A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate
A startup claims that it has launched weather balloons which may have released reflective sulfur particles into the stratosphere. This could potentially cross a controversial barrier in solar geoengineering.
Geoengineering is a deliberate effort to alter the climate by reflecting more sunlight into space, similar to a natural process that occurs after large volcanic eruptions. The theory is that sufficient amounts of sulfur and other similar particles could help to reduce global warming.
It’s not technically difficult to release such compounds into the stratosphere. Although most scientists have resisted the idea of carrying out outdoor experiments, they have mostly . And it’s not clear that any have yet injected materials into that specific layer of the atmosphere in the context of geoengineering-related research.
This is partly because it’s controversial. Although little is known about the actual effects of these deliberate interventions at large scales on the real world, they could have serious side effects. These impacts could be more severe in certain regions than in others, which could lead to geopolitical conflict.
Researchers who have been studying the technology for a long time are concerned that Make Sunsets appears to have launched launches from a Mexican site without any scientific scrutiny or public engagement. It is already trying to sell “cooling credit” for future balloon flights with larger payloads.
Many researchers MIT Technology Review spoke to condemned the attempt to commercialize geoengineering in this early stage. Potential investors and customers who reviewed the company’s proposals have stated that they are not serious scientific endeavors or credible businesses, but rather an attention grab to create controversy in the field.
Luke Iseman is the cofounder and CEO at Make Sunsets. He acknowledges that the effort is both entrepreneurial and provocative, and an act of geoengineering activism.
He hopes that by moving forward in this controversial space, the startup can drive the public discussion and push forward a scientific area that has faced great difficulty conducting small-scale field experiments amid criticism. We joke slash not that this is partly company and partly a clan,” he said.
Iseman, who was previously a director for hardware at Y Combinator said he expects to get criticized by both geoengineering critics as well as researchers in the field. But he claims that climate change is a serious threat and that the world has been so slow to address it that more drastic interventions are now necessary.
“It’s morally wrong, in my opinion, for us not to be doing this,” he says. What’s important is “to do this as quickly and safely as we can.”
But dedicated experts in the field think such efforts are wildly premature and could have the opposite effect from what Iseman expects.
“The current state of science is not good enough … to either reject, or to accept, let alone implement” solar geoengineering, wrote Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, in an email. The initiative calls for oversight of geoengineering, and other climate-altering technologies by governments, international agreements, or scientific bodies. He said, “To proceed with implementation at this point is a very bad idea.” He compared it to He Jiankui’s decision using CRISPR to edit DNA of embryos. While the scientific community was still debating whether such a step was safe and ethical.
Shuchi Tlati, an American University scholar in residence, said that Make Sunset’s actions could slow down the scientific field by reducing funding, dampening support from the government for trusted research, and speeding up calls restricting studies.
The company’s behavior plays into long-held concerns that a “rogue actor” with no knowledge of atmospheric science and the implications of the technology could unilaterally decide to geoengineer climate without any consensus as to whether or not it’s permissible. It’s easy to do and relatively inexpensive.
David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, warned of such a scenario more than a decade ago. A “Greenfinger, self-appointed protector of the planet … could force a lot of geoengineering on his own,” he said, invoking the Goldfinger character from a 1964 James Bond movie, best remembered for murdering a woman by painting her gold.
Some observers were quick to draw parallels between Make Sunsets and a decade-old incident in which an American entrepreneur reportedly poured a hundred tons of iron sulfate into the ocean, in an effort to spawn a plankton bloom that could aid salmon populations and suck down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Critics say it violated international restrictions on what’s known as iron fertilization, which were in part inspired by a growing number of commercial proposals to sell carbon credits for such work. Some believe that it has hampered field research.
Pasztor, along with others, stressed that Make Sunset’s efforts underline the need for broad-based oversight and clear rules to ensure responsible research in geoengineering. They also help to determine if or under which conditions there should be a social licence to proceed with experiments and beyond. As MIT Technology Review first reported, the Biden administration is developing a federal research plan that would guide how scientists proceed with geoengineering studies.
By Iseman’s own description, the first two balloon launches were very rudimentary. He claims they took place in April in Baja California, months before Make Sunsets was founded in October. Iseman claims that he put a few grams sulfur dioxide into weather balloons, and then added what he believed would be enough helium to propel them into the stratosphere.
He expected them to burst at such high altitudes and release the particles. It’s not known if that happened, where they ended up, or what effect the particles had. There was no monitoring equipment aboard the balloons. Iseman also acknowledged that they didn’t seek approvals from any government agencies or scientific agencies in Mexico before the two first launches.
“This was firmly in science project territory,” he says, adding: “Basically, it was to confirm that I could do it.”
A 2018 white paper raised the possibility that an environmental, humanitarian, or other type of group could use this simple balloon approach to carry out a distributed, do-it-yourself geoengineering scheme.
Make Sunsets plans to expand the sulfur payloads, add other sensors, move to reusable balloons and publish data after the launches.
The company is already trying to make revenue from the cooling effect of future flights. It is offering to sell $10 “cooling credits” for releasing one gram of particles in the stratosphere–enough, it asserts, to offset the warming effect of one ton of carbon for one year.
“What I want to do is create as much cooling as quickly as I responsibly can, over the rest of my life, frankly,” Iseman says, adding later that they will deploy as much sulfur in 2023 as “we can get customers to pay us” for.
The company says it has raised $750,000 in funding from Boost VC and Pioneer Fund, among others, and that its early investors have also been purchasing cooling credits. MIT Technology Review reached out to the venture firms but they didn’t respond before press time.
‘A terrible idea’
Talati was highly critical of the company’s scientific claims, stressing that no one can credibly sell credits that purport to represent such a specific per gram outcome, given vast uncertainty at this stage of research.
What they claim to accomplish with such a credit, she says.
Kelly Wanser is the executive director of SilverLining. This non-profit supports research efforts on climate risk and potential interventions such as geoengineering.
“From a business perspective reflective cooling effects and risk cannot currently be quantified, making the offering an speculative form ‘junk credit’ which is unlikely to have any value to climate credit markets,” she wrote via email.
Talati says it’s hypocritical of Make Sunsets to claim they are acting on humanitarian grounds while moving ahead without engaging with the public, and especially those who could be impacted by their actions. They’re violating communities’ rights to determine their own future,” she said.
David Keith, one of the world’s leading experts on solar geoengineering, says that the amount of material in question–less than 10 grams of sulfur per flight–doesn’t represent any real environmental danger; a commercial flight can emit about 100 grams per minute, he points out. Keith and his Harvard University colleagues have been working for years on a small-scale stratospheric experiment called SCoPEx. This has been repeatedly delayed.
But he says he’s troubled by any effort to privatize core geoengineering technologies, including patenting them or selling credits for the releases, because “commercial development cannot produce the level of transparency and trust the world needs to make sensible decisions about deployment,” as he wrote in an earlier blog post.
Keith says a private company would have financial motives to oversell the benefits, to downplay the risks, and to continue selling its services even as the planet cools to lower than preindustrial temperatures.
“Doing it as an startup is a terrible idea,” says Keith.
The company claims it is using the best modeling research available and will adapt its practices as it learns more. It hopes to collaborate with experts and nations to help it scale up.
We believe solar [geoengineering] is the only way to keep global warming below 2@C, and we will work with scientists to make this a reality as quickly and safely as possible,” Iseman stated in an email. But critics point out that the time it took to interact with experts and the public was before the company started injecting material into space and trying to sell cooling credits. It’s likely that it will be met with a cold reception by many of those parties.
Update: This story was updated to add comments from Kelly Wanser, executive director of SilverLining.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.