Cool It, George Soros (Not Literally)

Cool It, George Soros (Not Literally)

George Soros may want to to hack the atmosphere to refreeze the Arctic.

Unfortunately, that’s not a line from a shitty email sent by your MAGA aunt. And the Soros’s interest may signal renewed investment from powerful billionaires into a practice scientists have long been on the fence about.

Geoengineering — a blanket term for various theoretical methods to hack the planet, but usually used to refer to methods involving aerosols that reduce how much sunlight hits Earth — is one of the most tiptoed-around topics in climate science and policy. Blocking out the sunlight to slow warming in certain areas would be incredibly beneficial to keeping our planet cool. But there’s a whole lot of stuff we simply don’t know about what altering our atmosphere could do, and there are some pretty grim studies suggesting horrible side effects, from altering hurricane season to devastating the Amazon to unleashing crop die-offs to the idea that once we start geoengineering, we won’t be able to stop.

Geoengineering has taken front and centre in the climate policy conversation in recent weeks — and its existence is as contentious as ever. In a report released Monday, experts from the UN slammed the brakes on the idea of actually executing what’s known as solar radiation modification, or SRM, a suite of techniques to block the sun in order to slow warming, while recommending further research into the topic. (This report comes on the heels of a rogue startup that tried to independently launch its own SRM project last month.)

Also on Monday, dozens of scientists released an open letter in support of more research into geoengineering. The list includes some big names in climate science, including James Hansen, who first sounded the bell on climate change in front of Congress in 1988, as well as several authors of IPCC reports. The letter is careful to not explicitly endorse SRM, but does lay out a case for further study of these possible strategies.

“While reducing emissions is crucial, no level of reduction undertaken now can reverse the warming effect of past and present greenhouse gas emissions,” the letter states. Human aerosol emissions, meanwhile, actually work to offset some of the warming we’re causing from fossil fuel use — we’re just not sure how much.

“Significant uncertainties remain around how any of these SRM interventions would affect climate risk under different scenarios of greenhouse gas and background aerosol concentrations,” the letter states. “Yet as the impacts of climate change grow and become more tangible, there will be increasing pressure to reduce climate warming using one or more SRM approaches.”

The website hosting the letter says it was “written and organised by members of the physical and biological science community.” In an email, Sarah Doherty, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington and one of the letter’s organisers, said that no outside groups or funders were involved in putting the letter together.

“We think it’s important that the public understand what is motivating scientists to support research on this topic, how it fits in with climate research more broadly, and to make the important distinction between supporting objective research to rigorously evaluate climate interventions versus supporting actively using them,” she wrote.

This cautious approach stands in stark contrast to Soros’s new enthusiasm. In mid-February, Soros made a 40-minute speech at the Munich Security Conference that focused on the dramatic changes to ice at the Arctic Circle and the catastrophic warming in the ecosystem there. Soros’s billions, which have gone to support a variety of left-wing causes, hasn’t yet reached the climate space (despite the numerous emails I get accusing me of working for him — hey George, where’s my check?). His speech kicked off a flurry of speculation that he’d put money toward marine cloud brightening efforts.

“We are dangerously close to breaching the 1.5-degree limit set in the Paris Agreement in 2015,” Soros said during the speech. “We are already at 1.2 degrees, and if we maintain our current course, global warming will reach more than 2.5 degrees around 2070.” Soros then went on to present a six-minute video with the title card “REFREEZE THE ARCTIC TO SAVE CIVILISATION.” The video promotes the idea of “refreezing” the Arctic using a process called marine cloud brightening — one of the techniques referenced in the scientists’ open letter.

The letter from the scientists and Soros’s apparent interest in hacking the planet point to the inherent tension in the geoengineering conversation. It’s true that we actually don’t know much about SRM techniques, and we could definitely benefit from research. In a perfect world, geoengineering would be added to a long list of carefully researched, independently assessed climate solutions, that would be evaluated scientifically for effectiveness, justice, and cost, compared against other techniques, and executed thoughtfully and sparingly. And it’s very clear that the scientists’ letter endorses only research into the techniques, rather than full execution of SRM itself.

But research does not exist in a vacuum — especially research that interests high-profile billionaires. As the world goes through energy shifts and climate change gets worse, there’s increasing movement from the wealthy and powerful thinkers of the world to find quick fixes to the climate problem. Worryingly, there are also scant international regulations on geoengineering techniques. Theoretically, a particularly gung-ho billionaire with a harebrained idea to fix the atmosphere could fund a project all by himself that could irreversibly alter weather around the world.

We’ve seen already how climate techno-fixes can surpass the realm of practical application and measured executions. Look no further than carbon dioxide removal, which scientists agree is necessary to keep warming below catastrophic levels but is now being used as a fix-all by oil companies and billionaires with a vested interest in creating a new, profitable industry. And SRM and other geoengineering tactics have a much bigger potential fallout than just making too many carbon dioxide removal plants.

If, by some strange chance, George Soros (or any other billionaire) is reading this, here’s my advice: if you’re give the spare change you’ve got in your pocket to scientists, kill any hopes you have for a positive return on investment. Don’t expect to immediately build Arctic refreezing machines, and listen to the scientists if their research finds that we shouldn’t pursue these tactics. Maybe put some of your substantial cash toward proven climate solutions, like helping low-income communities transition to renewable energy or investing in getting the world permanently off coal. Just because it’s not a fancy new fix, doesn’t mean it’s not effective.

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