Three billionaires stand on a runway, watching the last of the planes climb toward the stratosphere. The sky is cloudless, and it is hot, with little breeze. As the whine of the engine fades, the billionaires turn and head inside one of the few buildings in view. The South Pacific's waves lap at the sand lying only steps away, and the gaudy blue of the ocean stretches to the horizon in every direction.
They say nothing to the crew working inside a small control room. A collection of monitors displays impenetrable information as the fleet of planes soars higher and higher, beyond the reach of commercial jetliners and all but a few types of military aircraft. In the corner of the room, several screens are streaming CNN, the BBC, and other major news outlets; no one pays much attention as the talking heads discuss the global initiative launching from this remote island.
The billionaires fidget, displaying a nervousness to which few such titans of industry would ever admit. They mutter to each other, stealing glances at the newscasts. A screen display counts down, and eventually the process starts: the planes dump their payload, tons and tons of tiny particles known as sulfate aerosols, designed to reflect sunlight back into space and to offer some degree of cooling respite to a warming planet. They will do this from thousands of flights each year, unceasingly, until the world finally, mercifully, gets its shit together.
In October of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an interim report, years off from its next full accounting of global warming's effects. The IPCC's Global Warming of 1.5°C report, so named because it was commissioned to look at the effects of warming beyond that threshold, painted a far more dire portrait than the normally constrained scientific body had previously offered. It warned that 1.5 degrees was on its way, and could arrive as soon as 2030, bringing with it severe risks related to "health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth."
The IPCC warnings, along with other equally ominous reports from the past few months, seem to have grabbed the attention of American media and non-Republican politicians in ways that the previous few decades of warnings had not. The reports have been extensively covered across mainstream press outlets, some of the both-sides-ism that plagued climate coverage in the past has started to fall away, and there is earnest momentum behind a Green New Deal.
The IPCC report also seems to have turned up the volume on a related conversation: the possibility of deploying various techno-fixes, termed geoengineering, as a way to slow the warming that our species seems so incapable of managing in simpler ways. This wasn't front-and-center in the IPCC's calculus, but buried in the report—more than 300 pages deep, in section 22.214.171.124, to be precise—is a single, jargon-heavy line that brings us back to our coterie of billionaires on a remote Pacific island: "There is robust evidence but medium agreement for unilateral action potentially becoming a serious SRM governance issue."
SRM refers to "solar radiation management," the most frequently discussed form of geoengineering, which involves injecting aerosols in the stratosphere to cool the planet—much like major volcanic eruptions do naturally. The other key term here is "unilateral action." This refers to the possibility that someone might simply take matters into his own hands.
The IPCC's primary concern in this passage is not with billionaires, but with countries. If SRM is eventually rolled out, we should hope that it's done as a global alliance, with the world's nations applying the best available scientific advice and deciding that geoengineering is the best course of action—even as it also represents an admission of outright societal failure.
But if you take a look at the global history of climate change, does that kind of intentional cooperation sound like a particularly likely outcome? It's true that negotiators in 2015 finally managed to unite the world with the Paris Agreement (from which President Donald Trump has promised to withdraw the United States), but not until decades after it was already clear that we had a problem. The accord ended up as a non-binding document that would fall far short of what's necessary even if every country met its stated goals—which most are failing to do.
With that history in mind, it doesn't seem so outlandish to think that, as has happened more and more in recent years, we might outsource our world-saving imaginative tasks to the obscenely rich. Think the Gates Foundation and malaria, or Jeff Bezos giving new life to the Washington Post. The emergence of the private space flight industry could be seen as a sort of marker between the old and the new, a time when governments took on the biggest projects versus one when maybe those governments don't quite have it in them anymore. Could geoengineering be next?
"I think it is a plausible scenario," says Janos Pasztor, the executive director of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative (C2G2), a group that takes no position on the should-we-or-shouldn't-we question but instead is trying to guide the international community toward a system where those decisions are made carefully, and their aftermath is governed properly.
Pasztor says that billionaires may well be capable of circumventing that sort of process.
"First of all, the direct cost of solar radiation modification is likely to be quite low," on the order of a few billion dollars per year, he says over Skype from Geneva. "You could actually envision quite a few individuals in this world who would be able to do that. Maybe some of them might decide that they just want to save the world—they do this all the time, rich people."
So imagine a scenario where the IPCC report's apocalyptic visions edge toward reality. It's 10 or 20 or 30 years from now, and global carbon dioxide emissions remain stubbornly high, even as the world burns. Famines spread, entire countries drown, and the global number of climate refugees climbs into the tens of millions. Geopolitical stability teeters. The calls to deploy SRM grow louder and louder as the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets near collapse, but international negotiations on the "how" of it all go nowhere.
Maybe a few small island nations, warily eyeing the seas lapping at their doorsteps, commission an Elon Musk or a Richard Branson as a savior. Or maybe, as the world's governments bicker, a few extremely rich voices from the back of the room point out that, actually, they're prepared to get things moving all by themselves. The U.S., China, the U.N. Security Council—they might not be prepared to say a definitive "yes," but can we be sure they would say a definitive "no"? And if it comes to that—would you want them to say no?
The Triumvirate, as the three billionaires came to be known, was used to having the world's attention. One of them had led the charge to colonize Mars, landing two probes on the Red Planet and, almost as a sideshow, a crew on the moon in 2026. Another had cleverly engineered his way around the slowing of Moore's law, and by 2029 owned 60 percent of the world's server space. The third had started with a social media platform before selling high and expanding into cars in the Philippines and Indonesia, simplified mobile payment systems in Africa, and other projects. Their extra-boardroom activities, alternately adulated and mocked across the world's Twitter feeds, ranged from the absurdly dangerous (BASE jumping off an erupting volcano) to the simply absurd (Periscoped comparisons of McDonald's fries in 63 countries).
But the world didn't see the quiet lobbying, which started behind the scenes. Soon, though, the islands began coming to the Triumvirate. Nauru, Tuvalu, Kiribati—countries sitting barely above sea level for centuries, watching their land disappear and their future crumble. Their collective gross domestic product could barely get the aerosols into the sky, but the Triumvirate—the Triumvirate could help, right?
They started with the planes. The three billionaires, joining forces in late 2031, had a legion of companies at their disposal, and one of the billionaires just happened to have a semi-secret division—hidden behind endless walls of non-disclosure agreements and non-compete clauses—working on the engineering challenges of dumping tons of material higher than most planes are designed to fly.
At first, they thought that retrofitting existing aircraft might do the trick—just change the tech to allow high-altitude performance. The Triumvirate looked into purchasing a few old military planes, like the KC-10 Extender and the KC-135 Stratotanker. Eventually, though, the group's conclusions converged with public research indicating that a brand-new plane design would be a cheaper way to go. The eventual aircraft had a huge wingspan, a short and stubby fuselage, and the ability to drag its cargo up above 60,000 feet—without a pilot. When the first one was completed, they christened it The Last Resort.
Step two was location. Those island states had asked for help, but they didn't have quite the pull inside the U.N. to get official international approval for such controversial measures. So it was agreed that a sort of extra-state limbo might reduce some of the diplomatic headaches of the project. If dumped up toward the start of the stratosphere—above 60,000 feet or so in the tropics—the aerosols would circulate around the globe relatively evenly. Luckily, there are a whole bunch of islands out there for an enterprising billionaire or three to buy.
The group chose one technically belonging to Fiji. With as little fanfare as possible, they sent the Fijian government a notice of secession. This isn't something most countries take lying down, but given how vulnerable Fiji is to the dramatic effects of climate change, the entrenched Fijian government didn't seem to mind the on-paper loss of a single deserted island. Since getting off the ground would require a vast mess of equipment and construction material, shipping promised to get expensive—so the Triumvirate bought a shipping company too.
As the world continued to bicker and burn, still digging up dead dinosaurs to keep the lights on, the billionaires began to build. The runway took shape, stretching the length of the island, alongside a minimalist base of operations covered in solar panels. They built sea walls and berms around the island—the waters were rising; best to be prepared. The planes arrived, one after another; operations would begin with 22 of them, enough to fly more than 12,000 flights a year. The sulfur itself was easy. It's an abundant byproduct produced at petroleum refineries, smelters, and other industrial sites all over the world; they bought it up at less than a hundred bucks per ton and shipped it to the island.
All told, the trio spent about six billion of their own effectively unlimited dollars on the set-up. They kept quiet about it for nearly the entire process through four years of construction and planning, avoiding almost any contact with the press.
When it was finally time to deploy, with no hint from the U.S. or China or Brazil or India that anyone would send out a countering air force to simply knock the planes out of the sky, the three billionaires went back to the island and sent the aerosols tumbling through the stratosphere. There was no ceremony, no champagne, no photographs. This was nothing to be celebrated.
Any time one writes about geoengineering, even skeptically, it's best to enumerate the extensive caveats, like listing the side effects during a Cialis commercial, unless one enjoys being screamed at online, so here we go: SRM would do nothing to combat ocean acidification. It could have dramatic regional variation in its effects on weather patterns, including the crucial monsoon seasons. It could reduce, or at least fail to improve, overall crop production. If effective at slowing warming, it might also slow human momentum toward emissions reductions. It is a global experiment rife with what could be termed "unknown unknowns."
"Solar geoengineering is still an extremely contested idea, and it will not leave off everyone for the better," says Ina Möller, a Ph.D. candidate at Lund University in Sweden working on the politics and governance of geoengineering. The process might bring temperatures down and help corn farming in Kansas, but that same process could cause a missed monsoon or two in India, leading to a famine there. It's a climate change "solution" that almost inevitably involves picking winners and losers.
With all those potential pitfalls, it is worth considering the likelihood that humanity would ever deploy SRM, regardless of its deployer. Experts are somewhat divided on the question. Alan Robock, a distinguished professor in the Rutgers University Department of Environmental Sciences (and, not without relevance, the associate director of the university's Center for Environmental Prediction), who has been writing about geoengineering for well over a decade, says he doubts we'd ever pull the trigger.
"I just think there are too many potential risks that people wouldn't be willing to deal with," he says. "Anything built by humans, operated by humans, can fail."
Florian Rabitz, a senior researcher in the Civil Society and Sustainable Development group at Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania, has written one of the only academic papers looking specifically at the idea of "unilateral action" for geoengineering. He doesn't hesitate at all when asked if SRM will happen: "Definitely," Rabitz says.
"If you look at the emissions statistics ... we're going in the wrong direction; the carbon budget is rapidly depleting." At some point, he says, we have to face our only two options: either forget the 1.5- or 2-degree targets and focus on adaptation, or try to slow emissions while complementing that by deploying SRM.
"Whether we like it or not, there is simply no way around it," Rabitz says.
What the experts seem to agree on is that it's unlikely our well-intentioned (if perhaps a tad megalomaniacal) billionaires would actually take on this project. Rabitz's paper concludes that "[a] combination of technological, geographic and financial constraints" will prevent non-state actors from taking the plunge any time soon. Over the phone from Lithuania, he confirmed he finds it implausible, pointing out that, even if some smaller states banded together, they would face potentially insurmountable problems. "If, let's say, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands together could put airplanes in the sky to spray aerosols, then the United States could simply blow them out of the sky." Which does seem like an issue.
David Keith, a Harvard University professor who has become a sort of front-facing figure in geoengineering academic circles, is more blunt: "It doesn't make any sense," he says. "Billionaires are powerful, but state power means something." Keith argues that the government could effectively restrain a rogue geoengineer. "If billionaires do it, and the major states don't want them [to], they're not billionaires anymore because the money is in banks, and laws affect them. It doesn't last a second."
Still, many of these experts also acknowledge that we don't know what is going to happen as climate change worsens. As the reports have grown darker, geoengineering has moved from the fringes toward the center; according to one analysis, in the early 2000s only a tiny handful of academic papers were published on the topic each year, a number that ballooned, over a decade, past 75—and that was more than two years ago. Search the IPCC's fourth major report, from 2007, for the words "geoengineering" or "SRM," and you'll come up empty. In the 2014 version, however, the terms received a page outlining the various options and where the research stands; by the time the 1.5 degrees report rolled around, major chunks of a chapter were dedicated to the concept.
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.
"I definitely think it could happen," says Jane Flegal, an adjunct faculty member at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, who did her doctoral work at the University of California–Berkeley focusing on geoengineering policy. "Let's imagine that whoever is doing this is doing it because they're really worried about climate impacts, and they really want to do something good for the world, in their view." Flegal points out that public funding for geoengineering research has been nearly non-existent, so far, while some of our favorite billionaires are, in fact, already investing: Bill Gates is among the funders of Harvard's solar geoengineering research program.
Pasztor, of C2G2, says one plausible way SRM happens could be that a few small countries at particular risk from climate change join forces. "They get together, and they're tired of insufficient action by the world," he says. "And they ask for help. And somebody might respond to that."
That way, you have the financial power of the ultra-wealthy, alongside the diplomatic heft of actual state actors. Doing it well would still require a decade or two of good research and careful planning, but for a generation of billionaires steeped in the "move fast and break things" ethos? According to Pasztor, "It's not that complicated to do it in, let's call it, a quick and dirty way."
The Triumvirate holds the press conference from the island, via remote uplink. The questions start with details. How many planes? How much sulfur? Then they turn to the broader issues. Will this really cool the planet? It should, says Server Billionaire. What are the downsides? There may be many, Mars Billionaire replies. He lists a few possibilities.
Finally, someone lands on the correct question: When will you stop?
The three glance at each other. One of them, any of them, answers: We can't. Not until emissions drop. As the world brings carbon dioxide emissions toward zero, we can start ramping down the flights. Until then, stopping would cause rapid warming that could be more catastrophic than the original problem. This is known as "termination shock."
The reporters jump over each other to follow up, asking if this is a certainty, and whether they worry that some natural disaster might stop the flights before emissions can be drawn down. "So this is essentially a hostage situation?" one yells. "You're holding us all for ransom until we do what you want?" The islands, comes the answer, they asked us to. It's not what we want. This is for everyone. Voices beamed in from dozens of countries, from the northernmost parts of the world and from the Global South, cite polling at home suggesting opposition to SRM, while others point to a study projecting decreased rainfall or increased drought as a result.
The Triumvirate is unmoved. On the whole, we think this will help the world.
The group wades through every question, for hours, retreading the same ground many times, before they are finally exhausted. None of them will read the endless pieces that will be written about the Triumvirate. They will scatter back to isolated mansions, to yachts in the Andaman Sea, to chalets in the Alps, to more volcanoes they can jump off and more industries to privatize.
For the moment, though, they are quiet. Together, they wander outside toward the runway, where several of the planes are being refueled and reloaded, ready to continue their strange Sisyphean task. It is, of course, hot outside.
Pacific Standard's Ideas section is your destination for idea-driven features, voracious culture coverage, sharp opinion, and enlightening conversation. Help us shape our ongoing coverage by responding to a short reader survey.