This week we talked to Arun Gupta about the “market” solutions to climate change. We’re all familiar with the cap and trade systems that are frequently cited and heralded in the mainstream media. Below are some of the outlandish proposals to address climate change from companies around the world engaging in geoengineering — manipulating the atmosphere to deal with climate change.  Adapted from The Indypendent article “Hacking the Planet” by Arun Gupta


Use high-altitude weather balloons, airplanes and even naval guns to disperse sulfate particles into the stratosphere to block sunlight. This is based on the effects of the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, which injected an estimated 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, cooling the planet by 0.5 degrees Celsius for more than a year.

DRAWBACKS: Arctic ozone depletion; a more acidic environment; decreased soil moisture and rainfall; uneven regional effects; impact on Asia’s monsoons, which could prove disastrous for billions; unknown effects on photosynthesis; reduced effectiveness of solar power; no change in increasing ocean acidification; and the need to keep the sulfate pump working continuously.


Launch a trillion mirrors or more into space where they would reflect some of the sunlight back, thus reducing the global mean temperature.

DRAWBACKS: The cost could be in the hundreds of trillions of dollars (makes the Wall Street bailout look like peanuts). There are the usual hazards of decreasing solar radiation, such as no effect on ocean acidification and less solar power. Then there’s the fact that the global water cycle is more sensitive to a change in solar radiation than the carbon cycle. Simply put, lowering temperatures to the pre-industrial norm would push global rainfall below the norm. And the sunshield could be used as a weapon. Imagine the Pentagon threatening to block a “rogue nation’s” sunlight.


Dump iron filings in the oceans to spawn blooms of phytoplankton that soak up carbon dioxide via photosynthesis. The theory is that when the phytoplankton die they will sink to lower depths carrying the carbon with them. At least two California companies, Planktos and Climos, are already trying to cash in by selling ocean fertilization as offsets.

DRAWBACKS: The only way to test ocean fertilization is to do it on a massive scale for decades in an environment in constant flux, making it extremely difficult to measure results. Effects include nutrient robbing and oxygen depletion. According to Nature, the weekly science journal, “even if the entire Southern Ocean were fertilized forever with iron” this would sequester only one-eighth of the carbon now being generated annually. Another recent Nature study found that in one case of natural iron fertilization, the amount of carbon sequestered in lower depths “was almost 80 times smaller than the amount that scientists had determined during a similar study.” In other words, it doesn’t work.


Construct huge white, plastic islands and float them in the oceans to mimic the reflectivity of polar ice. Melting ice is one critical feedback loop that is speeding up warming. Snow-covered ice reflects up to 85 percent of solar radiation, while open water reflects a paltry 7 percent. So as sea ice melts, the ocean absorbs more heat, causing more ice to melt.

DRAWBACKS: The amount of area to be covered could amount to hundreds of thousands of square miles, resulting in an immense and expensive engineering project. It’s uncertain how this would affect weather patterns and sea life under the islands. The growth and shrinkage of northern sea ice plays a critical role in heat transfer from the oceans to the atmosphere, which is already affecting weather patterns throughout the northern hemisphere, whereas fake islands would remain fixed in size and place.


Known as “marine cloud brightening,” this technique involves deploying thousands of robotic ships to spray atomized saltwater mist into the lower layer of stratocumulus clouds that cover about 25 percent of the world’s oceans. Theoretically, these brightened clouds could reflect enough solar radiation to offset the global warming expected from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which we’re quickly headed toward.

Drawbacks: Apart from the usual problems of tinkering with sunlight, the effects would likely be regionalized. According to Nature, brighter clouds also cool only during the day and do best in summer, whereas global warming is an around-theclock phenomenon. There are questions about whether it is technologically possible to create small enough salt droplets and what the feedback would be on the cloud layers. Since all sorts of climatic activity is driven by temperature differences between the land and oceans, no one knows how weather patterns will be affected.


Klaus Lackner, a physicist at Columbia University, has teamed up with Global Research Technologies in Arizona to construct artificial trees coated in an absorbent material like limewater to bind with carbon dioxide. The carbon would then be removed and stored in used gas and oil reservoirs where it would supposedly stay put for eons.

DRAWBACKS: Cost is a huge issue. Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimates in a new report that it would take 10 million trees at about $20,000 each to absorb just one-eighth of carbon dioxide produced annually. Removing half the world’s carbon dioxide by this method comes to $800 billion and the report notes this is only 20 percent of the costs, with most of the expense coming from “recovery from the sorbent filter material.” Plus there are unknowns as to whether captured and stored carbon would actually stay in the ground; if it started to leak on a large scale, warming could snap back.


This is the most outlandish idea, while admittedly tongue in cheek. Writing in the journal Astrophysics and Space Science in 2001, three scientists described how to “slingshot” an asteroid about half the size of Long Island past Jupiter and then the Earth, transferring the orbital energy in the process. Voilà! Earth’s orbit is nudged about 30 miles further out, reducing incoming solar radiation. Repeat as needed.

DRAWBACKS: The asteroid could cause a speed-up in the Earth’s rotation; the asteroid’s tidal bulge would be 10 times the force of the moon’s, “leading to likely tsunamis, immense storms and other disruptions”; other planets may have to be moved as the Earth is moved, which could destabilize the whole solar system; “it seems that the Moon will be lost from Earth orbit during this process”; and a wayward asteroid could smack into the Earth, effectively sterilizing the biosphere of life.


This week Arun Gupta of The Indypendent joins us to talk about the venture capitalist’s answer to climate change: geoengineering, often described as “hacking the planet.”

The proposals for addressing climate change from companies around the world sound like science fiction: launching a trillion mirrors into space to shade the earth, deploying fleets of robotic ships to spray saltwater mist to brighten clouds, erecting artificial forests to filter atmospheric carbon, juicing the oceans with iron to stimulate phytoplankton that will gorge on carbon — all in an effort to commercialize and profit from climate change instead of making real changes to address it.

>> Listen to 2/2/10: Hacking the Planet