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The EU wants the world to talk about the risks of Earth-altering geoengineering to fix the climate

Updated: Jul 3

blue sky with clouds, sun and map illustration, EU stars
Image Credit: Jelleke Vanooteghem // Unsplash. Illustration Credit: Nate Merritt. Graphic by Miquéla Thornton

Earlier this year two weather balloons led the country of Mexico to ban solar geoengineering, aka the (theoretical) process of modifying solar radiation to cool the Earth’s atmosphere and combat climate change.

These two particular weather balloons each contained sulfur dioxide as they floated into the stratosphere. According to Luke Iseman, the entrepreneur behind the startup Make Sunsets – which caught a flurry of headlines last winter for its rogue experiment — the sulfur dioxide in the balloons would deflect sunlight and effectively cool the atmosphere.

As Iseman said via the MIT Technology Review, he considers the efforts “geoengineering activism.”

“It’s morally wrong, in my opinion, for us not to be doing this,” he told the publication.

But according to the European Union’s climate policy chief Frans Timmermans, “Nobody should be conducting experiments alone with our shared planet.” And so, as part of the Union’s new plans to address security risks posed by climate change, the EU wants to start having the global conversation around geoengineering.

“This [geoengineering] should be discussed in the right forum, at the highest international level,” Timmermans said at a press conference on Wednesday, suggesting that the matter of rogue geoengineering is so pressing that it should now be a topic at the United Nation’s talks on climate change.

“The climate and environmental crises bring sweeping changes to our world at a speed that has never before been seen in human history. They already impact global security, bringing new threats and heightening tensions,” he said in a statement.

This isn’t the first time a country has suggested including geoengineering in the U.N.’s conferences.

Make sunsets team releasing a balloon
Image Credit: Make Sunsets

When Mexico decided that it would ban geoengineering after Iseman released unauthorized balloons last year, Agustin Avila, a senior environment ministry official, said via Reuters that Mexico wants to find common ground with other countries regarding geoengineering at the upcoming Conference of the Parties on climate change, or COP28 which is scheduled for Dubai this November.

Geoengineering isn’t limited to releasing gaseous weather balloons into the air. The type of geoengineering Make Sunsets is attempting is solar radiation modification (SRM), which sprays sulfate aerosols into space in an effort to reflect solar radiation back to space.

The (theoretical) effect mimics the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, a volcano in the Philippines, which lowered the average global temperature by about 1°F (0.6°C) for a little over a year.

The issue with geoengineering is that while it is still actively researched, scientists aren't yet sure how it would affect the Earth.

However, what scientists do know is that sulfur dioxide pollution can cause a litany of environmental and health issues including acid rain, deforestation, acidifying waterways, and endangering marine life, while exacerbating existing social issues by worsening air quality, causing itchy eyes and irate lungs, impacting respiratory health and existing conditions, and could even worsen the Antarctic ozone hole.

While Make Sunsets’ experiments were likely too tiny to cause any damage (Iseman himself reportedly does not even know what happened to his balloons), scientists know the potential effects of larger experiments because it’s what happens after a disastrous volcanic eruption.

purple, gaseous sky: The Pinatubo days before the eruption
The Pinatubo days before the eruption on June 15, 1991 (Image Credit: United States Geological Survey)

“The risks, impacts, and unintended consequences that these technologies pose are poorly understood, and necessary rules, procedures, and institutions have not been developed,”

a joint communication adopted by the European Commission on Wednesday says.

And the unproven science isn’t the only reason rogue private efforts should be avoided according to the Commission.

“These technologies introduce new risks to people and ecosystems,” the authors wrote, “while they could also increase power imbalances between nations, spark conflicts, and raises a myriad of ethical, legal, governance, and political issues.”

After the Mexican government cracked down on geoengineering, Make Sunsets responded by releasing a few more sulfur dioxide-filled balloons from Reno, Nevada, in February.

As the ocean warms to unprecedented levels, extreme, fatal heat boils Mexico and travels across the American South, Canada burns, and the smoke from the Canadian wildfires blankets Northeast and Midwestern states, as well as other parts of the planet, making smoky summers a likely new annual reality, people are taking the climate crisis into their own hands.

However, instead of installing rooftop solar panels or replacing gas stoves, Iseman released gaseous balloons and the EU is worried he won't be the only one.

As Iseman told Reuters via an email, “If the ‘responsible expert’ were solving the problem, we wouldn’t have to.”

The “problem,” of course, refers to climate change.

While Make Sunsets went rogue without permission from the U.S. government, the startup isn’t alone. The startup had $500,000 invested in its venture from the firm BoostVC.

Other startups have recently launched their own spins on geoengineering, such as some attempting to engineer the Earth for greenhouse gas emission capturing.

These include Palo, Alto-based Blue Dot Change which wants to spray a small quantity of iron-rich particles over the ocean in hopes it will destroy methane; and a Swiss company AMR AG, which is in the lab now but hopes to raise a few million to move out into the field and slowly release several kilograms of nanoparticles of an anti-pollutant called ferric chloride from a decommissioned oil platform and monitor its effects on methane.

blue ocean and white/blue sky
Image Credit: Thomas Vimare // Unsplash

Experts interviewed by the MIT Technology Review agree that these startups — which are, for the time being, small research experiments with hopes for monetization — likely won’t have an effect on the broader stratosphere or the ozone.

But SRM is a different story.

Back in February, an expert panel convened by the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) released a report highlighting the limited literature on SRM research and the myriad of potential issues associated with it.

“Make no mistake: there are no quick fixes to the climate crisis,” UNEP head Inger Andersen wrote in a cover letter accompanying the document.

She highlighted the need for emissions reductions, green technologies, global environmental justice, and to scale ongoing efforts, drilling it in that current research shows SRM likely cannot have the positive effect needed to combat climate change, not to mention the possible negative effects.

“Even as a temporary response option, large-scale SRM deployment is fraught with scientific uncertainties and ethical issues. The evidence base is simply not there to make informed decisions,” she wrote.

However, she continued: “There needs to be significantly more scientific research into the potential impacts of SRM technologies on low- and middle-income countries, which are on the frontlines of climate change.”

Thus, “Given the levels of current activity, the international community must invest in understanding the potential risks and uncertainties of SRM technologies.”

Now, the EU is holding the U.N. to this statement, and calling for a formal international talk. According to the EU, Make Sunsets won’t be the last venture to try and secretly duck under the law to alter the atmosphere via SRM. The Commission believes current activity “represents an unacceptable level of risk for humans and the environment.”

While the EU is currently investing in two geoengineering projects, the Commission says neither is or plants to experiment with SRM.

As COP28 slowly approaches, will we see its first panel on the Earth modification experiments of solar geoengineering? If the European Union and perhaps Mexico have anything to do with it, we might.

“We only have one atmosphere,” Andersen wrote in the U.N.’s report. “We cannot risk further damaging it through a poorly understood shortcut to fixing the damage we already caused.”

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