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The moral hazard of solar geoengineering
Feb 15, 2022
Episode 601

The moral hazard of solar geoengineering

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But some want to do it anyway.

As the threat of climate change grows, expect to hear more about solar geoengineering.

It came up during our recent episode with sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, and it involves spraying tiny particles into the stratosphere to deflect the sun’s rays away from the Earth and cool the planet.

“It’s a pretty old idea and it has run into such opposition, in terms of research, that we have yet to have any rigorous tests of whether it is even, you know, remotely possible,” said Elizabeth Kolbert, a climate journalist and author of “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.”

Critics still believe the risks outweigh potential benefits, but that hasn’t stopped others from supporting the idea as a potential solution to our climate woes.

On the show today, the promise and peril of solar geoengineering.

In the News Fix, we’ll discuss a historic settlement between Sandy Hook families and gun manufacturer Remington Arms. Also, we’ll explain why billionaire philanthropists are a social policy issue.

Then we’ll hear from listeners about last week’s episode on the NFL racial discrimination lawsuit, and we’ll have an answer to the Make Me Smart question that will teach you something about weather forecasting!

Here’s everything we talked about today:

Make Me Smart February 15, 2022 transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Kimberly Adams:  Hello, I’m Kimberly Adams, welcome to Make Me Smart, where none of us is as smart as all of us.

Kai Ryssdal: I’m Kai Ryssdal, it is Tuesday, we’re doing a single topic today. Ee’re going to talk about solar geoengineering. We talked about it a little bit when we had Neil Stephenson on sci-fi author extraordinare, as I hope, you know, and it kind of comes up when you talk about climate change and solutions and or mitigation. So we’re gonna talk about that today.

Kimberly Adams: Right, because generally speaking, when we’re talking about geoengineering, it’s basically this idea that we can, you know, fiddle with the Earth’s climate system a little bit, well, actually, on a very large scale, tweak at the edges maybe interfere in a big way. One form of that is solar geoengineering. And that’s basically this idea that you reflect the sun’s rays away from the Earth. And, you know, what could possibly go wrong there?

Kai Ryssdal: Well, yeah, you know, anyway, here to make a smart is climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, she is the author of “Under A” – among many other things, by the way, most recently “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.” Thanks for coming on.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Hey, thanks for having me.

Kai Ryssdal: Solar geoengineering, give us a little bit of how it might work would ya?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, the idea is as Kimberly explained that you reflect some of the sunlight that would be normally hitting the Earth with reflective particles, you put reflective particles up into the stratosphere, and they would bounce some of that sunlight back to space. And that would have a cooling effect. And the reason that we know that this, you know, works, quote, unquote, is that that’s what major volcanic eruptions do. They pour a lot of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere into the stratosphere, it’s got to get all the way up into the stratosphere that floats around creates this kind of haze of little tiny droplets that are very reflective. And so after a major eruption, you do get global cooling for about a year or so.

Kimberly Adams: Is that going to happen with this latest eruption we recently had near Tonga?

Elizabeth Kolbert: I think that the sense is that that was not a big enough eruption.

Kai Ryssdal: So the catch, of course, is limiting to a less solar radiation for only a year right? Because if you block the sun, you block the sun.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, the way that most of these schemes for solar geoengineering work, you would have to be constantly replenishing that. Now, they don’t, you know, they they just block a tiny fraction of the incoming radiation, you wouldn’t want to block all of it, certainly, let’s put it that way.

Kimberly Adams: But enough to make a difference, I’m guessing. The title of your book actually refers to what the world might look like, if this were to actually happen. Can you describe sort of what it might look like, if we were to go outside in a world where solar geoengineering was happening?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, there have been, you know, sort of calculations done as to what the sky would look like, if we did solar geoengineering. And they indicate that the sky would become whiter, and therefore we would – so now if you go to a place where now there’s a very blue sky, there would, there would be a kind of milky or white like – you know, like, we have a lot of urban areas where we are not seeing a, a clear blue sky, you know, without solar, geoengineering, but that would be sort of everywhere, all over the planet.

Kai Ryssdal: The catch, of course, is that you have to do this on a planetary scale. So literally, scale becomes a challenge, right? It has to be a planetary effort. We can’t just do it here and say, okay, the United States is covered. Thanks.

Elizabeth Kolbert: No, it would it once you sort of the the whole idea, right is once you shoot the stuff into the stratosphere, that it floats around on the stratospheric winds, it would become it would be global, and as you say, it would kind of have to be global.

Kimberly Adams: And what are the downsides of this?

Elizabeth Kolbert: The list is very long, some people keep lists of downsides. And they range from, you know, changing the color of the sky, potentially, to changing regional weather patterns potentially. So if you are pouring a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as we are and heating up the world and then trying to counteract some of that heating by putting reflective particles into the stratosphere, you don’t get sort of the same world you get  potentially quite a different world with potentially different weather patterns. That could be potentially very dangerous for some parts of the world. You are literally getting  less incoming solar radiation so that affects you know, all our plans to move to solar power. For example. I don’t think that people feel there will be much impact on crops because crops actually plants actually kind of like diffuse sunlight. I think that there are, the other huge potential impact is if you keep, you know, pumping carbon dioxide into the air and even if you’re mitigating the temperature change with some kind of reflective haze, you’re still acidifying the oceans, changing the chemistry of the ocean. So that’s another huge problem that we have. And, you know, finally, people would say, if you just dangle out this proposition, sort of in front of a world, which seems very reluctant to cut its carbon emissions, anyway, you’re just going to take away sort of whatever, you know, political pressure there is right now to reduce emissions. And we’re just going to continue to emit at these, you know, really tremendous rates that we’re emitting right now. And we’re gonna sort of guarantee eventual disaster. So there’s a big push among a lot of scientists, there was just recently an open letter from a bunch of very eminent scientists saying, don’t even look at this technology, we should not even be entertaining it. So there’s a lot of potential problems that run from, as I say, the political to the geophysical.

Kai Ryssdal: Well, that’s kind of it in a nutshell, right, that last little bit there the moral hazard on a planetary scale. I mean, you thought, you know, not you, but one thought, you know, the, the Fed and Wall Street were a moral hazard, this is this is extinction level moral hazard.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Yeah, it is. And, you know, I want to say, I think it’s a very, very difficult question. There are, you know, very few technologies out there that, you know, we say, you cannot even look at this, some other people on the other side, other scientists would say, “Well, we really ought to look at it to know, you know, if it’s infeasible if it’s just completely infeasible, we ought to know that now, too.” So it’s sort of a double edged sword, you know, should  we be researching it or not? But the moral hazard argument, I think, I think is very powerful. On the other hand, you know, people make the point. And when I say, people, I do mean, people who are, you know, very knowledgeable and spend a lot of time thinking about this, that we’re really not doing anything. Anyway, right now, you know, I mean, emissions are going up, they’re still going up, when we know they need to be declining dramatically every single year. So, you know, moral hazard, you know, how could you do worse than we’re doing now?

Kimberly Adams: I guess that leads to my next question, which was, why are scientists focusing on this right now? Because it’s pretty self evident, because the level of the crisis?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, and I also do want to say that scientists, I mean, one of the things I learned in in writing, “Under a White Sky” was that this idea surface right away, basically, as soon as people, you know, understood that we were changing the climate pretty seriously, back in the 70s. Really, this idea immediately surfaced, okay, we changed it one way, we can try to counteract that by, you know, throwing something into the stratosphere, à la volcanoes. So it’s really a pretty actually old idea. And it has run into such opposition, in terms of research that we have yet to have any really, you know, rigorous tests of whether it is even, you know, remotely possible.

Kai Ryssdal: Well, that’s a really good question. Can we test it?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Yeah. So that’s, that is another really interesting question. I mean, the first test that was planned was actually for this past summer, the first sort of really, actually, you know, rigorous scientific test was just to sort of test instruments to see if we put some very small amount of particles, you know, into the stratosphere, we could kind of track them and see how they behave. Because the stratosphere is, you know, a pretty under explored place, it’s hard to get to, but, you know, I think that one argument that would be made is, you know, you could certainly test it on a very small scale and get probably a pretty good idea of, you know, whether what impacts it would have, but you could also, once again, if you were an advocate of doing this, which you know, I am not advocating it, I’m just explaining it. You could, you could sort of ramp it up, you don’t wouldn’t have to go full scale, you could, you know, have a very slow build up and sort of see what happens because the amount of stuff you put up there is the amount of cooling you’re going to get out.

Kimberly Adams: How much money is going into this kind of research in these experiments and like, how does that compared to other types of geoengineering and the money going in that direction?

Elizabeth Kolbert: I don’t think there is a tremendous amount of money going in right now unless there are you know, to be honest, you know, secret government programs somewhere which which there could be that I just don’t know that. No, it’s a very, you know, it’s it’s a serious, you know, possibility if you’re the US military or you know, the Chinese military, I don’t know what you’re doing. But in terms of, you know, publicly announced funding, there isn’t a tremendous amount right now, probably the best funded group is a group at Harvard, and they maybe have, you know, 20 million in funding, something like that. But there was recently a report from the National Academy of Sciences that did recommend a research effort on the order of $100 million or so.

Kai Ryssdal: So where do you think this goes? I mean, cuz $100 million is a boatload of cash, yes. But to the scale of this problem, it’s not even couch cushion change.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Yeah. I mean, I, I tend to think that we’re just going to hear more and more and that I don’t think we’re not researching it, because it’s – the bottom line is that we have very, very few tools when we decide, which I’m afraid we’re going to decide that we really don’t like the damage we’ve done to the climate, I don’t think people appreciate how much inertia there is in the system, how very, very difficult it is to, to roll things back. And carbon dioxide removal, which was used to be sort of lumped in with geoengineering. And now it’s pretty, you know, considered pretty mainstream. You know, we just keep sort of passing over these thresholds. And then we keep going. And so I do think you’re gonna be hearing more and more and more about this, and potentially seeing more and more money going into research that that’s just you know, one woman’s opinion.

Kai Ryssdal: Well, but a deeply informed woman she is. Elizabeth Kolbert is her name. Her most recent book is called “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.” Solar, geoengineering and a bunch of stuff. Elizabeth, thanks a lot. We appreciate your time.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Oh, thanks for having me.

Kai Ryssdal: Man. Tough, tough problem.

Kimberly Adams: Yeah. And it’s a problem that we’re probably going to end up having to throw everything at for sure. And so, look, especially after reading Termination Shock, there are so many. Yeah, there are so many moral hazards with this concept and you know, in in the book, they lay out, like, you know, you shoot sulfur dioxide into the air in one place, and it causes a massive drought, in like India’s breadbasket or something like that. And there are people who end up controlling these technologies, you know, effectively might end up picking the winners and losers in, you know, the global climate crisis. But, you know, I guess that’s why it’s important we talk about now.

Kai Ryssdal: Yeah. Yep. Yeah, for sure.

Kimberly Adams: Okay. Tell us what you think. Are you looking forward to a future with solar engineering or other kinds of geo engineering, our number is 508-827-6278, also known as 508-UB-SMART, or you can leave us voice memo at makemesmart@marketplace.org And we’ll be right back.

Kimberly Adams: And we are back. I lost my place in the script.

Kai Ryssdal: The miracle of  audio production. Did you really? Well… you know where we’re going.

Kimberly Adams: I know, I lost all my screens. Okay, it’s time for the news fix Kai, you go first because  I clearly don’t have my life together.

Kai Ryssdal: No, that’s fine, but you got the better story. So I’m going to blow through mine real quick. Just lay down a couple of markers. And then we get to yours which I think is is arguably the news of the day. So number one, the Producer Price Index came out this morning producer prices of course being inflation the wholesale level up 1% month on month in January. That is a lot. It’s like 10 and a half percent year on year. Again, this is inflation at the wholesale level. It’s a boatload of price increases, but I’m just gonna put a put a stake in the ground and say this, I still don’t think the Federal Reserve is going to raise interest rates a half percentage point in the March meeting, I think they’re gonna stick to a quarter percent. I mean, there’s no doubt that rates are going up, I just don’t think that they’re gonna go a half percent. And I just want to lay down that marker. That’s, that’s number one. Number two. And and this is interesting and bewildering, and I don’t know why I picked it except, I think it needs to be noted here somewhere. So Elon Musk, he of SpaceX. But more importantly, in this case, Tesla gave away $5.7 billion of Tesla shares last year to charity. Now, we don’t know where it went. But giving away $6 billion, makes him like presto change-o one of the biggest philanthropists in the world. And that is of note because he’s trying to change the world. And I just want to get that out there. People might have missed that.

Kimberly Adams: Yeah, I uh…

Kai Ryssdal: Yes?

Kimberly Adams: Billionaires giving away money is such a fascinating topic in general. And the way that we rely on the super wealthy to fund some of the things that depending on you know, where you sit on the political spectrum, that maybe investments for government to make or social safety net supports. And so I will be very fascinated if we ever find out where this money went.

Kai Ryssdal: You have to believe some enterprising reporter at like Bloomberg or The Journal where they’ve got the resources to dig into this stuff. He’s gonna figure it out, right. I mean, he’s, he or she was gonna put two and two together and go down the money rabbit hole, like somebody like David Fahrenthold at the Post or something.

Kimberly Adams: He’s focusing on nonprofits now.

Kai Ryssdal: He’s with the Times, right. Isn’t it he at the Times, didn’t get a job at the Times? David Fahrenthold. So philanthropy is and especially to Kimberly’s point, philanthropy by billionaires, when arguably it ought to be the government’s job is a valid social policy issue. That’s speaking of social policy issues. How’s that for a turn?

Kimberly Adams: Yeah, well, I mean, you could make draw the direct line, I know you have billionaires like, I don’t know if Michael Bloomberg is still a billionaire, but a very wealthy person spends a lot of –

Kai Ryssdal: Bloomberg terminals are like $24,000 a, you know, pay period or something practically.

Kimberly Adams: Right. And this is somebody who spent a lot of his money on gun control issues, which leads to the big story today, which is that the Sandy Hook families, nine of the families, I believe, have reached, they say a $73 million settlement with Remington, which manufactured the gun that was used in the Newtown shooting that killed 20 kids and six adults in you know, one of the early, unfortunately, not rare mass shootings in schools here in the US, this is hugely significant, because I don’t think ever has one of these gun manufacturers actually faced any kind of liability or consequences linked to one of these mass shootings. And it’s interesting how they did it. Because federal and sometimes even state laws often protect the gun manufacturers for sale, a wrongful death lawsuit or something like that. And so what these attorneys in the families did was they actually went after the marketing strategies, and the way that Remington marketed this weapon, and allegedly targeted young people. And that is why they feel like Remington has liability and it seemed to have worked and apparently also as part of the settlement, Remington is going to be forced to release some documents about how it marketed these weapons. And so you know, and Remington I believe is already bankrupt, or at least filed for some version of bankruptcy. So really, this is also the insurers that insured Remington that are going to be paying up for some of this. And so the families at least I was watching the press conference earlier, are saying that this is a warning to not only the gun industry, but also the insurers and the shareholders that there may be some liability whereas before there has been none. And this is just hugely consequential. I can’t imagine what it feels like for those families. And you know, does this mean it’s going to open the door for the God help us hundreds and hundreds of other families who’ve gone through something similar?

Kai Ryssdal: Yeah, I don’t know. Huge story though. Huge story. I’m glad you picked it.

Kimberly Adams: Yeah.

Kai Ryssdal: All right, mailbag shall we?

Kai Ryssdal:  I love that sting so much that might be my favorite thing ever. Okay, so we started the mailbag today with a voice memo. We talked last week about Brian Flores, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins his lawsuit against the NFL, for racial discrimination and the sad state of affairs about race in the National Football League. And also the Rooney Rule, which remember is that rule that requires nominally minority candidates be interviewed for head coaching and front office jobs. Here’s the voice memo.

Chris: Hey, there, my name is Chris from Asheville, North Carolina, longtime listener, first time caller, I’m always amazed at how we can still be shocked at the level of racism that flows within our society. When you think about it, we are only 60,70 years removed from being a segregated country. And, you know, it’s hard to see any change when the people making the rules are all still older, white man. It is a shame. But thank you.

Kai Ryssdal: Yeah, that was that was arguably one of my favorite Tuesday shows that we’ve ever done. It was deeply informative. It was it was incredibly substantive. And it was it mattered a lot. I thought I really I enjoy talking to Professor Duru.

Kimberly Adams: I certainly learned a lot. I mean, on the one hand, I agree with Chris. But on the other hand, I think “we” is doing a lot of work there.

Kai Ryssdal: Yeah. You’re not shocked at all right. I mean, you know.

Kimberly Adams: I don’t think any Black person in America is shocked. And like I get the sentiment, I hear this a lot. It’s like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe we’re still here. But like A, segregation is not over. We’re not 60 or 70 years removed from being a segregated country and many, many aspects of our society is still deeply segregated. And I think you and I had a version of this conversation when the Black Lives Matter protests started. I don’t remember if it was online, on air off air. But you know, this idea of it says something when somebody is shocked, you know, that you didn’t see it before. And you know, that’s great that people learn and they grow. But you also then have to investigate why certain people don’t see it. So yeah, but yes, Chris, it is a shame, for sure. Next  voice memo this one is about Justin Ho, and his love for Lowe’s, specifically as a pitstop when you’re on a road trip.

Mark: This is Mark from Mountain View, and to add a coda to the search for retail establishments with nice restrooms. I wanted to add that perhaps the nicest public restrooms that are clean and frequently enhanced with potpourri are available at Bed Bath and Beyond. Never fails. Thanks for making me smart. Take care.

Kai Ryssdal: TMI I’m telling ya, that’s a little TMI right there. I just didn’t even even know that.

Kimberly Adams: I mean they have those little things with the with the sticks in them that smell nice everywhere.

Kai Ryssdal: Send us your travel tips COVID or non and also it doesn’t have to be about bathrooms. Send us your suggestions. Your thoughts on travel makemesmart@marketplace.org. Call us if you like 508-UB-SMART. Those are all letters U-B S-M-A-R-T.

Kimberly Adams: And we’re gonna leave you with today’s answer to the Make Me Smart question, which is what is something you thought you knew you later found out you were wrong about? This week’s answer comes from Sarah in Columbus, Ohio.

Sarah: Here’s something I thought I knew that I later found out I was wrong about. I’m a huge weather nerd. And for the longest time, I thought that the National Weather Service knew pretty much what weather was happening anywhere in the United States at any given time. Then I took a spotter class. And they spent a lot of time telling us how little they really know about what happens at ground level  because radar and satellites are their main data collection methods and those don’t get down to the ground. So they need a lot of help from volunteers to tell them what’s happening on the ground. So they can correlate that with the satellite and radar data. Whatever level of help you’re willing to give they would love to have it because as we get deeper into the climate crisis, their models get less and less accurate.

Kai Ryssdal: That is cray cray. That is cray cray. That’s like 19th century stuff, man. We still have people on the ground calling National Weather Service saying “hey, it’s raining.” That’s amazing. That’s amazing.

Kimberly Adams: So what do you just like go online and sign up to be a weather contributor?

Kai Ryssdal: I don’t know but one of our crack producing team is gonna find out and put it on the show page because that is crazy.

Kimberly Adams: Well, I certainly learn something new today. Thanks, Sarah

Kai Ryssdal: No joke. That was awesome. That was awesome. And that’s why you’re tuned into this podcast. All right. We are done for today. Samantha Fields and I are back tomorrow answering your questions on Whaddya Wanna Know Wednesday. If you do have questions that you need answeredYou know how to get a hold of us, right. Email, voice memo, all that good stuff.

Kimberly Adams: All the things. Make Me Smart is directed and produced by Marissa Cabrera. Our team also includes producer Marque Greene. Ellen Rolfes  writes our newsletter our intern is Tiffany Bui.

Kai Ryssdal: Jayk Cherry engineered the program today first time down the shoot right? Charlton Thorp keeping a close eye there on the other side of the glass. Juan Carlos Torrado  is gonna mix it down later, Ben Tolliday and Daniel Ramirez composed our theme music the senior producer of this podcast is Bridget Bodnar. Donna Tam is in charge of everything. Actually, Neal Scarbrough who’s the vice president and general manager who is actually in charge of everything. Donna’s just in charge of us. That’s, that’s all that’s gonna have suffice Donna. Just be in charge of us.

Kimberly Adams: It’s still power.

Kai Ryssdal: That’s right. Oh, man.

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