One of the world’s top funders of progressive campaigns is promoting a controversial plan to shield the rapidly melting Arctic from the warmth of the sun.
Billionaire George Soros announced his support for a proposal to increase cloud cover at the top of the world in a speech last week at the Munich Security Conference. His comments raised the prospect that the hedge fund manager — a frequent target of conservative criticism and conspiracy theories — might become more involved in climate-related politics, an issue that has not historically captured a large amount of his attention.
Soros’ newfound interest in what’s known as solar geoengineering comes as the United States and other countries consider ramping up research into sunlight-blocking technologies that could rapidly reduce global warming (Climatewire, March 26, 2021).
But deploying those potential climate fixes wouldn’t prevent ocean acidification and other harms associated with the growing surplus of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and could lead to a rapid spike in warming if they were scrapped, experts say. Various geoengineering approaches also come with potential side effects that are difficult to predict and could be hard to manage without international standards, which don’t currently exist.
“Our civilization is in danger of collapsing because of the inexorable advance of climate change,” Soros said during a 40-minute speech at the annual international forum in Germany. Slashing heat-trapping emissions and adapting to a hotter world “are necessary but not sufficient,” he said. “The climate system is broken, and it needs to be repaired.”
The fix favored by Soros is a targeted form of solar geoengineering that’s being researched by the Center for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. The center is proposing to use more than 500 ocean vessels powered by waves and wind to spray seawater into the atmosphere during the Arctic summer. The ships would imitate the natural process that occurs when waves break over the ocean, creating tiny droplets of water vapor that could become sunlight-reflecting clouds.
“We need to refreeze the Arctic,” former U.K. climate envoy David King, who founded and now chairs the center, said in a video played during Soros’ speech. The solar geoengineering process, known as marine cloud brightening, “would reflect sunlight away from the ice layer formed over the Arctic sea during the polar winter, with year-on-year growth of the last ice layer,” King said.
Volleyball in Greenland
Climate change is a relatively new focus for Soros, who has donated over $32 billion to the Open Society Foundations, a network of pro-democracy nonprofits that he created in 1984. Little of the network’s programing is specifically focused on global warming.
In the past decade, Soros has given more than $187.7 million to support Democratic candidates and campaigns, according to federal data compiled by the watchdog group OpenSecrets. That includes almost $128.6 million that Soros contributed to Democrats in the past two years, making him the nation’s biggest individual donor in the 2022 election cycle.
In Munich, Soros said he has “always been fascinated by the Greenland ice sheet.” But he took a more active interest last July when the area was hit by weather “so warm that scientists there could play volleyball in short-sleeve shirts and shorts,” Soros said.
“When I saw this, I sent a team of photographers to Greenland to gather visual evidence,” he added. “They were present when a second event occurred in September, and they recorded it live.”
That intense, late summer heat wave caused around 12 billion tons of ice to melt and run off into the sea. Scientists estimate that more than 200,000 square miles of the ice sheet — an area bigger than California — was affected by the unusual melting event (Climatewire, Sept. 8, 2022).
Greenland’s heat waves seem to have spurred Soros’ interest in climate change — and geoengineering.
“The melting of the Greenland ice sheet would increase the level of the oceans by 7 meters. That poses a threat to the survival of our civilization,” he said. “I wasn’t willing to accept that fate, so I tried to find out whether anything could be done to avoid it.”
Soros argued that the Cambridge plan should proceed with “proper scientific safeguards and in consultation with local Indigenous communities.” Harvard University in 2021 scrapped a similar small-scale experiment in northern Sweden that would have released sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the stratosphere after it was met with strong opposition from the local Saami people (Climatewire, June 10, 2021).
It’s unclear if Soros is helping to underwrite the Center for Climate Repair’s Arctic geoengineering plan. A spokesperson for Soros declined to respond to funding questions. The Open Society Foundations and the University of Cambridge didn’t respond to requests for comment.
‘Dangerous centralization of power’
Soros’ speech prompted criticism and calls for caution from geoengineering researchers.
“George Soros should have known better,” Prakash Kashwan, an environmental studies professor at Brandeis University, said in an email. “The technological choices that he is advocating might fundamentally undermine his life-long mission of promoting ‘open societies.'”
Deploying geoengineering technologies could lead to “a dangerous centralization of power and control in the hands of authoritarian-minded billionaires and politicians,” Kashwan added. “Technological choices are not a one-way street and don’t work according to the technically-defined narrow understandings that scientists like to showcase.”
Other experts suggested Soros was right to be concerned about climate change, but could be seizing on the wrong solution.
“We should be looking very carefully at options for decreasing” the impacts of global warming, said Chris Field, an earth system science professor at Stanford University. “At this point, we don’t know enough about the technical and social issues surrounding solar geoengineering to have a clear picture of whether or not it should be deployed. We do, however, have a compelling motivation to learn more through research.”
Reporter Chelsea Harvey contributed.