More climate scientists say emissions cuts are not enough and we face imminent catastrophe unless deliberately altering the climate. What are the options and challenges? I interviewed Dr Ye Tao who is proposing we use massive amounts of mirrors to reduce harm in the short term.
By Jem Bendell
In 2018, Dr Ye Tao was a Harvard engineer working on nanoscale magnetic resonance imaging. He read the Deep Adaptation paper on climate disaster, then cross-checked it with over a thousand peer-reviewed papers across several climate-relevant fields, and realised the growing existential risk to modern civilisation. So that included everything he was working on. He wondered what would be the point of continuing with his engineering work in such a scenario. Instead, Dr Tao decided to repurpose his expertise to try to give humanity a better chance of reducing the catastrophe ahead. Dr Tao has since been developing and promoting what he argues is a scalable, safe, green and flexible form of climate engineering. It proposes using mirrors to reflect the sun, mostly from the ground and over coral reefs at sea, to cool agricultural land, save fresh water, and preserve ecosystems. He arrived at this idea after analysing and debunking the science and economics behind other approaches to geoengineering (which is also known today as ‘climate repair’ and ‘climate restoration’).
I was interested in talking with Dr Tao to learn more, on what is a controversial topic in green circles. Have you noticed that when the topic of geoengineering comes up, it is a bit like Marmite? That’s the British yeast extract: people love it or hate it. One problem with immediate strong reactions is if people are seeing ‘geoengineering’ as one amorphous category of approaches, rather than many different ideas. The lack of differentiation is apparent in the recent call by some scientists to seek an international agreement against any solar engineering at all, which despite being motivated by concern with proposals regarding globally significant manipulations high in the atmosphere, might also prohibit the work of Dr Tao. Another problem is when people either like or dismiss it because of their general attitude towards technology; seeing it as a saviour or villain. If we are relating to information and ideas to affirm our own identities and worldviews, and justify our prior choices, then we are not doing our best at responding wisely to the situation. Those two problems are always with us, for any issue at hand. But with geoengineering, things have recently been further complicated.
The new impediment to intelligent dialogue and decision making on geoengineering could be capitalism itself. Billions of dollars of venture capital have been invested in this field. That means there are now many people in businesses, think tanks, NGOs, universities and politics, who work on geoengineering approaches and policies in ways that arise from the interests of venture capitalists. That means many professionals in this space are not necessarily promoting the ideas which offer the most advantage for humanity, but the best potential return for the venture capitalists that are paying their bills (directly or indirectly). That is why Direct Air Capture of carbon (DAC) machines have been the focus of so much media coverage. In the Q&A Dr Tao provides a concise argument for why such DAC machines are based on a myth and are wasting our attention and resources (and in some cases, wasting our taxes). In doing so he reflects the independent peer reviewed research which has shown how DAC machines are irrelevant to our climate predicament (apart from spinning stories to ignore the reality of that predicament). In contrast to the new DAC industry, the absence of well-paid PR companies and corporate-funded NGOs promoting the work of Dr Tao is probably why you haven’t heard much about it before now. Because with ‘MEER,’ he is promoting a plan that is not going to make rich people a lot more money.
We chatted a few days after new observational climate data reminded us that the situation is far worse than the computer models have been projecting for our current level of global ambient warming. Antarctic areas reached 40C above normal at the same time as the North Pole regions hit 30C above usual levels. Putting this data in the context of recurring anomalies, Professor Mark Maslin had said that “the extreme weather events in 2021… were unexpected at a warming of 1.2C…” and now the extremes at the poles shows “we have entered a new extreme phase of climate change much earlier than we had expected.” That should bring an added intensity of attention to a situation which the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (WG2) alluded to. Because we will probably blast past 1.5 degrees global ambient warming in a few years, the possibility for using Solar Radiation Modification (SRM) to lower temperatures locally or regionally, will increasingly be raised, and will generate key issues and tensions.
In the Q&A, Dr Tao began by showing how the focus of the climate policy community on computer models can be a reassuring distraction from current observational data. He explained how the mainstream climate sector has been downplaying the significance of the loss of the shielding effects of pollutants when we decarbonise global energy systems (sometimes called ‘global dimming’). He uses data from the effects of pandemic lockdowns on pollution and correlates that with localised heating, to emphasise the significance and immediacy of this problem. He makes the case that pollutant-reduction from decarbonising energy will lead to heat spikes in major cities across the Global South. He also notes how the rapid burst of heating from pollutant-reduction will cause more extremes of weather in the Global South. In doing so, Dr Tao seeks to bring our attention to how the current situation cannot be approached merely with carbon emissions cuts, and that Solar Radiation Modification (SRM) needs to be part of the agenda.
Dr Tao points to an uncomfortable reality for Western environmentalists who sometimes reduce the focus to simple decarbonisation of societies through electrification and renewable energy sources. But if we environmentalists in the West ‘turn up our noses’ at dealing with the implications of what we are calling for, then we are leaving it to the capitalists to determine the future of geoengineering without much contest. That is problematic enough, but our mistake might be far worse. As Dr Tao’s presentation explains, the energy decarbonisation we seek will hurt the Global South immediately due to the localised damage from a jump in global heating as the dimming caused by dirty fossil fuels is reduced.
The eco-modern dream now sweeping the mainstream environmental movement in the West airbrushes out this problem of the dangerous immediate impacts of decarbonisation. It similarly airbrushes out the impossibility of achieving total renewable energy production due to the rarity of the metals required for renewable energy (as intimated by the UN’s IEA) and the damage that would be done to precious environments and the lands of indigenous peoples to source those metals. On this latter issue, one study published in the journal One Earth, states that “A Green New Deal could put severe pressure on lands held by Indigenous and marginalized communities and reshape their ecologies into “green sacrifice zones.” With those realities firmly back in the picture, it becomes clear we in advanced economies must undertake a consumption and energy descent, with intense redistribution of remaining resources, which will require a different economic system. It also means we need to be realistic about the damage from immediate heating from decarbonisation and address that proactively with ideas like Dr Tao’s.
Unfortunately, with airbrushes firmly in hand, the focus of many of my activist friends remains on single issues, like fossil fuels, and single corporations, like oil firms. That leaves them with little basis for effective engagement with a topic like geoengineering, and for assessing what ideas are important to encourage or not. This is further evidence of how avoiding an explicitly anti-corporate environmentalism in the West is contrary to reducing harm from environmental change – a key part of the agenda we like to call ‘climate justice’. This airbrushing will backfire. Without tools like those proposed by Dr Tao to complement a coherent plan for an energy descent, when Western greens demand to ‘Just Stop Oil’ they will be criticised for being willing to sacrifice the lives of millions of people in the Global South to pursue a pain-alleviating pipedream of preserving their current lifestyles. Those criticisms will not only come from misinformed reactionaries, but also from people who have arrived at a deeper critique and a wider range of proposals and responses.
Do you feel moved to look at this more closely, make conclusions and change what you do in life and work? I ask because the temptation to leave this topic to someone else is huge. All around us there are people in the climate field who want us to pretend with them that the current industrial consumer ways of life can be sustained with some better technology and management. That is why narrow studies on impossible scenarios run on computer models get turned into headline news that it is ‘not too late’ to avoid catastrophic heating. I refer here to the news coverage given to a study that showed that most of the top climate models found that if all CO2 emissions were stopped immediately, then the temperatures would stabilise soon at their increased level, rather than go on warming. Because of four reasons, this is neither a story nor significantly positive. First, this scenario of overnight cessation of all carbon emissions will not happen and should not happen unless you believe in global genocide. Second, although tipping points in living systems are a key aspect of reality in nature, and can cascade into each other, the researchers state that they are not included in the computer models because the mathematics is too complicated, uncertain, and the results too erratic. In other words, the models aren’t approximating some of the most consequential aspects of reality, despite many of the tipping points already appearing to have been reached. Third, the models did not include methane, which is becoming ever more important for warming scenarios. Fourth, prior to this research, the IPCC had already concluded that the model estimates of future additional warming from current CO2 concentrations is uncertain, so the new findings simply reconfirmed their existing stance.
Fixating on one study of one impossible hypothetical scenario run in computer models, can draw our attention away from the range of information available to us about how difficult our climate is going to become. The palaeontological record shows that at current CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere the planet is likely to warm at least twice as much as it has already since the year 1850. Current observational data from around the world indicate the amount of damage being caused by existing amounts of warming. Rather than stay with that information, there is an understandable desire to find any argument to preserve the idea that we can fix the climate and sustain our current way of life – to have our climate and eat it too. Yet such distractions from difficult realities mean that fewer people engage critically in crucial issues like fair adaptation and proposals for geoengineering. ‘Hopium’ aside, engage we must.
One of the audience questions to Dr Tao was whether finding ways to stabilise the climate for a bit longer might enable further destruction of the biosphere in the short term, and potentially much greater damage later on, if carbon concentrations were allowed to rise further and then civilisation collapsed, taking with it any and all geoengineering projects. Dr Tao responded that his proposals are only part of the agenda of responding to the ecological crisis, which involves working on a range of environmental issues. He did not think his proposals would necessarily sustain civilisation, as the environmental situation is now so difficult, but he hoped his proposals could reduce harm over the coming decades. By responding that way, Dr Tao illustrated how the spirit of innovation does not need to be wedded to assumptions of human dominion, infinite growth and eternal progress. We can try to innovate and deploy technology because it might help us reduce harm, whether or not it helps industrial consumer societies to sustain themselves. That ethos could also be kept in mind when looking at the need for innovation to reduce any toxic planetary legacies of humanity when societies break down. Perhaps there’s a new life purpose for nuclear scientists in that.
Assuming the capitalists have their sway over the ideas taking pole position in the geoengineering race, then some good refereeing by governments and international organisations will be important. As the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative explain, “governance is essential, yet existing frameworks are insufficient to deal with the scale and speed with which some would need to be deployed. The governance of these climate-altering technologies also needs to be aligned with other sustainable development goals, such as biodiversity or human rights, so that one does not undermine the other.” What is key, therefore, are “society-wide discussions to inform national and international policy-making.” Unfortunately, the amount of money being invested in DAC, in particular, might mean the narratives, ideology, and information generated by people funded by the climate capitalists shape the discussions – perhaps even the activism by academics.
After decades of ineffectual climate policy, with steepling emissions and atmospheric concentrations, it has become clear that commercial interests undermined the effectiveness of global policy responses during the past decades of climate concern. They now threaten to undermine humanity’s effectiveness during this new period of climate emergency, by driving attention towards inappropriate or dangerous geoengineering projects. Instead, people like Dr Ye Tao need to have their ideas developed and tested more than those that are only being entertained because of the big bucks behind them.
As environmental campaigners might stay away from geoengineering ideas and debates until it is too late to have an influence on which ideas are deployed, the main message from Dr Tao could be for the people involved in the sector already. That message is stop pretending that your employers’ ideas can beat entropy. Stop following the money. Instead, follow your head and heart into working for something that might reduce harm. Maybe that will be www.meerreflection.com. Or maybe it will be something else that is useful, like targeted Marine Cloud Brightening. That is a relatively cheap and safe method, if deployed in a limited way, yet could also be inappropriately covered by any imprecise ban on SRM. To reduce mistakes and wasted time, we need people working on this without any distraction due to personal financial gain. The stakes are too high.
Is it naïve to think humanity could approach geoengineering with a laser focus on effectiveness, affordability, safety and accountability to affected communities? Probably. In my own work and life, I am planning as if capitalism will indeed ruin humanity’s response to this latest phase of environmental policy. Therefore, I spend more time on ideas and initiatives of adaptation. However, I see these as complementary to efforts at bold carbon cuts and drawdown, as well as responsible and accountable forms of geoengineering. So I am grateful that Ye Tao is trying, and I encourage you to watch the Q&A and consider how to help his efforts in some way.