Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems and what you can do to solve them. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
We were partly inspired to interview today’s guest, Kelly Wanser, because of her appearance on the Future of Life podcast last October. The episode does a great job of explaining the case for working on climate interventions, such as seeding or brightening clouds.
We only had Kelly for 90 minutes and so didn’t spend a lot of time on introductory questions. I think this episode stands alone fine, but if you feel lost take a look at that FLI episode first — you can find a link in our associated blog post.
People tend to be pretty skeptical of climate intervention work, otherwise known as geoengineering, so we focus a lot on possible objections, such as:
- It being unlikely that we’d want to do this any time soon, because it’s riskier than doing nothing
- That we don’t have a clear path to rolling this out in a way that isn’t dangerously politicized
- And the risk of the double catastrophe, where a pandemic means we stop our climate interventions and temperatures sky-rocket
We also talk about a bunch of other topics, including:
- The many climate interventions that are already happening
- The most promising ideas in the field
- And whether people would be more accepting if we found ways to intervene that had nothing to do with making the world a better place.
Just a note that we had some technical issues with this one, and the audio isn’t amazing – but if you’d prefer you can always go to the associated blog post and read the full transcript instead.
Alright, without further ado, here’s Kelly Wanser.
The interview begins [00:01:37]
Robert Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking with Kelly Wanser. In 2018, Kelly founded SilverLining, a nonprofit organization that advocates research into climate interventions, such as seeding or brightening clouds, to ensure that we maintain a safe climate. She has gone on to lead the organization since then. To my knowledge, it is the only nonprofit focused on climate interventions, anywhere in the world. Wanser is also co-founder and advisor to the University of Washington Marine Cloud Brightening Project, an effort to understand the effects of particles on clouds. She previously worked at the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, the Ocean Conservancy, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. She studied philosophy and economics at Boston University, and then Oxford University. Thanks for coming on the podcast Kelly.
Kelly Wanser: Thanks very much. Is it Rob or Robert?
Robert Wiblin: Ah, Rob. Yeah, I usually go by Rob.
Kelly Wanser: The American style. Alright, thanks very much, Rob. It’s an honor to be on here. I’m a fan of the podcast and looking forward to the conversation.
Robert Wiblin: Oh fantastic. Yeah, I hope today to get to talk about what deliberate climate interventions are already in active use, and the case for and against further research into them. But first, what are you working on at the moment, and why do you think it’s important?
Kelly Wanser: Well, I’m the executive director of a nonprofit called SilverLining, and our focus is near-term climate risks. So we are really thinking about the climate risk in the next 30–40 years. And in that context, we’re very concerned that society lacks sufficient options to constrain or reduce warming if we need to, as we can see the earth system becoming more unstable. So we focus in particular on immediate steps that we can take to understand ways we might improve our options. And that includes lobbying in the United States for R&D, that includes working with parties related to the UN and how we think about healthy international cooperation and decision making, that includes working with young climate leaders, and of course, it also includes working with researchers. Last year we launched a research fund. So we have lots happening, and I’m open to all kinds of questions about it.
Robert Wiblin: Fantastic. Okay. So, we were in part inspired to interview you because of your appearance on the Future of Life podcast last October, which was a really good interview that went through a lot of material about geoengineering — or as you prefer to call it — climate interventions. A slightly less loaded term, perhaps. So, we’re not going to spend a lot of time going through the basics of why someone would want to work on this, why it’s potentially important. But I did want to get through the basic case really quickly, in case people aren’t familiar. So I guess the reason that people might prioritize researching climate interventions is that it’s potentially really cheap to scale them up and to cool the planet a little bit. Much cheaper than potentially getting rid of carbon emissions. It’s as yet very under-explored and under invested in. And it could, as you’re suggesting, be applied really quickly. More quickly say than carbon abatement, or carbon drawdown, could be applied. So, if things were really going awry, you could potentially roll this out quickly and try to stabilize matters.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, is there anything else that I’m missing in the basic case for why someone would decide to spend their career working on this, as you’ve done?
Kelly Wanser: Well, I think the nuance here is your last point, which is about the speed. And, I think what many people are less aware of, even in the climate space, is that the current projections, even if we do everything right, even if we make our commitments to the Paris Agreement, even if we follow the best, most optimistic IPCC pathways, we’ve got two degrees of warming baked in. And the same scientists who made those projections are telling us that that’s unlikely to be safe enough. And so our current best pathway may be too dangerous. That’s our main issue with watching. Can we understand better what danger we’re in, and can we protect people? Can we have some insurance policies to make sure we’re protected? So, that’s really the essence of it.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So if really rapid warming is coming sooner, or if it’s potentially coming sooner because we’ve misunderstood the nature of some of the feedback loops involved in climate change, things might turn out to be substantially worse in 30 years’ time than what we expected. Then I guess we want to have something in our back pocket in order to try to improve things. And I guess studying these climate interventions could also be useful, even if we don’t end up wanting to use them for a substantially longer period of time. So, it serves both roles potentially.
Kelly Wanser: Yeah. And I think one of the important things for people to think about, it’s not a happy thought, but the changes that we’re seeing in the physical world, in the Arctic… There was a story out yesterday about the currents in the ocean, about the currents in the atmosphere. These things are tracking some of the worst-case projections that scientists had 40 or 50 years ago. We’re in it, it isn’t if things aren’t going off track, they are showing the symptoms of going off track. So it may be quite important that we have some ways to react.
Existing climate interventions [00:06:44]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Makes sense. Okay. I imagine that people are thinking of possible objections that they might have to using climate interventions and we’ll get to some of those later. But first off I wanted to explore the thing that I found most surprising when I was looking into this topic over the last couple of days, which is just the scale of existing climate interventions that we’re already engaged in, without people being that aware of it, or objecting to it. Of course, we’re changing the climate by releasing greenhouse gases. But that’s not the only way. So what are some of the things that people are currently doing today, in order to deliberately change the climate?
Kelly Wanser: There are things happening that are both deliberate and inadvertent. And I’ll talk about the deliberate ones, which are…tend to fall more into the category of efforts to address or minimize climate impacts. So as the earth system warms, a couple of the big side effects that are causing problems for people are changes in rain and precipitation. Either producing drought and problems with water, or producing flooding and storm surges. And in both cases, what we have in lots of different parts of the world are efforts to disperse particles into the cloud layer, either to make rain or snow, or to induce precipitation offshore, to prevent flooding. And so there’s a massive rainmaking program in China, in an area the size of Alaska, to increase precipitation. If they scale that up to the size that they’re expecting to, that would be a big enough weather modification effort to affect atmospheric circulation and weather in other places.
Kelly Wanser: So you start to get into these bottom-up efforts, which aren’t exactly the same mechanism as what we’re talking about to cool climate, but they’re similar. And we actually have quite large-scale weather modification activities in the United States, that most people aren’t aware of. So we’re hearing that, in Colorado, they dispersed particles into the cloud layer to increase the snow pack. Not just for skiing, but actually at a large enough scale to try to improve the water table. So these are the kinds of things that are escalating. And then in Indonesia they had a couple of different rounds of injecting particles into clouds offshore to try to induce rain, to reduce flooding. And so we anticipate that as the earth warms and climate impacts grow, these will escalate. And then there was a very small test over the Great Barrier Reef, that was really more about studying the mechanism for what you might do to increase clouds and cooling over the Great Barrier Reef, to try to protect it.
Kelly Wanser: And so those things are starting to emerge. At the same time we have some accidental cooling happening. What many people aren’t aware of is that the particulates in our pollution…so not the greenhouse gases, but actually the dirtier stuff that they’re concerned about us breathing, that often has the effect of mixing with the cloud layer to make clouds brighter and provide some cooling. And you can see this from space in the shipping lanes as they traverse the clouds and create big streaks. And globally scientists believe that this is causing a significant cooling effect. So we have an accidental version of the kinds of things that our organization helps people look into, this cooling effect, going on as well.
Robert Wiblin: So we’ve got attempts to get precipitation in Colorado and California, I guess, in order to get water where people will want it to be for agriculture and for other reasons. There’s tens of thousands of people employed in China trying to generate rain and do other things to improve the weather or climate in regions that are a bit difficult. Also, the United Arab Emirates is also trying to… Because it’s an extremely dry and hot place.
Kelly Wanser: You read our documents. Yeah. The United Arab Emirates has a $400 million fund. We don’t have specific information on how successful they’re being in their efforts, but they’re funding a lot of R&D into trying to increase precipitation in that part of the world.
Robert Wiblin: How much control do we actually even have over the weather? It seems like there’s a lot of money being spent on trying to generate rain. And I guess like either to get water where you want it to be, or to get storms to rain out before they reach places where, let’s say the hail or the flooding is going to do damage. But do we know that these methods work very effectively?
Kelly Wanser: So I’m not a scientist. I work with scientists. So I’ll caveat by saying, I can say things that they probably wouldn’t say. But, my understanding is that some of the highly-localized efforts to precipitate rain out of the kinds of clouds that normally carry it, there are fairly predictable ways of doing that, and some fairly predictable ways of trying to increase snow, depending on the conditions. It’s really, really hard to make precipitation in places where the types of clouds that produce it don’t ordinarily occur. Like in the Middle East. That’s a harder problem. And overall, as the climate warms and the weather patterns change, it’s not easy to either locally manage your local climate, or to counter what’s happening with warming. So it’s a pretty hard problem. Weather prediction’s a hard problem, weather management’s a really hard problem. Clouds are one of the biggest uncertainties in all of it. And they’re at the center of course, of these things.
Kelly Wanser: So these are the things, they’re not quick and easy fixes. But they are indications that we are likely to need to have more information, better observations, better tools for trying to figure it out. Because, as the problem escalates, people are going to try it. And they’re likely to scale it in larger ways.
Robert Wiblin: So, yeah, setting aside climate change concerns, how much should we expect all of these efforts to increase over time anyway, and potentially have some impact on the weather or climate globally?
Kelly Wanser: Well, I don’t think you can decouple them. I think the weather modification efforts… Maybe in the Middle East, it’s a little bit different. If we were looking at a continuation of 20th century climate, and the Middle East was just interested in improving… So maybe in terms of natural human innovation, some of this would go on. But I would say that the relatively rapid escalation of investment in it, and the need for it, is pretty climate driven. So it’s pretty hard to uncouple the two. And when it comes to water, water is a fundamental need, both economically and for community wellbeing. So people are going to go to great lengths to figure out solutions for water. And as the climate warms, those solutions just get harder and harder to find.
Robert Wiblin: Mm. So I think people have this pretty strong intuition that whenever humans intervene in the environment deliberately to get some outcome that they want, it almost always goes awry. And so they’re very wary of this entire style of intervention. Are there any examples where things have gone to plan? Where we were like, we want to change the environment in this way, and then there weren’t terrible side effects? I mean, I suppose these weather modification examples could potentially look like that if they’ve worked as people hoped.
Kelly Wanser: So my favorite example is actually in the United States, and it’s the largest environmental program in U.S. history. It might be one of the largest in global history. So in the United States, in the ‘20s and ‘30s, we had these dust storms. And so we had this environmental problem that was partly created by settlers coming through the Midwest and deforesting things. And a lot of the native species were depopulated. And so the landscape was starting to desertify, and we had the dust bowl and the big storms. And so they launched a program called the Great Plains Shelterbelt, where they planted rows of trees, and they even dotted them with squirrels and native species and things, in a 200- to 300-mile strip up and down the Midwest of the United States. So almost border to border. And if you drive through some of Nebraska and Kansas, you’ll see these lines of trees. Like your corn fields, and then just a line of trees.
Kelly Wanser: And it had the effect of actually helping to undesertify and change the climate conditions in the Midwest. So it was quite successful. And it was a multi-year, hundreds of thousands of people… It was partly a jobs program. But it changed the climate in the United States, or reversed the damage, if you like. So it’s an interesting one.
Kelly Wanser: And another one to think about which isn’t necessarily… I’m not trying to advocate that you do these things, if you have other good options. But if you think about it, it’s like the Gulf spill in the United States. Once the spill happened, they were looking for ways to remediate the damage. So what we have going on with climate change is, we have a massive toxic spill into the atmosphere. And the immediate most damaging effect of that is, is heat energy trapped in the system. And so the question is, do you try to do something to counter that or to abate it?
Kelly Wanser: And sometimes the nuclear accidents or chemical spills, they do similar kinds of things. So we’re trying to think about it in terms of counter effects to something we’ve already done. I think this isn’t just, “Hey, we want to take pure nature and do something to it.” We’re taking a highly-damaged, polluted system, and trying to figure out if we can counter some of the effects, to keep some of the life in it stable.
Most promising ideas [00:16:23]
Robert Wiblin: Alright. I think that’s enough about what we’re already doing today. Let’s think about what we could potentially do in future, in response to climate change specifically. What are the few most promising climate interventions for limiting global warming that we should potentially be looking into?
Kelly Wanser: So my organization, SilverLining, we follow the recommendations of the scientific community. We do some of our own review, but where our scientists landed… There were a couple of assessments that asked that question: If we needed to cool the planet quickly, or counter global warming quickly, what are the best options? And they looked at things from mirrors in space to shiny objects on the ocean, to materials on the Arctic, to things like putting particles in the stratosphere or brightening clouds. And one of those assessments was in the United Kingdom, the Royal Society, back in 2012, and then in the United States, by the National Academies in 2015. And so where they landed was that the most promising approach was leveraging one of the ways that the earth system regulates its temperature, which is the reflection of sunlight off of particles and clouds in the atmosphere.
Kelly Wanser: And so, without getting into too much detail, the surface-based approaches tend to be much lower in terms of effectiveness for a variety of reasons, including the fact that clouds are in the way. And they also are more invasive in terms of their potential to interfere with ecological systems. The space-based approaches were actually pretty far off from the kind of engineering that would be required, because the area mass that you would need to affect sunlight coming to Earth is actually massive. So even though people think well we put lots of satellites up, here we’re talking about like a billion square meters out of the apex between the earth and the sun. And so the ideas I’ve heard about are self-replicating robots who could mine an asteroid and then build a filter.
Robert Wiblin: At that point you should just leave Earth and go colonize Mars maybe.
Kelly Wanser: Pretty much. When they talk about increasing the reflection of sunlight from the atmosphere, they’re talking about 1% or 2%. So it’s a slight modulation of the way particles in clouds are reflecting sunlight, in Earth terms. And so it becomes both more feasible and less invasive. And then it turns out that we’re doing it already, in a way that we don’t understand very well.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So the surface of the earth, it’s too annoying for other beings that are there, including humans. Space is very expensive to operate in. So you want to like work in the middle ground. I guess clouds are appealing because, well we already know a bunch about clouds, because they exist. And I suppose we know that clouds aren’t a disaster, because there’s plenty of clouds already, and it’s not causing that many problems. And clouds have turned out to be extremely reflective. They’re very good at reflecting light back out into space. And we know methods for creating more clouds or making them brighter. Is that the case for focusing on clouds?
Kelly Wanser: Well, I think from a scientific perspective, they’re recommending not just the cloud layer approach, but also the possibility of putting particles in the stratosphere. Which is a different technique, which we do a little bit today in terms of air travel and things like that. But volcanoes have done it in the past. And so when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it was a big volcano, so it pushed lots of material all the way up higher than usual, reaching the stratosphere. And then once it’s in the stratosphere, it tends to stay there and circulate for a year or two. And so what happened in the following year is the earth cooled off over half a degree Celsius. It was measurable. Arctic ice recovered. And so that volcano cooled the planet for a year or two, measurably. And so the other idea is, okay, take airplanes up to the stratosphere and release particles that circulate for a longer period of time, for a year or two, and you can slightly modulate incoming light.
Kelly Wanser: And so both of those ideas, scientists feel like they have a bit of a handle on because they’ve observed analogs to it. Or similar things. And I think one of the… So the top recommended priorities for research are those two things, and they have different characteristics and different risks.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. What are the technical pros and cons of, I guess, cloud seeding, cloud brightening, and putting things in the stratosphere in order to try to reflect light?
Kelly Wanser: I’ll start with the stratosphere. So the stratosphere, I think many scientists like, because it’s uniform, so it’s easier to model. And so it’s easier to look at some of the restorative effects of… We put the materials in. There’s some important studies that we have to do, because we don’t know the effects of these things over longer periods of time. So, but I would say advantage-wise, firstly, they feel very confident that they know how much sunlight they can reflect. And that’s a big plus. And then figuring out how you get it to the stratosphere… It turns out that it’s likely, it’s very likely, that you need to put it up in the range of 20 kilometers in the atmosphere. And that’s out of the range of current cargo-carrying airplanes. So you might need a new kind of aircraft to bring it up there.
Kelly Wanser: It also turns out that today we don’t have a good baseline of the chemistry of the stratosphere, and some of the things we need to know, to figure out what to do and how to minimize the risks. So the risks of putting material into the stratosphere are… There’s some pretty significant ones. They may be low probability, but you really want to figure out how they work. So the biggest risk that scientists are concerned about now is that putting material in the stratosphere, reflecting sunlight, will slightly increase heating in the stratosphere itself. And that could change the circulation of the atmosphere in ways that we don’t quite understand. And so that would be one of those things where it might not be a problem, or it could be a really big problem. And so that’s where, if you’re going to research, you really want to focus on that.
Robert Wiblin: So that’s worth testing?
Kelly Wanser: Well, you don’t want to test that experiment. You want to do very, very small tests and develop very, very good models. And then the other effect that people are worried about, which is probably a bit easier to figure out, ultimately, is whether it would affect the ozone layer. And so you can do chemical tests and very, very small experiments to study that question. So that one is, I would say, the top contender in terms of scientists feeling like they have their arms around it. But it’s also probably the bottom contender in terms of people being worried about it. So people have described that as cheap and easy to do, and they’re worried that maybe a billionaire would do it on their own or a rogue nation would. Our research has said that it’s actually not that easy. And we’re pretty far from anyone being able to do it. So we’re quite concerned actually that we get the research going.
Robert Wiblin: Oh, I didn’t realize that it was hard to do. I’d heard this story, that it’s so easy, that one person could do it.
Kelly Wanser: It’s really not. Partly because you can’t do it with standard aircraft. And secondly, because our observation is that we haven’t encountered anyone who would do it blindly. And so the other thing is you need to have global climate models, which actually only a few countries have, because you need supercomputers to do those simulations. And then you need good observation space, ideally in the stratosphere and elsewhere. So it turns out that if you wanted to do this in any reasonable way, you’ve really narrowed the field of who could actually do it.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, what are the pros and cons of the cloud methods?
Kelly Wanser: So the main con of the cloud method is they actually don’t know how big the effect is. It could be quite small, which would be good news for the accidental form of it that we’re doing now. It could be quite large. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who produces the big global climate reports, has a chart and it includes this, what they call ‘cloud aerosol effect’ in the chart. And they have these things called uncertainty bars where they say, “Okay, this is what we think the effect is. And here’s the uncertainty bar.” It’s the biggest uncertainty bar in the chart, and it’s over a degree. So the main challenge with the cloud brightening effect is figuring out if you can isolate that effect. Because clouds are super complicated. There are lots of aerosols in the system, little particles. Clouds are made out of little particles that then form into clouds.
Kelly Wanser: So it’s a hard problem to dissect that, and figure out what the effect is and what it could be. And the team I’ve been working with for a long time at the University of Washington, and a couple of other institutions, what they’re trying to do is to say, “Okay, well, theoretically, the ideal particle to use for this would be little cell particles, cause they attract water and you’d optimize how they work, and then you’d figure out what is the biggest effect you could get, in an optimized way.” But that’s an open question. And so, the first question you have to answer with cloud brightening is, does it produce a significant effect? And then beyond that, on the risk side, the proposal for marine cloud brightening, the idea is to take these banks of clouds, they’re called marine stratocumulus, which are pretty pristine and relatively thin, and they exist in like three different places in the ocean, and just brighten those up. So they’re together pushing a couple degrees of warming away from Earth.
Kelly Wanser: That will create some cool zones. And so one of the questions is, what does that do to the way circulation and weather and things like this work? And people are quite concerned about that, as they should be. So together with these very small-scale experiments you want to do to figure out the local effects on clouds, you want to combine the different scales of models to work out, “Okay, how does this affect the system?” That particular kind of study should actually help us better understand what’s going on now.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So with clouds, we’re very unsure about the magnitude of the effect. I suppose, does the effect on the clouds dissipate more quickly? Is it something you have to keep doing every day? I guess the stuff stays up in the stratosphere for quite some time, but…
Kelly Wanser: That is a great point. So the effect on clouds is maybe several days to a week. And so the idea is that you would have ships continuously misting the clouds as they go. So advantages, you can remove the effect quite quickly or adjust it, but the disadvantage is you have to keep doing it relatively continuously.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It sounds a little bit more expensive if you have to keep pumping stuff up there. Although I suppose you’re not pumping it up as far as the stratosphere, which I guess, the stratosphere is a bit harder to work with.
Kelly Wanser: I think actually that… These things are expensive in absolute terms — like for you and I. But whether it’s $10 billion a year, $40 billion a year…relative to other things, they’re so inexpensive that their marginal costs across each other isn’t super meaningful. Like in the United States, one big hurricane storm will cost us $80 billion. I think the fires last year cost us $180 billion. So what we’re talking about in U.S. terms is maybe half an aircraft carrier or something. And I think it’s still an open question. As far as the operating costs of these, I think they’ve been quite underestimated in the first round of literature because they just look at, “Oh, we need to carry material up.” And if you think about real operational running of these things, where you need data and information systems and security and continuity, and all these kinds of things… So it’s probably running in the tens of billions a year, no matter what you do.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. But that’s pretty small potatoes by global government standards.
Kelly Wanser: By global government standards. But, it does limit the amount of nations who could underwrite something like that.
Doing good by accident [00:28:39]
Robert Wiblin: I’ve noticed that people don’t seem to raise objections to climate intervention so long as it’s unintentional. People are worried about climate change, but not as much as they’re worried about geoengineering. And maybe they have some concerns about the cloud seeding stuff that we were talking about earlier, but they don’t seem nearly as worried about that as the proposals that people have for actually deliberately making things better. Can we get these things to happen just by making them an accident? Like maybe we have to find some other reason that we want to throw salt up into the clouds, some way that’s profitable, that has nothing to do with making the world a better place. And then maybe by accident, we can make the world a better place and people will accept that. Does that make sense?
Kelly Wanser: I hadn’t really quite thought about it that way. That’s fascinating because oftentimes the correlation with it is pollution. And of course, they’re trying to get rid of those particles from pollution. Figuring out whether you should have an ancillary benefit that people would buy into… One of the things that we ran into with marine cloud brightening was once the rabbit is out of the hat or the cat is out of the bag, people were like, “Well, you have to call it geoengineering or you have to say at least part of what it does.” It’s pretty hard to get people to decouple that. We focused a little bit more on trying to clarify that some of these things are going on and so that is the… Is your objection that it’s intentional? Or is your objection around safety?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It’s an example of a generalized phenomenon that I’ve noticed where if you say that your project is trying to do good then people hold you to a very high standard and they don’t tolerate negative side effects. Because for some reason, I guess they approach it then with a moral philosophy framework. Whereas if you say, “I’m just trying to make a bunch of money,” then they’re like, “Oh well, you’re not trying to do good,” so they don’t think about it as a moral issue necessarily. And they’ll tolerate all kinds of negative side effects that businesses have just because that’s normal and something that happens all the time. I don’t know. Yeah. There’s something funny going on there.
Kelly Wanser: I’m not sure they’re all the same people. I think the problem that we have is the people who are most concerned about the health of the environment or what have you, they’re not necessarily the ones pushing things forward on a profit motive or the fact that they like to have a big SUV or whatever it is. And so when you have something that’s actively trying to help the system, you can actually narrow the constituency down. Because people who are just fast fashion or living their lives or whatever are not the ones super concerned about it. I don’t know, it’s a really interesting question.
Objections to this approach [00:31:16]
Robert Wiblin: What are the most common objections that you get to this whole approach? And I guess why do you think they’re wrong, in brief?
Kelly Wanser: Well, the primary objection is related to your comment before about things that are intentional. And I think it’s linked to the primary objection that we get which is a concern that this will be a pacifier for society to… One more thing that says, “Oh, we can wait. We don’t need to take action on the root problem.” And the root problem is still that our atmosphere is a toxic waste dump full of greenhouse gases and it’s absolutely imperative that we bring those down as fast as we can. There isn’t an intervention that solves all sides of that problem. And so there’s a legitimate concern that people have that this will be another delaying feature. And I think 50 years ago in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the climate problem was early, and scientists could recognize exactly where it would go if you kept going, just turning the knob down on greenhouse gases would make eminently more sense than thinking about putting stuff up in the atmosphere.
Kelly Wanser: And at that time, I think it would be very reasonable for people to say, “Why on earth would you work on that? Let’s turn this down. Let’s never approach where you would need to go.” Now the situation is different. We’re driving up to the cliff’s edge, we’re driving up to that place that scientists never thought we would go. And so we have to think about, is it really the case that talking about these interventions will reduce society’s motivation? There were some social scientists at Harvard who actually studied this and they felt like it could actually propel urgency. If you think about having a medical condition and they tell you, “We’re looking at some pretty invasive treatment for that condition if it keeps progressing,” that’s what we’re here to say. And so there are some people who think that it could actually have the opposite effect and motivate society to say, “Oh, the problem is really that serious.”
Robert Wiblin: That makes a lot of sense to me. It seems more intuitively sensible to me that talking seriously about how we’re going to have to do these wild, seemingly extreme things that well, maybe people overestimate how dangerous they are, but that’s great for this purpose, because then they’re thinking, wow, you’re going to do this crazy risky thing to the climate in order to offset what we’re doing. We really should do something about it so that doesn’t become necessary.
Robert Wiblin: There’s something funny about this, I think it’s called the moral hazard objection. People say, “Well, if you talk about this and explain how you can solve issues with global warming with climate interventions, then we won’t want to reduce our carbon emissions.” It’s such an influential argument, incredibly influential argument. And I think it’s an important consideration to have, but I’ve never seen anyone try to quantify how large this effect is. Is it large enough to offset the benefits of looking into it? People just latched onto it and use that to shut down the debate without seriously doing any empirical analysis to see whether talking about it causes people to care less about reducing emissions. Which direction is the effect even?
Kelly Wanser: Yeah, you’re giving me a really, really good idea for some public research. I think that’s a fascinating question. It’s a wonderful question because part of what we found is that some of these claims are not held to a standard of evidence. They’re almost put forward as self-evident, or a foundational assumption. And so we find ourselves, the people in the room, saying… We’re questioning that assumption, and whether that is the effect it has on people. And also whether moving forward in research increases or decreases that effect. Because the other thing… I came to this as a person who didn’t know anything about it. And as I started to look into it, the more you research it, the better you understand it, the more daunting it is. And so it’s much better for us to look into it.
Kelly Wanser: We may find out that one or more of these things we can never do. And we’ve had climate experts that are quite opposed to research in this area based on the moral hazard argument also say, “Well, if we need it later, we can just do it.” And I’m here to say that we know very little, and part of what we may learn over time may actually put us off wanting to do it, or may help us really understand its limitations. And so the argument against research in particular is the one we take the most issue with, because we would like to know if these things are off the table and we would not like anyone to think we’ve got this thing in our back pocket, because we don’t know that yet. And that’s a moral hazard too.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. This argument shows up again and again in different areas. And I’ve become more and more suspicious of it over time. People raised this for example with face masks, saying if people wear face masks, then they’ll socialize more and it will offset the benefits.
Kelly Wanser: No, that’s terrible. Hadn’t heard that one.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Oh yeah, that was a huge argument that people made last March. People also objected at the time when seatbelts were becoming mandatory saying that if people wear seatbelts, then they’ll drive more recklessly and this will offset the safety benefit. And it sounds crazy to us now, but this was an argument people really took seriously, this offsetting behavior/moral hazard issue. It’s too general an argument and I think it doesn’t have a strong track record empirically of panning out. And if you wear a face mask and that allows you to socialize more, say that offsets all the safety benefits of a face mask, but people like to socialize. So people never consider other benefits. If it’s all else equal on safety, maybe you would like to have people be able to meet one another. But yeah, I think in general, I would advise people to have a red flag when they hear these kinds of arguments, especially if there’s no attempt to quantify the magnitude of the effect. It’s suspicious.
Kelly Wanser: And for people who care about climate change in particular, this same arc was present for early discussions about adaptation research. And so I come from the tech industry originally, I came into climate later and I was learning about some of the history of the discussions around things like adaptation, where there was this strong objection from within the climate environment community for research and adaptation because they thought it would create this moral hazard. And so research was really dampened for a decade or two. It’s only been in the past few years where you have active funding for adaptation research.
Kelly Wanser: My background is in economics, and so I’m thinking the best way to motivate people would be adaptation research because this is not very adaptable. And so the more you’re looking into the costs and damage and the backflips you would try to do to adjust, the better a case you would have for the kinds of actions they want people to take now. To me, that’s one example of this moral hazard argument playing out in the opposite fashion as to what was intended, in a really irrational way. It was pretty damaging to society. We’re not ready to adapt and we don’t understand what the cost of these things really are.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. You can object to some carbon mitigation strategies on the same basis as well. Like you could say that figuring out how to make concrete more environmentally friendly means that we’re not going to do enough to focus on solar. Almost anything can cause something else to seem somewhat less important if it has substitutability. But yeah anyway, that’s an argument that we’re not super convinced by, either of us, but what do you personally think is the best reason not to fund more research into climate interventions? I’m keen to steel man the arguments against it and see what’s the best case we can make.
Kelly Wanser: I think it depends a little bit on where you’re coming from. As a philosophy and economics double major back in the day…there’s a lot of applied philosophy here. If you’re coming from first principles, there are some people who object to this on a more principled level. Some are the basic, it’s playing God, it’s not a place that humans should go. Similar to some of the genetic modification arguments. But the other one which is a little bit trickier, is there’s a strong objection based on the fact that these things are not collective, they’re inherently centralized. It’s a centralized function for influencing what the climate does, which means that it’s often perceived to be disempowering and something that could increase the disparities in power and decision making — so wealthy countries and technologically-advanced parties will now be able to manipulate the climate. They might be able to do it in ways that advantage themselves versus other people, and there’s no decision-making structure that you could conceive of that would solve the problem of that. And I get that a lot and I get that from sophisticated people.
Robert Wiblin: That does sound like a plausible argument. I suppose I haven’t thought about it for very long, but it would be somewhat concerning. I guess people have made the other argument that because it’s sufficiently cheap, more places could do this than can do a lot of other things. So potentially you could get different countries trying to compete to have different effects on the climate in order to get the outcome that they want. And that will be an alternative bad scenario perhaps where there’s everyone doing it and pushing in different directions. Versus the other one, where it’s centralized and the most powerful group takes what they want.
Kelly Wanser: Well, the argument for everyone pushing and doing it in different directions, we’re starting to see hints of that. To us, that increases the case for research. And our argument is always about the research, the R&D. And then let’s use information, let’s use science, let’s do science-based decision making. Similar to COVID, let’s have a vaccine track, let’s have a mask track, let’s have a tracing track and let’s make science-based decisions about what combinations of things are going to keep that curve from going hockey stick on us. And so for us, the arguments against research are almost always… We’re going to say those are weak, because at the end of the day, we don’t buy the premise that people can’t handle information and we need to paternalistically keep it from them.
Robert Wiblin: It’s a suspicious style of argument to say that knowing more about this would be dangerous. I guess sometimes that’s the case, but typically we assume it’s not.
Kelly Wanser: Our solution to the equitable decision-making problem is scientific cooperation. Let’s open access to information. For example, at SilverLining, we fund researchers in the Global South, we have a global youth initiative, we’re working with Amazon for climate models and to put these simulations on the cloud so people all over the world can access the information. The first step is can we get people access to information? Then the second step is, can you create a structure for cooperative decision making? Because this is very much a win-win, lose-lose. A warming planet has very few winners and a stable planet has mostly winners. We’re more optimistic than pessimistic. We think it’s possible that people could come to agree, especially if they have good information about what’s going on.
Kelly Wanser: And our example for that is the Montreal Protocol, which is the most successful environmental cooperation in history to preserve the health of the ozone layer. And every country in the world is signed on to that. It’s still managed through their scientific assessment panel. And so, we’re making a bet that an evidence-based approach that’s focused on the real safety situation in the climate system is one that people could come to agree on.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. I’ll put to you a different argument against research, I suppose.
Kelly Wanser: Right. I was supposed to argue against it. I apologize.
Robert Wiblin: Let me have a go.
Kelly Wanser: I’ll be more compliant.
Robert Wiblin: It’s easy to come up with arguments not to actually do climate interventions because of all sorts of problems that they create. It’s a harder argument to make that we shouldn’t even find out what those consequences would be. It would be somewhat surprising if that were true, but maybe it is. Anyway yeah, one of the better arguments that I saw when I was preparing for this is John Halstead who I think works at Founders Pledge. He’s become something of an expert in climate change interventions or how to give in order to influence climate change, and we’ll stick up a link to some of his work. He used to be more in favor of doing research into climate interventions. He became a bit cooler on it when he realized that he doesn’t think that we’re going to want to use any of these climate interventions for 30, 40, or 50 years probably. Because he thinks even though climate change is risky, these things will seem more risky and more damaging to international relations for at least until climate change reaches say three or four degrees of warming. That’s one of his premises.
Robert Wiblin: And then he says, “It seems like we could figure out how to do these things in about 10 years if we were really trying. We could plausibly start in 20 or 30 years time and now would have the benefit that we haven’t produced this knowledge that’s going to be sitting around in the meantime, that could cause people to use it when it shouldn’t be used or potentially could allow it to be weaponized. Or maybe we’ll find out something about the climate, about how we could destabilize it that would allow someone who had negative intentions to use it.” So he wants to look into it, but later down the line. So we find out this potentially dangerous information at the point where we really need it. What do you make of that?
Kelly Wanser: Well, it has a little bit of that flavor of the back-pocket argument, that we can pull it out later. But mostly I think the big problem that we have with it, other than it being paternalistic, is that there’s a lot of suffering baked into that approach. Conservatively 1 billion people are predicted to be displaced in that time period that he’s talking about. The island of Tonga, they have evacuation plans. In that time period, their home will no longer be there. One of the questions is, maybe for us in Western countries, who have some resilience and ability to adapt to… Well in the United States, we’re not adapting that well. But the issue is, do we have a responsibility to explore for people who currently are projected to face a lot of catastrophe in that period?
Kelly Wanser: One of the ways I think about it is, let’s hear from those people who are at the front lines of climate change, because it’s happening now. Cape Town ran out of water. And from here to 2030, they are predicted to run out of water more and more frequently. And that may or may not be a livable situation. And so I think what we have to look at closely is the reality of the loss of life, the amount of suffering, the loss of home and real catastrophic damage and whether we’re willing to say, “Okay, we’re going to write that off,” or, “We can do better.”
Kelly Wanser: I’d like to at least explore whether for those billion people, we can do better. And most of the people that we’re talking about in that billion, they didn’t cause this. So you have somebody coming from the places in the world that did, saying, “It’s okay to wait.” When we talk to people from these regions and they tell us what’s happening in their region and what they’re concerned about, and we talk about these things, many people are very interested that they get explored. Because for them, it’s existential.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It seems like the crux that we’d want to look into, if we wanted to go into this more, the crux seems to be an empirical question of, is it plausibly wise to use climate interventions in 10 or 20 years time. Where John is leaning against and you’re thinking, well maybe there are scenarios where it would be important to use relatively soon.
How much could countries do individually? [00:47:19]
Robert Wiblin: In order to resolve that… It seems like people are more concerned perhaps about the situations where you put sulfates into the upper stratosphere, because they affect the entire world. And it could have effects all over the place in ways you didn’t intend and ways that some people object to.
Robert Wiblin: If you’re doing something like just seeding clouds around Cape Town in order to deal with the drought, and then if you stop seeding the clouds then they stop appearing because it’s a relatively short-term effect, it seems like that could potentially be a lot safer. And I wonder how much can we muddle through trying to cool down the planet just by having each country try to tinker with its own local temperature in order to get the temperature that it likes and the level of rain that it likes?
Kelly Wanser: Well, I think it’s a great question. It goes back to our conversation earlier. Certainly people are going to try, but as the earth warms, it becomes harder and harder to counter those effects. Kind of like it becomes harder and harder to build sea walls that can protect London. It depends on how far you let the problem go. And so the problem in not addressing global warming and trying to shift the effects around is that the kettle is boiling underneath you. And so it’s the same with trying to do localized things to try to cool the Arctic. The problem is the whole system around it, which is highly interconnected, is continuing to warm and push energy around. You may be able to do things in the short term, but if the system continues to warm, it’s very unlikely that you can outrun it with those techniques. Now, if you’re talking about everybody starting to brighten clouds in spots and then it all aggregates, that would be pretty interesting too.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess. The normal plan is to do this over the ocean so it doesn’t affect… I guess it’s further away from people, and maybe the right clouds are there. Whereas this would be an opposite approach of doing it around cities and people.
Kelly Wanser: The problem with being around cities and people is it’s already happening. That’s the stuff that the pollution that’s rising from cities… There were two big accidental experiments in this that happened last year. We push all these pollutants up and part of what they do is brighten clouds. They mix with clouds and brighten clouds. From coal plants, from ships, all of that. During COVID, the pollution came down, especially around cities. People are trying to study that. Effectively cities and ocean ships are doing it now, but we don’t have a good handle on how effectively they’re cooling. And there are lots of drivers to bring out those particles, because those are the ones that affect people’s health. The second experiment that happened was in January of last year, they implemented emissions controls on ships. And so they’re ratcheting down those particulates from ships by 85% and they’re also studying, okay, what does that mean? We’ll have less bright clouds over the ocean potentially.
Government funding [00:50:08]
Robert Wiblin: People might be a bit surprised that we don’t already know more about what these things will do to the climate. But something that you said in another interview that I was really surprised by was I think the entire U.S. budget for all research into climate change and modeling weather and climate is $2 billion? Which is a large amount by the standards of one person, but by the standards of a country and by the standards of scientific research it’s really a pittance. And that would explain why we can’t look into all of these questions about the interrelations between all these different sub-factors of climate and weather.
Kelly Wanser: You’re absolutely right. The total level of research investment by the federal government in the U.S. is about $2.6 billion, which compared to other things, and compared to the magnitude of the problem, is just irrationally small. And so for questions like this, you’d like to think that countries like the United States or places like Europe would be flying planes and funding studies and really drilling in on this question, because that question also has to do with even the local prediction of weather and how valuable that is. One of the really eye-opening things when we got into this work was looking at the state of our global ability to monitor and predict climate and the level of investment we have. One of the best things we can do is immediately start to invest in that so we get a better handle on what’s going on.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it seems like it would be justified even setting aside climate change, just because of the enormous economic value we get from being able to predict the weather more effectively. I wonder, even without doing a whole lot of experiments, it seems like there might be just a lot of evidence lying about. If someone has a look at it from these natural experiments where pollution goes up and down for this reason or that, planes change their route, and we can see what effect those particles have. And then when it warms here, what effect does that have elsewhere? There might be some low-hanging fruit here.
Kelly Wanser: I like that expression, there might be opportunities lying about. I think there certainly are. And particularly with these natural experiments, the onus is on us to actually wring everything we can learn out of them. For these particular climate interventions, there are some really important, very small-scale, what they call ‘process studies’ that you want to do, because in addition to these natural and accidental experiments, one of the things they’re trying to do to with climate intervention is to say, “Can I do it less invasively and more cleanly?” I’m trying to figure out, oh, can I do a better job than the dirty particles from volcanoes, the dirty particles from soot. And so these little process studies where they want to go puff a few clouds over the ocean with tiny salt mist or they want to go up in the stratosphere and do some releases so they can follow the chemistry and the evolution of the particles, those are pretty important if you want to figure out what the downstream risks of this stuff are. And can we moderate them? You still need those, they’re quite important.
Is global coordination possible? [00:53:01]
Robert Wiblin: Let’s do one more objection, which I think should be taken seriously, which is that we don’t really have a clear path to rolling this out in a way that isn’t super politicized and leads to conflict and frustration between different countries. You mentioned the Montreal Protocol, which was a very effective and really flagship attempt to get global cooperation to protect the ozone layer, and it has done a very good job. Then there’s other areas in international coordination where it seems like we really struggle to get people to agree on anything. I think in 2019, some countries brought to the UN that they would like to do more research into climate interventions and they couldn’t even agree to commission a board to look into it. Sometimes we really struggle. You wonder if one country… Say China wants to go ahead, but India gets really annoyed. Maybe there just isn’t really a way to get agreement on this in a way that would make it safe.
Kelly Wanser: Well, we actually objected to that proposal in the UN because it wasn’t one of the forms where they can really look at the science. And so we do think that how matters. And the most successful areas of environmental cooperation, even other areas of cooperation like the ballistic missile treaty, the ones that are very science-evidenced and data-focused have a track record of being most successful. And the ones where the politics rules or philosophy rules…they’re less equipped to do rigorous science and to follow that, they tend to be a lot less successful. And so even the IPCC is somewhere in between. But the Montreal Protocol is rigorously science focused, they follow the evidence on what’s happening to the ozone layer.
Kelly Wanser: And so I think we really think… And again, I’ll start by saying, because sometimes I find myself in a fundamental argument between pessimism and optimism, we will not proceed on the basis that something is impossible. That’s not a concession we will make. We will say that, “As climate change progresses, and looking at these things, we step forward on the basis of what are the most successful examples of things that are really hard getting done.” But if the world can agree not to set off nuclear weapons, which they have so far since World War II, I’m not sure this is a harder problem in terms of managing what we need to do here.
Robert Wiblin: It’s a very interesting model you’ve got there where I guess you’re saying if the discussion all becomes about philosophy and ethics, and I guess humanities things where people naturally disagree and could talk forever, then maybe that just leads to lots of disagreement. But if you can bring all of the engineering/technical/scientific information to the table and get everyone focused on that, then maybe that would unlock some agreement, because people would see things that could be done that would be mutually beneficial — or at least don’t trouble people very much. But if you’re super uncertain about the consequences, then it’s very likely that someone is going to raise an objection. Perhaps focusing on the science brings a little bit more clarity.
Kelly Wanser: I think that’s a really good point. And it just grounds the conversation into where the real issues are. We tend to be a bit optimistic on that front, but we also… I find myself having to be very straightforward about what we’re solving for, because not everybody’s solving for the same thing. We are solving for minimizing loss of life, minimizing human suffering, and keeping natural systems stable. And so we’re very concerned about evidence related to that, projections related to that, where those thresholds are that we shouldn’t cross. Not everybody is solving for that. Some people are solving for the world to make decisions in a certain way. Some people are solving as a priority for other kinds of economic or disparity objectives. And we care about those things, but we’re very focused on the fact that people can’t make decisions if they’re not alive. And we’re willing to be very overt that that’s what we’re solving for. And then how do we get information about that? How do you rigorously assess options about that?
Malicious use [00:57:07]
Robert Wiblin: Another concern that people raise is the potential that doing research into this could lead people to find malicious uses or ways that you could do a lot of damage or use climate interventions as a weapon. I was surprised to learn that there already is a convention that prohibits changing weather or climate for the purposes of war or for conflict. I think that was because the U.S. used that method during the Vietnam War. How much do you worry that looking into this is going to accidentally end up leading to weapons technology?
Kelly Wanser: It’s a very hard problem to predict what these things are going to do, and they’re not super defensible — they’re slow, they’re linear, they’re out there — they’re really not good weapons. I mean, very hard to target. That doesn’t mean that countries, including the United States, might not follow that trajectory, at least from a defensive point of view. But I’m much more worried about the autonomous hypersonic weapons systems that they’re developing now. In 10 years, maybe you will get closer to figuring out how to target something, but even when you do, you’ve got a bunch of airplanes full of particles that are sitting ducks out there. So I’m a little bit pessimistic that it’s a particularly great weapon. Doesn’t mean people won’t study it, and doesn’t mean that it couldn’t go there downstream. But I think that the more serious, short-term concern is that people are trying to use it to adapt to their own environment, and it has effects on the people around them.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think I’m with you on this one, it seems like it’s not a very good weapon. And we already have nuclear weapons. We already have biological weapons, things that are probably far worse and far more potentially effective for someone than this. Seems a little bit far-fetched that a state would end up wanting to do this. I guess If we found some incredibly cheap way to really mess up the climate, then you could end up having some terrorist group or some people who are really nuts try to do it. But I think that the odds of finding that aren’t super high. And of course you can just stop them as we try to stop any other criminals. Fingers crossed, anyway.
Robert Wiblin: What about the possibility that we have a pandemic or nuclear war, and then this means that suddenly we have to stop doing the climate interventions that we’ve been using to hold down the temperature? And so we not only have a pandemic, but now the temperature skyrockets by two degrees, because we’ve suddenly stopped seeding all of these clouds and then that finishes us off?
Kelly Wanser: Yeah. I mean, that idea was raised early on. And one of the things that scientists do early in these kinds of ideas is look at boundary conditions. What if you did the most you could do, what if you did the dumbest thing you could do, etc. So if we were to do something really dumb and just turn it off abruptly with no plan, what would that look like? And that would be bad. But it’s hard to conceive of circumstances where that happens. Nuclear war might be one of them, but then we’re on humanity auto-destruct anyway. So I’m not really clear that this particular thing is… If we’re in a circumstance where no country on Earth can maintain sending up a few planes a month to the stratosphere, then that level of catastrophe is probably… I’m less impressed by the cessation shock or termination shock idea as a concern, because it’s just a very easy thing to manage. And so it would take a very extreme circumstance for all of the countries of the world to have that problem.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it seems like something that you’d want to build into the plan is how do we have continuity of operations? So even if there is a terrible pandemic, say, we can continue to release the thing from New Zealand or some other place that’s most likely to be protected. And how do we split up enough stockpiles? It’s maybe an operations issue. I guess now that I think about it, nuclear war is maybe not a good example, because usually there we’re worried about nuclear winter. So we probably don’t also want to be releasing our own coolants. It might be good to turn that off.
Kelly Wanser: Right. That’s actually an interesting point.
Robert Wiblin: So maybe it’s a really bad pandemic that stops supply chains. Maybe that’s the thing that we’ve got to worry about the most.
Robert Wiblin: What is just a really cool technology in this era? Not necessarily the best or not necessarily something you want to be applied, but is there anything that is just so awesome?
Kelly Wanser: This isn’t quite climate engineering per se, but it’s so cool. And I hope that it pans out so that we get to work with it. We were referred to a company that’s doing blimps, potentially for climate monitoring and also potentially for aerial wireless networks. And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen a blimp in a really long time. And so I was like, oh, a blimp network, that sounds so beautiful as a way of monitoring the climate system. And so if there’s anything we ought to do with it, if we can have a little blimp network up there that’s helping keep things on track, it’d be wonderful.
Robert Wiblin: The technology of the future is Zeppelin. Unexpected. It’s non-flammable helium!
Kelly Wanser: Well, it’s not helium. That’s the interesting thing.
Robert Wiblin: Hopefully it works out.
Kelly Wanser: Part of what’s bringing it back is that they’ve improved on that helium situation.
Robert Wiblin: So the weather often harms people, but currently because people don’t perceive themselves as having much control over it, they’re just like, “Oh, it’s an act of God. I just think I have to accept that my crop was destroyed,” or something. But once we start tinkering with the weather too much, someone is blameworthy, potentially, for the weather being bad. What are the issues around legal liability if you start seeding clouds or doing something and then someone perceives it as harming them? Maybe it doesn’t matter because the weather does all kinds of harm anyway? Can they sue you?
Kelly Wanser: These are the questions that people started to look at, the problem of attributing specifically what’s happening in climate or weather modification. It’s a pretty hard thing to do. And it has been a problem. There’s a famous case in the U.K. where they did some weather modification experiments 200 kilometers away. I think there was a lawsuit, even though it was very unlikely to have affected the relevant town. So I do think that it’s a problem worth thinking about for the level of responding to global crises in a globally cooperative environment. People have proposed collective compensation structures where the people who are still subject to extremes, there might be a structure to compensate for that. So you don’t have to be able to say whether it was caused by this if you have an insurance scheme where people get compensated if they’re in the small percentage that don’t come out as well.
Kelly Wanser: And in that model, you’re just really looking at the rate of extremes, because what happens in climate is the extremes just keep getting bigger and bigger. And ideally with climate intervention, you’re narrowing those extremes or reducing them back down. And so then you can look at who in the world is still getting higher levels of extremes.
Careers and SilverLining [01:04:03]
Robert Wiblin: Let’s move on a little bit and talk about career advice and what SilverLining does. Are you hiring at the moment and do you want more research into this?
Kelly Wanser: Well, yes, we are looking for talented people, particularly people who are interested in communications, senior communications people. And also legislative in the U.S., so please feel free to reach out, we are silverlining.ngo. And we fund research as well. Most of the research teams we fund are quite senior in the areas of climate and atmospheric science, but for people thinking about moving into the climate arena, climate response arena, I come from the technology sector myself. And I think there are interesting opportunities for people to apply their skills from other sectors into what has been a highly academic area. So I encourage people to do that. It’s not an easy thing to get into, because there’s a lot of subject matter knowledge, but there’s some benefits to be gained by people crossing over.
Robert Wiblin: I guess SilverLining is in a slightly difficult spot because it’s the only nonprofit I’m aware of in this potentially very large area. There’s lots of different approaches that you could take. And it might be a little bit harder, I suppose, to focus on exactly what is your theory of change? What is the model by which SilverLining changes things? Are you currently in an experimental phase where you try to explore different options and figure out what works? How do you decide on your strategy as an organization, and what is it?
Kelly Wanser: So we’re quite strategic, and I have a background in corporate strategy consulting myself. We think about what are the levers on the system and how do we move those forward? And the things we’re trying to move forward are research and development, so we can understand the questions of what options we have and how we can evaluate their safety against what the climate system is doing. So how do we move R&D forward in governance sectors which fund most climate research, are there any private sources of R&D funding, and then how do we activate centers of excellence to get that R&D moving? We’ve been quite successful in that. We’ve only been operating a couple of years, but we got funding in two government agencies in the United States starting to roll forward. Since we started, the number of programs in the United States has gone from maybe two or three universities to maybe 12 or 15, including national labs.
Kelly Wanser: And so it’s how do you get the system moving? Because questions about climate are very multifaceted. So these are not simple things. They involve lots of different kinds of people. And then if we’re going to make decisions about them, these are going to be governmental decisions, and they’re going to need to be different in the United States. Different science agencies and different people informed and involved. So we’re very strategic about that in terms of how we have approached working through the U.S. government system and the research sector in the United States. And then how we can tag in to other parts of the world and start to activate research cooperation, research funding, and pathways for decision making. So we started out focused on the U.S. and doing a lot of lobbying work. We also were trying to work with philanthropists and high-net-worth folks to see if there was private funding for research.
Kelly Wanser: It turned out that the government work went faster. And so we’ve gotten some private funding for research, but when people say billionaires are going to do this—
Robert Wiblin: If only, you think.
Kelly Wanser: —that’s not the evidence that we’re seeing. And so we work with the philanthropic community and of course we work a lot with the research community and the academic community around this. And we view these things as… It’s been helpful for me coming from my background as a tech entrepreneur, because it’s very similar to bringing a new technology out into the market. And I was in IT infrastructure, where the technologies are complicated and obtuse. And when you start out, they can seem very radical or very strange or very tinfoil hat even. And then you get your early adopters and then you start to move it out into a wider audience.
Kelly Wanser: And so some of that background is really helpful, and you’re dealing with different kinds of people. You’re dealing with engineers. You’re dealing with members of the public, sometimes dealing with the government. So our theory of change has been: Can we first work closely with some experts — and what we call practitioners, people from the State Department, people from the UN — to develop a theory of what would be a healthy way for this to move ahead? And then figure out what the steps are to move that forward in a healthy way. And so that’s what we’ve been doing. And then later on you layer on more communications and try to see if we can make sense of it with a broader audience of people.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. How hard was it to get this off the ground and begin having influence on politicians and research scientists, given the controversy that exists? It’s been a somewhat controversial area for several decades and you’ve just thrown yourself into it.
Kelly Wanser: It wasn’t easy. So I actually started this as a passion effort 12 or 13 years ago. I had been just on the side seeing if I could help coordinate some scientists, especially around marine cloud brightening, where there might be money to move into the sector.
Kelly Wanser: So I was around the space for a really long time, and building relationships with the key researchers and others in it. And so on that time horizon it has been very slow and relatively hard. And it’s a highly academic space, and I don’t have a PhD. So it was also hard to gain acceptance in certain circles, prove that you have the standing to work on a problem like this. And that was different than tech, which is a little bit more merit-based and understanding of the different flavors of people. So that was a pretty heavy lift, I would say. To the audience: If you’re coming into the climate space, because it is academic, it can be harder to be recognized if you’re a person that’s really amazing at e.g. communications, or even an executive, if you don’t have the academic credentials that people are used to.
Robert Wiblin: Did you find any ways to overcome that obsession with prestige and eminence and credentials?
Kelly Wanser: There are two ways I found to overcome it. So some of the most senior people in the system sometimes are the ones who are best able to recognize the merits of your argument and what’s good about the way you’re going about things. And so I was able to develop relationships with members of Congress, people in government agencies, people in quite senior places, who were like-minded and understood a sort of executive-type approach. But the second thing really, and the only thing really, is to actually make the progress. So it gets easier every year as we have achievements in Congress, in the research fund, and in other things where people see the evidence of how this is working.
Kelly Wanser: The final thing I’ll say in terms of the difference between things that are facing the academic climate community and everyone else — like Congress and business people and tech — the way we talk about the problem has helped a lot. And so in not talking about geoengineering and some of the classic tropes and saying, “Look, the fundamental problem is the safety problem. And it’s about people. And it’s about these natural systems on the brink. And we’re talking about interventions to try to help,” in the policy sector, that resonates across parties, across different kinds of people. So that’s been very helpful too. And a lot of people coming from business backgrounds or tech backgrounds will have an advantage in maybe being less academic or less conditioned in how they talk about these things.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It’s very interesting to me that it sounds like you’ve had the most success in the policy and government area, which is perhaps stereotypically a bit more slow moving and very risk averse and very controversy averse. Whereas maybe with scientists and with business people, perhaps it’s a bit more challenging. Is that right? I guess you’re maybe focusing a bit more on government because that’s where you’ve had the best reception?
Kelly Wanser: I still don’t know that I can entirely explain why that is, except that we’ve found — and so far it’s carried across both Democrats and Republicans — we found a way to talk about climate and the climate problem that can resonate, and then also speaks to what policy makers are concerned about, which is what happens to their communities. But that was a surprise to me too, I would have to say. I do want to say, because I don’t want to downplay our donors, we have some visionary donors. Most of them come from tech. And the people who are best able to see this approach to trying to make societal change and this approach to climate have tended to be people from tech who think about complex systems and who understood the risks quickly.
Kelly Wanser: And so we have had some good success with those kinds of people. And they’re terrific, some of our donors are terrific people from tech. But no one’s in a position to say, “Okay, I know what to do. And now I’m going to insure the planet.” And at $40 billion or $50 billion a year, there aren’t very many who could.
Robert Wiblin: How much do you think foolish early marketing decisions around, I guess so-called geoengineering, set back the discipline? I guess I didn’t know how this was presented in the ’80s or ’90s when it first came up, but maybe people wanted to make it sound exciting and edgy, and they wanted to maybe wind people up a little bit? And did that then make it a bit more difficult to get acceptance?
Kelly Wanser: It reminds me so much of tech, where a lot of new technologies are invented by engineers, and they come up with a name and they’re really proud of it, and it’s all reasonably well-meaning. And the term geoengineering had a certain resonance, although the original term comes from geoexcavation, which makes more sense. But it just happens that the first couple of guys — and they were all guys back then — used that term. And then that’s what’s in the literature. This was a very male-dominated space up until the past five years or so. And now there’s an enormous number of women in it, surprisingly. But you had that little bit of a tech bro way of talking about it and a lack of exposure or a non-sensitivity to how these things might resonate. So I don’t think anyone meant to try to sensationalize it, but even when people say things like it’s cheap and easy to do, that has been super unhelpful. And it turns out to be not terribly true.
Robert Wiblin: Neither true nor persuasive. It’s not ideal. So people weren’t going out of their way, it’s just that maybe this required an extra-special sensitivity to understand the people who would object, and then try to see off those objections in the way that you spoke about it. And that’s something that didn’t happen.
Kelly Wanser: And I also think there’s been a trend among scientists, and climate sciences in particular, to try to modulate what they’re saying based on how they think people will react. And I’ve really spent a lot of time trying to get them not to do that. Because in addition to the fact that I don’t think it’s the healthy thing to do, they don’t usually have good instincts about it either. And so you might think that saying it’s cheap and easy to do is helpful, when in reality it’s the opposite of helpful. And what you should really be doing is just steering straight up the middle and trying to impart information.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess that’s also best for credibility in the long term as well, to not try to spin and not try to market.
Robert Wiblin: What are the top labs in this area that people might want to track if they’re interested in the natural sciences aspect of this problem?
Kelly Wanser: So I would say there are different classes of research, but one of the big classes is the climate modeling and the simulation and forecasting efforts. And so a couple of key places for that are the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the United States and the Pacific Northwest National Lab, which is in Washington in the United States. What many people think is the top climate model in the world is at the Met office in the U.K., The Hadley Centre, and they have senior experts there who’ve worked on this problem, and others in the U.K. And then in France, I believe it’s at the Sorbonne, where they run a program called GeoMet, which does modeling and comparison across the different models that have looked at these questions.
Kelly Wanser: So those are some of the big places. Where they have interdisciplinary programs that are also looking at things like experiments, but also social science… There’s a program at Harvard University which has been trying to launch a balloon experiment into the stratosphere. And a program at the University of Washington, where they’re building technology to spray some clouds.
Kelly Wanser: Then more recently in the United States, the federal agency NOAA has gotten the funding and they’ve started to fund research. And one of their labs in Boulder, the Earth System Research Lab and their Chemical Sciences Division, they’re doing a lot of the background studies on some of the critical questions around the risks of these things.
Robert Wiblin: It’s a small area. Are there any conferences or ways that people can get connected and looped in with the people who are leading in this area, if they’re curious about potentially pursuing a career in it?
Kelly Wanser: I’ve just been talking to some other folks about collaborating on this, because there isn’t a global conference. The area up until now has been so small that there have been these relatively small invitational conferences, one of which was scheduled for this year and it was canceled, called the CEC — I think it’s the Climate Engineering Conference. But it’s really only 300 or 400 people. And there’s an even smaller one called the Gordon Conference, which is really exclusive to scientists, about 100 people. And that I think will happen in 2022.
Kelly Wanser: So I was talking with our partners at Colorado State about the possibility of holding an international event, possibly there or elsewhere, because there isn’t one. And so we may see that, because there’s lots more interest starting all around the world, including in Europe. I may put this out there and people may fire back with different things, and there are different academic meetings going on, but nothing at the level of a conference.
Robert Wiblin: It sounds like you’re open to having people potentially contact you or contact SilverLining if they’re interested in getting leads and learning more?
Kelly Wanser: I think so. Yeah. We prefer people who have a very serious interest, because we’re busy. And people who have some useful skills and want to get connected in science or engineering or communications or government work.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Speaking of skills, are there any particular undergrad degrees or PhDs that people should be interested in doing if this is an area that they want to work in, or is it just so interdisciplinary that you can imagine someone having almost any background as long as they have some useful skills they can potentially contribute?
Kelly Wanser: Well, I’d be a hypocrite if I said you needed certain things, because my degree is in philosophy with a minor in physics. There’s certainly a vector from the natural sciences. The earth system is a big and varied system, so there are lots of applicable natural sciences, but the closest ones to these things are climate and atmospheric science. And so if you’re really interested specifically in cooling from the atmosphere, then atmospheric science, climate science, cloud aerosol science… But there are different angles on looking at the impacts of that and where it goes. There’s the engineering side, which is aerosol engineering, systems engineering, global systems, and some fun and interesting possibilities there. And then there’s the science policy and engagement side of things, which is the tough challenge of how do you communicate this? What are the right policies and specific things that you’re trying to achieve through different government and intergovernmental areas?
Kelly Wanser: I have in my team a young woman who’s a master’s student in science policy at The Hague. And so that’s a wonderful… There’s some science policy programs that are really strong. And if you’re interested, that’s probably an interesting thing to think about.
Robert Wiblin: Alright, you’re a busy person and I know you’ve got a meeting coming up in a minute. So unfortunately we’ve come up on time. If people are interested to learn more, there is — as I mentioned at the start — this excellent interview, two and a half hours I think, on the Future of Life Podcast, which I can definitely recommend.
Robert Wiblin: For people who want to learn more, is there any top resource, a book or papers that people should read if they want to get up to speed and maybe reflect more on whether this is something that they’d like to be involved with?
Kelly Wanser: So we actually put together a report which is available on our website, called Ensuring a Safe Climate. And we did that at the request of policy makers in the U.S. because there wasn’t a streamlined but comprehensive view of the state of things. And so if you get that report and if you sign up on our website, we’re actually releasing the second edition of that report in a few weeks. And it’s got beautiful photos and it’s designed to be consumable. So there’s also a National Academy of Sciences report published in 2015 called Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth. And that one’s more scientific. So if you like digesting a bit more technical/scientific stuff then that’s a good resource too, and it’s longer. And they’ll be coming out with a follow on to that report in a few weeks, which I understand is several hundred pages. So that would be a deeper dive. So you can think of us maybe not quite as the Cliff Notes, but as the entry point for that.
Robert Wiblin: Fantastic. I haven’t read those, but I did really love getting the chance to learn about this over the weekend while preparing for the interview. So I can definitely recommend that people go and look into it. It’s a very fun and exciting topic. And I guess the fact that I’m not completely sure what I think of it only makes it more interesting, because it’s a potential for me to really change my mind and form new opinions.
Kelly Wanser: Yeah. And if you’re a person that just likes things encapsulated, there was also a TED Talk. I gave a TED talk about a year and a half ago, which is 12 minutes. So that’s another way of entering the problem space if you’re looking for that. And I’m quite interested particularly in younger people thinking about these questions. They have the most at stake. And there are a lot of old people around the table making decisions right now. So the more young people can take a look at this and figure out what they think and figure out ways to vector in, I think that’s going to be important for all of us.
Robert Wiblin: My guest today has been Kelly Wanser. Thanks so much for coming on the 80,000 Hours Podcast, Kelly.
Kelly Wanser: Thanks very much, Rob. I really enjoyed it.
Rob’s outro [01:23:34]
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Full transcripts are available on our site and made by Sofia Davis-Fogel.
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