What Mexico’s planned geoengineering restrictions mean for the field’s future
Luke Iseman, former director of hardware at Y Combinator and co-founder of a geoengineering startup, says he added a few grams of sulfur dioxide to a pair of weather balloons and launched them from an unspecified site somewhere on the Mexican peninsula last spring. He says he wanted the balloons to reach the stratosphere and burst there under pressure, releasing the particles into the open air.
Scientists believe that spraying sulfur dioxide or other reflective particles into the stratosphere in sufficient quantities might be able to offset some level of global warming, mimicking the cooling effect of major volcanic eruptions in the past. But it’s a controversial area, given the unknowns about potential side effects, fears that even discussing the possibility could undermine the urgency of addressing the root causes of climate change, and the difficult questions about how to governing a technology that has the power to alter the planet’s temperature, but could have strongly divergent regional effects.
Iseman acknowledged to MIT Technology Review and other media that reported on the effort that he did not seek scientific or governmental approval before proceeding with balloon launches. He then co-founded the startup, Make Sunsets, to commercialize the concept. The company previously said it had raised about $750,000 in venture capital and planned to sell “cooling credits” for particles released during future balloon launches.
But on January 13, the Mexican Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources announced that the government would ban and, if necessary, stop all solar geoengineering experiments in the country. The agency noted that the Make Sunset launches were made without notice or consent. He said the ban was driven by the risks of geoengineering, the lack of international agreements overseeing such efforts, and the need to protect communities and the environment.
Mexico may be one of the first nations, if not them first, to announce such an explicit ban on experiments, although many countries have existing environmental regulations and other policies that may restrict certain practices. It is not clear from the statement that any research in the field would be prohibited, which may also include modeling and lab work. The press release also says Mexico will end all practice of large-scale solar geoengineering, which can mean large experiments or full deployment of the technology.
Representatives of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the government of Baja California could not immediately be reached for comment.
Iseman, who did not respond to a request from MIT Technology Review, told The Verge that future launches are “indefinitely on hold.” He told the Wall Street Journal he was “surprised by the speed and magnitude of the response” and had “expected and hoped for dialogue”.
But others weren’t surprised. Shuchi Talati, a scholar-in-residence at American University who is forming a nonprofit focused on governance and justice in solar geoengineering, warned in the original MIT Technology Review article that the actions of Make Sunsets could be a deterrent in the field. She said the unauthorized effort could diminish government support for geoengineering research and amplify demands to restrict experiments.