A Geoengineering Startup Is Releasing Sulfur Into the Atmosphere, Selling ‘Cooling Credits’

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(Credit: RUNSTUDIO/Getty Images)The Earth’s climate is warming, and the potential for serious consequences in the future is strong. Are things so dire that we need to start manipulating the atmosphere? One startup thinks so, and it’s moving forward with a plan that scientists have condemned. Make Sunsets has started releasing reflective particles to cool the globe, and it’ll even sell you “cooling credits” as a byproduct. It sounds good on paper, but this early attempt at geoengineering risks causing more problems than it solves.

Make Sunsets uses weather balloons that climb high into the stratosphere, releasing small clouds of sulfur particles. According to the company, one gram of sulfur released into the upper atmosphere counteracts one ton of carbon emissions for a period of one year. Scientists have been studying this form of geoengineering in the abstract for years — it mimics the natural release of sulfur in volcanic eruptions, which can lower temperatures as the particles reflect small amounts of sunlight. But doing it intentionally could have unforeseen consequences.

Multiple experts in the field of geoengineering contacted by MIT Technology Review have heavily criticized the company for moving forward with its plans. Luke Iseman, CEO of Make Sunsets, isn’t surprised. He says that the company is equal parts entrepreneurial and provocation. He also understands the reaction, noting that it makes him look like a Bond villain. And like all good Bond villains, Iseman has a foreign lair from which he carries out his dastardly plan — in this case, Baja California.

Iseman says the company’s first two balloon launches took place in Baja California this past April, which was before the company officially formed. The balloons were loaded with a few grams of sulfur and enough helium to get them high into the atmosphere, but we don’t know how high. The goal was to get the balloons to burst in the stratosphere, but it’s unclear if that happened or what the impact of the particles was. There was no monitoring hardware on the balloon, and Iseman did not seek the approval of any government before releasing the balloon.

While geoengineering has not been undertaken on a large scale, it’s unlikely that a few grams of sulfur in a balloon will have serious negative impacts. But it’s not certain it will do any good, either. Thus, the $10 Make Sunsets charges per “cooling credit” is completely speculative. The danger is that no one stops Make Sunsets from expanding operations, which could attract other players in the burgeoning field of geoengineering. Before we know it, we may have altered the atmosphere in unexpected ways. And maybe that will mean lower global temperatures, but what else could it mean?

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