Geoengineering — the science of altering the Earth’s life support systems — is officially a reality. San Francisco-based research institute Silver Lining just received $300,000 of seed funding from Bill Gates to test a “cloud whitening” technology that could prove a cost-effective method for slowing the effects of global warming.
Earlier this year at TED, Gates surprised the world by pronouncing that climate change was the single greatest threat to humanity and that he would be joining the effort to find rapidly deployable energy technologies that could get us out of the #1 cause of climate change — coal and oil. But the new venture shows the billionaire genius is looking at the problem from multiple angles.
The most promising energy technologies (with the exception of distributed solar) are still a decade or more away. Next-gen nuclear, the most promising of all technologies, is probably 20 years away. And it’s becoming clearer every day that our planet and our species cannot afford 10 more years of uninterrupted warming.
In the interim, geoengineering solutions such as cloud creation may help to slow the impacts of ongoing fossil fuel consumption as we transition to safer, cleaner and cooler fuels. Some pretty whacky ideas have been put forth before Congress including rockets loaded with mirrors that could orbit around the Earth reflecting away sunlight and mechanical “trees” that could soak up more CO2 than a regular forest.
The cloud-whitening technology seems to be the most readily deployable. Basically a fleet of ships equipped with screens and vacuums pump up millions of gallons of ocean water and using high-powered water canons, introduce the water some 3,000 feet in the air, where clouds are formed. The added moisture content would increase the thickness of the water vapor, making the clouds whiter and thus more reflective.
Of course this, as with all other geoengineering solutions, is not without environmental impacts. No one really knows exactly what happens when humans alter the atmosphere in such a way. A global coalition of environmentalists called HOME (Hands Off Mother Earth) is calling for a moratorium on geoengineering experiments until the international laws on geoengineering being discussed this week in a U.N. scientific meeting in Nairobi are clarified.