What if Elon Musk accidentally causes Snowpiercer?
May 3, 2019 10:20 AM   Subscribe

Working in our billionaires' favor is that—unlike, say, going to Mars—SRM isn't really that complicated: We'd just be dumping some cheap shit up in the sky. Yes, the planes don't exist yet, and some logistics need to be worked out, but almost every estimate of its costs pegs it at the low billions per year—not exactly a dealbreaker for some of the world's tycoons, especially when we place it next to the truly outlandish catastrophes that unchecked warming could bring.
Dave Levitan looks at the possibilities for a motivated billionaire to hack the planet to stave off climate change
posted by MartinWisse (75 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Title courtesy of this tweet.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:21 AM on May 3


It's billionaires. They'd find a way to charge us for it, or fuck it up.

Most likely both.
posted by entropone at 10:22 AM on May 3 [10 favorites]


If Elon causes the "snowpiercer" conditions to occur, it won't be accidentally.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:32 AM on May 3 [12 favorites]


I love unilateral plans to manipulate the singular life supporting planet that we know.

I mean, there are probably others, law of large numbers, etc., so whatever.
posted by Horkus at 10:33 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


The article talks about island nations asking a billionaire to be their savior, but another possibility, rather than relying on someone's hero complex, is to offer up the nation as a libertarian paradise in exchange for taking action.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:37 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]


You know, back in the nineties I read Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and found it immensely depressing. So depressing, in fact, that I could not think about it very much because it seemed too scary and too plausible. Watching it come true - down to everyone throwing up their hands and saying "well, I guess very, very rich people are the only ones who can [perform important tasks], better give them whatever they want and sign away all our rights, after all it's not like we could do anything about who has the most money" - has definitely been one of the shittier parts of adulthood.

It does give you sympathy with Lenin. I am filled with a really visceral rage when I think of the ways that we, as a society, have decided to let these stupid, mediocre, selfish tyrants have the power of life and death over billions of people.

Anyone who starts on something like what's described in the article should actually be stopped by whatever means necessary - violence if it comes to that. "Being very rich" does not actually make you literally immortal and invulnerable, and "you're so rich that we're going to have to let you risk causing immediate climate shock because you think you're a genius" isn't actually true. We don't have to let the very rich do anything; it's just that we're not quite at the point where people have nothing to lose by opposition.
posted by Frowner at 10:39 AM on May 3 [73 favorites]


Just to be clear, this is a fictional short story "what if" scenario. That wasn't particularly obvious to me at the start. Becomes more explicit once the author starts talking about events in 2026 in the past tense.
posted by lazaruslong at 10:46 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


I guess the thing to worry about is total capture of the state by, eg, Peter Thiel or Elon Musk - the article is all "states would not let people do something this stupid unilaterally", but how far are we from this type of person actually having direct, personal, Trump-esque power within the state? It wouldn't even be too difficult if they decided to bother. The Kochs and DeVoses and so on just want to install fascism and rule the post-climate-change ash heap, which is bad enough, but they don't seem especially interested in direct rule.

President Bezos - or someone else as a catspaw - is probably a real possibility down the road, and none of these people have the ghost of a fraction of a night thought's respect for democracy or the worth of the individual.
posted by Frowner at 10:54 AM on May 3 [11 favorites]


I'm not worried about billionaires doing something like this. I'm worried about the Chinese government doing something like this. They've developed a propensity for Big Projects that most of the first world has lost to apathy and political gridlock. They seem to have a greater willingness to experiment with new technologies and plow ahead despite moral concerns. They literally have a bureau for weather control. And while they don't yet have the economic and military clout needed to act on a global scale in a way that blatantly defies the world order, they will likely achieve it in the coming decades.
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:01 AM on May 3 [17 favorites]


Solar Radiation Management isn't a panacea for climate change. Yeah, the temperature rises would be ameliorated, but it doesn't remove the carbon from the atmosphere. Too much CO2 inhibits brain function, among other things. It contributes to ocean acidification. It contributes to algal blooms.

We have to work on carbon sequestration and renewable resources, not just slapping band-aids onto open wounds.
posted by explosion at 11:03 AM on May 3 [16 favorites]


So the world could end through the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Not really a surprise...

Also - people are going to read this and get ideas. Which, info wants to be free, but some rich dudes are very very impressionable...
posted by amtho at 11:04 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]


Solar Radiation Management isn't a panacea for climate change. Yeah, the temperature rises would be ameliorated, but it doesn't remove the carbon from the atmosphere. Too much CO2 inhibits brain function, among other things. It contributes to ocean acidification. It contributes to algal blooms.

It also inhibits agriculture.
posted by ragtag at 11:13 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]


I guess my question is - why the fuck not? Nobody else is steppig up and the time for action was a decade ago. What, we are going to stop Theil or the Chinese or Musk from trying to stop global catastrophe because why?
posted by Meatbomb at 11:19 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


Just to be clear, this is a fictional short story "what if" scenario. That wasn't particularly obvious to me at the start. Becomes more explicit once the author starts talking about events in 2026 in the past tense.

It isn't a fictional short story, it's an article with some speculative fiction bits in it. They are separated by the lightbulbs.
posted by Pendragon at 11:28 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


I guess my question is - why the fuck not?

Because allowing billionaires to acidify the upper atmosphere and therefore then the rains and then the ocean with sulphuric acid purely so that they and other billionaires can continue to make money by acidifying the oceans with de-sequestered fossil carbon is a fucking horrible idea on its face.

Any further questions?
posted by flabdablet at 11:28 AM on May 3 [25 favorites]


I'm not worried about billionaires doing something like this. I'm worried about the Chinese government doing something like this

Also very concerning, pretty much in the same way as the Musks of the world. I would expect marginally more forethought and actual science from China, though.

I guess my question is - why the fuck not? Nobody else is steppig up and the time for action was a decade ago. What, we are going to stop Theil or the Chinese or Musk from trying to stop global catastrophe because why?

Because committing to putting a lot of sulfur into the atmosphere for basically ever is a really bad idea; because grandiose plans made by a few people are likely to leave out important variables; because the people under discussion are even more likely than most to resist critique and avoid consultation; and because it is not safe to have decisions that will affect literally everyone on the planet made by a small handful of people whose lives will continue to be safe, luxurious and pleasant no matter what happens to everyone else.

It is perfectly possible either that such people would be all "let's do it, I'm a genius, your so-called "scientists" are dumber than me so I won't listen" or else "well, I guess we'll just have to sacrifice a couple of billion working class people to save everyone else, there is no alternative". Musk would probably get high and tweet Thanos memes before pushing the button.
posted by Frowner at 11:30 AM on May 3 [19 favorites]


some logistics need to be worked out, but almost every estimate of its costs pegs it at the low billions per year—not exactly a dealbreaker for some of the world's tycoons

I can easily imagine a future where CO2-addled post-civilizational humans invoke the name of Elon in a John Frum-like cargo cult.

This is magical thinking, and it's going to kill hundreds of thousands of people.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:33 AM on May 3 [7 favorites]


Also, the thing about billionaire CEOs is that they like to See Results.

Global warming is a planetary phenomenon with a time scale measurable in centuries. The main thing that sets anthropogenic global warming apart from earlier periods of global warming is that a century is an eyeblink in geological or evolutionary time; the sheer speed of the present warming is the single biggest reason why it's so difficult for ecosystems to adapt.

If you give a cabal of gung-ho rich fuckheads a button to push and tell them that pushing it will cement their places in history as the Genius Planetary Saviors Who Fixed Global Warming, they are going to be pushing and pushing and pushing that button because they want it Fixed By Thursday Or You're Fired, and they are going to dump a fuckload of sulphate and overcorrect, like a little kid who doesn't yet understand how to control the hot tap in the shower.

If you thought ecosystems all over the planet were having trouble dealing with the speed and extent of anthropogenic global warming, I don't think you're going to like the speed and extent of plutogenic global acid rain winter.

I offer in support of this view the observation that the largest global problems facing us as a species are all consequences of our most successful technologies, not of our technological failures. Technology is a power multiplier. What we in desperate need of is a responsibility multiplier.
posted by flabdablet at 11:42 AM on May 3 [26 favorites]


Throwing this in loosely here: I found this earlier this week: High Level Review of a Wide Range of Proposed Marine Geoengineering Techniques [page links to this 145 page PDF].

In terms of marine geoengineering efforts, and a proper review of what might work, how likely it is to work, and how costly it might be, I think it's pretty much as definitive as you could get as an overview. It's from the Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection from the International Maritime Organization, so mainstream in terms of what the engineering possibilities are, and what influence they might have.
posted by ambrosen at 11:52 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]


This piece talks about a hypothetical gang of billionaires spending 6 billion dollars to make this happen, with the implication that this is probably the most likely way such a massive project could be funded in today's world.

And yet that is a TINY amount of money. The US Department of Defense alone burns through that amount every three days.

It's truly astonishing how utterly we have given up on governments and nations accomplishing anything at all.
posted by automatronic at 12:00 PM on May 3 [26 favorites]


Abstract:
We provide an overview of geoengineering by stratospheric sulphate aerosols. The state of understanding about this topic as of early 2008 is reviewed, summarizing the past 30 years of work in the area, highlighting some very recent studies using climate models, and discussing methods used to deliver sulphur species to the stratosphere.

The studies reviewed here suggest that sulphate aerosols can counteract the globally averaged temperature increase associated with increasing greenhouse gases, and reduce changes to some other components of the Earth system. There are likely to be remaining regional climate changes after geoengineering, with some regions experiencing significant changes in temperature or precipitation. The aerosols also serve as surfaces for heterogeneous chemistry resulting in increased ozone depletion.

The delivery of sulphur species to the stratosphere in a way that will produce particles of the right size is shown to be a complex and potentially very difficult task. Two simple delivery scenarios are explored, but similar exercises will be needed for other suggested delivery mechanisms.

While the introduction of the geoengineering source of sulphate aerosol will perturb the sulphur cycle of the stratosphere signicantly, it is a small perturbation to the total (stratosphere and troposphere) sulphur cycle. The geoengineering source would thus be a small contributor to the total global source of ‘acid rain’ that could be compensated for through improved pollution control of anthropogenic tropospheric sources.

Some areas of research remain unexplored. Although ozone may be depleted, with a consequent increase to solar ultraviolet-B (UVB) energy reaching the surface and a potential impact on health and biological populations, the aerosols will also scatter and attenuate this part of the energy spectrum, and this may compensate the UVB enhancement associated with ozone depletion.

The aerosol will also change the ratio of diffuse to direct energy reaching the surface, and this may influence ecosystems. The impact of geoengineering on these components of the Earth system has not yet been studied.

Representations for the formation, evolution and removal of aerosol and distribution of particle size are still very crude, and more work will be needed to gain confidence in our understanding of the deliberate production of this class of aerosols and their role in the climate system.
Who could possibly have guessed that ignorantly fucking with the entire planet just to see what happens might have disastrous consequences?
posted by flabdablet at 12:09 PM on May 3


If I were writing this science fiction story, solar radiation management would dim solar radiation enough to make solar power enough more expensive that the world would be locked into fossil fuels, which in turn would make it necessary to block out more solar radiation, and so on. Does anyone here have the math chops to figure out if it could actually go that way?
posted by ckridge at 12:10 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


The vast majority of earth's ecosystems are based entirely off of photosynthesis. Blocking solar radiation will have massive consequences for all life on earth (except those few ecosystems dominated by chemosynthesis). Rich white guys who people think are smart because they made a lot of money shouldn't get to unilaterally make that decision for the rest of the planet.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:39 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]


I guess my question is - why the fuck not?

Well, there might be a few issues... (from Troy Vettese's NLR article):
If no rapid transition away from coal, methane and petroleum is on the cards, then Artificial Geo-Engineering, a dangerous and once-ostracized technology, becomes increasingly likely. It already has the blessing of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The probable consequences are dystopian sci-fi. ‘Solar radiation management’ will bleach the sky white, cause tens of thousands of deaths from aerosol pollution, gash the ozone layer and interrupt vital climatic systems like the monsoon and the Gulf Stream. Some of these risks are even acknowledged by its advocates; the world’s leading geo-engineer, David Keith, admits that the closest analogue to Artificial Geo-Engineering is nuclear weapons. It is appropriate that the natural habitat of this technology is in Alberta. In the 2000s, Keith was teaching at the University of Calgary, where both the institution and city have become inextricably linked to the tar-sands industry. To commodify his dangerous expertise he founded a firm, Carbon Engineering, which counts Bill Gates and tar-sands tycoon Murray Edwards as its billionaire patrons. Keith and his fellow thinkers were ostracized as dangerous quacks only a decade ago, but have become respectable through their embrace by the likes of Harvard (where Keith now teaches) and Oxford. Like nuclear waste, or the gargantuan tailings lakes of the tar-sands industry, Artificial Geo-Engineering will require millennia-long management. Should the ‘climate shield’ ever fail, if a war or some other disaster interrupts the aerosol cannons, then the world would rapidly overheat. Such an amplified geo-engineered summer could be as devastating to Earth life as a nuclear winter.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 12:44 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]


Personally I consider the word "engineering" to be even more sadly abused when embedded in the word "geoengineering" than it is when embedded in the phrase "software engineering".

Engineering is about building stuff that we can demonstrate is going to work because we start with a robust understanding of the properties of whatever it is we're working with.

Dumping sulphate into the stratosphere is not geoengineering. It's geofuckery, and honest commentators should refer to it as such.
posted by flabdablet at 12:48 PM on May 3 [17 favorites]


Would a solar mirror in orbit be a better idea? Or a solar panel that can deliver energy to the planet? I know transporting the energy is costly but are there technologies out there that could cut the costs?
posted by gucci mane at 12:54 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


I'm not worried about billionaires doing something like this. I'm worried about the Chinese government doing something like this.

Honestly, if it's within the means of billionaires, it's within the means of countries a lot smaller and poorer than China that also have a lot more to lose. If you're, say, Bangladesh, the devastation presented by rising seas is a lot more immediate and a lot more existential, and maybe it gets worthwhile to scrape together some money to try something drastic as it continues to be clear that the rest of the world doesn't really care enough about the problem to do anything meaningful to stop it.
posted by Copronymus at 1:01 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


I am an atheist, but am reconsidering my ways. I think we should try sacrificing billionaires to the Red Gods in atonement for our hubris. I am sure after the first 100 or 200, ordered from richest on down, the Gods will notice and then the next 200 or so can be used to cement the deal.

Do I kickstarter this, is this how that works?
posted by maxwelton at 1:02 PM on May 3 [10 favorites]


Solar mirrors would also rob our planet of the sunlight that keeps everything alive.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:09 PM on May 3


If I were writing this science fiction story, solar radiation management would dim solar radiation enough to make solar power enough more expensive that the world would be locked into fossil fuels, which in turn would make it necessary to block out more solar radiation, and so on.

Simpsons did it, kinda. In addition to photosynthesis, watch out for rickets.

I read scientific journals for my job, and one thing I've noticed in the last five years is a shift in the climate change conversation among those in the scientific community.

It's basically shifted away from, "hey here are some policies that would help us stop breaking things" to, "hey we're addicted to carbon but here are some wild pie-in-the-sky ideas that might stave off societal collapse and extinction".

Fun stuff like:

• geoengineering a wall around Antarctica to keep the rate of icemelt low enough to give flooding cities time to build their own walls

• spraying sulfuric acid into the upper atmosphere to slow warming (never mind ongoing ocean acidification)

• building robotic bees that can substitute for the pollinators we're making extinct with pesticides (and herbicides, indirectly)

• genetic engineering of heatshock proteins into food crops to maybe better survive drought conditions

By some estimates, 5-10% of the wealth owned by the rich is liquid — the rest is tied up in assets or equity.

Most of the non-asset wealth evaporates if society collapses. You can't eat, drink, or wear money. Except as an avant garde challenge in Project Runway 47: Ruins of Manhattan Edition, maybe.

If you're a lucky billionaire, you own arable land with a well to access drinking water, and you have enough security to protect it from interlopers. Even then, as rich as you are, of what value are you to someone with gunpower, if money is of no use?

Most wealthy can't see far enough into the future to recognize that their accumulated wealth gives them little protection from catastrophic collapse.

A lot of these geoengineering and other projects are basically last-ditch efforts to keep things going. If things really progressed to where we were at the prequel stage of Snowpiercer, I wonder if we might as well let the rich throw their money away on trying something, if we want humanity to keep going.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 1:17 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]


Throwing serious billions at advocacy would have a major effect now*, if they can't be bothered to do that why would they bother to pay to put stuff in the sky?

*Have a look at Clive Palmer essentially buying a reasonable portion of the vote for the paltry sum of $55m of advertising in the current Australian election.
posted by deadwax at 1:55 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]



Solar mirrors would also rob our planet of the sunlight that keeps everything alive.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:09 PM on May 3

The mirror scenario involves intercepting 1% of the incoming sunlight.
Space Mirror Wikipedia.


I am increasingly of the mind that unilateral action will happen on a larger scale than this, due to hubris and need in various measure.
posted by bastionofsanity at 2:02 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


I'm reminded of Merlin Mann and John Roderick laughing about billionaires fucking the sky with their rocket phalluses.
posted by srboisvert at 2:14 PM on May 3


The mirror scenario involves intercepting 1% of the incoming sunlight.

Global gross primary production (the total fixation of carbon by photosynthesis) of marine and terrestrial ecosystems is ~250 Gt per year. 1% less sunlight would translate to 1% less photosynthesis, or 2.5 Gt less primary production. That's 2.5 Gt less of food for things to eat in our marine and terrestrial ecosystems, which are already being destabilized by climate change as well as dozens of our other actions. Perhaps more importantly to people who think space mirrors are a great answer, that's 2.5 Gt of carbon not being taken out of the atmosphere. For comparison's sake, in 2017, total anthropogenic fossil fuel emissions were ~35 Gt, with India emitting right around 2.5 Gt.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:29 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


I'd wager most billionaires would rather sit on golden thrones at the end of the world than spend significant chunks of their wealth on saving the planet. Most living billionaires will be dead or old by the time climate change kicks in full swing.
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:31 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


Perhaps more importantly to people who think space mirrors are a great answer, that's 2.5 Gt of carbon not being taken out of the atmosphere.

But remember that the vast majority of what an organism eats isn't sequestered in that organism, though.
posted by Jpfed at 2:32 PM on May 3


lazy thinking. how much money could it take, really, to buy out the top 100 companies and nations burning fossil fuels?

I know 'buying out the slavemasters' is something that hasn't ever worked--but with great evils like slavery and fossil fuels, they must be politically opposed.

but if we're going to talk about what you can do with money, it's a start.

That this article exists is one indicator of how much we've stopped believing in democracy.
posted by eustatic at 2:34 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


Like, we're not even able to imagine how to spend other people's money on how to save democracy and/or the planet.
posted by eustatic at 2:35 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]


You have to admire the notion of tens of thousands of carbon belching jets crisscrossing the upper atmosphere to counteract the effects of too much carbon in the upper atmosphere.
posted by JackFlash at 2:39 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


Have fun playing around with a global 1% reduction in GPP. I'm sure it will have absolutely no effects on any ecosystem on earth. It is definitely not concerning in any way. Silly me.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:39 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


geoengineering a wall around Antarctica to keep the rate of icemelt low enough to give flooding cities time to build their own walls

I think there’s ample evidence to suggest that building giant walls in icy regions of the world is ultimately ineffective at containing weather-related forces.
posted by dephlogisticated at 2:54 PM on May 3 [11 favorites]


Huh! Turns out 'I am Elon Musk and I am here to help' is much, much more terrifying.
posted by iamnotangry at 2:57 PM on May 3 [7 favorites]


Related: "Five years ago [in 2007], Grist wrote about a man named Russ George, the head of an organization called Planktos. Planktos’ big idea for combatting global warming: You dump some iron into the ocean, it creates a massive algae (phytoplankton) bloom, then the algae absorbs carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis."

You'll never guess what happened next. From The Grist in 2011.

The Guardian, 2012: World's biggest geoengineering experiment 'violates' UN rules, Controversial US businessman's iron fertilisation off west coast of Canada contravenes two UN conventions.

"A controversial American businessman dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean as part of a geoengineering scheme off the west coast of Canada in July, a Guardian investigation can reveal."


So, you know. It's more like we're lucky for someone *not* to have done it, and just like how people have started to realize that much of Western politics is built on trust and convention as opposed to, you know, any rules, people can just do whatever the fuck they want, because what are you going to do? Stop them?
posted by danhon at 4:09 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]


On preview, at this point it's even odds you'll get one bunch of individualistic billionaire effectively sovereign individuals deciding to act on their own (with, of course, disastrous unintended and hubristic consequences) and you'll get another bunch of individualistic billionaire effectively sovereign individuals deciding they need to stop the first group, and probably ending up with disastrous unintended consequences YES I'M LOOKING AT YOU TONY "ULTRON" STARK^W^WELON MUSK/JEFF BEZOS/MARC BENIOFF although in Benioff's case we're probably more likely to get a study funded which at least won't actively make things worse.
posted by danhon at 4:12 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


Please stop worshipping Musk. He is a huge piece of shit.
posted by lkc at 4:41 PM on May 3 [8 favorites]


Nobody else is steppig up

All those Extinction Rebellion folks who shut down a few spots in London for a week and got the UK to at least declare a climate emergency might beg to differ.
posted by eviemath at 5:48 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]


I have a proposal for a geoengineering project that is extensively tested, proven effective at moderating (and even reversing, applied at sufficient scale!) anthropogenic climate change, and known to have no harmful side effects.

It's called "reforestation".

Applying this technology in conjunction with a broad systemic switch-over to non-carbon energy sources would be a force multiplier, leading to even better results!

Think we could get $6billion to implement it?
posted by eviemath at 5:54 PM on May 3 [15 favorites]


I vaguely remember a plan for increasing albedo by generating more cloud over the Atlantic, and it was just by spraying seawater into the air off the coast of Africa, or something like that... does anybody remember that one in more detail?
posted by Meatbomb at 5:55 PM on May 3




It's called "reforestation".

The real estate involved is probably more than $6B to buy and it will take hundreds of years to rebuild the forests we've cleared away — maybe thousands, in the case of some native species. We'll probably need to engineer our way out of this, in the meantime, or figure out a lottery system for dramatically cutting back on the human population.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 6:37 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


Venus has a carbon dioxide atmosphere with 750 °C surface temperatures and so much sulphuric acid in the form of clouds that it has an albedo of something like 90%.

And this despite apparently being a lot like we are now billions of years ago.

I think we don't know nearly enough about the long-term consequences of spraying sulphates all over the place.
posted by jamjam at 6:59 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Some say the world will end in greed,
Some say incompetence.
From what I've seen of unchecked greed
I bet I burn up under thneeds.
But if we are completely dense,
There's always engineer's disease,
Coupled with lack of moral sense,
To bring a freeze.
Should be intense!
posted by Spathe Cadet at 7:45 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]


The wacky ideas are pretty funny... in a sad pathetic irresponsible kind of 'funny'. But the answer IS science and technology (well other than inconceivable genocide) and it is happening. Just saw a back of envelope estimate that Solar worldwide is the equivalent of over a hundred nuclear plants. The rate of Solar and Wind is growing. And it will not be enough for some dramatic changes but perhaps enough to stave off total catastrophe.

And yes it seems wacky scifi but rocket tech is kicking in and within a couple generations much of the toxic industrial production will be relegated to a location that will not harm the ecosystem. It's a bootstrap problem and once booted the surface will be the best vacation.
posted by sammyo at 7:54 PM on May 3


figure out a lottery system for dramatically cutting back on the human population.

We can call it "capitalism"!

I'm only half kidding. Climate change presents something of a cost to the richest 5-10% of the planet, but it only poses an existential threat if the ecology supporting the food chain collapses. I don't know what the probability of that worst case scenario coming to pass is, and even if it's small, I don't think we should ignore it, but... I'd guess most millionaires (let alone billionaires) are probably more willing to bet on their privilege protecting them and even providing opportunity than they are to sink large chunks of their personal fortunes on mitigating anything less than ecological collapse.

Which is another way of saying capitalism decides who deserves to survive/thrive. Which is *way* more palatable than saying "social darwinism."
posted by wildblueyonder at 8:56 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


Venus has a carbon dioxide atmosphere with 750 °C surface temperatures and so much sulphuric acid in the form of clouds that it has an albedo of something like 90%.

Maybe Venus once had a civilization that, too, tried to buy their way out of their poor decisions.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:41 PM on May 3


If someone has the money to do this sort of "altruistic" thing at scale, then they have the money to do much more realistic and effective things to support and improve humanity at scale (house people, feed people, push for single payer health care, buy some parking lots and turn them into unpaved parks), but then they won't get hailed as the big important singular superhero person who saved us all.

On the other hand, the world has lots of people who have that kind of money and do use it for those practical things, and they are making a difference. I know people who work in not-for-profits and they share stories of amazing wealthy donors who quietly finance the accomplishment of more positive outcomes than you're likely to notice.

But you'll never notice in part because they don't get hailed as the big important singular superhero that saved us all, and in part because real change takes more than a small number of wealthy people to accomplish. It will take all of us -- wealthy or not -- to work together to save ourselves.

Let me know when the comics store has issue number one of Humanity, the hero who fights as one against it's own shortcomings to make things better for itself as a whole.

posted by davejay at 10:19 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


You have to admire the notion of tens of thousands of carbon belching jets crisscrossing the upper atmosphere to counteract the effects of too much carbon in the upper atmosphere.

It's a beautiful dream. About the only way it could be improved is with blockchain.

geoengineering a wall around Antarctica

Pffft. There's already a wall around Antarctica as any fule kno.
posted by flabdablet at 1:23 AM on May 4


I didn't need another reason to support regulation and (radically) progressive taxes on wealth and capital gains, but now I have one!
rocket tech is kicking in and within a couple generations much of the toxic industrial production will be relegated to a location that will not harm the ecosystem
The Earth produced (and presumably consumed) 175,000,000kg of Aluminum each day in March. That's over 560 fully loaded Saturn V rockets. Per day. I don't think this is a "bootstrap" problem.
posted by klanawa at 1:32 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]


I don't know what the probability of that worst case scenario coming to pass is, and even if it's small, I don't think we should ignore it, but...

I have a probability density graph that may be interesting to you! Bottom right corner of the page 10317 (third page of the PDF). The green line is a global Green New Deal: decarbonize immediately, zero emissions by 2050, etc. Red line is RCP6.0 (an underestimate of emissions so far). Black line is RCP8.5 (good estimate so far, probably an overestimate past mid-century).

You might notice that the green line is about half in the section marked "dangerous" and about 5% in the section marked "catastrophic?". The red line is maybe 10% in "dangerous", 60% in "catastrophic?", and 30% in "unknown??". The black line is about 50/50 "catastrophic?"/"unknown??".

Those labels seem pretty ominous. What do they mean?

"Dangerous" is just what it says on the tin: lots of widespread damage to climate and food systems that we've relied upon, but presumably manageable. "Catastrophic?" implies the collapse of civilization at least regionally ("the collapse of the western Antarctic ice sheet, shutdown of deep water circulation in the North Atlantic, dieback of Amazon rainforests as well as boreal forests, and collapse of the West African monsoon, among others"... "would subject 47% of the land area and almost 74% of the world population to deadly heat, which could pose existential risks to humans and mammals alike unless massive adaptation measures are implemented"). "Unknown??" implies an existential risk to 90% of species for starters. ("The question mark denotes the subjective nature of our deduction and the fact that catastrophe can strike at even lower warming levels.")

So the answer to your question, I think, is 5% (if we decarbonize immediately) or 90%+ (if we don't).

😱
posted by ragtag at 1:47 AM on May 4 [7 favorites]


It's called "reforestation".

The NLR article I linked above discusses/advocates this scenario.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 3:41 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]


I have an alternate theory of Evil Musk's plan. Using SpaceX, capture an asteroid, move it to the L1 Lagrange point, flatten the asteroid into a disk while it's in space, and then use that to shade the Earth from the sun. Ostensibly to slow global warming. But once he's made a giant sunshade, the next step of the plan is to layer the sunny side with solar cells (courtesy of SolarCity) to charge some (Tesla) batteries and sell the energy back to Earth. Whilst living on Mars.
posted by fragmede at 5:28 AM on May 4


They've already started testing this here in Tucson.

Harvard Scientists Moving Ahead on Plans for Atmospheric Geoengineering Experiments

I think it's important to realize that, no matter what we wish our billionaires and world leaders were capable of, as much as we wish they could all come together and get this solved, this is the best they can do. This is it. We don't know how to implement world peace, we don't know how to do the colossal carbon-sucking and ocean-deacidifying projects we'd need to save the biosphere, we don't have the resources to make the transition to clean energy sources for seven billion people without emitting enough carbon in the process to make the effort moot.

These weak-ass schemes straight out of Highlander II (when one of the worst movies in existence involves a cautionary tale about exactly what you're considering, well...), this is the best they've got.

Nobody can save the biosphere now.

So the next question is, can we save humanity?

I think we're close to having the technology we'd need to be able to build habitats which can provide their residents with food, water, breathable air, and shelter from the alien environment we're creating here on Earth. Our world is about to become an alien planet, and the only way we're going to survive is to learn to colonize it before it's too late.
posted by MrVisible at 6:21 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]


If we're going to continue transforming into a plutocracy, we should expect stories like this. And realities.
posted by doctornemo at 6:33 AM on May 4


Nobody can save the biosphere now.

The biosphere will be fine. We'll stop burning fossil fuels one way or another (whether we run out or die out), and our original disastrous geoengineering experiment will be over. The Milankovitch cycles mean that the next ice age will come in a few thousand years.

Humanity is completely fucked. And instead of leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Instead of asking the wealthiest among us to stop also being the most destructive among us, let alone to use their money to actually help humanity. Instead of even trying to do better, we're being offered just new and different ways to fuck humanity further. And those plans are being made without even consulting our basic understanding of earth systems science and feedback loops.

It like the "Ocean Cleanup" bullshit all over again only instead of a big structure in the ocean that doesn't work and kills things, we're going to further fuck up the entire earth system (especially the atmosphere and biosphere, but we'll probably manage to damage the hydrosphere and lithosphere while we're at it).
posted by hydropsyche at 6:38 AM on May 4 [5 favorites]


Humanity is completely fucked.

Nah. If 90% of the people in the world were to die, the population would be about what it was in the 18th century. The human species was in no way endangered in the 18th century. That remaining 10% will be very rich people and enough engineers, scientists, technicians, and servants to keep them comfortable. Some of the servants will provide stories about how they are the fit, and so deserve to survive, and how, in the long run, the planet will be better off for being relieved of the surplus population.

Now, our grandchildren? They are completely fucked.
posted by ckridge at 7:24 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]


Has anyone had the "our grandchildren are fucked" thought while looking at their actual grandchildren (or nephews/nieces, or friends' kids), etc.? Or does cognitive dissonance or just "omg this toddler is being so cute right now" prevent it? It prevents it for me.
posted by pelvicsorcery at 9:29 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]


All the time. I want to take them aside and tell them that it is going to be bad, and that they had better get ready. Then I remember that I grew up with the prospect of nuclear holocaust and lived like a grasshopper in summer. They would do just the same. If you put me back at their age, with their endocrine systems and habitual emotional and physical state, even knowing conceptually what I know now, I would do just the same. I have no doubt that young people who weren't actually sick during the Black Plague did just the same.

May they be granted years of pleasure and contentment.
posted by ckridge at 10:40 AM on May 4 [9 favorites]


Has anyone had the "our grandchildren are fucked" thought while looking at their actual grandchildren (or nephews/nieces, or friends' kids), etc.?

Don’t know about grandchildren, but I’m terrified for my son and feel it quite directly. I’m terrified for the infant children of friends of mine. Life goes of and I can’t think of it every waking moment, but it underlies everything.
posted by argybarg at 11:03 AM on May 4 [3 favorites]


Has anyone had the "our grandchildren are fucked" thought while looking at their actual grandchildren (or nephews/nieces, or friends' kids), etc.? Or does cognitive dissonance or just "omg this toddler is being so cute right now" prevent it? It prevents it for me.

I look at my two sons (six, two and a half) and am terrified.
posted by danhon at 10:21 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]


Oh, yes. I'm intensely glad I never had children, but friends have young kids who I am very fond of, and I look at them and realize it's very likely they will never live to get old. Even middle age will likely put them in a world of collapsing food chains, agricultural failure and drowning cities.
posted by tavella at 10:43 PM on May 4 [2 favorites]


I look at my daughter and I am terrified.
For Elon Musk.

Soon our children will understand fully what we have done to their world and they will be merciless.
posted by fullerine at 6:27 AM on May 5 [5 favorites]


Meanwhile, persuading them to use the timers on their room heaters, turn off lights as they leave a room, not leave the TV blaring away in the lounge with nobody watching it, and not ponder the contents of the fridge for minutes on end with the door swinging open is an uphill battle.
posted by flabdablet at 7:28 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]


I look at my cousin's baby and am filled with fear and commitment both, because they deserve better.

At the school strike for climate action earlier this year, there was a baby with a sign saying "this will be decided before I get my adult teeth" or something very similar.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 8:53 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]


The real estate involved is probably more than $6B to buy and it will take hundreds of years to rebuild the forests we've cleared away — maybe thousands, in the case of some native species.

It's been remarked, but that's just really not that much money compared to e.g. US military spending.

We'll probably need to engineer our way out of this, in the meantime,
We can't realistically engineer our way out of this. That's the point of a lot of the criticism in this very thread.

or figure out a lottery system for dramatically cutting back on the human population. I guess in a way that's part of where that $700Bn in "defense spending" is going.

We do assume that reforestation and curtailing human resource consumption will probably help slow things down.

What billionaires could actually do with all that money? Pay for universal access to birth control worldwide. And feed people. Things like birth lotteries are fundamentally fucked up, and as far as we can tell populations tend toward equilibrium when food, housing, and birth control are abundant.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:38 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]


Since all billionaires care about is money, I'm wondering if rather that geoengineering, some of the billionaires could pay some of the other billionaires to stop extracting fossil fuels.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:45 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]


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