Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson
GeoEngineering with Sulphur Dioxide
About Termination Shock ~ The Book Review
Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock is a speculative fiction romp through what might happen if climate change got bad enough for private actors and small countries to go rogue with geoengineering tactics—in this case shooting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere—to slow the impacts of global warming.
In Termination Shock, the heat has gotten so extreme that Texas billionaire T.R. Schmidt launches sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere using his super gun Pena2Bo—named for the real Mt Pinatubo, whose actual 1991 eruption sent ash and sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which reflected sunlight and cooled the planet by a degree for about 15 months post-eruption.
If it worked naturally with the volcanic eruption, then why not artificially, the reasoning went.
What could go wrong?
In the story, the technology works, theoretically slowing the rise in sea levels that threaten island nations and low-lying regions like New Orleans and the Netherlands. It also delays the monsoon rain in India, decimating crop yields in one of the world’s breadbaskets. As you might expect, this rogue action causes imaginative geopolitical mayhem that you’ll need to read the book to find out.
Termination Shock is rich with compelling characters and competing agendas that entertain as it informs readers an understanding of the possibilities and pitfalls of geoengineering to mitigate climate change, as well as the catastrophic cost of doing nothing or not doing enough.
Along with being entertaining, Termination Shock is a well-researched exploration of the possibilities and pitfalls of using aerosolized sulfur to show global warming, including the science behind it and the potential technologies needed to do it. It lays out a case for and against geoengineering in general that is much more entertaining than reading science reports.
If you want to geek out on the sulfur dioxide idea from the book, read on…
Geoengineering with Sulfur Dioxide in Real Life
Officially called Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI), the idea to slow global warming by releasing sulfur into the stratosphere (the atmosphere that lies 6-30 miles above sea level) came from the 1991 eruption of the Mt Pinatubo volcano. The eruption was so powerful that it ejected about 15 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which formed a hazy layer of aerosol particles that spread around the globe. Because these atmospheric particles reflect sunlight, this atmospheric haze cooled the earth by about a degree for at least 15 months.
Mt. Pinatubo was a natural event that showed how this particular geoengineering trick might work to cool the planet generally.
Global cooling? Excellent! That’s what we need, right?
There are currently few if any global bans on geoengineering by individual companies wanting to make a buck—and pass off the consequences of their product in the same way the multi-trillion dollar-a-year fossil fuel industry passes off the pollution caused by its product onto governments, communities, taxpayers and the healthcare industry—which serendipitously profits from the negative health effects of pollution.
Enter Make Sunsets, a small start-up currently selling “cooling credits” that would fund the release of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. The company owner is “very interested” in working with small island nations that are most at risk of sea level rises. In wild-west, start-up fashion, they did a proof-of-concept test by sending small amounts of sulfur dioxide up in weather balloons they purchased on Amazon. They didn’t track the balloons so don’t know if they got high enough to reach the stratosphere, and the amount of sulfur was too small to have any measurable effect. But you can still buy their feel-good “cooling credits” and sleep better at night, believing you are part of the solution.
After Make Sunset’s test flight, Mexico, where the company launched the balloons, banned solar geoengineering in their country. But there’s little to stop companies and start-ups from trying various kinds of geoengineering in other places—and cashing in on the hype before the consequences or uselessness of their ideas come to light à la the start-up crypto craze.
The Skinny on GeoEngineering with Sulfur Dioxide
First, I think that some of the best climate solutions will likely come from out-of-the-box thinkers and possibly the start-ups they create to prove their theories. But I also think that the “profit first” model tends to sell ideas rather than workable solutions and that the boom-bust cycle of concept start-ups will create “solution fatigue” even if the “inventors” make oodles of money—which of course is the stated aim of any business venture.
Second, I’m not a scientist or engineer, which is why I love the infotainment of books by speculative fiction writers like Stephenson who do great research on things I find interesting. I do try to find high-level references (cited below) so that I bring accurate generalized information and arguments about the solutions being discussed.
Luckily, science and governments are modeling geoengineering possibilities to gauge the effects before taking action, and will hopefully use the data to discourage rogue actors from causing long-term problems by cashing in on the geoengineering hype.
Tallyho, and on to what it would take—and what might happen—with stratospheric aerosol injection as a geoengineering strategy of choice.
General Concept & How it Would Work
Mimicking the Pinatubo eruption, SAI would intentionally inject sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere in the quantities needed to cool the planet as we (theoretically) make the necessary changes to our fossil fuel use to reverse global warming and the damaging feedback loops that are changing our worldwide climate.
Easy-peasy to understand.
How we would get the sulfur dioxide where it needs to go is still a theoretical challenge, but most research suggests using specially-designed airplanes to spread sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere.
Again, easy-peasy to understand and imagine, which is one reason why this geoengineering possibility seems so compelling. Adding to the “pro” side of the SAI is its relatively low financial cost.
It works in nature, right?
What could possibly go wrong?
Accurate Models. Most global climate models don’t track “interactive atmospheric chemistry,” and the conversion from sulfur dioxide into heat-absorbing aerosolized particles is a chemical process. Understanding this chemical process, the lifecycle of aerosolized particles, and creating accurate models to study the effects, are critical to making SAI geoengineering work as intended.
Upper atmospheric winds change direction every few years. To use SAI effectively, any model will need to track and predict winds and wind change accurately. The ability to accurately predict and model these winds is critical for success because of the need to strategically target more and fewer particles to specific areas since the northern hemisphere is heating more rapidly than the southern hemisphere.
Current models use an annual injection of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, but this has been shown to make seasonal and regional temperatures hotter or colder than usual, potentially damaging the natural cycles we depend on for food production and infrastructure (think melting runways and sinking permafrost roads or crippling cold freezing temperate water systems.) So, the models suggest, we would need to target injections throughout the year to adjust for regional and seasonal weather dynamics.
Objectives, Logistics & Scope
Objectives. The objective of any SAI strategy needs to address local and regional climate dynamics and not be about general cooling. The Pinatubo eruption cooled the global temperature, but it also had negative effects on regional agriculture and rainfall. The long-term SAI needed to keep global temps at 2020 levels (the current benchmark) could erode the global food supply—clever marketing could push SAI as a way to reduce belly fat while also cooling the planet! But seriously, any SAI effort would need an objective of micro-targeting cooling any solar decreasing effects to preserve monsoon and other necessary rainfall, decrease drought, reduce glacial melt, and slow the heating of the Arctic, among other climate stabilizing tricks.
Scope of the Project. Current models suggest that we would need to send five times the sulfur dioxide of the Pinatubo eruption into the stratosphere each year for as long as we needed to cool the planet to 2020 levels—meaning until we changed our carbon-burning ways, which could be decades. This is a massive infusion of chemicals into our world that may have long-term unintended consequences that we simply can’t comprehend right now. The unintended consequences argument is both strong and salient. So much of what we have done in the name of progress has long-term unintended and unforeseen consequences—as burning carbon has been. One foreseeable result that also argues again SAI is that it could slow the urgency and effort to shift from fossil fuels to other energy systems and allow big carbon burners to continue business as usual.
Logistics. How would SAI pump massive amounts of sulfur into the stratosphere and where would it need to go for the best effects? In Termination Shock, billionaire T.R. Schmidt propels it onto the stratosphere Texas style—with a land-based super gun named Pena2Bo. Make Sunsets tried to randomly spread it using weather balloons. Most models imagine the use of specialized airplanes. One peer-reviewed study in Environmental Research Letters that looked at SAI strictly from an engineering perspective claimed that a fleet of 100 planes making 4000 worldwide missions a year could do the trick—provided we could design and manufacture planes with such altitude and payload capabilities, as they don’t currently exist. These are big challenges but seen as well within our reach within a decade, which is why SAI is such a tempting option.
Known Limitations and Consequences
Damage to the Ozone Layer. One known consequence of the Pinatubo eruption was the negative effect on the ozone layer that we have spent decades trying to repair. Ozone is a molecule consisting of three oxygen atoms that reside in the lower parts of the stratosphere and block damaging ultraviolet radiation from the sun that can harm eyesight and living tissues, and cause cancers. Once the “hole” or thinning area of ozone was discovered in the 1980s, a worldwide treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons was passed and is helping to repair this damage. Reversing this positive trend could cause major negative effects on humanity, the atmosphere, and the whole natural world.
Ocean Acidification. Oceans absorb about 30% of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, so as carbon emissions increase, so does the carbon absorption of the world’s oceans. This decreases the ph and increases acidity—in the last 200+ years, ocean acidity has increased by 30%. Though the full effects are not known, acidification disrupts many species and the collapse of even one or two species could have a catastrophic effect on the world’s ocean-based food supply over time. SAI doesn’t directly affect ocean acidification that we know of—but dumping massive amounts of sulfur into the atmosphere may have effects we’re currently unable to predict. However, focusing only on slowing global temperature rise to allow business-as-usual carbon burn could exacerbate other fragile carbon-sensitive feedback loops.
Political, Societal & Economic Challenges. Though the exact effects of geoengineering can’t be known ahead of time, that there will be effects is a certainty. Termination Shock lays out some possible economic, environmental, and political consequences of both letting the status quo continue and, when local climates get extreme enough, of consequences of and reactions to SAI geoengineering. Stephenson’s consequences are some of what is an unending and incalculable range of possibilities that we can’t know until they happen. One very good point that Termination Shock makes is that geoengineering forces tend to engineer in ways that benefit their own interests without taking into account what may happen to other countries or regions.
In Termination Shock and in real life, the takeaway is that there are no easy answers to a changing climate. Even with the large-scale consensus that reducing fossil fuel use would make the biggest impact in reducing the carbon that is stressing the oceans, increasing warming, and polluting our atmosphere, we haven’t been able to reduce usage in the immediate or near- to mid-term. Reduction is always kicked down the road into a mythical future that we aren’t willing to fashion in today’s election cycles or this quarter’s financial statements.
The cost of doing nothing is well understood. The price tag of changing to known non-fossil-fuel electricity or creating technology that changes the nature of how we power our planet is more speculative, but calculable—and doable if we committed to it. The price tag of SAI geoengineering may be the least of the many geoengineering strategies on the table right now, but the long-term environmental, political, social, and economic costs are currently incalculable.
The question remains, what, or what combination, will we choose?
Neal Stephenson speaks about Termination Shock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SX8ZJ2Ghfs&t=3324s
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Kristine Madera dreams of a world where individual and collective well-being is our primary global value. Getting there requires big changes in our social, economic, governmental, and global systems.
Speculative fiction and other writers do the prophetic work of imagining various futures and how technological and other changes may work (or not) and the consequences, intended and unintended, of the often shortsighted “solutions” created by businesses and governments. Her blog posts look at novels, nonfiction, interviews, and more through this lens.
As a bestselling author, Kristine is currently working on a novel based in remote Papua New Guinea in which a well-meaning missionary steps in as village leader to save a tribe from a rival bigman bent on keeping the tribe from having contact with the modern world, as well as a young adult speculative fantasy series set in a new future Earth where humanity has reimagined itself as a thriving species on a thriving planet that faces a new threat from the skies as well as within.
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