Giant Mirrors. Ocean Whitening. Here’s How Exxon Wanted to Save the Planet

In 1997, scientists working for the oil company offered visionary solutions for climate change. The only problem? Their plans might destroy the earth in the process.

The 1990s were a critical decade for action on climate change, as world governments prepared to finalize the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement by 37 countries to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. They were also a decade when oil companies poured millions of dollars into government lobbying and public relations, trying to persuade the world there was little to worry about. In 1997, with the Kyoto accord almost complete, Mobil, the major American oil company, published an advertisement in the New York Times and the Washington Post: “Let’s face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil,” it said. “Scientists cannot predict with certainty if temperatures will increase, by how much and where changes will occur.” Around the same time, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond argued in a speech to the World Petroleum Congress that “the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight.” (In 1998, Exxon and Mobil would join in a $73.7 billion deal, the largest corporate merger in the world at the time.)

Recent reporting by the Los Angeles Times and others revealed, however, that Exxon’s rhetoric ran counter to its own internal conclusions about the risks of climate change, as the company reengineered oil platforms and pipelines to account for the rising sea levels that both top executives and the publicity department claimed didn’t exist. Today, even as Exxon endorses the scientific consensus on climate change, supports emissions limits, and even backs some form of carbon taxation, the company exudes a vague optimism, regarding the climate problem as something they can build their way out of. In 2012, during a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson asserted that the company sees climate change as “an engineering problem” with “engineering solutions.” Three years later, in 2015, Tillerson, who would later serve as Secretary of State under President Trump for a little over a year, explained, “Our plan B has always been grounded in our beliefs around the continued evolution of technology and engineered solutions to address and react to whatever the climate system and its outcomes present to us.”

Exxon’s rhetoric ran counter to its own internal conclusions about climate change, as the company reengineered oil platforms and pipelines to account for the rising sea levels it claimed didn’t exist.

Perhaps our best guess at the kind of solutions Exxon may have in mind can be found in an obscure 1997 study on the topic of geoengineering. During the peak of Exxon’s obfuscation, the company’s top climate scientists, Brian Flannery and Haroon Kheshgi, along with two other scientists who didn’t work for Exxon, coauthored a chapter in a book called Engineering Response to Global Climate Change. Using dense, technical language, they outlined more than a dozen planetary-scale fixes to global warming. Not every idea was their own—some were borrowed, at least partially, from prior scientific literature—and the scientists also cautioned that the proposed solutions were not necessarily ready to be implemented. “Geoengineering may well have unintended and unforeseen consequences,” they wrote.

Indeed, geoengineering was considered fringe science in the 1990s, not least because there was still widespread hope that carbon emissions could be reduced through global agreements like Kyoto. (President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the accord in 2001.) It would take a decade before Scientific American declared that climate intervention had “gained respectability,” and almost 15 years until the United Nations’ climate-research body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, would begin publishing assessments on geoengineering options. That’s because while some of the ideas featured in the Exxon study were straightforward (planting trees, for example), a lot of them were quite insane.


WHITEN THE OCEAN SURFACE

What it would do Help the earth reflect more solar radiation.

How it would work About 70 percent of the planet’s surface is covered with water. That’s an enormous expanse that passively receives the sun’s scorching radiation. The earth’s oceans could do a much better job of reflecting the sun’s rays, the scientists explained, if only they were … whiter.

A “conceptually feasible” method to whiten the ocean’s surface, argued the scientists, would be to widely disperse films, foams, floating chips, or other reflectors. Another option: towing icebergs from the Arctic down to lower latitudes, so the whiteness of the ice would reflect the sun.

Downside Garbage-laden beaches. “Floating materials would likely accumulate on ocean shores,” concluded the scientists, and towing icebergs would “require moving roughly the entire Arctic ice sheet each year to have a significant effect.”


PUMP OCEAN WATER TO MAKE ANTARCTIC SNOW

What it would do Offset sea-level rise due to the melting of glaciers and ice caps.

How it would work Use pumps to carry water up from underneath the Antarctic sea ice and then spray it into the atmosphere “such that it comes out as snow or ice particles” onto the East Antarctic ice cap. If 3 trillion tons of sea water were pumped this way each year, there would be an annual added depth on the ice cap of 0.3 meters.

Downside Too expensive. The energy required to pump the ocean water would be substantial, “possibly costing more than the damages from the rising sea level,” wrote the scientists.

 

FLOAT HIGH-ALTITUDE BALLOONS

What it would do Block solar radiation.

How it would work Scatter reflective “thin-skinned helium-filled aluminum balls” into the stratosphere, about 66,000 miles above the earth’s surface. Each balloon would be a few meters in diameter. (Any larger than that, and the balloons might create flight hazards for planes.) The exact shape of these sky buoys would need to be worked out. They could be spherical or instead have corner reflectors, which would allow for more efficient dispersal of rays.

Downside Inefficiency. Seasonal changes in atmospheric airflow would mean that balloons set to incorrect altitudes might then accumulate in the North and South Poles, where they would be far less effective.


TURBOCHARGE OCEAN CIRCULATION

What it would do The global ocean conveyor belt, a water current that winds around the planet from Greenland to South Africa, around Australia and back, absorbs heat in lower latitudes and releases it near the European continent. Speeding the conveyor up would mitigate global warming by helping redistribute the heat more quickly, so it doesn’t build up in warmer latitudes.

How it would work The conveyor process is propelled by an excess of salt in the North Atlantic. Blocking the flow of fresh water into the North Atlantic and the Arctic would make the ocean saltier and the conveyor move faster. This could happen by damming the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, diverting rivers that flow into the Atlantic, or using a “preservative coating” on Greenland’s ice to reduce glacial calving and drainage of fresh water.

Downside A potentially uninhabitable Europe. Altering the conveyor risks messing up an environmental system that keeps Europe from becoming as frigid as northern Canada.

 

DUMP IRON INTO ANTARCTIC OCEAN

What it would do Make the ocean absorb more carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for trapping heat in the atmosphere and causing global warming.

How it would work “Iron fertilization,” the depositing of tons of iron pellets into the Antarctic Ocean, would increase biological productivity by marine plant life at the ocean’s surface, which would lead to the absorption of carbon into the deep ocean.

Downside Unsustainable. Once started, iron dumping would have to continue forever: if it stopped, much of the carbon dioxide sequestered in the deep ocean would come bubbling back up, “largely undoing any gains that were achieved by the fertilization.” Plus, added the Exxon scientists, “it is unclear what the ecological side effects of this process might be.”


INSTALL A SOLAR SHIELD IN SPACE

What it would do Block solar radiation.

How it would work The Exxon scientists recommended building a solar shield of “lunar materials” that would measure 2,000 kilometers in diameter, roughly the distance between the northern and southern borders of the continental US. Luckily, the shield would be placed far enough away to be “essentially unnoticeable from Earth.”

Downside Expensive. Installation costs were estimated between 1 and 10 trillion dollars in 1997, likely exceeding the $1.6 trillion of all US government spending that year.

 

WHITEN THE LAND SURFACE

What it would do Help the earth reflect more solar radiation.

How it would work Preserve ice-covered surfaces, or transform “forests and grasslands to deserts” since arid, sandy surfaces are also highly reflective. One could also make vegetation more reflective through genetic engineering of leaf shapes and compositions.

Downside Loss of fertile land. Preserving snow would also be “difficult with warming temperatures.” And because making vegetation more reflective would interfere with photosynthesis, the focus would need to be on plants in equatorial regions, where “available sunlight exceeds the amount now being used.”


CREATE A “HUMAN VOLCANO”

What it would do Block solar radiation.

How it would work Volcanic eruptions have at least one potentially beneficial effect in terms of the climate: they release dense sulfates into the atmosphere, which can reflect radiation and help cool the atmosphere. Creating a “human volcano,” by adding sulfates to jet fuel and injecting them into the sky, or by creating “lofting schemes for an aerosol dust, including balloon systems and launch by artillery pieces,” would replicate the phenomenon of a massive eruption.

Downside Fewer stars. The sky would appear more white, and the practice of astronomy would become much more difficult, though the scientists proposed that “the public might appreciate the enhanced color of sunsets due to the scattered radiation.”

 

LAUNCH GIANT MIRRORS INTO ORBIT

What it would do Block solar radiation.

How it would work The Exxon scientists calculated that if 55,000 mirrors, adding up to 100 square kilometers in size, were launched into Earth’s orbit, the total surface area of all the mirrors would cover an area equal to 1 percent of the earth’s surface, thereby diverting 1 percent of all incoming solar radiation toward other celestial realms. (If positioned just right, the same number of mirrors might block as much as 2 percent of all solar radiation, they theorized.)

Downside Darkness, visibility from Earth. The mirrors would “create shadows on the surface roughly equivalent to eclipses,” the scientists wrote, artificial eclipses that would “be quite frequent and probably troubling” to humans.


DIM THE SKY

What it would do Cool the troposphere, or lower atmosphere, where most of the earth’s weather takes place.

How it would work Spraying soot aerosols into the sky, much in the manner of a “nuclear winter,” would create a protective cloud to absorb solar radiation, generating a cooling effect in lower altitudes.

Downside Smoky skies. The soot would dim the sky and possibly lead to increased warming, though the scientists noted that “this effect is small because the lifetimes of smoke particles are generally very short.”

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