A Startup Is Releasing Particles Into the Atmosphere To Tweak the Climate

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An anonymous reader quotes a report from MIT Technology Review: A startup claims it has launched weather balloons that may have released reflective sulfur particles in the stratosphere, potentially crossing a controversial barrier in the field of solar geoengineering. […] Some researchers who have long studied the technology are deeply troubled that the company, Make Sunsets, appears to have moved forward with launches from a site in Mexico without any public engagement or scientific scrutiny. It’s already attempting to sell “cooling credits” for future balloon flights that could carry larger payloads. Several researchers MIT Technology Review spoke with condemned the effort to commercialize geoengineering at this early stage. Some potential investors and customers who have reviewed the company’s proposals say that it’s not a serious scientific effort or a credible business but more of an attention grab designed to stir up controversy in the field.

Luke Iseman, the cofounder and CEO of Make Sunsets, acknowledges that the effort is part entrepreneurial and part provocation, an act of geoengineering activism. He hopes that by moving ahead in the controversial space, the startup will help drive the public debate and push forward a scientific field that has faced great difficulty carrying out small-scale field experiments amid criticism. “We joke slash not joke that this is partly a company and partly a cult,” he says. Iseman, previously a director of hardware at Y Combinator, says he expects to be pilloried by both geoengineering critics and researchers in the field for taking such a step, and he recognizes that “making me look like the Bond villain is going to be helpful to certain groups.” But he says climate change is such a grave threat, and the world has moved so slowly to address the underlying problem, that more radical interventions are now required. “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.”

[…] By Iseman’s own description, the first two balloon launches were very rudimentary. He says they occurred in April somewhere in the state of Baja California, months before Make Sunsets was incorporated in October. Iseman says he pumped a few grams of sulfur dioxide into weather balloons and added what he estimated would be the right amount of helium to carry them into the stratosphere. He expected they would burst under pressure at that altitude and release the particles. But it’s not clear whether that happened, where the balloons ended up, or what impact the particles had, because there was no monitoring equipment on board the balloons. Iseman also acknowledges that they did not seek any approvals from government authorities or scientific agencies, in Mexico or elsewhere, before the first two launches. “This was firmly in science project territory,” he says, adding: “Basically, it was to confirm that I could do it.” The company is already attempting to earn revenue from the cooling effects 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. Shuchi Talati, a scholar in residence at American University who is forming a nonprofit focused on governance and justice in solar geoengineering, 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’re claiming to actually accomplish with such a credit is the entirety of what’s uncertain right now about geoengineering,” she says. Talati adds that it’s hypocritical for Make Sunsets to assert they’re acting on humanitarian grounds, while moving ahead without meaningfully engaging with the public, including with those who could be affected by their actions. “They’re violating the rights of communities to dictate their own future,” she says.

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