally and without consensus to carry out geoengineering operations. Just because it’s relatively simple to implement. “Solar geoengineering is even more dangerous because there is no governance mechanism to oversee it. It is urgent that the scientific community and decision-makers take on this problem to block wild tests”confirms Heidi Sevestre.

sorcerer’s apprentices

Meanwhile, Make Sunsets is proud to have launched, last April, two balloons “very basic” from Mexico. Without the approval of the authorities. Nor that of scientists. A type of “provocation, act of activism”. The balloons would have taken “a few grams of sulfur dioxide” and had to explode under the pressure of altitude. But nobody knows today if that really happened. And if so, what effect did it have on solar radiation. Because the balloons don’t seem to have any surveillance system… “In its FAQ, Make Sunsets shows its desire to “openly publish” its data. But no data was released about these two alleged first flights. I had never heard of it. I believe they are lying and in reality they did not inject any sulfur particles into the stratosphere. Make Sunsets is not the first start-up to dabble in solar geoengineering. She won’t be the last either. But overall, for now, they all tend to offer… some wind, if I may say so. Make sunsets even a little longer than others. No reference. No skill. It all looks too much like a farce.”comment today for us Slimane Bekki.

What purpose? Profit from the operation, of course. As Make Sunsets already costs 10 dollars, one “cooling credit” corresponding to the release of one gram of sulfur particles into the stratosphere. Stating that this gram offsets the warming effect of a ton of carbon for a year. Completely unrealistic claim, according to Slimane Bkekki and other scientific experts on the subject.

Climate geoengineering: good or bad idea?

David Keith, who has been working on a small-scale stratospheric experiment for years, says the amount of sulfur potentially released into the atmosphere by the two Make Sunsets balloons – a priori less than 10 grams each – is insignificant and poses no direct danger to our climate. However, he is also worried about it. “commercial development and the lack of transparency that necessarily accompanies it”. He worries that the benefits of geoengineering are overstated and the risks understated. And even if companies continue to sell their services, even if our planet has cooled to temperatures below pre-industrial temperatures. “These technologies are really dangerousconcludes Heidi Sevestre for us. We must focus our action on what matters most: reducing our consumption of fossil fuels as quickly and globally as possible! »

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