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!

stbarths (1 of 1)

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

No Comments

nicolas on December 28, 2009  · 


interesting idea but too exotic for short time aplication.
Martin, en cuanto puedas traduce el articulo para tus lectores en castellano.
Por otra parte te queda menos de una semana para resolver el reto que te propuse. Por si acaso te lo envio de nuevo hoy.



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javier saiz on December 28, 2009  · 

Realmente interesante.

Es una lastima saber que la humanidad esta mas acostumbrada a leyes que a inventos.

No estamos preparados para un talento como ese.

El video es muy interesante tambien

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javier saiz on December 28, 2009  · 

sorry mu¡y answer was in spanish ( i didn’t realyze)

I just said that It’s sad to know we are more used to politics and policies and that humanity is not ready for inventions

Policies versus inventions

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wixho on December 28, 2009  · 

very very interesting idea,

and as it has been said, it seems we are not yet prepared for these inventions,

however, have always wondered, where does an entrepreneur (as your friend) fits in the implementation (or “business model” )of this type of idea ¿?
or is he connsidered just an inventor ¿?

Regards and Happy Holidays to all,

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Ignacio on December 29, 2009  · 

Sulfure dioxide doesn’t sound very health-friendly…maybe secondary effects like acid rain would kill us faster finally?
And Nathan…doesn’t have enough money for the tests? We are all using Msft…c’mon it’s his turn to give some bock to world.
I recognize his pov about human behaviour, specially americans on overweight…they always seem to be expecting a magical or surgery solution…
Thanks for sharing and keep on sailing! Thanks god you are not that obsene…we need more rich people like you.

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Gordon Cyrus on January 3, 2010  · 

Dear Martin

Don’t if you remember me. We met @ Sima / Stockholm a few years ago with our mutual friend Tariq Krim one night at Café Opera.

How fast is the process before you actually know it has some kind of impact? Who do you have to go through to throw something up like that on the poles? UN? Sound interesting and risky at the same time. Reminds me of “tales/history” around the 10th planet Nibiru and the Annunakis coming to earth to genetically make an intelligent slave from the not so intelligent homos-erectus thousands of years ago in order to mine gold on earth to put it in their atmosphere which was causing problems for their existence. Maybe we can ask them for tips, they go around the sun every 3600 years or so and they should normally be swinging by around 2012. Good timing.

Oil = Black gold. How can we still be so ignorant and burn it? Really don’t get it. Makes me ashamed being an adult and trying to explain why to my kids. Dear son, what would you prefer. A really quite, super fast car that doesn’t smell and can be charged up by sunshine and costs less to manufacture, maintain and don’t get your hands dirty OR a slower more expensive car that stinks and breaks down all the time and makes you wash your hands for hours after trying fixing it. By “recycling” oil products, one would think you’d be selling it again and again if you really into being power hungry and greedy.

Trains are faster than planes anyway (london-paris good start), far safer and uses like 10% of the energy for the same distance. The electric car was invented in the 1830’s!!! and we still can’t get it off the ground, (GM almost gave humanity one with the EV-1), even if it’s the fastest powered thing on the drag strip today with endless amount of torque and energy efficiency far beyond any gasoline motor. Again, duh? Battery patents owned by the oil industry, duh? Another example of how the monetary system based on scarcity, instead of abundance, is the biggest reason for holding back the development of technology, science and human excellence. Makes me want to change planet just thinking about it. Anyway I got an idea if your interested.

I think we really need to get rid of money first, everything else will fall into place after, that shit is so 1.0 anyway. I’m sure the Annunakis will tell us that they got rid of money like 120 000 years ago or something and laugh so hard it be the last thing we heard. What?!

lots of luv from Paris


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Michael on January 4, 2010  · 

Hi Martin,

my family and me made some thoughts during x-mas because we were shocked by the political incompentence in Copenhagen. Quite useful for that I found the film recipes for desaster (http://www.recipesfordisaster.info) where a family in Finland tries to reduce their CO2 output.

In my opinion there´s no other solution than everybody for himself tries to reduce as much CO2 production as possible. There will be no political solution and also no technical tinkering will solve the climate problem.

Do you know that a flight from Madrid to Los Angeles and back for 4 Persons has the same nagative effect on the climate than producing a Volkswagen Golf 5 TDI and driving 150000 km with it ?

WE must start to reduce our CO2 polution NOW. Everybody has to contribute now. There´s no more room to hesitate and to point with fingers to other people.

Just take a piece of paper and sum up all your fuel, current, gas bills and your travels and you will be shocked how much CO2 you produced last year….

Kind Regards

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Jozef Hvisc on January 7, 2010  · 

Hi there

Very interesting reading.
I don’t like to sound or be silly,,,
But why not hire Al Gore in your company
and stop him from brainwashing decent people
like us.

Thanks Jozef,

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chinaski on January 10, 2010  · 

Considering how complicated is the climate modeling and the thousands of factors that affect it, I wonder how safe it is to do this kind of experiments. Anyway it is a good idea as a last resort solution, if there is a runaway climate change and we need to cool the earth quickly it is good know we have a way out.

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jallerson on January 12, 2010  · 

Just read a very good explanation of the Stratoshield idea, and some other brilliant IV ideas, in the book SuperFreakonomics.

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