Among presidential candidates, Andrew Yang is perhaps the most quixotic. His radical plan universal basic income plan, which offers $1,000 per month to Americans has garnered the most attention. But his platform also includes an equally radical climate plan: Hacking the Earth to save humanity.
In addition to more traditional calls for cutting carbon emissions, Yang is the first serious presidential contender to ever propose solving climate change through geoengineering: by blocking incoming sunlight, terraforming the seafloor around melting glaciers, and inventing machines to suck carbon out of the air, all unproven and perhaps impossible technologies. Yet the Democratic candidate’s cult status and wave of small donors has ensured Americans could get a crash course on them during the first presidential primary debates in June—in a way that may not fully show just how controversial some of them are.
“We’re geoengineering right now,” Yang told Earther in a sit down interview, referring the world’s rising carbon emissions. “It’s just that we’re geoengineering in the most destructive, haphazard way possible.”
Frankly, it’s hard to argue otherwise looking at the spate of climate impacts emerging around the world. Yang’s climate change platform includes pretty standard Democratic ideas like cutting fossil fuel subsidies, having the Environmental Protection Agency regulate carbon emissions, a carbon tax that would fund health research on air pollution, and investing in sustainable infrastructure. But it also includes some decidedly non-standard ideas within both the Democratic and scientific communities (emphasis added):
“As much as we must evolve and take responsibility, the U.S. only emits 15% of the world’s greenhouse gases – this is a global problem. We should invest resources in large-scale geoengineering measures like shoring up glaciers and reducing solar exposure to counteract the effects of climate change even as we reduce our emissions. Waiting around for the oceans to rise is not the American way. If we don’t adopt and lead in geoengineering, China will wind up making decisions for us when it decides to modify the climate in about 20 years.”
If this all sounds extreme, it’s because it is. But in talking with Yang, it’s clear he views investing in geoengineering as a pretty rational approach. The percentage of U.S. emissions and the looming threat of China, currently the world’s largest carbon emitter, are key to Yang’s proposal.
He explained to Earther that his support for geoengineering stems from the fact the even if the U.S. cuts its emissions on the timeline outlined in the Green New Deal—which he said he is “very supportive of”—it would still leave 85 percent of the world’s emissions out there, waiting to be cut. Rather than assuming the world will follow suit, beginning to cool the planet and save glaciers as soon as possible would provide an insurance policy to ensure things don’t get out of hand.
Then there’s China, which Yang sees a major threat both from an emissions standpoint and as a potential unilateral actor. As China’s emissions become an ever larger portion of the global total, reducing them will become an ever greater challenge, raising the risk the country turns to geoengineering (though it’s important to note that any rogue state could do the same for myriad reasons). Yang’s plans for geoengineering call for a Global Geoengineering Institute to ensure international coordination from the get go.
“Instead of China’s doing it unilaterally 15 or 20 years from now, then the Chinese could be in the room too. Then we can say ‘look, if we’re going to do this then it’s certainly going to work much better if we’re doing it in concert instead of just one country doing something that might affect us all,’” Yang said. “The federal government should at a minimum—and this is what I will do as president—invest resources in helping develop the scientific body of knowledge and even run experiments and pilots with an emphasis on measures that can be reversed with no ill effect.”
There’s a certain allure to the geoengineering approach, particularly from the techno-optimist mindset that’s in vogue in Silicon Valley. Keeping the planet at an optimum temperature while humanity gets its shit together with carbon emissions can feel somehow more attainable than doing the hard work to cut emissions. A giant space mirror to reflect sunlight—something Yang said was among his top choices for cooling the planet because it’s reversible if something goes wrong on Earth—is a lot sexier than a closed coal plant.
“If you were to launch a satellite with expandable mirrors and you can make it so that you can bring a satellite back down if you want,” Yang said. “If you find that it’s effective, then great or if you find that is useless, then you don’t use it but then there’s no harm done.”
It’s not wholly surprising that Yang, who made a career as a founder and CEO of education-oriented startups including the nonprofit Venture for America, would be the first candidate to put forth a serious geoengineering proposal as part of his climate plan and couch it under the guiding principle of “innovation.” And yet, geoengineering raises a whole host of thorny scientific and governance issues.
On the science side, there’s the fact that we simply don’t know a whole lot about how the climate will react to our attempts to cool things down. The idea that we could even deploy geoengineering technology with “no ill effect” is also not at all certain. The space mirror idea is on the fringe of what is possible, but other techniques that are more readily available like injecting reflective particles into the stratosphere could cause rainfall patterns to shift around the globe. Reduced sunlight could also harm crop growth. And failing to address carbon pollution while we do so would mean the oceans continue to become more acidic.
“I’d say that this particular framing of ‘innovation’ seems to assume the feasibility (and desirability) of geoengineering, which I’d argue is premature given the state of research,” Jane Flegal, a geoengineering expert and adjunct faculty member at Arizona State’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, told Earther. “More research on the topic could just as easily reveal reasons not to do it as reasons to do it.”
But the governance issue is where things get really messy. You can’t just ride a wave of technological innovation toward a better climate without tools to govern that innovation and there aren’t any blindspots. Yang’s platform doesn’t lay out how the necessary policy legwork would keep pace with the technological investments put forth in his plan.
“If geoengineering research proposals were linked to cutting carbon emissions—and used as a way to break the seeming logjam—great,” Gernot Wagner, a Harvard researcher studying geoengineering, told Earther. “On its own, the idea scares me.”
Yang’s global initiative is the bare minimum that would be necessary to bring the world together to discuss unleashing a very dangerous set of technologies and his proposal doesn’t mention how it would be tied to the goal of cutting emissions that Wagner raised. Putting aside that solar geoengineering could backfire spectacularly, there are also a whole other hosts of risks. The world may move toward less ambitious carbon emission cuts, raising the likelihood of having to pursue more aggressive cooling measures. Ditto for banking on technologies to suck carbon out of the air or other negative emissions strategies like planting huge forests, which are nowhere close to being ready to deploy at the scale needed to combat climate change.
Putting money into shoring up glaciers or any of the other ideas in Yang’s plan could potentially take away resource from protecting communities from other climate perils like heat waves, wildfires, or hurricanes. Flegal noted Yang’s platform doesn’t mention adapting to climate change, showcasing tradeoffs that are already implicit.
Yet despite these shortcomings and the reality that no form of geoengineering is ready for primetime, Americans could hear more about these ideas and their inevitability soon. Democrats announced their first presidential primary debate will be held in late June in Miami, a city besieged by rising seas. The location coupled with the rise of Green New Deal, increasingly dire climate change-fueled disasters, and the yawning chasm between Democrats and Republicans mean moderators asking a climate change question is all but a given.
And Yang will be on the stage there to answer it, having amassed an army of small donors known as the Yang Gang that allowed him to meet the 65,000 donor threshold for appearing in the debates. Millions of Americans could hear about geoengineering for the first time, couched in language suggesting it’s within our reach and is necessary.
“I hold out some shred of optimism that we never may have to use various geoengineering measures and techniques, but I feel the likelihood is that we will,” Yang said. “Really all you have to do is reflect: Do we believe that climate change is entering a phase where it could prove to be an existential threat to our way of life? And to me the answer is clearly yes. So if that’s the case, then what can we do? The answer needs to be dramatic action and all of the above.”
He may be right. Geoengineering could well be part of a rational “all of the above” approach to address climate change, but there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done in terms of studying it (to say nothing of cutting emissions) before we head down a road we might not ever be able to get off.