ScoPEx: How Harvard Plans to Cool Your Summers
“Our idea is terrifying”
In June 1991, on the island of Luzon, Philippines, Mount Pinatubo erupted after more than 600 years of inactivity. The consequences of this event were catastrophic: 850 people dead, 8,000 houses destroyed, and a further 73,000 damaged.
Over the following months, sulfuric acid droplets that came from Mount Pinatubo’s ash cloud gradually spread throughout the stratosphere, absorbing solar radiation. The result was a decrease in the luminosity of around 10% on the surface of the Earth, which led to a loss of 0.9°F to 1.1 °F.
The climate disruption sparked by the phenomenon prompted a few scientists to raise a question that could eventually turn into a dystopian nightmare: what if this eruption served as a model to slow down global warming?
“Our Idea is Terrifying”
Its name: ScoPEx, for Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment. The crazy people who brought this project to life are Lizzie Burns and David Keith, among others, both from the Keutsch Group at Harvard. One of their funders is the one and only Bill Gates.
What exactly does the famous project consist of? It is about spraying particles into the stratosphere to weaken the sun’s rays with the obvious aim of cooling the planet.
Lizzie Burns, in a moment of lucidity, admitted it without concession: “Our idea is terrifying […]. But so is climate change”. Yes, the idea is terrifying, because the risks are high, mainly for one reason: it is not possible to change the temperature in one part of the world without disturbing the other part.
Colder temperatures in some countries, heavy rainfall elsewhere, a possible decrease in the volume of water in the oceans, and slower growth of forests are among the risks the world could face with this project. This is in part what happened in Eastern Canada following the Pinatubo eruption.
This eruption also had a devastating effect on the ozone layer. In temperate zones, ozone levels reached an all-time low, while in the southern hemisphere, the ozone hole above Antarctica attained the largest size ever recorded.
Moreover, in the northern regions, heavy rains ruined the summers of workers who, after all, just want to take advantage of their vacations to bask in the sun. A sun that did not make its presence felt much in 1992.
A Disturbing Project
One of the world’s leading climate experts, Janos Pasztor, warns us about ScoPEx: “If you make use of this technology and do it badly or ungoverned, then you can have different kinds of global risks created that can have equal, if not even bigger, challenges to global society than climate change”, he said.
Pasztor must know what he is talking about since he was part of the negotiations surrounding the Paris climate agreement and now works for Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative.
The technology discussed at the Harvard Project could even trigger conflicts because, as we have seen, what is good for a country is not necessarily good for its neighbor. Provoking rain because of a historic drought can aggravate relationships with the inhabitants and governments of nearby territories.
Janos Pasztor is not the only one who is worried about the intentions of Harvard scientists. Environmentalist Niclas Hällström, director of the Swedish think tank WhatNext, believes ScoPEx could create the impression that continued use of fossil fuels is possible.
In principle, ScoPEx violates a 2010 international moratorium on geoengineering proposed through the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. But this moratorium is non-binding and grants certain exemptions for small-scale scientific research studies.
Moratorium or not, work is well underway, and not only at Harvard: around 300 stratospheric balloons were launched around the world by various teams in 2019 to advance research in this field.