Since this is the only tool that could make a real difference to global temperatures during the period of a political mandate, it could become an incredibly alluring option in countries suffering from deadly heat waves, droughts, famines, fires or floods. Using it without sufficient research would be “very dangerous,” Keutsch says.
“People think that because I’m doing geoengineering research, I kind of want to do geoengineering,” he says. “My opinion is actually very strong that I seriously hope that we are never in a situation where this has to be done, because I always think this is a very scary concept and something is going to go wrong.
“But at the same time, I think it’s very important to better understand what the risks are,” he adds. “And I think for the direct research I’m most interested in, if there is one type of material that can significantly reduce risk, I think we should know that.”
The team initially hoped for to begin hot air balloon flights as early as 2018 in Tucson, Arizona, then explored plans in New Mexico. They chose to move the first effort to Sweden due to “COVID-19 and other logistical and planning challenges,” according to the project’s website.
Part of the delay was due to the decision of the Keutsch team to set up an independent committee to assess the ethical and legal impacts of the proposed experiments. They did not need to have one, since the research effort does not have federal funding. (Indeed, when the project started, the was no US federal funding for geoengineering research. The project operates with internal Harvard money and donations from individuals and groups, including Bill Gates, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and others.)
But Jane Long, former associate director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, strongly recommended the creation of an external review board. (She also helped choose her president.) “It was important to the future of this technology that they weren’t seen as bad scientists rushing to do experiments without any scrutiny,” she says.
Long emphasizes that the experiments, as initially proposed, are on a very small scale and unlikely to pose any danger to health or the environment. But the advice, she says, is forcing researchers to explain what the work is for and address public concerns.