Current Geogengineering Attempts Briefing: SCoPEx

Download PDF version: ETC-briefing-SCoPEx


World View Spaceport

Tucson, Arizona, USA

Key Players:

Frank Keutsch, David Keith, John Dykema, and Lizzie Burns, all Harvard Professors. Burns and Keith head the Harvard Solar Geoengineering Research Program.


$20 million ($7m raised as of Oct. ‘17)


The Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) is a planned experiment in a form of geoengineering known as Solar Radiation Management (SRM). SRM techniques aim to block or reflect sunlight before it reaches the earth’s atmosphere, which would hypothetically slow down  global temperature rise. SCoPEx aims to develop a form of SRM known as Stratospheric Aerosol Injection.

The SCoPEx project would spray water, finely-ground chalk and sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere from a high-altitude balloon and measure  how effectively the resulting clouds block sunlight, while also tracking any effects on the air in the upper atmosphere. While the environmental impacts are currently unknown, the political effects of the project, however, are the  most consequential: if the experiments are allowed to proceed, they would legitimize geoengineering and move us one step closer to a global sun-block and more geoengineering in the region.


Funding comes from Harvard University and its Solar Geoengineering Research Program, which is funded by Bill Gates, several venture capitalists and hedge fund higher-ups, a former senior VP at Google, the Hewlett and Alfred P. Sloan foundations (among other philanthropic organizations), and a foreign policy research centre with military ties.

Key dates:

Project initiated: 2015

Research activities: 2017-2024

First field tests programmed: 2018

Regulatory status:

The UN Convention on Biodiversity has passed a moratorium on ocean fertilization (2008) and on  geoengineering (2010) that cover SRM and experiments like this. However, the US is not a party to the CBD. The UN Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) prohibits military use of weather modification technology globally.

Under US Federal law (National Weather Modification Policy Act of 1976), any modification of the weather is required to be reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the results of research must be made public.

The O’odham Nation, represented by a  handful of tribal governments, have lived in the area around the World View Spaceport for thousands of years. The reservations where the tribal governments exercise extra-constitutional sovereignty under US law cover a vast area of southern Arizona, with traditional territories extending into Mexico. For example, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe’s offices are a 20 minute drive from the Spaceport that will be the SCoPEx staging area.

While the sovereign rights of tribal governments over airspace is an emerging legal area, the Air Force and others have signed Memoranda of Understanding with the tribal governments about their use of O’odham airspace, indicating that government agencies are aware that they have some rights. One lawyer has made a persuasive case that tribal governments have sovereignty over what happens in the airspace over their lands.

Possible impacts:

The environmental effects of SCoPEx are mostly unknown. The project’s web site claims that the amounts released by the project will be “very small compared to other routine releases of material into the stratosphere by aircraft, rockets, or routine balloon flights.”

However, the political effects of the project are easier to predict. As governments continue to fall short of climate targets, David Keith and other geoengineers will be able to point to research findings to bolster the case for larger geoengineering experiments. However, these are not dispassionate scientists, but entrepreneurs backed by venture capitalists who stand to become fabulously wealthy if governments should opt to move forward with an SRM project in the future.

If SCoPEx moves forward, it will contribute to entrenching technology, capital and public relations power of geoengineering and divert resources away from real climate solutions.

Project details:

David Keith, among others, has proposed a suite of field experiments, some to test the effectiveness and risks of geoengineering and others to develop technologies for larger-scale deployment. The closest to execution is SCoPEx. This experiment would try to understand the microphysics of introducing particles into the stratosphere to better estimate the efficacy of different materials to reflect sunlight as part of an effort to develop SRM techniques. They first plan to spray water molecules into the stratosphere from a balloon 20km above the earth, to create a massive icy plume to be studied from the flight balloon. They then aim to replicate it with limestone or calcium carbonate, followed by sulphates.

David Keith’s Earlier Attempts

In 2012, news broke that David Keith and Harvard engineer James Anderson were planning the first outdoor experiment in solar geoengineering. This would have involved the release of particles into the atmosphere from a balloon flying 80,000 feet over Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Their stated aim was to measure how releasing sulfate would impact ozone chemistry, and to test ways to make the aerosols the appropriate size.

The announcement came soon after a controversial proposed field test of another SRM scheme – the British government-funded Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) – was cancelled after a global outcry. Keith bemoaned its fate: “I wish they’d had a better process, because those opposed to any such experiments will see it as a victory and try to stop other experiments as well.”

After media revealed Keith’s own experiment, it too was cancelled, and Keith shifted energies to a new incarnation of the project. In early 2017, he helped launch Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, backed by several million in funding by billionaires and private foundations.

Now, Keith is covering his bases politically: he claims the amounts of particles released will be small, and  in an attempt to win support among civil society, the project says it will have an independent advisory process for the experiments. This is in keeping with what constitutes a problem with all small-scale experiments like this: the slow and careful accumulation of mainstream legitimacy for large-scale experiments in solar geoengineering in the media, scientific bodies, and institutions of governance, both regionally and globally—ultimately leading toward full deployment.

SCoPEx Funders include:

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; The Open Philanthropy Project; Pritzker Innovation Fund; The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; VoLo Foundation; The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs; G. Leonard Baker, Jr.; Alan Eustace; Ross Garon; Bill Gates;  John Rapaport; Michael Smith; Bill Trenchard.

–November 2017 ,

Geoengineering further encroaching on the IPCC’s work: 46th IPCC meeting in Montréal, Canada

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the main scientific authority in the field of climate change – came together for their 46th meeting in the city of Montréal, Canada. Although the work of IPCC is geared towards producing scientific assessments and reports, it is also an intergovernmental institution, which means that the 195 governments party to the IPCC get to decide on the broad course of what particular topics relating to climate change the IPCC should assess. At the Montreal meeting, Government delegations negotiated the three Working Groups’ chapter outlines for the upcoming 6th Assessment Report (AR6), to be published in 2021.

We were there to monitor developments around geoengineering, and have to conclude that the normalization push is well under way at the IPCC:

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) – or, in fact, Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR), which is the adopted language at the IPCC – appears prominently in Working Group III, whose task it is to “assess options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing activities that remove them from the atmosphere.” (IPCC Working Groups)

CDR/negative emissions technologies will appear, where relevant, in the sectoral Chapters 6-11 – but certainly in the chapters on energy systems (CCS-based technologies being at the core of geoengineering proposals for this sector) and the Agriculture, Forestry and Land-Use (AFOLU) chapter (relying on large-scale afforestation).

Beyond the sectoral chapters, WGIII Chapter 12 will be on “cross-sectoral perspectives.” Here all CDR technologies will be assessed that do not fall neatly into any of the preceding sectoral chapters – such as BECCS and ocean fertilization. While AR5 was hiding the excessive reliance on BECCS and afforestation in the footnotes, AR6 is going to fully embrace the discussion of basically all geoengineering technologies available – their status, cost, risks and impacts, but also their potentials.

Special attention was given to “impacts, risks and opportunities of large-scale land-based mitigation”, i.e. BECCS and afforestation. While some countries wanted to see the same in-depth assessment of large-scale ocean-based mitigation (despite the fact that ocean fertilization is already prohibited under the London Protocol of the London Convention), WGIII Chairs argued that prominence was accorded to large-scale land-based geoengineering – or mitigation, as they call it – due to these approaches’ role in mitigation pathways to 2°C and 1.5°C produced by Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs). And indeed, no other geoengineering technology has yet made its way into the models.

SRM will be discussed in WGIII Chapter 14, International Cooperation. In the initial draft outline it was included in Chapter 12, Cross-sectoral Perspectives chapters, but some delegations preferred to highlight the dimension of international cooperation (and potential conflict) on SRM, so it was moved to Chapter 14. The respective bullet point now reads “Ethics and governance of SRM, associated risks” – which may risk precluding a discussion of other political and social risks of SRM beyond questions of governance and international cooperation and make them slip from view.

Civil society observers have argued throughout the meeting that geoengineering technologies should not be given such prominence as they remain high-risk and speculative response strategies with large-scale foreseeable negative impacts on human communities and ecosystems.

Nevertheless, geoengineering has been agreed on as one of eight cross-cutting issues identified by all Working Groups (I-III). So beyond being treated in dedicated chapters, geoengineering may very well sprawl across the report’s three Working Groups and show up in all different places, giving readers and policy makers no systematic account of the political, social and ecological risks and impacts of geoengineering proposals.

Geoengineering creeping into Working Group I on the physical science basis of climate change

Quite shockingly, the IPCC in its AR6 will do an in-depth assessment of both Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR) scenarios and Solar Radiation Management (SRM) scenarios not only in Working Group III, which, as per usual, looks at mitigation options and pathways, but also in Working Group I – tasked with assessing “the physical scientific aspects of the climate system and climate change.” In Chapter 4 of Working Group I, authors will look at the climate response to GGR and SRM scenarios, in Chapter 5, they will further analyze the biogeochemical implications of GGR and SRM scenarios. This group’s work is supposed to focus on the physical science basis of climate change, while assessing the geoengineering scenarios – a high-risk and largely speculative response strategy – is clearly outside the scope and mandate of WGI. WGI will also not assess the physical science basis of other types of responses to climate change, thereby giving undue prominence to geoengineering proposals.

It is worrying that including geoengineering (both CDR and SRM) scenarios in Working Group I’s contribution to AR6 may set a dangerous precedent for future assessment cycles of the IPCC. By establishing alleged unpolitical “scientific facts” about the climate response and biogeochemical implications of geoengineering scenarios, the IPCC is very likely to foster the normalization trend around geoengineering. The first problem with this is that the scientific consensus so established rests on results spit out by computer models that could never do justice to the complexity, interconnectedness and unpredictability of the Earths systems. It thus creates a false sense of controllability of geoengineering and climatic responses to it. The second problem relates to treating geoengineering in WGI in a seemingly neutral and unpolitical fashion – as if the decision to go down that path were not a fundamentally political one. The attempts at establishing an allegedly neutral scientific consensus on geoengineering is part of the larger thrust towards normalizing geoengineering as a response strategy to climate change.

However, knowledge production in the natural sciences is also not neutral: Given the disproportionate representation of geoengineers in the modelling community that will write WGI’s contribution to AR6, we are likely to see a heavily one-sided account of geoengineering scenarios, one that focuses on “potentials” while disregarding risks, impacts and disturbances of the climate system and ecosystems entailed by large-scale technological interventions.

The adopted chapter outlines can be retrieved from the IPCC website:

Working Group I

Working Group II

Working Group III

Failure of Kemper County “clean coal” plant casts more doubts on BECCS

Kemper County plant under construction. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

After years of embarrassing delays and $5.3 billion in cost overruns, Southern Company has finally pulled the plug on its pioneering “clean coal” plant in Kemper County, Mississippi.

The $7.5 billion Kemper County project would have been the world’s first Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Instead, it will now run on natural gas, without carbon capture – an ironic end, given that Southern Co. could likely have built such a power plant from the outset for under $500 million.

The project’s failure should cast serious doubts on the prospects of both “clean coal” as well as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) – the current star child of techno-fix solutions to climate change.

BECCS would involve capturing CO2 from biofuel refineries or biomass-burning power stations and pumping it into geological formations, or – more likely due to economics – pumping it into oil wells in order to extract more oil. Despite lack of evidence as to the technological and economic viability of BECCS, the models underpinning the Paris Agreement’s 2°C target overwhelmingly rely upon BECCS as a “negative emissions technology” capable of being deployed at a scale large enough to balance out emissions by mid-century.

In theory, an IGCC power station like Kemper County should be the cleanest and most efficient way of generating electricity from burning coal or biomass. Furthermore, an IGCC plant with CCS should be less energy-intensive than a conventional power plant with CCS, because the CO2 is removed from the syngas pre-combustion – when the CO2 concentration is higher – instead of stripping it from the flue gas post-combustion when CO2 is diluted, as it is at facilities like the retrofitted Petra Nova coal plant in Texas, which was officially opened earlier this year.  

The failure of the Kemper County project, which featured the cleanest and most efficient CCS power plant technology, should therefore be seen as a warning for policy-makers expecting CCS – including BECCS – technologies to magically close the emissions gap by mid-century.

It’s important to note that exchanging biomass for coal would add even more challenges to an IGCC with CCS plant. Biomass gasification results in a syngas which is chemically quite different from that generated through coal gasification, and therefore requires different treatment in order to produce a gas clean enough for burning to power a gas turbine.

While CCS advocates will undoubtedly seek to frame it as a marginal example, the reality is that the Kemper County project is a prime example of what CCS stands for – an enormous waste of public attention and resources, at a time when society should be focused on transforming our energy systems to address the root causes of climate change.