I once heard Tony Blair talk about Global Warming in the midst of a snow blizzard in Davos. He was having a real hard time making his case and at one point he did remark that it was a paradox to make the case to prevent warming in freezing conditions. We would have all preferred being in the Caribbean. Fast forward 5 years to the Caribbean – last weekend to be precise. Again we are talking about global warming during an unusually cold day in Saint Barths, this time with Nathan Myhrvold, ex CTO of Microsoft and one of the smartest scientists/inventors on the planet. We were having a Christmas dinner with my wife and his wife and kids and the subject of global warming came up again. The conversation was inspired by the fact that Nathan’s firm, Intellectual Ventures, has a proposed solution for global warming called Stratoshield that I found fascinating. But the challenge for me to communicate this idea to you is that as smart as Nathan is, marketing is not his forte and I did not find a simple description of the project. So I will do my best to explain it.
If you want to start by Nathan’s sources however, you can watch this video in which he does explain the Stratoshield concept to Fareed Zakaria. But it is long, complicated and the road that takes you to learn about Nathan’s proposed solution to global warming is winding and passes by such random topics as how fast penguins poo (it turns out that they poo very fast). You can also read this article and watch a very well made animation. If you prefer to stay on this article here’s my short version of Stratoshield.
Human beings have enormous behavioral inertia. Once we start doing something it is hard for us to change. And we are addicted to carbon based fuels. It will be very difficult to ask humanity to kick the CO2 habit in the near term. Moreover CO2 stays for thousands of years and we have sent up an incredible amount of the stuff. So while we try as much as we can to cut future emissions it is very likely that we will fail to do so quickly enough. So what can we do to prevent global warming? Learn from volcanoes. It turns out that volcano eruptions cool the earth significantly. And they cool it because they emit sulfur dioxide which act by creating blocking some of the sun’s energy at the stratosphere and preventing it from getting to the surface of the earth. Small quantities of sulfur dioxide, like small quantities of Ozone for example, have huge effects on climate. So what’s the solution, to wait for a volcano to erupt? Well we could but volcano eruptions are highly unpredictable. So the next best solution is to emulate a volcano. Stratoshield: two 25km garden size hoses near each pole flying into the stratosphere held by V shaped balloons that pump sulfur dioxide up from the earth providing shade for all of us.
How much would it cost to test this solution? Less than $100 million dollars. And, implementing it costs less than what USA spends on defense in one day.
Ok, so what is the bad news? Unfortunately, Nathan is not getting enough key people in the States to back his solution. Environmental activists, Al Gore types, believe that his plan would be seen as a license to emit and it is better not to even try.
My recommendation to Nathan was to go for a very different angle. Instead of promoting his concept inside USA , go outside and make the case to OPEC, specifically to the Saudis. Why would OPEC or the Saudis spend say $50 million to test this idea? Because OPEC countries have two enormous incentives to see this succeed. One is to continue selling oil but another one is that OPEC countries tend to be extremely hot countries already who can do with the little extra shade that the sulfur dioxide would provide from the stratosphere. Nathan appreciated this advice and I would not be surprised if Intellectual Ventures tries to approach the Saudi Government. I hope they do.
Now what do I think about the sulfur dioxide pump solution to global warming? It’s complicated. After visiting China and being unable to breathe well because of the pollution, I believe that there are other more urgent reasons, like global health, than global warming to cut emissions. Clean air is not only beautiful, crisp, but it is also much healthier. So I believe we should go for both. Do everything we can to cut emissions, but also try Nathan’s solution out as an emergency plan B. As Nathan says, his solution is like a bypass. You may ask the whole world to avoid cholesterol but few do, and in the end, many get a bypass or stent surgery. Nathan’s solution to global warming is one very long stent!
I finish with a picture of Nathan’s Yacht, the Teleost, and my sailboat, Aphrodite. In my carbon defense, I would like to mention that my sailboat just crossed the Atlantic from Barcelona to Barbados and then on to Saint Barths. With us on board, and in spite as weighing as much as 75 cars, it spent the fuel of one car doing those 4500nm because it goes by wind power. Fuel is used for the generator. Nathan’s boat on the other hand, as you can see, is a motor boat and does consume enormous amounts of fuel. But in Nathan’s defense, I can say that if his idea works, we should all give him enough lifetime carbon credits to use Teleost guilt free!
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