I’ve Never Supported Geoengineering, So Why Now?

Matt Richter, PhD

My name is Matt Richter. I’m a physicist by training and received my PhD at Stanford doing polysyllabic work that very few people in the world actually understand or perhaps care about. Given my background, you would think that I’d be all for everything and anything that could help us deal with the problem of global warming. And yes, I think it’s the single most important issue facing our species.  

However, being a physicist, I also understand how human efforts with global reach have never really worked out that well. All the carbon we’ve burned from the start of the industrial age to now? Yes, harnessing the power of fire to do work has allowed for unimaginable progress! And it’s raised atmospheric CO2 levels to truly horrific levels. Our use of plastics unleashed both endocrine disruptors and microplastics that are now found in pretty much every animal and every part of the planet, no matter how remote. We’ve disrupted fisheries, upended ecosystems, destroyed rainforests and polluted air, land, and sea. And the period of time we’re in now is looking like a period of global extinctions the likes of which may very well equal the past death of the dinosaurs.

The idea of doing something with global reach has always scared me. I mean, as a species our batting average has been pretty poor, spending our future for dubious gains today. But despite this track record of global damage, there are two reasons why I’m supporting Arctic Ice Project (AIP).

The first reason I support AIP is time, or rather the lack of it. I come from a family that has been active in environmental science for a long time. My father, Burton Richter, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for running one of two groups that confirmed the Standard Model (better known as Quarks to people outside the field.)  After winning the Nobel Prize, his focus slowly but surely moved to energy policy– even writing a book, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. Were he still alive, I think even he, a subject matter expert, would be surprised at how fast change is happening now. Growing up in science, around people who really care about making the planet a better place, I’m more aware than most about the scale and scope of the issues we’re facing. Change is here now, and it’s happening fast. There is no time to “wait and see” as so many who don’t want to change advocate doing. There is no time to lose to make a difference. 

The second reason I support AIP is how it works. Small hollow glass spheres are spread onto new ice to make it more reflective so that it can get thicker faster and last longer. These are called “hollow glass microspheres” in the trades, but try to think of them as “shiny sand.” This shiny sand is composed of silica, which is ubiquitous. This approach appeals to me. Research is continuing, but this appears to buy us time to do the big work of decarbonizing while stalling the worst impacts of climate change.

These are the reasons I’m giving my support to AIP. We’re almost out of time and this approach just makes sense. I would like to encourage others to join me in supporting Arctic Ice Project while we still have time to make a difference.



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