Opinion Piece by Guest Contributor: Alex Bexon

(Image by: Intellectual Ventures)

Over recent years, conventional approaches to tackling climate change have typically centred on international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the drive to develop and use alternative and renewable energy technologies, and global environmental organisations, such as WWF and Greenpeace, encouraging us to lead more sustainable and environmentally-conscious lives.

These undoubtedly have much value, and possess great potential in helping to address the many social, environmental, and economic issues that we are likely to face in the coming years. They are key tools adopted by governments and grassroots organisations alike, which see genuine and deep-rooted change as the principal means to long-term sustainability, prosperity, and growth.

However, there is no single or magic solution to climate change. Should these approaches not work as hoped, it would be unwise, some would even say irresponsible, not to have an alternative. As such, it may be worth broadening our horizons, to look further afield and consider the less conventional approaches to climate change that barely influence public and political consciousness or mainstream thinking.

Intellectual Ventures, a private ‘invention capital’ company founded in 2000 by Nathan Myhrvold, may just be one of them. In its attempt to identify and solve society’s most pressing problems, IV is thought to have over 2,000 internally-developed inventions, ranging from the groundbreaking – a safer nuclear reactor design that uses uranium waste as fuel, to the extraordinary – a mosquito targeting laser that uses technology developed under the Star Wars anti-missile programme. Yet, it is their radically new idea to address climate change that has attracted the most attention.

IV’s approach centres on the concept of geo-engineering – essentially the belief that if humans have caused climate change, they can stop it. It is relatively straightforward: reverse the effects of climate change by artificially recreating the stratospheric sulphur dioxide emissions of large volcanic eruptions. Taking inspiration from historical eruptions like Mount Pinatubo, which resulted in a sustained drop in global temperatures, IV are proposing to annually pump around 100,000 tons of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. Although this may sound like a lot, according to IV, it’s just a fraction of the over 200,000,000 tons that go into the atmosphere already each year.

This would be achieved by a network of global base stations, each of which would burn and liquify sulphur, before sending it, via a series of pumps, over 18 miles up into the stratosphere through a hose attached to a series of high-strength helium-filled balloons. It would then be sprayed into the stratosphere, where within 10 days, winds would have diffused it sufficiently so that it covers the Earth.

The approach certainly has its critics. To some, the idea is simply abhorrent, to others, ill-informed: putting pollutants into the atmosphere to solve a problem created by putting too many pollutants in the atmosphere. It certainly doesn’t sound like the most logical of ideas, and on first reading may seem more fantasy than reality, but IV’s argument is compelling. Compelling enough that Ken Caldeira, previously one of the most vehement critics and staunch environmentalists, has now embraced the idea following successful climate modelling tests.

It’s simple. And cheap. IV estimates this global project could be set up in three years at a cost of $150m, with an annual operating cost of about $100m. When compared to the Stern Review, which predicted an economic cost well into the trillions, IV’s seemingly radical idea may just be worth further consideration.

Such approaches should not be seen as a permanent fix, but as a temporary solution that allows the transition to a cleaner global energy system. Indeed, IV itself does not advocate the immediate construction and implementation of such systems, and believes that significant research and testing is needed before anything else. Yet, with uncertainty still surrounding the rapidity and magnitude of both climate change and the policy responses to it, it would be wrong not to give IV’s idea greater scrutiny. Even if it is to discredit the science behind it and dismiss it out of hand, we are not in the position to simply throw away an idea that may have potential purely because at first listen it sounds just too radical for consideration.

Ultimately, certain new ideas, no matter how useful, will be met with hostility. Indeed, IV’s idea of intential pollution may be too radical to ever be given a chance. Yet, the difficulty to push decisive action at the last two Conferences of the Parties (COP15 and 16) highlight the considerable scope for an alternative approach.

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