Note : this article was first published on my personal blog: https://acceleration.party
"We absolutely must put an end to this crazy experiment of releasing billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere."
- Elon Musk
The reality of climate change
This article looks at geoengineering, a technique critical to the future of humanity, through the eyes of Make Sunsets, one of the first start-ups daring to implement it. However, before explaining what geoengineering is, we need to define precisely the problem it is designed to alleviate: global warming.
Since the industrial revolution and until the discovery of nuclear power, mankind has massively relied on hydrocarbons as a source of energy. The consumption of these fossil fuels, ironically derived from the corpses of previous species, releases CO2, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The latter, via a physical process, sequesters the infra-red radiation emitted by the Earth, thus maximizing the heat at the Earth's surface.
The presence of CO2 in the atmosphere and its leverage effect on the greenhouse effect are not in themselves problems. They are part of the carbon cycle, a natural product of the biosphere. But the industrial revolution has caused CO2 concentrations in the air to explode: there is twice as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today as there was at the highest CO2 peak in the last million years. We're going to warm the planet to temperatures never seen before in the last million years. But the most important fact, often overlooked, is that there are no real solutions for getting rid of all this CO2, its natural sequestration process by the biosphere being of the order of a hundred thousand years. As for CO2 emissions themselves, the most optimistic estimates see a possible inversion of the curve around 2070. These points are crucial, because they reveal an obvious fact that is never articulated in public discourse: in addition to finding a substitute for hydrocarbons, it will be essential to implement solutions to massively decarbonize the atmosphere, while artificially cooling the earth. This is where geoengineering comes in.
Make Sunsets and the first geoengineering test
"Geoengineering or geoengineering is the set of techniques that aim to manipulate and modify the climate and environment of the Earth and by extension of a planet in first intention and on a large scale."
In December 2022, start-up Make Sunsets claims to have carried out the first real test of Solar-engineering, a technique aimed at reducing solar radiation to cool the atmosphere. The principle imitates the cooling phenomenon caused by volcanic eruptions, via a massive projection of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, a chemical compound that blocks the sun's radiation.
Based on a technique known since the 90s as Stratospheric Aerosol Injection, the start-up was immediately condemned by the scientific community, a condemnation echoed by the media, of which The Verge's article is an excellent illustration. Having had the chance to chat with Andrew Song, one of the co-founders of Make Sunsets, I'll take the liberty of responding below to the main points of the article in question.
Stratospheric aerosol injection: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stratospheric_aerosol_injection
"[Make Sunset] has not received authorization or approval [from the Federal Aviation Administration]"
In fact, there are no regulations on American soil governing geoengineering. While there is a UN moratorium to prevent large-scale geoengineering, this is vague and excludes small-scale (?) experiments. It's not out of the question that such a lack of regulation exists on French soil, as farmers in certain regions have developed the habit of launching anti-hail rockets into thunderclouds.
Note that this lack of regulation may not last, as the European Commission recently referred to geoengineering as presenting "an unacceptable level of risk for man and the environment".
"The start-up's experiments are even more revealing: Andrew Song and co-founder Luke Iseman lit a fungicide on a grill to produce sulfur dioxide, in a "cringe-worthy" scene that Time describes as a "sulfur barbecue" in a Reno parking lot."
During our interview, Andrew explained the reason for this home chemistry experiment: due to the war in Ukraine they hadn't been able to find a bottle of sulfur dioxide and had therefore been forced to "cook" it from solid materials. Where The Verge found the scene "cringeworthy", I found the demonstration educational.
"The U.S. emitted about 1.8 million tons of sulfur dioxide in 2021 alone, mostly from burning fossil fuels."
This statement implies that we are already emitting large quantities of sulfur dioxide, that these are not curbing global warming, and therefore that Stratospheric Aerosol Injection is not a functional technique. But this implicit assertion is not true, Andrew points out, highlighting a study by Léon Simon, superimposing sulfur dioxide emissions from cargo ships before and after 2020, the year sulfur-rich diesel was banned, and finding a rise in temperatures after 2020 on major shipping routes. "That's the paradox: what kills us can also save us," Andrew tells me.
"Science is all about numbers. If you don't have numbers, there's no science. So, even as a technological demonstration, it was nothing."
This is a recurring criticism of geoengineering techniques: since meteorology is a random science, sporadic, small-scale events cannot lead to scientific consensus. This is the paradox of geoengineering, since its effects can only be demonstrated through large-scale experimentation over a period of several months, experimentation that is precisely blocked by institutional bodies.
"According to the Harvard University professor, the other major challenge is to make collective decisions on how to deploy this type of planet-altering technology. It's the exact opposite of two guys toasting sulfur in a parking lot, flying their balloons and trying to make a profit from it."
The claim that Luke Iseman and Andrew Song are motivated by profit is ridiculous. These are two highly qualified and passionate people who are investing full-time in a complex project, when they could have definitely chosen a more money making business like Crypto or AI. Maybe their project won't work, maybe future regulations will put Make Sunsets out of business. But I think that making the World aware of geoengineering, even "killing the conversation" by presenting institutions with a fait accompli, is more than worth a donation.
In the end, all the arguments put forward by scientists against the start-up only give it credibility. What we've seen at the start of the 21st century is that Western state systems seem to result in nothing but the hyper-regulation of absolutely everything. I repeat: there will be no minimum reduction in CO2 emissions before 2070. Geoengineering is inevitable. Where are these experiments?
The metastasis of European social democracies
"I love the leverage of accelerationism. I think accelerationism is the only thing that has ever lifted people out of poverty, the fact that food is cheap.[...] If there's one political position I can't stand, it's decelerationism: it's people who think we should use less energy. Not those who think global warming is a problem, not those who think saving the environment is a good thing, but those who think we should use less energy.You're diminishing humanity.The path to a better humanity is: how do we make the price of a kilowatt-hour the price of a megawatt-hour?"
- George Hotz, https://youtu.be/dNrTrx42DGQ?t=10746
In his novel Termination Shock, novelist Neal Stephenson builds his plot around geo-engineering, where a Texan billionaire decides to single-handedly solve the problem of global warming, in a manner almost identical to Make Sunsets. Incidentally, the start-up was inspired by the novel in question, one of the co-founders having interviewed the writer shortly before its publication. But why choose a Texan billionaire as the protagonist rather than a government? In his interview with Lex Friedman, Neal Stephenson answers.
Lex Friedman: What do you think the solution will come from? Governments working together or an audacious Texan billionaire?
Neal Stephenson: I'm pretty sure that this kind of intervention won't come from Western democracies. You know, we all saw what happened with vaccines. Forcing people to wear masks or get vaccinated was incredibly difficult, even if it could save lives.
The analogy is apt: injecting the Western population en masse with a vaccine prepared in just a few months using hitherto experimental technology is, in the final analysis, a very real technological risk. However, the analogy ends there: no citizen voted for these restrictions, and the first U.S. state to fully implement health restrictions after mass vaccination of its population, Texas, was also the most permissive during the pandemic.
More emblematic, in my opinion, and directly linked to the fight against CO2 emissions, we have the decommissioning of German nuclear power, driven by the precautionary principle inherent in social democracies.
An absurd precautionary principle, since it would make the country extremely dependent on fossil fuels, while at the same time leading to an explosion in energy prices.This is what pits social democracies against start-ups.Social-democratic policies naturally tend towards a kind of hyper-moderation, hyper-regulation (perfectly visible in the European Union), whereas the leitmotif of startups is "move fast, break things".
But where are these policies taking us? What's the plan? The scenario sold by Western political environmentalism is the illusion that there will be some kind of stop button, and that everyone in the West will start going vegan, eating insects, and that the rest of the world will follow. But this scenario doesn't exist, it's just a solution for the few million privileged Westerners living in the few safe metropolises that are still livable. The reality is that a Soylent Green scenario is increasingly likely: the disappearance of meat, increasingly stifling heat waves and the industrialization of euthanasia. We're already seeing the beginnings of these policies in Ireland and Canada. There is no other plan than a "controlled decline", a Liverpoolization of the West.
Start-up versus parliamentary democracy
"Centralization and control are the definition of tyranny. I don't like anarchy either, but I still prefer anarchy to tyranny because anarchy has a greater chance of success."
- George Hotz https://youtu.be/dNrTrx42DGQ?t=5830
But what if democracies fail? What if they go mad and start regulating everything?
My backup plan is simple: use the most resilient political form, the anarcho-monarchist regime of start-ups. Take Tesla as an example: the company is headed by a monarch, Elon Musk, who has full powers and uses competition between states as a lever towards a form of controlled anarchy. When the state of California went crazy with its regulations (administrative like COVID), Tesla immediately relocated to Texas. What I find crazy is the boundless hatred directed at Elon Musk, despite the fact that he is still the person who has done the most to decarbonize the planet. He's done it with Tesla cars and fast-charging stations, but also with lesser-known projects like Solarcity and Powerwall home batteries. Have you ever wondered why Tesla is investing in autonomous cars? The answer is simple: to transform the individual car into "public" transport, a vehicle that can be rented, driven and managed autonomously. High-end cars, but shared and therefore more ecological.
In the same vein, France is home to a number of start-ups involved in the construction of nuclear micro-reactors: Jimmy, Renaissance Fusion, Naarea. They are working to make this technology less dependent on the state, and thus protect it from possible state bankruptcy. Yes, the state, when it functions as a sovereign corporation, a sov-corp to use Curtis Yarvin's vocabulary, is a powerful engine of prosperity. India, less than 30 years after its decolonization, obtained nuclear weapons. But when democracy is used as a lever to dismantle a country, as is the case in Germany, start-upization or even open-sourcization appears to be the most viable solution. Decentralize energy, the economy, climate management and even defense into private anacho-monarchical clusters to protect them from the leveling down of parliamentary democracies.
That's the cool thing about Make Sunsets. The company directly connects geoengineering enthusiasms with two engineers capable of executing it, and without the slightest friction. This is impossible in the institutional context, where everything is committees, parliaments, abstractions and, ultimately, dilution! The institutional context cannot provide an interface between those who want to realize an idea and those who can, only the start-up form can.
Make a donation to Make Sunsets!
Make Sunsets works via a donation system: you buy a cooling credit of at least $10, and this credit corresponds to a certain amount of sulfur dioxide that will be released into the atmosphere. For the time being, Make Sunsets uses a balloon-release system for these SO2 injections into the atmosphere, but is developing new delivery methods as demand increases.
I have made a donation. If you'd like to do the same, please visit makesunsets.com.
Thanks to Andrew Song, co-founder of Make Sunsets, with whom I had the pleasure of chatting.
This article took me over 4 months of research, on a subject as rich as it is complex, and in a field with which I was unfamiliar. It probably contains some inaccuracies, and I've had to put aside many elements to keep my text coherent. However, I would like to share with you my various notes that I was unable to include in the final article.
Did you know that we weren't the first species to trigger a mass extinction by disrupting the carbon cycle? When they first appeared, trees massively decarbonized the planet, triggering a gigantic ice age that destroyed the majority of marine species.
Paradoxically, it is all these terrestrial glaciers which, by melting, will drain immense quantities of organic matter into the ocean, serving as a gas pedal for future marine species. This is a recurring dynamic in the history of life: the previous extinction serves as fuel for the species that follow. The extinction of the dinosaurs produced a layer of sediments rich in flint, and oil wells are nothing more than mass graves of liquefied plankton.
As far as geo-engineering is concerned, the injection of aerosol into the stratosphere is just one sub-category of an immense field, addressing all areas of carbon cycle restoration: changing the opacity of marine clouds, carbon sequestration via underwater forests, mirroring in space, or Passive Daytime Radiative Cooling, which in simple terms consists of building roofs in a material that reflects the sun's radiation. There's also the very interesting field of Arctic geo-engineering aimed at limiting ice melt.
Another interesting thing about the graph of carbon dioxide variations over the last million years is that, logically, we should have entered a CO2 crash and therefore an ice age. But that was without counting the Industrial Revolution.
I've just read that one of the CEOs most hated by young people is Elon Musk: "the one who maintains a business model incompatible with a just transition. He is associated with many of the problems of today's world, from rising inequality to a desire for infinite power and a lack of respect for the planet."
The person who has worked hardest to make energy greener is seen as the enemy of the Planet. The ideal leader according to young people? Cristiano Ronaldo. The climax of our parliamentary democracies will not see engineers at the head of state, but soccer players. Balaji Srinivasan and Curtis Yarvin are right: we need to fork our democracies if we want to have any chance.