Flubbed climate test won’t deter rich donors from altering the sky

By Corbin Hiar, Blanca Begert | 06/18/2024 06:33 AM EDT

They funded a failed experiment to block the sun. They plan to try again.

A surfer leaves the water as sunlight streaks through clouds.

Donors say they're committed to funding geoengineering research. Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Wealthy philanthropists with ties to Wall Street and Silicon Valley are unbowed by a botched climate experiment to limit the amount of sunlight hitting the earth, vowing to continue bankrolling future solar geoengineering tests as temperatures catapult upward.

POLITICO contacted a dozen people or groups who funded a controversial program by the University of Washington to reflect sun rays by altering clouds. Those who responded indicated that it’s worth pushing through the public skepticism surrounding efforts to determine how to best deploy the last-ditch global warming fix — if at all.

“The Pritzker Innovation Fund believes in the importance of research that helps improve climate models and enables policymakers and the public to better understand whether climate interventions like marine cloud brightening are feasible and advisable,” Rachel Pritzker, the fund’s founder and president, said in a statement. “We will only get answers to these questions through open research that can inform science-based, democratic decision-making.”


The funders’ comments came after two high-profile experiments were shutdown following public backlash, pointing to the challenges of conducting controversial research that could result in weather disruptions or other unintended consequences. The latest experiment was derailed earlier this month when local officials in Alameda, California, rejected a request by Washington researchers to restart a test to brighten clouds from the deck of a decommissioned aircraft carrier in San Francisco Bay.

The move followed the March cancellation of another solar geoengineering project in Sweden.

Most funders of the Alameda experiment didn’t respond to inquiries, but the assertions of those who did suggest there’s a strong base of philanthropic support for solar geoengineering research, which can also include spraying reflective particles miles about the earth’s surface.

“Our goal is to support the basic science needed to assess the role of aerosols in the atmosphere, particularly the stratosphere,” said David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation. “We want to have the basic science in place so that society can evaluate the possible benefits and costs of stratospheric aerosol injection or marine cloud brightening.”

The foundation — started in 1994 by former hedge fund manager Jim Simons and his wife, Marilyn Simons — has long supported a wide variety of University of Washington research.

The group did not provide money for the Alameda experiment, but Spergel noted in an email that “our funding is not going to be affected by their difficulties there.”

Since the abrupt termination of the Alameda study, which researchers hoped would last for months but only operated for a total of 20 minutes, the Environmental Defense Fund has signaled its intention to begin funding other solar geoengingeering research. The group’s backing provided a mainstream endorsement of the controversial field, which critics say could dampen efforts to reduce climate pollution.

Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, praised the university and SilverLining, a nonprofit that has spearheaded efforts to advance geoengineering research, for seeking to conduct their experiment atop the USS Hornet. The World War II-era ship is now a Smithsonian-affiliated museum.

That approach is “a fantastic model for educating the public on this important type of research and we hope there are more such opportunities in the future,” she said.

More money on the way

The Quadrature Climate Foundation, a philanthropy associated with the hedge fund Quadrature Capital, said most of its grants are dedicated to reducing carbon emissions and removing them from the atmosphere, rather than blocking sunlight. But it will continue to support geoengineering, which accounts for less than 5 percent of its $930 million funding portfolio.

“We remain firmly committed to advancing transparent, equitable, and science-based approaches to understand and potentially mitigate climate risks,” Greg De Temmerman, the foundation’s chief science and programs officer, said in a statement.

Quadrature recently told MIT Technology Review that it plans to provide $40 million for work in the field over the next three years, double what all foundations and wealthy donors provided from 2008 to 2018.

SilverLining and SRI International, another nonprofit that helped guide the Alameda experiment, did not respond to requests for comment. But SilverLining Executive Director Kelly Wanser said in May that her group provided about 10 percent of the funding for the Alameda project.

“There’s no money from any kind of fossil interests or anything like that,” Wanser told POLITICO. “It’s climate-related philanthropic funding.”

The University of Washington declined to answer questions about its relationships with SilverLining and other donors. Instead, the university sent a statement attributed to Wanser and professors Sarah Doherty and Rob Wood noting that the team is “already exploring alternative paths forward” for the experiment.

Longtime Google executive Alan Eustace, who helped fund the University of Washington’s marine cloud brightening program, declined to comment on whether he would continue to support its solar geoengeering tests. Other people or groups backing the program did not respond to requests for comment.

They include the Larsen Lam Climate Change Foundation, which was established by cryptocurrency billionaire Chris Larsen and his wife, Lyna Lam; the Kissick Family Foundation launched by the late investor John Kissick; and the Cohler Charitable Fund of former Facebook executive Matt Cohler.

The program’s other supporters are inventor Armand Neukermans, venture capitalists Chris and Crystal Sacca, and software engineer Dan Scales.