Discover more from MCJ Collective Newsletter
Beyond “Geoengineering” to Emergency Medicine for Climate
By Kelly Wanser, Executive Director of SilverLining
Sixty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee sent him a report on restoring the quality of our environment. It projected – with remarkable accuracy – the effects of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Since the report was published, temperatures have risen by about 0.8°C, astoundingly in line with the 1965 report. But the most striking element may be its suggestion that possibilities for deliberately intervening in the climate system “need to be thoroughly explored.”
What possibilities? Scientists have suggested that rapid reduction in climate warming might be best achieved through one of nature’s mechanisms – the reflection of sunlight from clouds and particles in the atmosphere (first seen in the 1972 Blue Marble image whose champion, Stewart Brand, also advanced climate intervention, or ‘geoengineering’, in public dialogue). Later, observations of effects from volcanic releases and pollution suggested that increasing the atmosphere’s reflectivity by just 1-2% could offset up to 2°C of global warming.
The idea of climate intervention has been controversial. In the late 20th century, modestly dialing down greenhouse gas emissions in coming decades would have been the obvious and responsible thing to do. Considering adding material into the atmosphere to try to counter warming would have, understandably, seemed wildly unhelpful.
We face a different reality today. Disasters that were far-off possibilities in the past are realities for people everywhere. The most vulnerable are being hit hardest– by drought, famine, floods, and unescapable, deadly heat. Going forward, we face an increasingly dangerous environment in which Earth’s temperature will continue to rise in every scenario for emissions reduction, through the mid-century, displacing up to 3.2 billion people.
Today, criticism of climate intervention carries forward the concern that even studying it creates a panacea that will slow greenhouse gas reduction (there is some evidence to suggest that the opposite could be true). There is also concern that governing it may be impossible, though its centralized activities may be far less complex to manage than the diffuse problem of greenhouse gas emissions. (We may even have a model to work from in humanity’s most successful environmental protection effort, The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.)
Where does that leave us? Governments have declared a climate emergency, but they have not developed strategies to ensure that people are safe and natural systems stable under increased warming conditions over the next 30-50 years.
There are escalating private and public investments in approaches for removing greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. If enough is removed, the climate will cool relatively quickly. But in general, these approaches will take decades to scale to the levels required. We may get lucky, but otherwise, our best current failsafe lies in increasing the reflection of sunlight from the atmosphere.
How? The most prominent approaches involve increasing the reflection of sunlight by dispersing a sea-salt mist from ships into clouds over the ocean (“marine cloud brightening”) or releasing particles into the upper atmosphere (“stratospheric aerosol intervention”). Surface and space-based ideas for reflecting sunlight were discounted in scientific assessments in 2009 and 2015.
What is the state of play? Recent science fiction novels by Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson are terrific reads and get a lot of the science right – except the part where interventions are fast and easy to do. They are actually complex and capital-intensive to study and scale only with significant effort and money. Dispersing relevant material in the atmosphere is not a solved problem, it is also not the primary one.
Substantial research is required to evaluate the risks of interventions against projected warming so that policymakers and people around the world can consider potential impacts on the climate system and on their communities. The underlying science problem – the effects of particles (“aerosols”) on clouds and climate – is one of the largest areas of uncertainty in climate research. Observations and model representations of these processes are far weaker than they need to be, for both predicting climate and for evaluating interventions. But with the right advances, we might develop ways to prevent the escalation of impacts like wildfires, droughts and storms and early warning and response systems for major abrupt changes, similar to the U.S. program in place today to prevent asteroid strikes.
Stepping into an unusual gap, our organization, SilverLining, is advancing crucial aspects of progress. Like a medical foundation, we support research, innovation and policy in a race for objective information to help save lives.
We work with a network of experts to identify the critical requirements for research, which includes both advances in observation and models to better predict near-term climate generally, and technology development and field studies of specific climate interventions to characterize the effects of particle releases at small scales in order to model their effects at large ones.
We operate from the perspective that better information enables better decision-making and, if widely shared, more constructive politics and more equitable outcomes. To that end, through programs like our collaboration with Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (deploying, for the first time ever, full climate model simulations on the cloud), we are expanding access to climate models and data for scientists around the world to study climate interventions.
Reducing emissions is imperative. Removing carbon is a critical accelerant to achieving a sustainable climate. But we are approaching an unsafe and unstable environment that may require emergency medicine, and to navigate it safely, we have work to do.
🙌 Wins of the Week
Spotlighting our incredible MCJ community members.
4️⃣0️⃣ people joined MCJ this week - a HUGE welcome to this illustrious group of folks! Find out more about them in #o-introductions, reach out to say hi, make sure to join #o-virtual-coffee-chats (opt into chats every Tuesday) or #c-interest-based-coffee-chats-beta to meet them and others in MCJ.
✊🏾✊🏿✊✊🏽 We recognized Juneteenth and the intersection of Black history and climate justice by sharing a few resources in #c-community-chat. As always, we’d love to amplify more diverse voices. If you’re interested or have any recommendations, reach out to Jenn Beening (our new MCJ Content Lead) in Slack.
✍️ The Draw-down
Weekly climate art by our MCJ Artist-in-Residence, Nicole Kelner.
📢 Climate Action of the Week
Want to do more? Sign up for the next Climate Changemakers Hour of Action here.
Use our advocacy tool to call, email, and Tweet at your members of Congress on the importance of electrifying buildings. President Biden recently invoked the Defense Production Act to stimulate the production of heat pumps, but we need Congress to help make electric appliances affordable to everyone.
🏠 Take Action at Home
Featuring a tip from Carbon Switch
Home energy use is responsible for 20% of emissions in America. We emit 600 million tons of CO2 per year running our furnaces and A/C. Fortunately there's a solution that can help us get that number to zero: the heat pump.
📍 Get Local
This week’s local climate issue of note, brought to you by Climate Cabinet.
Seattle City Light, the utility company for Seattle and surrounding areas, announced that they would allow residents to request the installation of utility pole-mounted EV chargers. This policy helps alleviate several problems EV owners can run into, such as not being able to install at-home EV charging stations. Seattle City Light is a public utility, meaning that the objectives of the Seattle city government help shape its priorities. Find and support local pro-climate leaders running to shape their utilities’ future at ClimateSlate.com.
💰 This week Jason spoke with Rachel Slaybaugh of DCVC about what she’s learned working in academia, government, early-stage innovation, and now as a venture capitalist.
🏡 Cody caught up with Mike Phillips of Sense about how his company engages homeowners with real-time energy data to help with the transition.
It was quite a week for MCJ meetups! Shout-out to everyone who organized and showed up! 👋 Thinking about organizing an MCJ meetup? Let Leone Baron (our new MCJ Community Lead) know in Slack.
👩💻 Climate Jobs
For more climate events, check out the #c-events channel in MCJ Slack.
💭 If you have feedback or items you’d like to include, feel free to reach out.
🌳 If you’d like to become an MCJ community member, apply today.
📨 If someone forwarded this to you, sign up for the newsletter.