Will geoengineering scorch the sky?

I came across this MIT Technology Review article by James Temple outlining plans by controversial start-up Make Sunsets, and it’s a little terrifying.

Technology Review

The company wants to disperse huge quantities of sulphur and particles into the atmosphere, mimicking a massive volcanic eruption, that’s supposed to reflect sunlight back into space, hopefully easing global warming. This kind of geoengineering is controversial, and Make Sunsets’ approach, to me at least, sounds way too casual. It’s almost as if no one has told them, they just haven’t bothered to find out, when you release toxic chemicals like sulphur into the atmosphere, they fall back to earth as acid rain.

Acid rain was the hot environmental topic of the seventies and eighties. The heavy industries of Britain and Northern Europe released tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere, that fell as sulphur dioxide spiked rain across southern Scandinavia, causing all kinds of environmental damage, from deforestation to water pollution.

As neoliberalism stripped heavy industry out of Britain, turning the country into a service economy, acid rain became less of an issue, and receded from public view. But a couple of years ago Paul Brown in The Guardian, reported that one “previously underestimated cause of acid rain is nitrogen oxides, produced partly by farming and motor vehicles”. To counteract nitric acid in rainfall, Norway is forced to pour tonnes of lime into their waterways.

The Guardian

On a more hyperbolic tangent, deliberately releasing sulphur into the atmosphere sounds too much like the plot of a dystopian science fiction film. It makes me think of the “desert of the real” speech by Morpheus in The Matrix (1999). Humans, faced with an existential threat from machines, try to starve them of solar energy, by deliberately scorching the sky.

Machines may not be plotting our enslavement, not yet, but we are facing an existential threat from a man-made, machine-enhanced, climate catastrophe. What’s being proposed by Make Sunsets falls squarely into “desert of the real” territory. Morpheus’ speech is a warning about the unforeseen consequences of desperate actions. It’s telling us not to do anything that will have long reaching, unforeseen consequences. Like scorching the skies with sulphur.


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