Harvard scientists are currently working on a project called the “Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment” – or SCoPEx – to which the Microsoft founder has contributed funding via research grants.
The project is aimed at testing the controversial concept of solar radiation management – a form of geo-engineering which would see aerosols sprayed high into the atmosphere to reflect some of the sun’s rays in a bid to slow global warming.
According to a Reuters report, the researchers – with the help of Sweden’s space agency – are planning a dry run in June of the SCoPEx project, which could eventually see them send a balloon filled with up to 2 kg of chalky particles 20km into the stratosphere in order to study the real-world effects of releasing them into the atmosphere.
No particles will be released in the June test, which still awaits approval from a Harvard advisory committee. But a Harvard scientist involved in the project told Reuters that an experiment releasing the particles could follow in autumn 2021 or spring 2022.
While there is significant legitimate controversy around the research, the SCoPEx test was soon sensationalised in various publications, such as the MailOnline, which claimed the test has been put on hold “amid fears that it could trigger a disastrous series of chain reactions, creating climate havoc in the form of serious droughts and hurricanes, and bring death to millions of people around the world”.
As Snopes reports in its fact-check on the subject, these are indeed valid fears about the possible side-effects of geo-engineering, but no scientist would argue such an outcome could be triggered by releasing an amount of chalk equivalent to a bag of flour 12 miles above the Arctic.
But the project has also provided fuel for the conspiracy theorists already seizing upon Gates’ every move.
The billionaire philanthropist’s interest in vaccines has seen him become a target of virulent conspiracies that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic, with baseless theories claiming Covid-19 and the resulting vaccine drive is part of a genocidal plot by global elites.
Now the idea – driven in part by media headlines – that Gates “wants to block out the sun” appears to be being woven into these fantastical and pernicious narratives painting the Microsoft founder as a eugenicist.
@noUpside I was hoping this was a simpsons reference but i fear its not
The move is controversial enough as it is without drifting into the realm of conspiracy.
One on hand, opponents of solar geo-engineering schemes fear they would simply distract from the need to reduce fossil fuel emissions, and could become a somewhat addictive tool – continually deployed in greater force to mask some of the problems driving man-made climate change without ever actually addressing them.
Furthermore, it is argued that geo-engineering schemes could have unintended consequences, by changing weather patterns that drive droughts and hurricanes – with these impacts potentially felt unevenly across the world.
And there are serious questions over how solar geo-engineering would be regulated, amid concerns that individual groups or nations could start unilateral efforts to engineer our collective atmosphere.
Some are viewing SCoPEx as a test of this regulatory process.
While its opponents point to a global 2010 moratorium on geo-engineering under the UN Convention on Biodiversity, this allows exemptions for small-scale scientific research studies.
And those involved in the Harvard project reportedly do not believe they need to seek special approval for the flight from the government in Sweden, where it will launch. But they are still awaiting a decision from Harvard’s own advisory body on whether it should go ahead.
But despite the precedents the experiment would set, it remains relatively small in scale – and the main concerns centre around the argument that it is a “slippery slope” to larger efforts.
“There is no merit in this test except to enable the next step. You can’t test the trigger of a bomb and say ‘This can’t possibly do any harm’,” Nicklas Hällström, director of the Swedish green think-tank What Next? told Reuters.
But David Keith, a Harvard professor involved with the project told the news agency that while “there are very many real concerns” about the risks of solar geo-engineering, “understanding them requires a range of activities including experiments”.
And Gates has previously spoken of it as an insurance policy which will hopefully not be needed.
“If you get into that situation, it’s like if you’ve been overeating, and you’re about to have a heart attack. Then where do you go? You may need heart surgery or something,” he said in a 2010 TED Talk.
“There is a line of research on what’s called geo-engineering, which are various techniques that would delay the heating to buy us 20 or 30 years to get our act together. Now, that’s just an insurance policy – you hope you don’t need to do that.
“Some people say you shouldn’t even work on the insurance policy because it might make you lazy, that you’ll keep eating because you know heart surgery will be there to save you.
“I’m not sure that’s wise, given the importance of the problem, but there’s now the geo-engineering discussion about – should that be in the back pocket in case things happen faster, or this innovation [in green energy] goes a lot slower than we expect?”