Climate Engineering Startup Begins Releasing Chemicals into Atmosphere

climate change
Union Square, San Francisco, March 2019. (Li-An Lim/Unsplash)

January 8, 2023

The “geoengineering” startup, “Make Sunsets,” has started launching sulfur dioxide-containing balloons into the Earth’s atmosphere in an effort to “offset all of global warming,” according to the company’s recently updated page.

Geoengineering is the process of human intervention at a massive scale to change the Earth’s climate and ecosystems, as defined by Make Sunsets’ “Learn more about SAI.” 

The method of geoengineering Make Sunsets is selling is called Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI). SAI is a term that encompasses the dispensation of material in the highest parts of Earth’s atmosphere to accomplish a purpose.

Make Sunsets is doing this by inflating weather balloons and adding about 10 grams of sulfur dioxide per balloon. Once this balloon is at the right level in the atmosphere, it pops and releases its sulfur dioxide payload into the sky. The sulfur dioxide then acts as a “reflective cloud” and reflects sunlight away from the earth. After about three years, these “clouds” then fall back to Earth. 

“Because we deliver our clouds via reusable balloons, we’re able to offset CO₂ at <1% of the cost of other solutions. Uniquely, we can also scale to offset *all* of global warming.”

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Proponents of this technology such as David Keith, a leading mind in geoengineering say that the material released doesn’t “represent any real environmental danger,” further claiming that “a commercial flight can emit about 100 grams per minute,” according to MIT Technology Review.

Some critics have pointed out that the unregulated sulfur dioxide release is similar to an incident where a geoengineering entrepreneur allegedly dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate off the west coast of Canada to spark plankton blooms, violating multiple regulations against environmental tampering. The CEO of Make Sunsets, Luke Iseman, has gone on record to say “We joke slash not joke that this is partly a company and partly a cult,” and even that he doesn’t mind being seen as a villain because “it’s morally wrong, in my opinion, for us not to be doing this.”

Sulfur dioxide is not only reflective but it is also a poison. According to international labeling conventions, sulfur dioxide is given the signal word “danger,” and concentrations of more than 100 parts per million can be “life-threatening,” as stated by the CDC. Make Sunsets admits on their FAQ page that “modeling shows a slight but meaningful depletion in ozone,” if they proceed with their plan, stating a possibility of  “ozone depletion amount [of] 5-10% on average.”

Criticism of Iseman and Make Sunsets have come from fellow climate activists, scholars, and members of the general public. Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, compared Iseman’s experiments with editing the DNA of human embryos before the ethics and safety of doing so were discussed. Shuchi Talati, a scholar in residence at American University, complained that Iseman’s sudden moves could provoke a negative public and government response, dampening research funding.

When Twitter users were made aware of this startup, reactions ranged from shock to anger. One user said, “Put ‘chemtrails’ on the growing list of conspiracy theories I used to scoff at which now I have to suddenly consider.”

Another went as far as to say, “Maybe we should make a class action.”

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