Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Spirit of Solar Shield Vision Echoed by Ambitious Local Advocacy
By Adam Stone
As we scroll through our social media feeds and swipe away inside the digital universe – our favorite caffeinated beverage just a few taps away! – some of us might not have fully processed the news: our world is melting.
Despite a continuous stream of somber reports over the years while witnessing the real-world impact, the gravity of the situation hasn’t fully registered in my mind.
Perhaps some of you feel the same way.
It’s probably just too damn daunting to totally process.
That said, we know the history, in broad strokes.
For billions of years, this place we call Earth orbited around the sun while living its best life amidst pretty natural surroundings. As a result, climate played out in a generally regular rhythm.
Doing ok so far.
Then, about 13.8 billion years after the emergence of the universe, us humans got restless and initiated the good old-fashioned industrial revolution in the 18th century, ushering in drastic technological change and many extraordinary advancements, along with soaring carbon emissions.
Our world was forced to reckon with a new poison in the atmosphere.
Rapid expansion of technology, transportation and urbanization over the past couple of hundred years started to wreak havoc, despite all the positive developments of the life-altering innovation.
With widespread mechanization and the burning of fossil fuels, and the corresponding spike in carbon dioxide emissions, it turns out we’ve put ourselves in quite a pickle here in 2023.
Although our dynamic yet ultimately fragile blue and green marble’s climate has undergone fluctuations over its history, the present warming is occurring at a singular pace within the last 10,000 years, NASA notes on its website.
“There is unequivocal evidence,” NASA also explains, “that Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate. Human activity is the principal cause.”
State of Play
Reports indicate the Earth’s temperature is poised to eventually breach the 1.5-degree Celsius limit, a key threshold, without significant emission reductions.
Based on information from the Copernicus Climate Change Service, we experienced the hottest July ever documented this summer, with temperatures surpassing the pre-industrial average for the month by approximately 1.5 to 1.6 degrees Celsius.
The Gulf Coast and southern U.S. also experienced their hottest August and summer on record, with numerous cities setting temperature records, while the rest of the country also faced abnormally high temperatures and the prospect of ongoing warm weather here in September.
Scientists have warned in recent years that surpassing the major 1.5-degree marker poses petrifying risks, such as accelerated glacial melt, increased methane emissions and potentially irreversible environmental damage.
NASA currently lists the Earth as 1.1 degrees Celsius higher overall compared to pre-industrial times, with sea levels four inches greater than in January 1993.
While responsible actors on the world stage do what’s politically plausible to address the crisis, many scientists say we’re already flirting with a dangerous tipping point.
Is it too late to largely get off fossil fuels? Experts emphasize how it remains critical to desperately try, despite the hurdles.
But outside-the-box solutions might also need to be prioritized, given the state of play.
Bring Your Umbrella
Enter Dr. István Szapudi, a professor at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, who has published about a remarkable concept with the theoretical potential to counteract the warming effects of global climate change.
The scientist’s proposal features a gargantuan solar shield hitched to an asteroid, strategically placed between the Earth and the sun to help cool our sweltering planet.
In other words, a ginormous umbrella for the sun. Really.
I’d heard about Szapudi when reading the news.
“In Hawaii, many use an umbrella to block the sunlight as they walk about during the day,” Szapudi stated in a July 31 press release. “I was thinking, could we do the same for Earth and thereby mitigate the impending catastrophe of climate change?”
I wanted to speak with Szapudi directly and ask whether his visionary idea is just thought-provoking theory or if it could actually be applied in real life.
“In terms of how practical it is, I think people have proposed solar shades before and they were, in my opinion, not very practical, at least not with near-future technology, because they were just too heavy,” Szapudi said when I reached him for a phone interview a few weeks ago. “And it’s very difficult to put so much stuff up in space. And that’s the main breakthrough of my study that I have shown that you can actually.”
Szapudi’s approach involves the deployment of a solar shield, akin to a giant, lightweight sail, positioned between the Earth and the sun. This shield would intercept and reflect a small fraction of the sun’s energy, thereby reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches our planet.
As Szapudi points out, the concept of the solar shield isn’t entirely new. But his research addresses a key challenge faced by previous proposals – the weight of the shield.
However, the challenge lies in preventing the solar radiation pressure from blowing the shield away.
This is where the concept of a counterweight comes into play. Szapudi suggests tethering the shield to a nearby asteroid, effectively anchoring it in space. This arrangement allows for a smaller shield and a lighter counterweight, making the entire system more feasible to deploy.
So that exciting idea is the good news. The more daunting reality is that even under the best of circumstances, execution would take decades and require upwards of a cool trillion-plus dollars.
“I think my study is conceptual, so it’s like the first step on a 10,000-mile journey, but it’s the first crucial step in the right direction,” Szapudi told me. “In my opinion, if we have the right follow-up studies and the right funding, then this will be a practical method to solve or mitigate some of the problems of climate change.”
What needs to happen next to turn this dream into reality, you ask? It’s simple. All advocates need to do is persuade the White House, Congress, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the U.N., reluctant world leaders and big-time players in the private industry to go all-in on the idea. Then there’s a fighting chance. No sweat.
(Hey Elon, how’s that whole Twitter/X thing working out for you? Maybe return your attention to SpaceX and a potentially planet-saving idea?)
But seriously, if you excite some key leaders, it seems realistic enough to at least envision us embarking on an enormously ambitious mission.
I asked Szapudi if he’s proactively selling his idea to various stakeholders.
“I will give a talk to a nonprofit kind of society that already has like 100 people whose goal is actually to produce a shield,” he replied. “So maybe they have contact with the right people and so forth. So I’m (doing) proactive stuff. But ultimately, I’m a scientist. I’m not a marketer, I’m not a businessman. So I am mainly doing science.”
All you did was hatch potentially planet-saving research?
Tsk tsk, slacker.
(The nonprofit Szapudi referred to is called the Planetary Sunshade Foundation, which was created in 2021 because founders believe decarbonization strategies are “insufficient for a livable planet.” More on the foundation in a moment.)
Szapudi identified a goal of reducing solar radiation by 1.7 percent, an estimate of the amount needed to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperatures. Some wiggle room is baked into that 1.7 figure, within the context of the aforementioned 1.5 Celsius threshold.
If we can pull off this neat magic trick, I asked, and achieve his 1.7 figure, what might that mean?
“Essentially, that would undo all the bad things that happened in the last few hundred years,” Szapudi explained.
This brings us to the economic impact of potentially placing a big bet.
The world economy, on an annual basis, is estimated to total about $100 trillion.
Put simply, Szapudi says earthlings should carve out about 1 percent of that – a trillion dollars – and invest in this grand but theoretically plausible global solution.
Maybe the United States helps run point for Earth’s 190 or so countries, fortified by broad U.N. support.
(The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international treaty aimed at addressing global climate change, could be a vehicle for progress; the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) is scheduled for late 2023 in Dubai.)
Granted, the task of anchoring the shield and countering solar radiation pressure would require innovative solutions that push the boundaries of current space technology.
It might be a long shot. But, then again, the world would be acting on self-interest to mitigate a crisis.
Is it that much more difficult to consider as compared to when President Kennedy announced his ambition to land a man on the moon? (It took eight years and 56 days between JFK famously announcing his lunar goal on May 25, 1961, and Apollo 11’s successful landing on July 20, 1969.)
You’re saving lots of money and lives in the long run, Szapudi reasoned.
Governments and private enterprise, the scientist said, would be motivated to act, and act together, to avoid “huge damage to the world economy.”
“It’s likely that it will cause mass migration, fall of government, all kinds of tragedies can come” if we don’t successfully counteract climate change, he also remarked. “Some countries will get underwater. Like the whole country disappears.”
Szapudi’s not trying to be a buzzkill. He just wants the world to understand the very real and very terrifying cost of insufficient action.
“I mean, it’s just terrible stuff that can happen,” he said. “So if you think about it, if you take 1 percent of the world economy and try to put it towards mitigating this huge problem, that would actually be a good [investment.] But we are talking about that order of magnitude. We are talking about like a trillion-dollar project. It would be thousands of people working.”
He also doesn’t pretend the engineering hurdles are anything but intimidatingly tall.
The results and return on investment wouldn’t come quick. But the results would come, Szapudi insists.
“If we had the funding and support, the timeline would be decades,” Szapudi said. “It needs like decades of technical and R&D and engineering development. So it is usually done in several stages. So this is just a conceptual study.”
As for the Planetary Sunshade Foundation, Szapudi presented his research to the organization’s working group at a recent meeting.
I spoke by phone last Friday with Morgan Goodwin, the foundation’s executive director.
A seasoned climate activist and former elected official – he served as a councilman and mayor of Truckee, Calif. from 2014 to 2019 – Goodwin said the urgency of the climate crisis compels researchers to explore innovative solutions beyond the conventional.
An advocate since college, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Goodwin said the organization believes “Dr. Szapudi’s research is really helpful in continuing to refine the idea of sunshade.”
“He’s sort of speculating, hey, here’s a few really big-picture assumptions, let’s kind of work it out from there,” Goodwin said. “And we think that’s helpful in continuing to advance the idea of what the most likely and most plausible sunshade configuration might be.”
Goodwin did acknowledge the leeriness among some environmentalists about unconventional ideas distracting from clean energy efforts.
“We typically call it the moral hazard argument, and we’ll never be entirely free of that,” he conceded. “And our organization does not accept any money from fossil fuels or any kind of fossil fuel interest. We acknowledge up front that any kind of solar radiation modification needs to be paired with emissions reductions and carbon dioxide removal.”
Goodwin also highlighted the need for federal funding to research solar radiation modification and related climate interventions.
A 2021 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine encouraged the government to invest $200 million over five years to research solar geo-engineering. Presently, such research receives next to no national support.
But Goodwin does believe the impact of climate change will likely spur bold action.
“We find that politicians and governments tend to react and we expect that the scale and ferocity of climate disasters is only going to continue to increase in the years to come,” Goodwin said. “So the pressure on world leaders to react is going to increase. We think that the planetary sunshade option is a wise move for a number of reasons, politically and economically.”
In fact, speaking of the colossal spend that would be required, Goodwin also emphasized what he believes would be a massive return on investment, with “economic opportunity being created where very little currently exists.”
“The historical analogy of building the United States’ first transcontinental railroad sketches out some of what it might look like for the government to invest in a large-scale infrastructure project constructed as a partnership between the government and private industry, but created to sort of serve one purpose, but creating a lot of economic benefits along the way,” Goodwin said.
While agreeing how the United States would need to play a “big” leadership role, Goodwin noted how a global treaty through the United Nations would serve as the best means for implementing large-scale action.
“That is the ideal vehicle for a consensus to be reached to implement something like a planetary sunshade and these institutions are far from perfect,” Goodwin acknowledged. “If they were perfect, we would have softened climate change already. So we expect them all to grow based on the needs of this civilizational threat we face.”
And although private contractors would play an eventual and major part in execution, government needs to take the lead, Goodwin observed.
“Any kind of solar radiation modification needs to be condoned, supported, led by the public sector,” he commented. “These are governance decisions and the government needs to be the deciding factor for what happens now. From there, government can issue contracts and hire private industry to do things more efficiently.”
One encouraging development Goodwin alluded to is the general softening of denialism in public dialogue when it comes to climate change.
“I talk to people all the time who are really genuinely grateful that we’re working on this because they know that we need lots more wind and solar and batteries, and they know that it’s not enough, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we absolutely need this option,’” Goodwin said. “So I think public perception is pretty variable and changing quickly as the climate changes.”
Local Efforts: Sustainable Westchester
If you want to learn more about the scientific details of Szapudi’s research and/or the foundation’s work, just go to Google. But I’d like to use the rest of this local column space to talk about how the conversation indirectly links back to events unfolding right here at home.
I connected a couple of weeks ago with Jim Kuster, interim executive director of Sustainable Westchester.
The nonprofit organization is a member-based group with the goal of assisting municipalities within Westchester County to achieve their climate action objectives. Its mission is to help transition communities from carbon-intensive energy sources to renewable energy, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the organization’s major achievements is the initiation of the Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program, which has enabled more than 140,000 area households to access renewable energy through solar, hydro and wind power since its inception in 2015.
But I asked Kuster if the organization, and organizations like it, need to shift priorities given the nature of real-time events and our possible surpassing of the 1.5-degree Celsius marker.
“Whether or not that’s still addressable,” Kuster replied, “depends on a lot of different things; how fast we can reach decarbonizing all of our energy sources. So ultimately what’s causing the increase in temperature is largely carbon emissions.”
Carbon traps heat, Kuster pointed out, noting how “there’s a few different ways to reduce carbon that we could still focus more on to help. To not feel like we’re beyond hope.”
Thanks to grubby politicians, shameless media personalities, weird YouTubers and all caps viral social media posts shared by zany Aunt Edna, there’s still a sizable (although shrinking) portion of the population embracing denialism, understandably awash in too much misinformation to see with their eyes.
Tragically, conversations about our environment have been largely framed by malign figures as just another culture war clash, and any proposals to address the crisis, within that framework, are shamefully dismissed in some circles as “liberal.” #Cringe.
While there’s undoubtedly a real and legitimate ideological debate over the best ways to treat the symptoms (what policies should governments enact and how exactly we should rally the private sector), accepting the diagnosis itself should reside in a nonpartisan rhetorical bucket.
Even those who prefer to trust inane Facebook memes from old high school acquaintances over the findings of NASA scientists and other experts on human-induced climate change must admit that our planet is becoming less accommodating for its inhabitants. Given this reality, how can anyone justify remaining passive?
If we must argue, let’s argue over how to help the sick patient. Let’s not waste time discussing whether to believe the vivid X-rays.
For local advocates like Kuster, New York State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, signed into law in July 2019, provides something of a blueprint for action.
The act was created as part of a legislative effort to guide the state toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and no less than 85 percent by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.
Last year, New York State’s Climate Action Council completed a comprehensive plan to further develop the existing law and establish a formal methodology. The plan serves as a framework for how the state can take action to increase renewable energy use and ensure all communities equitably benefit from the transition.
Some business groups might balk, and honest brokers raise real economic questions. Concerns about rising expenses, competitive disadvantages, employment reductions, and the challenges associated with transitioning to eco-friendly practices shape the discussion.
But supporters believe the plan helps point the state in the right direction.
“I don’t know if we have to already go beyond that roadmap,” Kuster said. “If we can help Westchester County and its municipalities meet their targets that were articulated in the Climate Act, then I think we’re doing a great thing.”
Kuster also mentioned how Sustainable Westchester’s headquarters in Mount Kisco is currently having solar panels installed on the roof. They are setting up a storage array in the parking lot with electric vehicle charging stations.
This initiative, known as “sunshine to EV,” involves harnessing solar power to charge electric vehicles and then distributing the surplus power to benefit disadvantaged residents who qualify from an income standpoint.
A ribbon-cutting is planned for this month.
“It’s a model for the rest of the county,” Kuster said. “That’s something tangible that municipalities can [do] instead of just putting solar panels up to save on electric bills, they can turn the solar panel generation into EV charging and community solar at the same time.”
We’re all observing the results of worsening climate change in real time this summer as images of massive wildfires and vicious hurricanes have flooded our airwaves.
But in terms of Szapudi’s research, space technology experts note that while the concept of a solar shield tethered to an asteroid is intriguing, the engineering challenges are substantial, a fact the scientist more than acknowledges.
The larger point is that stakeholders need to entertain creative, non-traditional solutions.
Think Global, Act Local
Meanwhile, even though many climate policy analysts concede the importance of exploring unconventional strategies, they also stress that such efforts should complement (not replace) work to transition to renewable energy sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Renewable Energy Database Act (unveiled in April alongside three other local environmental bills by Westchester County Executive George Latimer to mark Earth Month 2023) aims to support local governments in their transition to renewable energy.
It establishes a comprehensive database to facilitate the strategic placement of renewable energy infrastructure on municipal properties.
Another positive local step in the right direction.
And the bottom line is this: If we’re going to heal our planet – perhaps our generation’s version of putting man on the moon or building the transcontinental railroad – it’s going to require visionary thinking and massive cooperation across the vast playing field.