Solar geoengineering is a threat to the planet, not a solution to climate change

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Diagram of a space lens, whose basic function is to mitigate global warming. Image credit: Mikael Häggström/Wikimedia Commons

The halo on Bill Gates has been noticeably slipping in recent months, and on March 31 it threatened to take a nosedive. That was the date Sweden's space agency acknowledged that it had cancelled and withdrawn from a solar geoengineering test in which Gates has a major stake. The test's ultimate goal is to dim the sun to counter the heat-trapping effects of carbon dioxide.

The first step in the project -- proposed by Harvard University researchers and largely funded by Gates -- had been scheduled to take place this month, but strong opposition from Sweden's Indigenous peoples and environmental groups stopped the test.

The Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment -- SCoPEx for short -- is on hold for now, but its first phase intends to release various aerosols from a balloon-gondola rig 12 miles high. The particles would cover the equivalent of 11 football fields and test their ability to block the sun by mimicking a continuous volcanic eruption.

Ultimately, the goal is to release tonnes of sulphur dioxide particles -- sulphates -- into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight and cool the Earth.

The Saami say 'no'

The June test would not have released any particles, and was intended only to test the rig's technologies. But the test site was to be Kiruna, near the Arctic Circle, which is the Saami people's homeland. 

The Saami Council sent a February 24 letter to the SCoPEx Advisory Committee opposing not only the experiment, but the entire premise of solar geoengineering. The letter was co-signed by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Friends of the Earth Sweden, and Greenpeace Sweden.

Asa Larsson-Blind, the Saami Council's Swedish vice-president, explained:

"Solar geoengineering violates the worldview of the Saami people, and goes against the urgent action we need to transform to zero-carbon societies that are in harmony with nature. We welcome SSC's [Swedish space agency] decision to stop the balloon flight planned for Saami lands in Kiruna, but the existential risks of this geoengineering technology disqualify it from ever being advanced -- whether here or elsewhere."

Johanna Sandahl, president of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, said solar geoengineering has "the potential for extreme consequences that could alter hydrological cycles, disrupt monsoon patterns, and increase drought" across the planet.

Jim Thomas, research director at the Ottawa-based eco-justice ETC Group, says:

"This is at least the third time that SCoPEx has been halted on Indigenous territory. First in New Mexico, then Arizona and now Sweden. Other geoengineering schemes on Indigenous homelands in the Arctic and around the Pacific Rim have also met clear opposition."

Harvard 'arrogance'

The Saami and their allies also took aim at the Harvard-appointed advisory committee itself, stating:

"We find it remarkable that the project has gone so far as to establish an agreement with [the Swedish space agency] on test flying without, as we understand, having applied for any permits or entered into any dialogue with either the Swedish government, its authorities, the Swedish research community, Swedish civil society, or the Saami people, despite the controversial nature of SCoPEx …It is noteworthy that Harvard University considers it reasonable for a committee whose role it is to decide whether this controversial project should go ahead, to not have any representation from the intended host country, Sweden. Instead, the committee is composed of almost exclusively U.S. citizens and/or residents."

The arrogance of the Harvard advisory committee has now been compounded by its plan to engage in "robust public engagement in Sweden" in order to reschedule the SCoPEx test.

David Keith, the key scientist involved in the SCoPEx project and a professor at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has called the cancellation "a setback." He told Reuters that if the project is again blocked in Sweden, it could be moved back to the U.S.

Keith has received millions in funding from Gates and has long promoted "stratospheric aerosol injection" of sulphates to dim the sun. He even appeared on Stephen Colbert's talk show, where the comedian asked: "Blanketing the Earth in sulphuric acid? Is there any possible way that this could come back to bite us in the ass?"

By 2011, Fortune was calling Gates "the world's leading funder of research into geoengineering," having invested at least $400 million into projects and patents.

But at the same time, Gates was also personally investing in profiting from tar sands excavation, which is a leading contributor to climate change.

The business press did not make this seeming contradiction apparent, likely because that would have revealed the connection between geoengineering and big oil.

Nonetheless, another billionaire had already made that connection apparent. In 2007, Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group -- another funder of geoengineering -- told the press:

"If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem [of climate change], then Copenhagen [climate conferences] wouldn't be necessary. We could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars."

Big oil and geoengineering

In August 2008, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates -- two of the richest men in the world -- took a surprise tour of the tar sands. Much of the business press made it seem as though this was just another celebrity tour of the region.

But in fact, both Buffett and Gates were already financially involved in the region. Buffett had been busily buying up shares in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which since 2006 had been moving diluents -- diluting agents necessary for mixing with tar sands bitumen -- from U.S. refineries in the Gulf Coast, California and Kansas to the Canadian border where they are handed over to CN Rail for shipment to the tar sands.

For his part, Gates -- major shareholder in CN Rail since 2000 -- had been buying up more CN Rail shares and more railways in preparation for transporting oil-by-rail for export.

During their 2008 tar sands tour, Buffett and Gates were hosted by fellow billionaire N. Murray Edwards' tar sands company Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and they toured its $9.3-billion Horizon site north of Fort McMurray.

Later, both Edwards and Gates (and then Chevron) invested in a Calgary-based geoengineering company called Carbon Engineering, whose president and majority owner is David Keith. Carbon Engineering is developing an industrial-scale technology to trap carbon dioxide directly from the air and into a water-based solvent -- a process that the Washington Post described in 2012 as potentially using so much water that it would "be depriving 53 million people of water" annually.

Carbon Engineering has built a plant in Squamish, B.C., and plans another (with partner Occidental Petroleum) in Texas.

In their October 2020 article entitled "The Sugar Daddy of Geoengineering," researchers Dru Jay and Silvia Ribeiro noted that "[g]eoengineering is the fossil fuel industry's final escape hatch -- its only chance to keep on extracting and burning" fossil fuels long into the future." They add that "Gates is not a disinterested observer" but holds a "very significant stake in the continued expansion of the fossil fuel industry." Jay and Ribeiro estimate that in 2019 alone, Gates received about US$190 million from CN's oil-by-rail exports, with his CN Rail shares worth more than $10 billion.

Spritzing the stratosphere

Significantly, authors Jay and Ribeiro state that another important person accompanied Buffett and Gates on that 2008 tar sands tour: Nathan Myhrvold -- a solar geoengineering enthusiast and longtime Gates buddy from their years together at Microsoft.

Relying on an interview with Myhrvold published in the book Superfreakonomics, Jay and Ribeiro write: "One of the byproducts of tar sands processing is vast quantities of sulphur which is stored in giant yellow pyramids outside of the Syncrude refinery, viewable from the highway. Myhrvold marveled at the possibilities of burning that sulphur to make sulphur dioxide" and using it (in Myhrvold's words) to "spritz the stratosphere with a fine mist."

They quote Myhvold from the book interview:

"'So you can put one little pumping facility up there,' Myrhvold enthused, 'and with one corner of one of those sulfur Mountains, you control the whole global warming problem for the Northern Hemisphere.'"

Jay and Ribeiro note that this spritzing of the stratosphere would create "a veil of 100,000 tonnes per year of sulphur dioxide that would encircle the planet."

This appears to be the idea behind not only Myhrvold's later Stratoshield project (which Gates has also invested in), but also the basis for SCoPEx and its goal of sulphate aerosol spraying -- the project that Sweden has stopped.

In his 2013 book Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, Clive Hamilton stated that sulphate aerosol spraying:

 "[w]ould require a large and continuous supply of the chemical. Most sulphur used today is a by-product of oil and gas production, although a share is scrubbed out of flue gases of coal-fired power plants. (It would be the final irony if we were to extract sulphur before it pollutes the lower atmosphere only to pump it into the upper atmosphere to prevent climate change.)"

That final irony may be where things are headed.

Just days before the Saami and civil society in Sweden stopped SCoPEx, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called on the U.S. federal government to provide between $100 million and $200 million to solar geoengineering projects over the next five years, including projects to dim the sun.

The ETC Group has stated:

"The climate crisis is grave, but there is no justification to pursue further research into unsafe technologies that would disrupt the climate in ways that could be as dangerous or worse than the effects of climate change."

 The ETC Group is co-hosting an important solar geoengineering webinar on June 9 between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books. She can be reached via www.joycenelson.ca

Image credit: Mikael Häggström/Wikimedia Commons

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