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Silicon Valley billionaires want to geoengineer the world's oceans

David Klein


Silicon Valley billionaires want to geoengineer the world's oceans
EARTH 1 September 2020
By Mark Harris

New Scientist Default Image
Ocean alkalinity enhancement could save the Great Barrier Reef
Inaki Relanzon/naturepl.com

SOME of the world’s richest people are funding research that could use the oceans to combat climate change. The idea is welcomed by some researchers, but others caution that there is a lack of international agreement about geoengineering the planet in such ways. Should billionaires be able to start tinkering with the climate without asking the rest of us?

Last September, scientists, policy-makers and funders met in California to discuss an idea to use an emerging suite of technologies known as ocean alkalinity enhancement (OAE). This aims to reduce both ocean acidification – which threatens delicate ecosystems like coral reefs – and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (see “How to save the seas“).

Doing this on a planetary scale would be a gargantuan undertaking. A report from the conference says that one OAE process requires the extraction of 5 billion tonnes of rock each year, twice the quantity used in global cement production today.

The rock would have to be finely ground up to increase its reactive surface area, and ultimately deployed worldwide, perhaps via a fleet of ships. This would have its own significant carbon footprint, making calculating the eventual benefits fiendishly complicated.

Silent benefactor
The conference attendees, including ecologists, biochemists and experts in carbon removal, discussed these problems, and brainstormed the science, the systems and the cash needed to make OAE a reality.

Little did most of them realise that the organisation behind the conference, Oceankind, is likely to be controlled by a Silicon Valley billionaire who would be able to fund a significant geoengineering effort out of their own pocket.

Oceankind was founded in California in April 2018, as a limited liability company (LLC). Incorporating as an LLC rather than as a non-profit organisation has one great advantage: charities in the US have to file public financial documents each year with the Internal Revenue Service, but LLCs are virtually opaque to public scrutiny.

Filings show that Oceankind’s address is a post office box, and its named manager is Rosewood Family Advisors, a California-based firm whose accountants and lawyers provide dedicated services to ultra-affluent families.

It is unclear exactly who is funding Oceankind – neither Oceankind nor Rosewood responded to communications from New Scientist – but it seems to be someone who has made a lot of money in the tech industry.

Oceankind’s first CEO was Evan Rapoport, a long-time Google employee who helped launch Google Street View before moving to the company’s cutting-edge X team to develop underwater sensors for fish farming. Rapoport wouldn’t discuss Oceankind, nor its benefactor, citing non-disclosure agreements. However, his LinkedIn profile reads: “I was recruited by a high net worth family in Silicon Valley to create a vision and strategy for their new foundation to bring ‘moonshot thinking’ into ocean conservation.” Similar language on his personal website refers to an “ultra-high net worth” Silicon Valley family.

“5bn tonnes of rock will be needed per year for geoengineering oceans”

At a food conference last year, Rapoport said that he hit the ground running, interviewing more than 100 experts and leaders across conservation, ocean engineering and food production. He said he was looking for “high-risk, high-reward, long-term impact that met the giving profile of the principals”.

Rapaport reported that one of Oceankind’s early projects was in lab-grown seafood, funding scientists to “immortalise” the cell lines for a few key food species, a process of manipulating cells so that they can be artificially grown for prolonged periods.

Oceankind also began to make donations to charities. WildAid in San Francisco noted in its 2019 annual report that it had received at least $100,000 from Oceankind, helping its efforts to boost well-enforced marine protected areas. More recently, it hired an AI expert to explore using machine learning in ocean conservation.

In 2019, Oceankind hired an environmental consultancy in California to convene the OAE conference. “We were all a bit mystified about where the funding for the conference was coming from,” says one of the attendees, who weren’t informed who was behind Oceankind. “A number of scientists were concerned that it was fossil fuel money, and we were told it was not.”

The conference was intended to summarise the science, share insights about OAE’s effectiveness, risk and uncertainties, and discuss opportunities to advance the field.

“If we’re really serious about solving our global carbon dioxide problem, it’s unwise to ignore 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface,” says Greg Rau, a marine research scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who attended the conference. “The geologic carbon cycle is very effective at moderating CO2 over millions of years. Now we need to see if we can effectively accelerate that process, in ways that are cost-effective, safe and scale up.”

Conference attendees agreed on several recommendations, with price tags. For those with less than $5 million to spend, the attendees suggested improving our understanding of OAE’s ecological impact, building a community of practitioners or analysing the costs of different technologies. More ambitious projects over $10 million included assessing market incentives and policy levers to enable OAE at scale and educating the public.

“If we’re serious about solving climate change, it’s unwise to ignore 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface”

For ventures with more than $20 million at their disposal, the conference recommended developing OAE technology to reduce its costs to below $50 per tonne of carbon removed. Swiss start-up Climeworks currently charges $1100 to permanently sequester 1 tonne of CO2 using its air capture system.

The conference even suggested that very wealthy donors consider “large-scale demonstrations” to validate the effectiveness of OAE. Oceankind’s website similarly talks about working “at scale”, indicating a desire to think big.

Silicon Valley has no shortage of billionaires who could easily afford to carry out huge projects. “Corporations and rich people have realised that government has not come through on doing the heavy lifting for carbon management,” says Rau. “People that have the interest and have big money are stepping up.”

Bill Gates, for example, has long publicly funded research into geoengineering, including plans to use stratospheric particulates to reflect incoming sunlight and slow global warming.

More recently, US payments company Stripe pledged to spend at least $1 million annually to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

One of Stripe’s first purchases in this area is intended to capture more than 3000 tonnes of CO2 with Project Vesta. This aims to use natural wave action on an unnamed Caribbean island to accelerate the weathering of the alkaline mineral olivine, which then reacts with CO2.

Stripe’s billionaire CEO Patrick Collison is also personally funding a similar effort, Project Green Fuse, at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, New Scientist has learned. This will test wave action on olivine, initially under lab conditions, although experiments have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Just as there is very little international consensus on how or even whether to proceed with geoengineering, there is virtually no way to stop a state, or a billionaire, trying to modify the climate. “Most people agree that the governance mechanisms are mostly not there,” says Elisabeth Graffy at Arizona State University.

Avoiding red tape?
Any organisation hoping to push ahead with geoengineering activities, even on a small scale, would be expected to engage with multiple bureaucracies at national, state and local government levels, she says. Of course, Silicon Valley is known to act first and deal with regulatory issues later, so it wouldn’t be unusual for someone with that background to push on without asking.

“It’s always appealing to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if someone could just do something and get past all the red tape?’,” says Stephen Gardiner at the University of Washington, Seattle, author of A Perfect Moral Storm: The ethical tragedy of climate change.

“You could see that as a great statement of freedom. But the worry is that it’s freedom without accountability, freedom that involves a great concentration of power for people who don’t have the political legitimacy to exercise it,” says Gardiner. “These are issues that ought to be discussed and of which the public should be aware.”

In July, Democrats in the US issued a climate crisis action plan that included support for research on the risks and governance of geoengineering, ahead of a National Academies study on the topic later this year. If Oceankind has its way, they might find that a billionaire has got there first.

Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24732980-500-silicon-valley-billionaires-want-to-geoengineer-the-worlds-oceans/#ixzz6XMJQRbMQ