What if a group of billionaires decided to launch a geoengineering effort?
Scenarios are stories of hypothetical futures. We build them with present-day trends, extrapolated into new forms through social impact. We use them to think more clearly, imaginatively, and strategically about the future, since we can imagine ourselves within a given story.
Today’s case in point posits a trio of billionaires who, fed up with governments’ inability to address climate change, take things into their own hands, seeding the upper atmosphere with sulfate aerosols. The scenario is from Dave Levitan. Read it; I’ll be here when you’re done.
Done? OK. Some thoughts.
This scenario depends on several current trends continuing: climate change; the ascent of the very rich; democratic governments’ inability to take effective steps on decarbonization; growing plutocracy. That’s a pretty sturdy foundation, actually.
It wouldn’t be hard to draw paths from today to this hypothetical future. In 2012 Russ George seeded waters with iron sulphate, entirely on his own. We can think of two billionaire-owned space programs (Musk’s and Bezos’) already in play. The failure of the Paris accords — well, Trump withdrawing the US from them — adds to the political sclerosis. And there are plenty of models showing climate change advancing along multiple fronts. The American Green New Deal points in a different direction, but its current status (unacted, a conversation prompt) represents another step in Levitan’s path.
The identities of the scenario’s billionaires aren’t hard to discern. They are unnamed, but neatly traced:
The Triumvirate, as the three billionaires came to be known, was used to having the world’s attention. One of them had led the charge to colonize Mars, landing two probes on the Red Planet and, almost as a sideshow, a crew on the moon in 2026. Another had cleverly engineered his way around the slowing of Moore’s law, and by 2029 owned 60 percent of the world’s server space. The third had started with a social media platform before selling high and expanding into cars in the Philippines and Indonesia, simplified mobile payment systems in Africa, and other projects.
The many potential downsides of this scenario aren’t hard to grasp. There’s something terrifying in its basic premise — where I’ve seen it discussed, the majority of reactions have been horrified. While we are living in an increasingly plutocratic society, we aren’t fully at ease with its implications. Unintended consequences are another obvious problem for billionaires doing geoengineering on their own. As one commentator put it pithily,
“Elon Musk accidentally causes Snowpiercer” strikes me as an underrated possible endgame for global warming, and this walks through the logic v well https://t.co/lBxg8EnC3S
- Dylan Matthews (@dylanmatt) May 3, 2019
Levitan adds more problems:
SRM [Solar Radiation Management] would do nothing to combat ocean acidification. It could have dramatic regional variation in its effects on weather patterns, including the crucial monsoon seasons. It could reduce, or at least fail to improve, overall crop production. If effective at slowing warming, it might also slow human momentum toward emissions reductions. It is a global experiment rife with what could be termed “ unknown unknowns.”
We could also imagine a rising authoritarianism in response to this, as people despair of democratic action. On the other hand, the fine rain of sulfates could well inspire nations to get their collective act together, leading to climate change political mobilization of the kind Kim Stanley Robinson projected in New York 2140. Yet on the third hand the vision of something being done decisively and globally might sap public interest in decarbonization.
But let’s take a step back. One function of scenarios is not so much to predict as to encourage behavioral change. Think of the great 1970s’ predictions of overpopulation. They scared many nations and populations into changing their demographic policies and practices. Or consider the way many anti-nuclear campaigners used scenarios of atomic disaster to drive disarmament and block building of more nuclear plants. Levitan’s vision could serve a similar function. The dismay I mentioned up above could lead some readers to push for democratic action.
Yet I find this scenario hard to shake. I watch the majority of Americans acclimating to what looks ever more clearly like plutocracy, some quite enthusiastically. I track the global failure to take climate change seriously. And I recall the fierce energy and awesome resources of the very rich. Perhaps Levitan is onto something.