• Jacob Bourne

Harvard Researcher Leads Grassroots MEER:ReflEction Project to Save Humanity from Climate Change

Researcher Ye Tao, a Principal Investigator at the Rowland Institute at Harvard University, is leading an effort to use mirrors to cool the Earth to avert the most devastating effects of climate change.

MEER:ReflEction project mirrors reflect solar radiation back into space cooling Earth.
Ocean-based mirrors reflect solar radiation back into space. Credit: MEER:ReflEction project

The MEER:ReflEction project intends to employ vast arrays of thin-film-coated glass mirrors over land and oceans to reflect solar radiation back into space to cool the biosphere. Some of the radiation could be concentrated and redirected to bolster agriculture and renewable energy — a triple-win for the climate, food and energy production.

The mirrors would also play a role in reducing ocean acidification, which is caused by excess atmospheric CO2 being continuously absorbed by the oceans, wreaking havoc on aquatic ecosystems. The plan is to use the concentrated radiation from the mirrors to heat marine bivalve shells such as from oysters discarded after human consumption to yield calcium oxide. The oceans would then be limed with the calcium oxide to neutralize excess CO2 and thus reduce ocean acidity. The process is also aimed to be an energy-efficient and economical carbon capture method.

The rub is that about 15-20 trillion square meters of land and ocean areas would need to be covered with mirrors to reduce global average temperature, an effort envisioned to be completely funded by people, not corporations.

MEER: ReflEction founder Ye Tao shared his thoughts on the project with The Carbonic. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: The idea of using mirrors to cool the Earth has been around for quite a while. Why do you think it hasn’t yet been implemented at scale, and why is your plan different?

A: Proposals to put mirrors into space have been around for a couple of decades. Specifically, land-based mirrors haven't really been proposed. I think a lot of the climate mitigation projects out there fail to recognize that scalability is key to the endeavor. And central to scalability is the durability of the materials and availability of making, say 1x of the infrastructure to achieve specific targets.

For something this scale where you have to cover a significant fraction of the planet over an extended duration, the only feasible engineering approach is to basically adopt a material system that lasts for decades, centuries — essentially the same timescale as the lifetime of the greenhouse gases, namely, CO2. So we're competing against the stability of the agents, the primary drivers.

In our framework, we specifically emphasize the need for glass mirrors. It’s not just any mirrors; you cannot use plastic mirrors and you cannot use mylar in space, glass is the only thing that we have access to that is compatible with this engineering challenge. It's kind of a miracle that we have enough material to manufacture such glass.

Q: What’s the current status of the MEER ReflEction project?

A: We're in the stage of still doing primary theoretical analyses to get more precise numbers on the exact effectiveness of the cooling potential of mirrors, both for local environments and also globally. To answer those questions, we need to calculate the fraction of light that's actually reflected away successfully into space, as a function of different meteorological conditions and different locations. So we first have to develop the theoretical framework to do that calculation. Then we have to interface the model with atmospheric data of the various particles and gases that are doing the absorption. So that's on the theoretical front. We also have field experiments planned to assess local adaptation potential.

Q: At what scale do you think this project could meaningfully combat climate change? About how much of the Earth’s surface would need to be covered with mirrors?

A: The scale needed is roughly 20 to 30% of the total global agricultural area. We envision this project to be very different from traditional geoengineering because the power would be in the hands of the people. There's no other technology out there that can enable small communities and individuals to adapt to what's coming.

We also have a team working on how to use marine bivalves as a CO2 capture method, which is, in our opinion, the most efficient because shells are a dense form of carbon. Their growth is solar-powered via phytoplankton. So, if we, in addition, do marine-based infrastructure, then the need for the 30% on land would be even less, so we would be talking about 10%.

The land-based field studies are the simplest to conduct because we already have those mirrors at scale; the technology exists that should last for decades. For ocean-based infrastructure, there’s a lot of R&D involved that we don’t currently have the funds to undertake.

Q: What are the advantages of placing the mirrors on the ocean versus on land?

A: We can basically create oases in the ocean, and it wouldn't compete with, say, the need to access land or even return the land to nature. So there's an advantage in exploring that. Also, in principle, if you have more of the Earth's surface to work this, you can fine-tune the global response much easier than if you're restricted to certain landmasses. So we can achieve much more uniform cooling, and the cooling that best approximates the net result of pre-industrial climates.

Q: Since dark ocean waters have a lower albedo than parts of land, would it be more beneficial to place the mirrors on the ocean to maximize reflectivity?

A: Yes, of course, and also if you strategically place them, say, in the Gulf of Mexico, it's entirely possible to divert hurricanes because if you cool down the water below a certain temperature, there's not enough thermal energy to drive hurricanes. So there are many benefits to ocean-based infrastructure, but it's much harder to implement and requires a lot more funding.

Another challenge with the ocean-based infrastructure is designing it so that it can submerge on-demand to evade inclement weather.

Q: Proposing techno-fixes to address climate change can often face opposition to varying degrees depending on the specific technology. Has the MEER ReflEction project gotten any negative feedback?

A: The number one question we get is whether birds are going to be hurt by the mirrors, which is very easy to address: no, they will not be hurt. It's only dangerous when you concentrate the light, and for ordinary cooling applications, you don't need to do that. So, at most, they will just see two images of the sun, and it will be a little bit brighter, but they will not be hurt.

The second question we get is, “are pilots going to be blinded?” Again, it's the same answer: no, they're not going to be blinded. They also rely on sophisticated instrumentation other than sight for navigation.

Q: When implemented at full scale, how much carbon emissions could this project offset?

A: The target for this project is to go full scale and reach full implementation within 30, 40 years, fully canceling anthropogenic emissions and use mirror-based renewable technologies to fully transition. This project technologically has the potential to fully decarbonize the economy and to fully reverse the physical impact of greenhouse gases.

The amount of mirrors you need to implement every year is roughly proportional to how much you emit. Right, so the more you emit, the more you need to put out to compensate for the heating effect, but assume that we just exactly put out as many mirrors as needed to compensate for 40 gigatons of CO2 every year. So actually, you gain over time because the CO2 still decays a little bit but mirrors decay on a much slower timescale.

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Q: What’s the targeted timeline for implementing the project?

A: The timeline that we have available is a function of the rate at which we implement mirror reflection. If we don't do this, we don't have 30 to 40 years; civilization will collapse in most parts of the world. The 30, 40 years is assuming that we implement this within the next few years, not more than five. We have a concerted global effort to do this transformation.

It's the time scale over which the most ambitious and collective effort has to happen to have a chance of stabilizing the planet. It would be like a full 30 to 40 years of World War II-level efforts globally on project MEER ReflEction. Short of that, humanity is doomed.

Q: Do you think that this is the only technology proposed right now that could avert catastrophe?

A: Yes, that’s correct. There is stratospheric aerosol injection, but that is a bandaid. The problem with that approach is that it inhibits the transition to renewable energy. It would be like committing to a slow death.

People often think about these things in dollar amounts, but it’s the wrong mindset. We need to think about energy costs and material costs, and by those metrics, direct air capture would not be scalable. There could be legislation and lobbying that creates regulations and carbon taxes to make such companies profitable but won’t have any measurable climate impact. Some people and companies would get rich, but it’s just part of perpetuating the system. Those are not solutions; they are distractions.

Q: What’s the current plan for funding the project?

A: The current plan is first to make sure the field experiments get successfully implemented and produce data. At the same time, we're developing educational outreach for schools, both two-year and four-year institutions of higher education, as well as middle school and high school networks. So it's very much going to be a grassroots, ground-up movement funded mostly by volunteer hours. We have many pieces of intellectual property that could be patented and used for securing VC funding, but we have made the conscious decision not to go that route until we have absolutely no resources to continue because there's no meaning in saving humanity if it's only to perpetuate the current exploitative system.

We think this could be used as a vehicle to unify humanity and show that we're all the same and with common wants and desires. We want to help reset humanity on the right path because exponential growth in economics and exploiting nature is a formula for disaster.

Q: What do you want the general public to know about the MEER ReflEction project?

A: The general public needs to understand that greenhouse gases are not amenable to be captured at scale; CO2 direct air capture is just greenwashing. We do not have the energy to do that at scale, nor the materials. That's the most important message.

The second is that we need abundant material to solve a global issue, and we need dirt-cheap material. Anything that involves exotic materials or highly engineered material that involves difficult fabrication processes will not be scalable. So we need to think simple. Glass mirrors are a basic material that can be produced in abundance.

Also, people need to know that this economy needs to change, we have to change our value systems, and capitalism needs to go.

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