Former Vice President Joe Biden wants to develop new, small nuclear reactors. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wants to use the military’s gargantuan purchasing power to spur a clean-energy boom. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wants to ban fracking as part of an all-out war on fossil fuel emissions.
The 2020 Democratic presidential primary race is quickly offering a buffet of plans to curb catastrophic climate change. But, depending on whom you ask, Andrew Yang’s proposal is either the most dangerous to embrace or foolish to ignore. And it could make its primetime debut this week at the first televised candidate debate in Miami.
The 44-year-old venture capitalist making a long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination is the lone candidate pushing a federal program to research geoengineering.
Geoengineering is a catch-all term for technologies that could counter the effects of global warming. Ideas range from the relatively benign, like sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere; to the quirky, like building berms at the base of Arctic glaciers to slow melting from the warming ocean; to the radical, such as solar radiation management, which involves spraying sulfur gases into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s warming rays back into space.
The latter technology is among the most polarizing proposals in the climate policy realm. To some, it represents the only hope of saving the Arctic and offers a potential tool to temporarily relieve places roasting in deadly heatwaves. To others, it’s a dystopian scheme that threatens to distract from the hard work of stopping emissions and inflame a crisis of already epic proportions, possibly fashioning whacked-out weather systems into weapons of war.
Like at least 16 of his rivals, Yang has vowed to support some version of the Green New Deal, a sweeping industrial plan touted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to provide millions of jobs while pursuing the goal of zeroing out emissions over a decade. But on Yang’s seven-bullet list of policy pledges on his website, the first two focus on developing a well-funded federal effort to study geoengineering.
“To me, this is not an either/or. This is a, ‘We have to do everything we can to keep our heads above water, literally and figuratively,’” Yang told HuffPost recently. “Even as we’re trying to move toward more renewable sources of energy, we have to start facing facts.”
Yang’s embrace of geoengineering marks what could be a political turning point for an issue long written off as too risky and fatalistic to seriously consider ― too much the stuff of science fiction. And with good reason. The technology is largely untested, and early research suggests its deployment could unlock a Pandora’s box of catastrophic weather effects.
It’s also easy to caricature some of its most avid proponents as short-sighted, tech-bro utopianists quixotically seeking an easier path out of the climate crisis than weaning the global economy off fossil fuels, industrial farming and deforestation.
But as carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere hit 415 parts per million last month, the highest levels seen since humans evolved, the topic is becoming more salient.
Only two countries ― Morocco and the Gambia ― are on track to meet the emissions cuts under the global Paris climate accords required to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial averages. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Brazil, two of the world’s largest polluters, are now led by presidents who reject climate science outright. China, the world’s top emitter, is continuing to build coal plants it promised to cancel while financing a pollution-heavy infrastructure across the globe.
As climatic changes occur faster and more dramatically, the likelihood that someone starts pumping reflective gases into the stratosphere increases. It could be a country, particularly one gripped by a deadly heat wave, or a group of wealthy individuals or companies operating outside of a traditional international governance structure.
“It’s a no-good, very bad, super-horrible idea that we should understand the implications of doing,” said Costa Samaras, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
‘Stay In The Lab’
Geoengineering started to gain currency outside wonkish circles even before last October’s United Nations report on climate change ignited a global panic over the speed at which the planet is warming. In December 2017, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) introduced a bill to fund geoengineering research and order the National Academies of Science to draft plans to carry out the studies. It didn’t pass, but interest in the topic is intensifying.
In late 2018, a team of Harvard University researchers kicked off a project called the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), the first phase of which involves flying a steerable balloon 12 miles above the southwestern U.S. and dispersing substances such as calcium carbonate dust or sulfur dioxide to mimic volcanic eruptions’ cooling effect. In April, at an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate in New York, the side arguing against the motion that “engineering solar radiation is a crazy idea” won the audience poll in a landslide.
“Our contention is that solar geoengineering might be part of the way that humans manage environmental risks of climate change this century, that a combination of emissions cuts, adaptation, carbon removal, and solar geoengineering might enable a safer climate,” David Keith, a top geoengineering researcher at Harvard and executive chairman of the firm Carbon Engineering, said during the debate. “But only by discussing it openly and researching it, can people make that judgment with information.”
That may sound reasonable enough. But, as with much of the discussion on climate change policy, even calls for research are politically loaded.
Among the other contenders in the Democratic presidential battle, almost none of the campaigns responded to repeated requests for comment about their positions on geoengineering.
At House hearing in April, Inslee ― who has focused his entire effort on combating climate change ― said geoengineering should “stay in the lab.”
“We have to focus on preventing carbon emissions in the first place,” he said. “That’s the battle we’re in right now, and we should stay in it.”
In an interview with HuffPost, Inslee said he was open to geoengineering research in theory, but warned that it could “siphon off political momentum to stop pollution in the first place.”
“With an infinite budget, sure,” he said of research funding. “But I don’t think we should take money out of ways to stop pollution to try that last-gasp prayer when we have no clue how these systems really work.”
Opponents of geoengineering point to terrifying risks. Termination shock, the phenomenon wherein abruptly stopping geoengineering results in rapid warming, is the most often-cited threat, though studies go back and forth on the severity of that risk.
Injecting sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere to deflect the sun’s rays could deplete the ozone over the Earth’s poles, a 2008 study in the journal Science concluded.
Geoengineering could mess with regional jetstreams, cooling one hemisphere while increasing droughts and hurricanes in another, a November 2017 study in the journal Nature found.
Quickly implementing or halting geoengineering could wreak havoc on already-struggling animal species, according to a Yale University study published last year in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Another 2018 study in Nature concluded that the reduced sunlight from geoengineering offset the potential gains from relieving heat stress on crops.
All of this only scratches the surface of how complicated the geopolitics of geoengineering could be. Both advocates and skeptics of idea agree it could mirror the politics of nuclear armament in the 20th century.
“It’s concerning that [Yang] thinks this would be a popular issue,” said Silvia Ribeiro, a director at the nonprofit ETC Group, which monitors geoengineering research. “From our perspective, this is wrong and will instead delay any real action to stop climate change.”
Few international rules govern the issue. Among the strongest in place is a 1977 U.N. convention barring the use of “environmental modification techniques,” including artificially seeding clouds, for war. In 2010, the U.N. declared a moratorium on climate geoengineering, citing the unknown effects of “technofixes” on wildlife. It renewed the ban in 2016. But the language of the moratorium barred only projects with potential impacts on animals.
In March, the Swiss government proposed a resolution at the U.N. Environment Assembly calling for a report on geoengineering, but the U.S. Saudi Arabia and Brazil blocked the motion.
“The potential sources of conflict are myriad,” Eli Kintisch, author of the book “Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope — or Worst Nightmare — for Averting Climate Catastrophe,” wrote in 2013 for the MIT Technology Review. “Who will control Earth’s thermostat? What if one country blames geoengineering for famine-inducing droughts or devastating hurricanes? No treaties ban climate engineering explicitly. And it’s not clear how such a treaty would operate.”
Absent any such accord, various players have stepped into the breach. In 2012, California businessman Russ George dumped over 110 tons of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean as part of a geoengineering scheme that aimed to spawn an artificial plankton boom that could absorb carbon dioxide and sink it to the ocean floor.
Last year, the Chinese government started what’s been called the “largest-ever weather modification project,” deploying an array of silver iodide furnaces to seed clouds over the Tibetan Plateau, home to glaciers that act as the headwaters to the 10 largest rivers in Asia, providing water to three billion people.
The Harvard research in the U.S. Southwest is backed by billionaire Bill Gates.
“We have to make sure it’s researched responsibly,” said Shuchi Talati, a geoengineering fellow at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, who added that “it would be irresponsible not to consider solar geoengineering.”
The Moral Hazard Of The Moral Hazard
Provocation is a form of currency for Yang’s campaign. He’s made a $1,000-a-month universal basic income the centerpiece of his platform, and this month announced plans to demonstrate the policy’s potential by sending checks to a voter in Iowa. He vowed that as president he would pardon everyone imprisoned on marijuana offenses, releasing them on April 20, 2021, and “high-five them on their way out of jail.” He came out against male circumcision ― certainly an unorthodox topic for a platform.
Yang has not yet fleshed out how, exactly, geoengineering research would work under his presidency. He said he was “very into studying things that we could do that we could undo very easily if they don’t have the desired effect.” He also said his “preferred approach” on such efforts “would be multilateral.”
When HuffPost emailed Harvard’s Keith and Jesse Reynolds, a prominent geoengineering researcher at the UCLA, neither had heard of Yang’s plan. Reynolds said Yang’s calls for research funding “make sense on their own,” but “must be done in an international context.”
“The U.S. has unfortunately been a laggard in international cooperation,” Reynolds wrote in an email. “Any such geoengineering activities should be accompanied by serious cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. This is also why Mr. Yang’s reference to developing governance internationally is encouraging.”
“It’s a no-good, very bad, super-horrible idea that we should understand the implications of doing.”
The next president could wield broad authority to orchestrate a federal geoengineering program, said Julio Friedmann, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy and a former Department of Energy official. The Energy Department’s Office of Science, he said, would be a natural place to house the program, and other research could be done through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.
Of a potential budget, he estimated that “anything less than $10 million isn’t going to move the needle.”
The greatest political obstacle, however, may be the widely argued position that developing such technology risks staving off decarbonization at a moment when the Green New Deal is finally providing a popular policy framework for eliminating emissions. That fear of a moral hazard, an insurance industry term for policies that incentivize reckless decision-making, is a hazard unto itself, Friedmann said.
The same moral hazard argument ― that a focus on geoengineering would hamstring other needed environmental initiatives ― was used to delay efforts to adapt to climate change. It was used against studying technologies to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere ― something that last year’s U.N. report stated was necessary to keep warming in a safe range.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” Friedmann said. “To say that even knowledge (of the potential of geoengineering) is opening Pandora’s box strikes me as a rather odd thing to choose; to say we’re so worried about the moral implications of this that we don’t even look selects ignorance as your guiding principle.”
It’s a sentiment Yang echoed.
“Hope is not a policy,” he said. “We have to start preparing for the worst.”