Jun 8 • 1HR 4M

Volts podcast: Dr. Ye Tao on a grand scheme to cool the Earth

Mirrors. Lots of mirrors.

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David Roberts
Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)
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Geoengineering — using large-scale engineering projects to directly cool the Earth’s atmosphere — is an intensely controversial topic in climate circles. On one hand, such schemes strike many people as dangerous hubris, interfering with large-scale systems we don’t fully understand, risking catastrophic unintended consequences. On the other hand, there is good reason to believe that even a wildly successful program of decarbonization will not be enough to avoid devastating levels of heat in the atmosphere.

Dr. Ye Tao (Harvard)
Dr. Ye Tao (Harvard)

Dr. Ye Tao was early in his career as a researcher at Harvard’s Rowland Institute, working on nanotechnology, when he became gripped by the problem of climate change. As he dug into the research, he concluded that even rapid decarbonization — especially insofar as it reduces the aerosol pollution that temporarily cools the atmosphere — would leave the Earth roasting in levels of heat hostile to most life forms.

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As he reviewed available options for carbon capture and geoengineering, he realized that none of them were safe or scalable enough to do the necessary cooling work in time. So he came up with a technique of his own: mirrors.

The MEER project — Mirrors for Earth’s Energy Rebalancing — is a nonprofit established to advance Tao’s vision, which involves covering some mix of land and ocean with fields of mirrors. The mirrors would reflect solar radiation, and thus heat, back up out of the atmosphere. If 10 to 15 percent of developed agricultural land could be covered with mirrors, Tao has calculated, it would return Earth’s heat to safe preindustrial levels, providing a range of local benefits to agriculture and water in the meantime.

It’s a brash idea, somewhere between crazy and obvious, and I was excited to hear more from Tao about why he thinks it’s necessary, how it would work, the materials that would be required, and how the MEER framework changes the way we view carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.