Kelly Wanser heads Silver Lining, a nonprofit “dedicated to ensuring that society has information and options to address near-term climate risk.” In this episode, Wanser explains why she prefers to use the term “climate intervention” instead of “geoengineering,” how an “aerosol parasol” placed in the stratosphere might help reduce the danger of catastrophic climate change, and the many technical and political challenges facing climate intervention efforts. (Recorded February 9, 2023)
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone. Welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And I’m pleased to welcome Kelly Windsor. She is the executive director of silver lining, which is a nonprofit that is dedicated to ensuring that society has information and options to address near term climate risk. Kelly, welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Kelly Wanser 0:27
Thanks very much for having me, Robert. It’s pleasure to be here. Enjoy your show.
Robert Bryce 0:32
Well, thanks. Well, so I warned you, I sometimes I ambush guests, and I don’t warn them. But I warned you that the guests on the power hungry podcast introduce themselves. So I’ve mentioned what silver lining is. If you don’t mind, imagine that you have about a minute or you’ve arrived somewhere you don’t know anyone. You’ve just arrived. And you are asked to introduce yourself, please go ahead.
Kelly Wanser 0:51
Thanks. I’m Kelly Wanzer, the executive director and founder of silver lining. My background is in the technology sector. And I worked for many years in IT infrastructure and networking. And with particular focus on complex systems. So I became concerned about climate change about a decade ago a little bit longer. In particularly some of the signals that we were seeing that the climate system might be changing in ways that we don’t understand very well. And so I’m coming to climate change from the point of view of the information of risk problem that we have, where there are some things that we know, and one of those things, is that the climate system is projected to continue to warm no matter what we do for several decades. And we could talk more about that. But I was very interested in that problem, because there’s a mismatch between what we know about the climate system continuing to warm and what we don’t know about what the consequences of that would be, and what we don’t know about what our options might be to reduce warming quickly if we needed to. So, so I started looking into these questions with scientists about a decade ago, and about four years ago, started silver lining to explore them further. And really to try to drive forward, how quickly we might develop information options to address some of these open areas of risk.
Robert Bryce 2:16
Right, so the term that you use when you talk about these issues. If you prefer the words, climate intervention, not geoengineering. I’ve had a guest on the podcast, David Keith, we talked about heat, we use the term geoengineering. But before I get to that, I want to just so a little bit more about silver lining, I looked you up, I know how to use GuideStar. I didn’t see your form 990. But it appears your budgets about $3.6 million a year, is that
Kelly Wanser 2:45
right? That’s, that’s right. It’s increasing slightly. And it varies a bit, because we also raise funds for research. So some of that money. In fact, quite a bit of it, we’ve given out directly for scientific research grants. And we’re a bit like a Medical Foundation. So we support cutting edge research directly on trying to help scientists in the field. And then we also engage in policy work, and public and civil society engagement to try to move the issues forward.
Robert Bryce 3:17
So you’re you’re funding research, and you’re an advocate, we’ll nonprofits aren’t supposed to be advocacy organization, but education. Oh, okay. Well, you’re advocating for climate intervention for, I’ll say the word geoengineering. If you don’t mind, I’m gonna just
Kelly Wanser 3:36
quick thing. We’re not advocating for climate intervention, we’re advocating for better or for more research and better information,
Robert Bryce 3:44
to understand what it what it might be and how it might work.
Kelly Wanser 3:47
If you think about the problem, like COVID, where you have this sort of fast moving public, public risk, and you’re looking at, you know, you want to look with clear eyes at what solutions might be on the table to address that. That’s how we think about these climate interventions is right now, we actually don’t have enough information to know whether they’re on the table. And that the level of information we have, it’s too low, and it needs to be increased really fast.
Robert Bryce 4:16
I see. Well, that’s interesting, as you say that the idea about the vaccine because you’ve used this term emergency medicine several times. So I guess if you were thinking about a big problem, like a pandemic, so when you have money, you’d find vaccine research and try and figure out how you tell the public about the vaccines and whatever else. So just a thought that occurs to
Kelly Wanser 4:40
you how you help set up the systems or in the case of vaccines, we have pretty strong systems for looking at medic new medicines and how they work. But they had to adapt those a little bit because they had a fast moving problem. So in this case, you know, as far as planetary medicine or you know, climate scale medicine, we’re behind in terms of having those systems really avail valuate these things.
Robert Bryce 5:02
And that’s one of the things I want to talk about because the system is so complex. And one of the things that to me is interesting about what your work is, and why I had David Keith on is that I don’t have necessarily strong feelings. I don’t know that much about geoengineering, except that I just know that the the atmospheric systems are incredibly complex. Right. And so that’s one of the difficulties in even thinking about these issues. But one one other quick question just on the kind of the basics about silver lining. So where does your funding come from?
Kelly Wanser 5:29
So we have funding mostly comes from individuals and small foundations, a lot of them have their origins in the technology sector, are folks who come from complex systems backgrounds, usually at the intersection of philanthropists who are, you know, have some background in technology or finance and are working on climate change. And people who kind of understand these sort of complex problems in a way that might lend itself to innovation and research. And but people are interested in climate change.
Robert Bryce 6:00
Gotcha. So any any foundations or entities that we’d recognize in terms of that funding?
Kelly Wanser 6:05
Probably Probably not in terms of, you know, household name type people we have, we have most of them listed on our website, the foundation’s people can kind of check that out.
Robert Bryce 6:18
Sure. And again, that the website is a silver lining dot NGO is the website for for Kelly’s group silver lining, which is part of the silver lining foundation, I guess, if you want to look them up on GuideStar. But I want to quote from the piece you wrote in The Hill in December about what you’re working on. And I think this is the paragraph that sums up what what we’re talking about here. You wrote climate intervention might provide emergency medicine, the world needs, the most rapid and scalable approaches involve increasing the reflection of sunlight from clouds and particles in the atmosphere, a phenomenon that already occurs when large volcanoes erupt, or particles from emissions, bright and clouds, a cooling influence on climate today, the idea is to emulate these effects in cleaner and more controlled ways to keep human and natural systems stable, while society reduces emissions and transitions to a more sustainable future. So we’ve already talked about emergency medicine and that idea, and I think that’s an interesting parallel but emulate the idea is to emulate these effects in cleaner and more controlled ways. There’s a lot of controversy around this already. I mean, the ideas including I want to talk about what happened in Mexico, right with a, I guess this guy was kind of freelancing, and they launched some balloons and to do some things, but how do you even do the experiments here? Because that seems to me the one of the biggest problems that David Keith talked about was that, you know, they want to do these trials and try and figure out how effective something you know, these experiments might be, but from everything that I see, even getting the permission from different countries to do it is hard, am I am I missing something?
Kelly Wanser 7:53
Well, that’s where we think it actually matters, how you talk about it, and how you will understand the context. So one of the challenges of the term to engineering is people think it’s about engineering. And they think, you know, that in the act of doing what are effectively very small things to learn about the science, that you’re actually out there, you know, quote, engineering the planet. And it’s really a hard distinction to draw. You know, if if people are sort of saying, Well, yes, we want to geoengineering the planet, and we’re going to start sending up balloons or what have you. And so really trying to ground people in like, what context you’re in. So one of the reasons we like to talk about what’s already happening is that right now, today, all over the world, on ships, coal plants, factories, push part, push particulate emissions into the lower atmosphere, and that those emissions are mixing with clouds in ways that make them brighter. And the big scientific bodies, especially the UN have said, and it’s in their charts, this is cooling the planet. This is masking some of the warming, it’s pushing more sunlight back to space at a planetary scale. We think it’s around a half a degree Celsius. But our range of uncertainty is about a degree. So what that means is, you know, whatever context we’re thinking about this, and one aspect of it is right now, we’re already doing a version of this. And we’re doing it in a very dirty, uncontrolled, sort of uncertain way. And so helping people to see like, hey, this, you know, this isn’t something brand new that you know, David Keith and others are pulling out of the box or the balloon guy in Mexico. There’s a phenomenon that’s happening, that’s a function of our pollution, and we don’t understand very well. And the research that we need to do is to understand what’s already happening, and then to see hey, is this something you could leverage to create a safer profile than the warming we’ve got? locked in. And so you know, thinking about it that way, versus thinking about it as this science fiction concept, you know, sort of engineering and super fast and all of this. It’s really just like how people start to wrap their heads around it is part of the reaction to the small, small experiments. I mean, it’s really, it’s really unfortunate that the, you know, the balloon guy in Mexico, because, you know, he’s buying weather balloons off of Amazon, he’s putting five kilograms of gas in them. Those things pop like nothing’s probably at all happening. And he’s he’s not doing any science. And so there’s it’s really in terms of its actual practice kind of big giant, nothing burger. But it’s it’s but it’s gotten
Robert Bryce 10:49
nothing. Nothing burger burger, maybe. But it got enormous headlines. The Mexican government has since passed. I don’t know, I don’t know whether it was the Mexican Congress passed something or the congressional or what would happen there. But they’ve said no more of this. We’re not going to permit any of this. And I guess,
Kelly Wanser 11:08
and what is sort of, I don’t know you call those big Texas Round House like to pound burgers that day, but you can’t meet?
Robert Bryce 11:17
There is one of those. We’re going from the what is it the Iota sphere to Big Texas Steakhouse in Amarillo. Okay, so
Kelly Wanser 11:27
here, I don’t I don’t know about that. But But what you know, what’s really substantive there is he is selling credits. And you know, there’s always somebody who will buy something. And so he
Robert Bryce 11:41
wait, wait, I want to understand the I don’t know his name, it was the make sunsets was the outfits name, right? The guy in Mexico was selling credits.
Kelly Wanser 11:52
I had no idea. I didn’t, yeah, I don’t advertise for him here. But, you know, basically, you have in climate change the concept of you know, is there a market model for you know, pulling greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, and you have these emerging markets for credits to do that these carbon credit markets. And so he’s gone conceptually a step further to say, Well, hey, notionally, if you put x amount of sulfate, it why you know, altitude in the atmosphere, you get z amount of sunlight reflection, and therefore, I’m going to create a cooling credit, and charge and charge people for that, and then they can pay to help me cool the planet and scale things out that way. And so there, there are a variety of problems with that. The the, the most immediate problem is, you know, what he does doesn’t do anything. And he’s not measuring it anyway. And so, so there’s just a whole, you know, level where what he’s doing is sort of in the frame of fraudulent is in the frame of I’m sorry, what? Being fraudulent, fraudulent, okay. Yes. Yeah, yeah. So so but but the bigger sort of bigger issue, the, the big burger, is that, the idea that, you know, there’s an open market concept where, you know, companies can spring up and push what’s effectively pollution into the atmosphere, and, and earn some kind of credits, and people would be incentivized to do that. And there, there are a lot of really big problems with that concept. Among them being that right now, we, like I said earlier in the conversation, that we don’t have enough scientific information to know whether this is a good thing to do or not. And we definitely don’t have enough scientific information to quantify it.
Robert Bryce 13:49
Or to create some kind of a market, right that would that as you say, x equals y equals that would have some clear payback for for people buying these things or whatever. So, but go yes,
Kelly Wanser 14:03
but there are voluntary markets today for carbon credits. Right. Okay. These are springing up partly as a sort of, some people call it greenwashing or, you know, way of looking like you’re, you’re compensating for your climate impact and things like that. And so so it’s possible that something like that could happen here fairly quickly, if people got that notion. And it that that wouldn’t would be really unhelpful, and that’s something people have a right to be concerned about.
Robert Bryce 14:36
The right to be concerned about the fraud, the right to be concerned about the lack of understanding of the science, their right to be concerned about any kind of international cooperation permission. I mean, I mean, look, I don’t want to come off as super skeptical, but I also when I look at what the ideas around climate intervention, I just think will and you I saw your your your TED Talk. And you mentioned ozone. I’m kind of skipping around here. And you talked about the Montreal Protocol, and that how effective that was. And I agree that has been effective. But it is one of the few one off examples where we truly have international cooperation. And it’s one of the things where I think about issues like this, or co2 emissions reductions. And I think, well, how are you possibly going to get international buy in when we don’t even have international agreements? To ban landmines? I mean, that’s seemed like it should be an easier one. Right? So let me ask that question, then directly. How do you get a framework in such a complex political environment now globally, right, that would have buy in from a significant number of countries with a say, Sure. Let’s try this. And how do you because that, is that the biggest challenge you’re facing? Because you’re going to have to have some kind of international agreement? Aren’t you?
Kelly Wanser 15:57
So that great question. Really great question. I’ll put a slight angle on your question. And I’m not trying to get international agreement on let’s try this. But trying to get international agreement on, let’s study this and figure out how we make decisions about it. Okay, and so
Robert Bryce 16:17
on. How’s that? How’s that going? Because so the study, study, first experiment later, then is what your first things first was the
Kelly Wanser 16:25
experiments are part of study, okay? If you think about how big, you know, go outside and look at a cloud, right? Because I work with the people who are thinking about, like, how, you know, how you would influence the cloud at these clouds are massive, in the experiment that they want to do is like less than what comes out of a smokestack, right. And even in the atmosphere, like a proper upper atmosphere experiment would involve basically the contrail of an aircraft. And of course, you have aircraft going all the time.
Robert Bryce 16:57
With what 40,000 feet over the over the surface,
Kelly Wanser 17:01
you would go higher, so you’d go upwards of 60,000 feet, okay, but but so if you think about what scientists are saying, which is we want to do this at the level of one plume, right, and every day around the world, we have probably trillions of plumes of stuff blowing into the atmosphere. And they want to go and do one plume and study it carefully. Because they need this sort of control example. And then they take what they study, and they plug it into models, and that that helps them not have to do something bigger, that they don’t understand before they do it. And so, so the objection, so So what you want is you want these little studies going on, and they feed into the other science and the modeling. And then the scientists look at all of that, and kind of like medicine again and say, Okay, what is this due to this part of the system? What does this do here? And how does the patient land. And so, so you want all that going on in the functions that they have, if you take the Montreal Protocol, they have this really robust scientific assessment function. And they just released their report on the state of the ozone. And I’m gonna say something like non diplomatic, but what’s wonderful about them is they’re not fucking around. They’re scientists are totally independent, the politicians do not affect what the reports say, which is not true of the other bodies. So if you take the the IPCC who publishes the climate reports, the national actors have some influence on what those reports say. And so in the Montreal Protocol, you have this very rigorous science process where they’ve always been oriented around look, we can’t let the ozone layer fall outside of certain bounds. And we’re real serious about that. And so we’re going to observe it, we’re going to do the science, we’re going to tell the policymakers what’s what, and then they have to figure out how to comply. It’s rare, but it works. And so what’s interesting to the point of your question is they actually stepped forward on this issue. Because the form of climate intervention that’s most prominent involves putting things in the stratosphere that could affect the ozone layer. So they just published the, for the first time anywhere in the world, a whole chapter on this in their ozone report, which is actually the most
Robert Bryce 19:20
and you’re talking about the Montreal Protocol now just Yeah.
Kelly Wanser 19:23
Okay. Yes. And so and so they, at least for for looking at this stratospheric conversion in this very high altitude version, which is the most sort of prominent form and probably the most accessible well, though, not as easy as your balloon guy would make it out to be. form that the dot body actually has some jurisdiction over it already.
Robert Bryce 19:50
Well, that’s interesting. I didn’t realize the Montreal Protocol would have some jurisdiction there. And when you’re talking about stratospheric particles, so we’re talking about the 60,000 feet above the earth. So what would it be 15 to 20,000 meters, something like that. What I understood from David Keith, although we didn’t talk for full hour was that the his idea, or the one that he had been working on was using sophisticated airplanes, like, you know, Gulfstream fives or, you know, the latest G six, or whatever it is that can climb to that level of the atmosphere. And then they would release this and I, I know, we talked offline or exchanged emails about crop dusting, but that’s I’ve seen crop dusting planes, that’s kind of what I think about, they’re gonna, they’re going to spread these particles at that level in the atmosphere with the idea that that is going to reduce solar radiation hitting the earth, and that that would act as, for lack of a better term, some kind of an particulate umbrella, right? That were parasol, right, that would then reduce the amount of solar radiation on the earth. If I got got this correct, am I
Kelly Wanser 20:56
do yeah, in fact, we have a really esteemed scientist that calls it the aerosol parasol. Okay, and all of he’s referring to all the aerosols in the atmosphere, because when you look at the Earth from space, and you see how it shines, that’s what that is, you know, sunlight bouncing off the particles in the atmosphere, in the clouds. So
Robert Bryce 21:16
is that how then we should? I mean, I liked that. Well, it rhymes, of course. And so I’m just aerosol parasol. So is that is that kind of the gist of the idea of climate intervention? And why and the other thing that comes to mind, as I’m thinking about this, and again, spitballing, with you know, what very limited knowledge that I’ve gained in looking at your website and what you’ve written. Why is it? Why wouldn’t we? The other thing that seems obvious to me is we’re obvious or maybe a little easier than having jets flying at such high altitude. What about this other idea? I’ve heard about putting big boats in the ocean to make clouds to evaporate water and make make clouds? Is that would that be lower cost? Is the is the payoff not as much? Or is that a different approach to this same problem? Or am I completely
Kelly Wanser 22:03
Yeah, it’s, it’s a different approach to the same problem with different characteristics. And one of the reasons I really like to talk about medicine, because it’s very helpful context, when you think about different medical treatments, and they have different like risk benefit or side effect, efficacy characteristics. So in the high atmosphere in the, in the stratosphere, they’ve observed what happens when large volcanoes go off the stratosphere is what scientists call her a uniform. So stuff gets up there, it gets entrained in these really fast winds and moves around and everything in the stratosphere is, is pretty consistent. Well, atmosphere is very, as you know, very heterogeneous, I can have a massive storm over here and no clouds over here and lots of currents and atmospheric phenomenon going on. And so they so the characteristics are really different. So in the stratosphere, if I put material there, it stays about a year and a half. It in trains down very slowly. And what I’m looking to do up there is maybe increase the reflection of sunlight by about 1% in a relatively uniform way. So it’s not something that people would experience visually, unlike, you know, what some people say about blocking the sun or dimming the sun, we’ve it’s already happened. It happened in 1991, when Mount Pinatubo erupted, and nobody noticed on the ground, but it did cool the planet for a year and a half. And so So, so this, so one of the reasons, early scientists like like David and others like this is that, you know, they’re pretty confident that they know something about what level of cooling you get when you do it, which is part of the reason why the balloon guy is trying to sell credits, because he’s just doing very basic math based on that kind of calculation.
Robert Bryce 23:53
Interrupt, forgive me, I interrupt a lot. And sometimes I get some comments on the podcast, say, Would you shut up, you interrupt, I
Kelly Wanser 24:01
need people who interrupt me, I’ll just keep going.
Robert Bryce 24:03
But I wanted to be more conversational. But I just the point that you made there is interesting that what I heard you say I’m repeating it back is that this under our understanding of the Stratospheric Aerosol parasol is far greater than our understanding of what would occur in the lower atmosphere, and that it’s more a more stable, more stable environment. If we’re going to put if we’re going to put stuff up there, then it would be if we tried to create clouds closer to the surface. Is that fair?
Kelly Wanser 24:34
I’ll talk about it. Great question. Because I think on the efficacy side on the on the benefit side,
Robert Bryce 24:41
the bang for the bang for the buck effort? Yeah, well, just a good
Kelly Wanser 24:45
handle on on how much cooling you get and how that how that works. There’s still a lot to know. Like, for example, it it because models didn’t represent this until we started funding, helping their evolution that has a couple of years. So so in the big climate models that they use to look at climate phenomenon, there, there wasn’t a realistic representation of that. And as you start to help the models do that, they start to see things like, well, it really matters what altitude you do it, it matters on like, like, where, towards the polls or towards the equator. And so they’re just learning about that. And so it’s not as simple as it sounds, but it’s, you know, kind of like, again, like a drug example, like, well, the efficacy profile, this one looks the most promising. However, there’s also the risk side, the side effects side. And so what we know about stratus, for putting things in the stratosphere is that if a volcano goes off, and things stay up there for a year or two, that that’s happened without a lot of complication, or any noticeable complication. But what we don’t know is if you want to do that for several decades, because what you’re trying to do is keep keep the climate system safer and stable, or while you’re bringing out greenhouse gases. And so you need a longer period of time, then there are some gnarly things that could come up, that you really want to understand first. And so the two, there’s the ozone risk, which actually, you know, investing in more research, you could really get more of your arms around that in terms of understanding like the chemical profiles and how they behave over time. But there are other things like when you reflect more sunlight off the stratospheric layer, you you increase the heat up there in that part of the atmosphere. And that and that affects the way the lower and upper atmosphere circulate with each other. And that can affect big things. And they don’t really know quite exactly, you know, whether that’s significant. And if it is, what, what it means is those those kinds of things like they call tail roasts, like for me, I want us all to know more about that, you know, I’m not advocating me do this until we understand this a lot better. Or maybe we find out that there are reasons why we should never do it.
Robert Bryce 27:14
Well, so let me let me Well, I think you’re finished there at least paused. So I’ll jump in. Can we get to that point where we know or can be satisfied that the tail risks that the potential heating of the of the regions above the stratosphere? I don’t know, I get my honest fears and stratosphere as in the rest I need to Yeah. But it can we get to a point where we say, well, we’re 60% Certain or 70%? Certain I mean, where what’s that threshold where we we I’m using the people, we now that we say well, we think this is a certainty is high enough that we’re going to go ahead and launch jets and make this happen. What how do we get to that decision point where everybody can say, Yeah, we agree, because, again, you know, international cooperation for co2 emissions, the Paris Accords. I mean, let’s be clear, I think they’re been largely a failure, right? Countries are not meeting their commitments, they’re or they’re blowing past them. I mean, you know, they’re going to grow their economies first. So how do we get that level of certainty or level of agreement to get something like this to actually happen?
Kelly Wanser 28:20
Well, you’ve got to you’ve got a two parter in there one of the reasons I’ve given one answers because your answer, you’re asking more than one really good question.
Robert Bryce 28:28
So make the big money, Kelly. So that’s
Kelly Wanser 28:31
okay. Yeah. So, so let’s say that, you know, I’ll say provocatively, and not not to comprehensively that, the the co2 problem is a much harder problem. Yeah, world to make decisions about because it involves most sectors of the economy. Sure. And, and so in, in contrast, this, this is an area where and we can talk more about it, there are likely to be very few actors who have the capability to do it, it’s highly interfaced with governments even to get there. And so, so you’re actually going to have a really small number of actors and much more, a much less economic conflict around it, then then all the different incentive conflicts you have around co2 reduction, which is really, really hard. So
Robert Bryce 29:24
you’re saying this is easier in some ways, then than trying to convince them
Kelly Wanser 29:28
as we dug into it, because I started out, you know, kind of where you are just starting to look at digging into this 10 years ago, and then really active on the international decision making side over the past three years or so. And digging in and saying, Ah, here we go. So here’s the dynamics. And so, then when you when you dig into the Montreal Protocol, which governs these super pollutants, you know, these more concentrated chemicals, so they have much smaller markets and fewer actors to deal with, they still have quite a few But then you start to see Ah, okay, so this problem looks a little bit more like this than it looks like co2. And because you’re gonna have a small number of actors who can do this, and so the not that there aren’t complicated things to think about, but the the issue that the big issue that you have with co2, which is this direct conflict between people’s life livelihood in all these different ways, and their economic well being as nations, you don’t have that. And so, so in that way, what goes to your first part of your question, which is like, what is the information level that gets you where people might be able to reasonably agree? Now, we’re a little bit Pollyanna about that, because we’re operating on the hypothesis that if you get enough information, and you have people look at it together, openly, that in this particular situation, kind of like with vaccines, although you’ll tell me there definitely are still people who don’t believe in vaccines. But you know, that when you’re in this kind of risk situation, and what you wanted, what the situation that you’re in, is, you have to compare the projections under warming, with whatever you’re the only thing you’re trying to do with these interventions is figure out does this future look safer? That’s it. And
Robert Bryce 31:27
so you think that decision making process then for convincing international leader? So I mean, think about, you know, the G seven or the G 20. Right, that you could get them to say, Well, look, this is a lower risk pathway than business as usual. Is that Is that a fair? Fair way to have a binary more of a binary assessment?
Kelly Wanser 31:48
Or, you know, you’re that’s what you’re trying to figure out. And not only like, is this safer than business as usual or safer than then the likely path that we’re on or safer than even the best possible scenario in the in the best case scenario for climate change right now, in the UN. The climate continues to warm until 2050. In the best case. And and most people don’t think the best case is realistic. And so so what we’re trying to say is what we want to be able to do is compare, do a better job of projecting what that looks like. Because right now, the not the extremes and disasters that we have don’t look great. Or water situation in the west or storm situation in the East all over the world, these extremes are happening. Currently, right now, in all projections for climate that gets worse for 30 years. Got it? So what we’re saying is, okay, let’s, you know, do like we did with COVID. And push research really hard to see if we can do better than that.
Robert Bryce 32:58
Got it. So, candidates for that. So I’m reminded, and one of the questions when we first agreed to chat, I wrote down something that a good friend of mine, Chuck Spinney, who’s been on the on the podcast, he was worked in the Pentagon for many years and was part of the lightweight fighter mafia, he helped design fighter jets he worked at he was in the Air Force for many years. And he’s always said that he’s been skeptical of models, right? And just that his view is garbage in garbage out, right, your whatever you feed in, you’re gonna get the thing out that you’re after the same garbage that you’re putting in. And so he warned me to, you know, very, very clearly about relying too heavily on models. But the question that I put here is, is the atmosphere too complex to model something like what you’re talking about? Because, I mean, there are skeptics around the climate change issue, right about oh, well, it gets too complicated. So it is complicated. There’s no doubt about it. But you’re by, you’re adding another twist on this that says, Well, if we do this, we’ll have this result. And I guess, as I’m asking that question, I’m wondering, well, are the is the science around the Mount Pinatubo eruption? Is that robust enough to say, Well, we know this from that in the 90s, in the 90s. Therefore, we can extrapolate that this x today will have a similar effect. So I’ll just put that question to you again, is, is the atmosphere just too complex? For us to really get an understanding of it with a level of confidence that says yes, let’s go ahead and put these jets up their balloons or whatever else that would do, would it achieve what you’re talking about?
Kelly Wanser 34:36
So that is an excellent question. It’s very complex, super complex problem. And the first thing I’ll say about it is the question that you’re asking is not unique to these climate interventions. So the issue that we have is we can’t currently project what the influences on the atmosphere are doing now. And we have these warming influences from greenhouse gases. And we also have these cooling influences from the aerosol particles coming out of pollution. And so we’re saying, Oh, these interventions shine a light on the fact that we have not been doing a very good job of that problem. And what’s really interesting when you dig in, is that like we’ve invested, we’ve been investing really big amounts of money in emissions reductions and things, the investment in climate research in the United States and elsewhere have been flat for 30 years, they have not kept up with inflation. As a planet, we have not increased our investment in that question.
Robert Bryce 35:36
And in the overall investigation in climate change, you’re saying, right, and
Kelly Wanser 35:41
the crux of climate change is what you’re exactly what you asked about, which is what things go in the atmosphere? And how do you model and predict what’s going to happen when they do that. And the two things we care about are the greenhouse gases that trap heat, and aerosol particles that reflect sunlight and push heat out. And both of those things are under represented in what we know. And so within climate research, the specific research on the atmosphere, including the observations has actually declined in real terms. And in the United States, it’s declined in real terms. And so the first thing that we’re saying, and you’re giving me a nice lead, and because we have a report coming out next week, we’re saying it’s really important. Like, if I’m telling you, we think we might be putting aerosol particles in the atmosphere might might help global safety. And I think that’s something we need to know about. But if we want to do a better job of predicting whatever is going on, and whatever happens when you know, now they want to suck, you know, carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, or what have you, we’ve gotten to do a better job quickly, of this same modeling complexity question about the atmosphere. And so we’re seeing that in the United States to go along with all these other massive investments we’re making. Right now, today, we spend three and a half billion dollars a year on climate research, we have $55 billion worth of damage from the most recent three hurricanes, and that’s just hurricanes. We’ve just put $140 billion into, you know, different emissions reductions and, and, and things like that. So we’ve got this real rat really radical under investment in the information base. So yes, it’s a complicated problem. But if you invest in it, it’s not you know, it’s similar to well, we invest in, you know, things that end up looking like chat GPT or going to Mars, or, you know, yeah, it’s a hard problem. But, you know, vaccines are a hard problem. RNA science is a hard problem. We haven’t really tried really investing in it.
Robert Bryce 37:54
Okay, so let me just push back on that a little bit. Because if the investment in the vaccine, like the mRNA vaccines will Pfizer or you know, the other companies forgot what the other ones was. So they invest in this, but they could see a real return on that money. Right. You know, they can make a lot of dough.
Kelly Wanser 38:09
But the first research there was a big portion of that that was done by the government.
Robert Bryce 38:13
Oh, sure. Sure. Sure. But my question is really about we’ll just a quick station break. Just to remind everyone, my guest is Kelly Windsor. She’s the executive director of silver lining, you can find out more about her silver lining dot NGO. She had a piece in The Hill in December, talking about climate intervention. The possibility if someone is some entity, though, you do this research. One of the problems one of the there are several challenges, I’ll say this, say it that way, is that if you find out well, this works well, there’s no company who’s the company that’s going to make any money, right? It’s different from the vaccine. This is where your emergency medicine, comparison, I think, is not as apt here in that there’s not going to be a company that wins. Oh, we got this, you know, because what you’re talking about in terms of the particulate, there’s not going to be some private return to some corporate actor here. Am I missing something?
Kelly Wanser 39:08
No, you ask really good questions. And it wraps back to the conversation we were having a bit earlier about the credit idea. And there’s a difference between whether, you know, whether there’s an like an open market credit type market, and a commercial market in that sense. And whether this is a public good, and the market you might be looking at in the future, our governments will make decisions about this and in you know, flavor of the public good. And you can think of things like, like different defense applications or nuclear Non Proliferation technologies or things that are, you know, effectively part of the government market,
Robert Bryce 39:51
right. So that it’s, it’s a public, it’s a public good, but there’s no private payoff, I guess, as I’m thinking about it, right. There’s
Kelly Wanser 39:57
those things that are done are acquired by governments to provide to their people for the public interest there. So commercial companies that do that, in fact, in the you know, in the United States, the bigger spending, is that on the defense side, right? And so so you know, they have one customer, which is the United States government and however many trillion dollars we’ve got going, that’s icing.
Robert Bryce 40:22
Okay. So it would be the the climate intervention equivalent of Lockheed Martin or something like that, as a defense contractor. That would be they would make money for this. But it’s not like a more public intervention, such as vaccines where they would be, you know, that there would be big profit well,
Kelly Wanser 40:40
and even even in the vaccine space, I mean, the the government came in with a huge amount of investment and backstop that was not a pure, you know, free market play, their risk was totally mitigated there. The government was the first buyer the vaccines.
Robert Bryce 40:58
Okay. That’s a good point. So I think we’ve covered that pretty well. So let me let me switch a little bit and talk about what are the here’s the question I wrote down what aerosols are showing the most promise, one of the one that I’ve read about is calcium carbonate, which is something that apparently is pretty cheap. It and whatever it is, that particle is going to have to be cheap, right? Because you’re going to need many, many tons of it. So what is the what’s the what’s the what is that compound that you’re planning on using? And how much of it are you going to need?
Kelly Wanser 41:31
Well, I’m going to, you know, at the, at the Education scientist, Romney say, we’re not planning on using anything, but of the candidates that people are looking at. I think what’s been interesting, and, you know, very recently, in the past few years, when there’s been, you know, some through some of our funding and a little bit of government funding, people looking at that question more closely, you know, a lot of the theories around that are sort of back of the envelope map, you know, based on what we know about the properties of this. And then when you get a little research going, you find out actually, it’s not quite that simple. And so, so scientists have kind of wrapped back to the sulfates, so a little bit based on their early findings, but what they’ve really found out is that this is one of the areas and there’s a number of them where you got to do more research, because you don’t have an answer to that question today. You really don’t know. So,
Robert Bryce 42:23
so am I wrong about calcium carbonate? Did I make that effort? But that’s not that’s not one of the candidates, you’re saying? Sulfates would? No,
Kelly Wanser 42:29
I’m saying I’m saying it is one of the candidates. It’s not something that people would say, hey, we know this is the best candidate.
Robert Bryce 42:36
But so the other the other compounds would be sulfates of some kind is there.
Kelly Wanser 42:41
And also diamond dust? I’m sorry, diamond, is one of the one of the top candidates. Yeah. So
Robert Bryce 42:49
Matt, I’m just when you say diamond, I think well, that’s expensive. Is that? Am I wrong?
Kelly Wanser 42:54
Yeah, I’m not expert enough to know about this sort of classes of material and how they work. So as to whether that’s a practical thing. But that is something you know, that has come up as as a candidate. And so what what you want to do, you know, and this is what hasn’t been done, and this is where, you know, I do want to emphasize for people, there is no technology, we don’t know the answer to the question of what material you would use, what size those particles should be? Can we produce them at scale at that size? We don’t know. And there’s research you do on the ground in laboratories and chambers that can help you help me give you a much better answer to that question in a year or two, if we do it. And so that’s exactly what we’re saying, as an organization as like, there’s some research you can define. There’s a roadmap that, you know, to your, you know, your efforts, guys question, okay, I’m not sure you know, how far we get, but we can get a lot further down. We are now in doing some some of this research to answer those kinds of questions.
Robert Bryce 44:00
Well, so then put a timeline on it for me, Kelly, then what are we you know, how many more years? Because this is one of the challenges always right, and how long is it going to take to do some thing, some action? What is it going to be? And how long is it going to take us to get there? If if and believe me, I understand that climate change is a concern. It’s not our only concern, right? That’s my stock answer. Right? We have a lot of concerns and pandemics and war and you know, drought and all you know and low and providing make sure we have enough low cost energy for people to not suffer right and providing more energy to a lot more people so that one of the things that intrigues me about the climate intervention climate or geoengineering idea is that it’s it could be a way to prevent the potentially the worst possibilities of climate change. Right and, and for a relatively small investment compared to the size of the global economy. But it but what I’m hearing you say is that we still don’t know enough and we You can’t ring fence the ideas around which particles would work best? Or even what? What types of stratospheric interventions would be the ones that would work the most? And then you’ve also got to well, which part of the globe? Would you do the would you do the cloud seeding or crop dusting? Right? Because that seems like another issue about well, where do you do it? And where’s the most effective part of the globe going to be? Am I outlining the most?
Kelly Wanser 45:27
Yeah, you’re asking the right questions, you’re wrapping a couple of them in there. But because I want to take your point first, because we I think we share really strong, sort of philosophical sympathies with you about providing energy and having realistic expectations of what people around the world need, and what they need to do. And that the problem that you’re solving for is like, is a problem of reducing suffering and improving safety. And you’ve got, you’ve got a situation right now we’re in the best case scenario for climate change, you’ve got estimates of a billion people displaced, you’ve got a lot of places disappearing, like parts of Bangladesh, parts of South Florida, parts of northern Africa. And, and so in that context, that’s the context that you’re in where you expect those people on a day to day level to want energy, to want food, to need to try to improve their life. And that’s the context that you’re in, you can’t expect the world economy in a crash and for people not to try to have the things that they need to, you know, live. And so in that context, then, you know, what are our options for for things to do? And how quickly can we figure it out? And so that’s exactly the question we’re aimed at, because I talked about what silver lining does. But the the top thing that that we do is we orient ourselves in time, and we wanted to figure out, can we be in a better safer position within a decade. And in order to do that, we need to get a first sort of grasp on whether we whether we have intervention options within five years. And so what we’re putting forward in our report is roadmap to say what is the essential research you need, so that the United States and the global community could look at these things? And take a first order evaluation of where they said, Think think like vaccines or COVID? Creature? Yeah, and and take those top candidates, you know, putting particles in the stratosphere or putting particles in the low atmosphere, and run that assessment aggressively. So we can see where we are?
Robert Bryce 47:42
So are you finding? Well, you have. So let me read back what I think I see in terms of your challenges, right? And yeah, your your, your risks, right, you have technology risk, you have as an organization, you have capital risks, are you funders gonna stay behind you? But you’ve got a lot of political risk, too, right? So you know, in terms of trying to convince policymakers to come on board and do what you want them to do right to agree. So two questions, then are you getting traction within the Biden administration in here in the US, and then as you look at the other countries around the world, what other countries are showing the most interest or in cooperating on this kind of the kind of work you’re doing?
Kelly Wanser 48:21
Well, what I mean, what we found is it really matters how you do it. And so we started very early in silver lining, talking about these ideas with members of Congress in the US. And from the beginning, because we were talking about risk, because we were talking about uncertainty and some of the things that are already happening in the climate system. And we actually had bipartisan support for increasing the funding and some of the closely associated lines of research in the US government. So in the part of, you know, where they look at the stratosphere, and in the part of the Department of Energy, where they look at the low cloud layer. And it was really based on the fact that if you want to answer questions, and again, it’s not it’s not about saying no, we want to do this, and therefore we’re going to start these octave applied programs. It’s about this is coming on to the scene as a topic because of the where the climate risk is, and someone’s someone somewhere in the world, is probably going to start to seriously consider these things. And we’re the United States we’re, you know, we’re best we’re well equipped to look at these questions are usually some of the best resources in the world to look at it. And we like to be out front of these kinds of things. And so someone, somewhere in the world starts to pursue this seriously, we would like to know how we should respond. And right now today, we don’t have enough information to know whether it’s good or bad.
Robert Bryce 49:50
So have you gotten money appropriated then in NOAA or do you even for this, that you could cooperate with scientists in the US government?
Kelly Wanser 49:57
In fact, yes, and and And so for example, the NOAA and the department of energy released a report a couple of months ago, a joint workshop report on marine cloud brightening on, I don’t even have to answer your question because people go look at this report if they want to know what research is needed.
Robert Bryce 50:14
And it’s that report on your website.
Kelly Wanser 50:17
It’s on, it’s on no as website, but I will put up a link to it. I think there’s a link, but I’ll make sure that it’s prominent on the website.
Robert Bryce 50:26
So you’ve got you’ve got the challenge of educating the general public, they have the challenge of educating the policymakers and then creating this constituency, within science among scientists to push this kind of work to the forefront or the top of the list. So are you do you have a goal for the amount of money you want to raise as a? This is your organization? You you’re operating on? What almost $4 million a year? Do you? Are you aiming for 20? Do you need 100? How much money do you need?
Kelly Wanser 50:53
So thank you, that’s a great question. Because for this year, we have a target of 7 million
Robert Bryce 51:01
to do what to double your budget from year to year?
Kelly Wanser 51:04
Well, remember, we’re we’re making research grants, right? And through our operating budget year on yours, about 3 million, and then we make research grants. I shouldn’t say our aspirational operating budget is 3 million, right. But we’ve we’ve, on average made research grants the level of about two and a half million a year. Gotcha. And so we’re looking to, to modestly grow our own operating budget, and significantly grow the research grant budget. I see. And because we’ve identified a roadmap of research, so we can say we have this portfolio of things, and the more research funding we have, the more we can move it along.
Robert Bryce 51:49
So one of the other things and just a few more questions, because we’ve been talking for nearly an hour now. Why not direct air capture? You know, when I look at the study the energy and power systems for a while, and one of the things I always think about is scale, right? This is this is one of the most difficult issues what regardless of whether you’re talking about inputs, outputs, managing carbon, you know, whatever, that it’s always about scale. And there’s a lot of talk now about direct air capture, or even post combustion capture with net power and some of these other other technologies. But that’s not your focus, direct air capture. That’s not what your your your, your focus is the aerosol parasol, right? If I’m if I’m going to see that that’s really where you think the most potential is, is that fair?
Kelly Wanser 52:40
Mostly fair, I think we’re, I’m a portfolio person. Okay. And so I’m coming into the problem saying, you know, there’s a portfolio things and they operate in different ways over time. And the portfolio gap that that is there is is the near term, you know, the next 30 years or so, where the combination of the problem of scale and the problem of you know how fast the atmosphere responds to bring in greenhouse gases out of it means that things like direct air capture are slower. And so by nature, and so we’re trying to look at those things that say, Look, if our safety profile in this 3040 year period, or longer if we do worse than predicted, you know, reducing greenhouse gases warrants a more rapid response, what are the things that work rapidly?
Robert Bryce 53:30
And so you’re arguing that direct air capture would just take longer, because it’ll be more delayed?
Kelly Wanser 53:36
It’s a multi-decadal thing. And most of the
Robert Bryce 53:40
where the payoff where the payoff from the the seeding the app or the stratosphere would be much almost immediate, then.
Kelly Wanser 53:47
Yeah, so it’s something I see. Okay, if you have the capability to do it, which we don’t. But if you did, you could do it within a year or two.
Robert Bryce 53:57
On the planet, and as Keith right, that you would need then some some sophisticated jet airplanes that would do this kind of the
Kelly Wanser 54:05
volley. It’s an open question. And again, it goes to the question of the altitude and where you do it as to whether like today’s current, you still need aircraft that are not common that can reach the stratosphere, right, that whether you need a new class of aircraft or you can use existing aircraft? Like that’s still the question. We don’t know the answer to you. Sure. So there is the question of like, these are things that we need to pursue quickly to, you know, to figure out if, if we want to understand it?
Robert Bryce 54:36
Well, I look, I think it’s interesting. I, you know, one of the joys of my job is getting to talk to people and scratch my own itch on curiosity. I’ve mentioned before, you know, what are my hurdles for this podcast? It’s Who do I think is interesting, and who would I want to talk to for an hour and because I, you know, I feel if I’m, if I’m learning, you know, and people that might be listening, get to learn as well. So this has been really interesting and getting some better ideas about what, what these technologies are What the kind of, you know, the challenges are, but and you know, and I’ll be cleared as I, you know, for my questions, you you, you have a lot of challenges in front of you. So I wish you well with all of them because it’s you’re facing a lot of complex challenges. But we’ve been talking for nearly an hour and I want to make sure we stay on a good timeframe. I mentioned that I before we started, I asked my guests two questions. What are you reading? What books or magazines? Or what do you have the top of your reading pile?
Kelly Wanser 55:27
Well, I have a lot of contemporary periodicals that I’ve read to stay up with things. But recently, I turned back to kind of a classic business book called Good to Great.
Robert Bryce 55:38
Oh, yeah. Jim Collins book. Yeah,
Kelly Wanser 55:40
yeah. And I think, you know, it affected me a lot when I was younger. And I’ve been turning back to it now, you know, because it was written before the internet era, which really jacked up kind of the era of big personality, leadership. And good, great is very much about low personality leadership. And this sort of team based, more grounded kind of approach. And so, you know, if if I think about that a lot, in terms of how you work on these kind of problems, especially because we work in a very networked kind of team oriented way, versus a big personality kind of way. But it’s a tough world to operate that way. And so it’s a great book, if people haven’t read it in a long time, I really encourage you to cut it up again.
Robert Bryce 56:32
Well, so then the last one, I mentioned before, what so what gives you hope.
Kelly Wanser 56:37
So in silver lining, we work with early career professionals from different parts of the world, and what we call our youth initiative, but most of them are in their late mid to late 20s, early 30s, from Ghana, from Honduras, different parts of the world, and they work as members of our team. And they’re really inspiring, and give me a lot of hope, because the ones that we work with, many of them have worked in the UN system in there much more diplomatic and effective with each other in their generation, and we are in ours. So I’m seeing a lot of hope in in the upcoming generation, that maybe, you know, maybe they’ll have some some more civil and effective ways of working on problems like this. We’ll see. But it’s been really, really great. really inspiring.
Robert Bryce 57:36
Well, good. Well, I think that’s a good place to stop. We’re just short of an hour, so excellent. My guest has been Kelly Windsor. She’s the executive director and the founder of silver lining, which is a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that society has information and options to address near term climate risk. And their work is focused on climate intervention, not geoengineering, climate intervention. Lots of interesting stuff there. I recommend you read her piece. It was in the hill in December, which would give you a good primer on what she’s doing. Kelly, thanks for coming on the power hungry podcasts been very interesting. Thank you. Thanks very much, Robert. And thanks to all of you in podcast land. Tune in for the next episode of the power hungry podcast. And if you have a minute, give us a rating of Five Star 12 Star whatever it allows you to do on we’re local podcast, outlet, outlet, and of course on YouTube do the same. Until the next episode. See you