What Mexico’s planned geoengineering restrictions mean for the future of the field

What Mexico’s planned geoengineering restrictions mean for the future of the field

Luke Iseman, previously a director of hardware at Y Combinator and the cofounder of a geoengineering startup, says he added a few grams of sulfur dioxide into a pair of weather balloons and launched them from an unspecified site somewhere on the Mexican peninsula last spring. He says he intended for the balloons to reach the stratosphere and burst under pressure there, releasing the particles into the open air. 

Scientists believe that spraying sulfur dioxide or other reflective particles into the stratosphere in sufficient quantities might be able to offset some level of global warming, mimicking the cooling effect from major volcanic eruptions in the past. But it’s a controversial field, given the unknowns about potential side effects, fears that even discussing the possibility could undermine the urgency to address the root causes of climate change, and the difficult questions over how to govern a technology that has the power to tweak the temperature of the planet but could have sharply divergent regional effects. 

Iseman acknowledged to MIT Technology Review, and other outlets that reported on the effort, that he didn’t seek scientific or government approval before moving forward with the balloon launches. He subsequently cofounded the startup, Make Sunsets, to commercialize the concept. The company previously said it had raised around $750,000 in venture capital and planned to sell “cooling credits” for particles released during future balloon launches. 

But on January 13, Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources announced that the government will prohibit and, where appropriate, halt any solar geoengineering experiments within the country. The agency noted that Make Sunset’s launches were done without notice or consent. It said the prohibition was motivated by the risks of geoengineering, the lack of international agreements supervising such efforts, and the need to protect communities and the environment. 

Mexico may be one of the first nations, if not the first, to announce such an explicit  ban on experiments, although many nations have existing environmental regulations and other policies that could restrict certain practices. It’s not clear from the statement that all research in the field would be prohibited, which can also include modeling and lab work. The press release also says Mexico will stop any large-scale solar geoengineering practices, which may mean large experiments or full deployment of the technology.

Representatives from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and the government of Baja California couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

‘Indefinitely on hold’

Iseman, who didn’t respond to an inquiry from MIT Technology Review, told The Verge that future launches are “indefinitely on hold.” He said to the Wall Street Journal that he was “surprised by the speed and scope of the response” and had “expected and hoped for dialogue.”

But others weren’t surprised. Shuchi Talati, a scholar in residence at American University who is forming a nonprofit focused on governance and justice in solar geoengineering, warned in MIT Technology Review’s original piece that Make Sunsets’s actions could have a chilling effect on the field. She said the unauthorized effort could diminish government support for geoengineering research and amplify demands to restrict experiments.

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