Transcript: Buying Time With Geoengineering
This week's interview with Ye Tao, available to everyone
[00:03:09] Rachel Donald: Thank you very much for joining me on Planet: Critical, it was your colleague that reached out and said I had to interview you about this project that you're working on.
[00:03:17] Ye Tao: I must be like a Peter, I guess. Right?
[00:03:19] Rachel Donald: Can't remember, which is embarrassing, but I'm sure he's listening.
So can you dive into a little bit more and explicate it a little bit, maybe your background as well, because I read over some of the papers when we initially set out this interview a few weeks ago and yeah, I need it explained.
[00:03:38] Ye Tao: Basically my background is an experimental physicist with also training throughout my undergrad years in chemistry, biochemistry. So I sort of have a more interdisciplinary background compared to the traditional academic.
I was in college, you know, in the 2000s, so that’s when this multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary training became a thing. So I sort of also took some advice from mentors to really change field inbetween college and my PhD and really did something that's completely different. But my core expertise is in physical instrumentation design building, and also the analysis of mechanisms at a small scale. But it turns out that basically the same physics and chemistry apply even at planetary scales.
[00:04:41] Rachel Donald: Right. I mean, that would make sense if you think about the laws of physics. So I know you're at Harvard, right? You're working on this Meer project?
[00:04:49] Ye Tao: No, actually my contract with Harvard ended September 2021. So I was hired for a fixed term for five years to do something that's not climate-related, it was to build a microscope that's a hybrid between MRI and atomic force microscope. So the goal is to be able to take atomic resolution images in 3D of small specks of matter, such as viral particles or a molecule drug complexes, or individual transistor chips or just a single device.
And the reason why such a microscope would be very useful is generally the structure of things define their function. And that's true for the human body that all the way down to individual devices and also the interior, you know, design of a house and et cetera, et cetera. Being able to understand the composition and structure of small things which we can not really see using conventional methods of optical microscopy is very important in trying to understand how small things worked. For example, the COVID virus.
[00:05:57] Rachel Donald: And did you succeed, did you build the microscope?
[00:06:00] Ye Tao: We made incremental steps towards such a microscope. Such a thing requires—you find out that you're trying to, you know, build the sensors and then to build the sensors for this experiment, you need to build additional instruments to make the sensors. So it's an iterative thing, the whole thing just expands to several projects.
But we, in the process of this trying to achieve a grand goal, we were able to develop new engineering and new science. So for example, we were able to make the world's strongest oxide magnet within film. And we were also able to demonstrate the most precise machining that people have demonstrated basically with atomic depth resolution. We also made some mechanical sensors that are unprecedented for sensitivities and the frequency performances.
So basically the project was on track to meeting the targets of exponential increase in sensitivity by the middle of the 2020s. And in 2018, 2017, I realized that, oops, that's basically the date where the impacts of climate change will become so dramatic that it would be quite unlikely that we will be able to continue in this way of life and expect continued progress in science and technology because the foundation for doing such grand things—basically the food and the resource, political stability—will likely not be there anymore within the coming decade or two.
So that's why we basically slowed down work on the nanoscience, but then returned to analyzing the problem of global climate, and whether there's anything that we can actually do to make an impact to slow down the process or to hopefully fix it.
[00:08:10] Rachel Donald: So, that project then developed like that at Harvard because of the awareness of the team of the upcoming impact of climate change?
[00:08:18] Ye Tao: Yes. Realizing the urgency is what motivated me to pivot the resources of my group to start tackling this problem.
[00:08:32] Rachel Donald: And, out of curiosity, receptive were Harvard to that pivot?
[00:08:38] Ye Tao: So, the Rowland Institute is something that's not really embedded within the Harvard campus, it’s actually much closer to MIT due to the history of the Institute. My position at the time, a Rowland Fellow, we had full opportunity to basically pursue whatever research that we deemed important.
But of course my pivot in direction two, three years into my five-year program was essentially judged as career suicide. So it's not taken very well by the administration. But personally I think, the sacrifice, it's not even something I want to consider given the knowledge of what is actually happening with the climate. It's just the ethical, a moral imperative to really do the right thing.
[00:09:35] Rachel Donald: Are you seeing this trend on campuses at universities with researchers abandoning sort of their original projects to focus on this global crisis?
[00:09:44] Ye Tao: Certainly not.
[00:09:45] Rachel Donald: No.
[00:09:46] Ye Tao: Most people are so invested in their work that's, it's almost difficult for them to really sit down and have time to reflect on the larger picture. And also academia is such a competitive place that if you lost focus, you know, even for brief periods, you might lose your ability to continue in the field.
[00:10:08] Rachel Donald: Yeah, definitely. I was speaking with David Orr earlier this week and he was discussing the the fact that society's become so atomized and fragmented, and then the problems that we see in campuses when education becomes atomized and fragmented. It's a theme that comes up quite a lot on this show, the fact that it's incredible that educators don't cross the hallway or cross campuses to speak to one another and to find out what's going on in other departments to create an aggregate of research.
But I still find it very, very surprising every time I hear that the brightest people in the world with the access to the most resources are just as slow as the general public at coming to terms with how urgent the situation is.
[00:10:58] Ye Tao: Yeah, I think the basic problem is that the way resources is distributed, as you say.
We have managed, through the capitalistic system and the incentive structure, to make it exceedingly difficult through any career to make it to the top, or a position where you really can have just the basics so you can do something that really motivates you. It’s true for people working in factories, as much as it professors working in universities and also for millions of artists who are trying to be creative. Only the very few, arguably not the most artistically talented or deserving, are being promoted for financial gains. It’s the whole systematic issue that manifests across disciplines and all walks of life.
[00:11:57] Rachel Donald: Yeah, there’s this illusion of scarcity that kind of keeps everybody in place, fighting, even though there's so many resources available and so much funding available.The fact that it's limited to a hierarchy means people keep having to fight over scraps. Even in education, it's funders that are deciding what gets studied and what doesn't, really.
[00:12:29] Ye Tao: Yes, basically. Outside of the Western world, in many places, the basic right to even to survive has been deprived. So, in the West, extrinsic motivations of power, of status and popularity are essentially ways to get at, simply, money. Wherein money is essentially the tool that ensures the right to survive and the rights to reproduce, to reproduction. So I think that that's a problem. And there needs to be social engineering that happens to decouple power, status and popularity for money.
[00:13:16] Rachel Donald: Hmm. Yeah, that's interesting. Although, if we had more time, I think I'd like to debate the use of the term of social engineering, because I think it's social engineering that's gotten us into this state. So it's, I dunno, reverse engineering perhaps. But we, we won't get semantic about it.
Tell me then, before we get into the nitty gritty of the project, what was the moment or the series of moments that made you decide to commit career suicide and focus on climate change?
[00:13:46] Ye Tao: So I don't think that these are very precise moments, but rather a long process through maybe 10, 15 years of my scientific education and also just intuitively seeing how this massive consumption is not really compatible with any idea of a limited planet, or what really brings people joy.
Personally when I was a young, I was really drawn to science and the pursuit of knowledge from books, and some good TV shows back then, and also the practice of an instrument, you know, attaining the state of flow.
These are things that really brought a deep joy to me as a kid and a teenager. And also, being able to really just have the chance to focus on one thing or a couple of things very deeply and devote your whole schedule to that purpose. The sense of flow and enjoyment and the purpose and the level of joy that that brought was really sort of inspirational to me.
Comparing that with some of my peers, including ones that I met at Harvard as an undergrad, who somehow devoted their time to the pursuit of financial gains already at school, but then continuing after their graduation, many of them shared that they felt an intense sense of a lack of accomplishment, or, how should I put it?
They felt highly unfulfilled and uncertain of the meaning of life. And many of them became deeply religious as a result of the feeling of the lack of satisfaction when they fail to, say, make a 50% gain profit over their performance in the past year. And obviously this sort of exponential expectation of performing better and better year to year, that's just not realistic.
[00:16:20] Rachel Donald: Yeah.
[00:16:21] Ye Tao: So they very soon run out of the ability to keep feeding some sense of, or goal in life.
[00:16:30] Rachel Donald: And was, was this within, you know, the physics, biology and chemistry departments?
[00:16:34] Ye Tao: Well, actually at Harvard, there's very few undergrads studying pure science and engineering, at least not back in the early 2000s. And many of my classmates who started out being really interested in chemistry, physics all went to investment banking and finance.
[00:16:58] Rachel Donald: Very good. What a good thing to do with your education.
[00:17:03] Ye Tao: It doesn't end there. For many who did go into a PhD and the further studies, they would also go to the financial sectors, and also working for the military industrial complex.
[00:17:19] Rachel Donald: Yeah. It's all part of the same problem, isn't it? But this isn't meant to be a sociological episode. We are meant to be discussing your project. Let's get into it: What, I saw, what I understood, I read through that paper like three times, and I'm still not sure if it's a metaphor or if it's actually what you're proposing.
Do you want to put mirrors on the surface of the planet, or is that metaphor?
[00:17:44] Ye Tao: No, it's actually what we want and believe would be necessary for the persistence of human life on this planet. The placement and where you put them needs to be very carefully chosen. So there are many locations where there would be very overwhelming local benefits. So these are hypotheses we are trying to test in field experiments.
So basically, when you put the mirror into a crop field, let's say, it prevents a fraction of the light from be converted into thermal energy. And the thermal energy that's usually absorbed by plants needs to be dissipated somehow, and plants do that by evaporating water. So your water consumption is direct portion of how much a sunlight and also near infrared that gets absorbed.
[00:18:35] Rachel Donald: Oh, that's interesting.
[00:18:37] Ye Tao: Yeah. So that's one piece of the clue. The other is oftentimes crops cannot make use of 100% of the solar irradiance that's given to them, especially in latitudes where there's sometimes too much sun, when through the year it’s too hot to perform agriculture.
So putting Meer strategically in the geometrically well-designed patterns into crops can help to lower the amount of heat generated and giving overall a better light environment for the crops
[00:19:19] Rachel Donald: Okay. Is this a tool, then, for agribusiness as well as combating the effects of climate change? Or is there also a proposal to put mirrors in natural landscapes in order to purely combat climate change?
[00:19:35] Ye Tao: We envisioned the project to proceed through several stages. In the very initial stage, it should bring overwhelming local benefits to the farmers who are at the frontline of climate change.
So, the strong, local cooling, it would be an incentive for a grassroots type of adaptation with the technology. At small scale, there is no risk of disturbing planetary boundaries. So it's very nice that people are able to do these experiments and to really test out the problems that can arise.
For example, are there impacts on local birds? Are there impacts on insects and biomass? These are scientific questions that can be ready to be tested without having to worry about a global impact on a small scale. And once those are worked out, and if a positive impact can be demonstrated, then there will be incentive by agribusiness—wine makers in Spain and the US who are struggling to maintain production—to perhaps use these technologies more broadly.
And when adaptation is at a global level, let's say 10% of cropland has been partially thermally and photometrically protected, we calculate that we basically would be able to maintain current climate over the next century.
We can completely rebalance the current thermal imbalance that's driving climate change if 10% of global croplands, roughly, uh, were covered progressively over the remainder of this century.
[00:21:21] Rachel Donald: What really? Just 10%?
[00:21:23] Ye Tao: Yes. The exact value needs to be demonstrated in larger scale experiments, also coupled with the satellite observations, which we do not have the resources currently to conduct, but from evaluation of basic light transfer through the atmosphere and also existing satellite data on short wave, radiation downloading, uploading, that's the expectation.
[00:21:52] Rachel Donald: And does this directly combat the part of climate change that is global warming, or are there other benefits? Has your data shown that you see an increase in water production retention in areas in which you're testing these.
[00:22:10] Ye Tao: Yeah, so on a large scale, yes, the eventual goal is to stabilize the planetary climate, but we have to emphasize that's a very long-term goal over multiplicator timescales. The most immediate benefits are local benefits of water savings. So we do have prototypes that operate in different environments, including floating, which can be deployed in reservoirs or agricultural usage, residential usage, but also pump hydro stations. We have preliminary data showing a reduction in evaporation rates underneath floating mirrors. So there are basically a lot of co-benefits at local level, in addition to the sort of unintentional global cooling benefit.
[00:22:59] Rachel Donald: What are the impacts that these mirrors have on ecosystems that you've seen?
[00:23:04] Ye Tao: We have not conducted experiments directly asking that question. But from just the reading the literature, for example, of the mechanistic causes for coral bleaching, it's mostly driven by thermal stress and heat waves—say if you are two degrees over their upper thermal limit for two weeks.
Our water based experiments show that floating mirror rays can decrease water temperature in our test system by a few degrees on hot days, like four or five degrees.
[00:23:45] Rachel Donald: Oh, wow.
[00:23:46] Ye Tao: But firstly, it also depends on flow state of water in the field, et cetera. There's also a paper coming out last year, just a few months before, which shows that during these heat waves, if you reduce the amount of light reaching the corals, they have a better chance of survival. Meer essentially does both things. They put out a fraction of the light and also they buffer against extreme temperature rises during these heat waves.
So there should be a possibility for these very targeted protection intervention to preserve very important ecosystems.
[00:24:22] Rachel Donald: But surely we also need to study what the impact would be on local ecosystems, because as we're seeing increasingly the problem with the climate crisis, and with every crisis, is that so many things are interlinked. You do one thing to help one part of the problem and you create a whole new problem. Given how fragile ecosystems are in the world, I would have thought that would be a priority to understand what impact these measures could have.
[00:24:43] Ye Tao: Correct, yes, and ecosystems are essentially driven by physical parameters, including temperature, moisture, light level and acidity. So these impacts, and how mirror rays can impact them, can be analyzed. For a lot of primary production, the most severe ecosystem stressors are temperature, heat waves, and the resulting lack of water dropped.
So these are universally detrimental to primary production, basically plants. And that's true both for trees and also crops, but also for Marine phytoplankton.
[00:25:27] Rachel Donald: This is a slight tangent, but what do you think about the argument that techno-optimism, or the use of technology deployed to directly combat the effects of climate change—rather than combating the roots of the issue such as over consumption, everything that you were discussing at the beginning, what do you think about the school of thought that that just perpetuates business as usual and essentially will only delay the impact of the crisis rather than solve it?
[00:25:59] Ye Tao: I agree. And that's why perhaps we started a conversation today discussing how society is currently structured, the incentivized destruction of the planet and we at Meer in no way think that Meer is a solution to the climate crisis. It's merely the cornerstone to humans surviving past the coming decades. Nothing more.
And we also prioritize developing technology that it is open source, which is exceedingly difficult, difficult because funders who approach us basically want to use our technologies for profit, which we have refrained from doing so because we understand clearly that perpetuating the current economic system is futile in the end if your goal is really to give humanity a chance to perhaps accomplish miracles.
Humans are special in that we really are preoccupied by the future. And that's manifested from the individual level to a societal level. People are already worried about how long they’ll live, and, the quest for longevity is what has occupied a lot of, say, emperors and, dictators when they are in power.
And at the societal level, I think many civilizations think that they are unique and that they can persist for millennia and be the one that really goes to Mars and builds a colony there. But then if you look at the data of the longevity of the civilizations, and of the dynasties, one finds that the longevity follows a log normal distribution with the most probable age on this log normal plot being 230 years. And our current fossil fuels civilisation is basically around that age.And I think evidence is consistent with us being just another of these civilizations.
[00:28:10] Rachel Donald: Yeah, of course, and I always find it baffling when, despite the millennia of evidence you're bringing up, that people think that this will be the one that sees it through for whatever reason. Although I do understand that on an individual level, it is extremely difficult, despite our wealth of imagination, to imagine things being any differently, really.
On the fossil fuel note, then, how much energy does it take to create these mirrors or the amount that you would need to deploy in the world to cover 10% of cropland?
[00:28:44] Ye Tao: You need a to invest 3.6% of current energy consumption to maintain this planet.
[00:28:54] Rachel Donald: What do you mean?
[00:28:55] Ye Tao: The world consumes about 20 terawatts of energy of power. So you'd take 3 to 4% of that, which is quickly roughly less than 1 terawatt, you’d use that energy to make the glass and the mirrors and deploy them. That's roughly how much energy you need to invest.
[00:29:21] Rachel Donald: I'm not a physicist, but I have had a couple on the show and they have explained to me that the energy available to us in fossil fuels is just so much more powerful than what we can do with electricity—please correct me if I start rambling or—
[00:29:41] Ye Tao: I think that's probably correct. So the 18 or 20 Terawatts of power refers to predominantly fossil fuel energy in terms of heat that you burn, by burning it in oxygen. Out of that you convert a small fraction into electricity.
So if we're talking about how much electricity, that's a small fraction of what you can get from the heat. And both of these human powers using fossil fuels are dwarfed by, the power that's currently heating the earth, which is at 430–1000 terrawatts. So it's a 50 times mismatch between the problem that we created out there versus how much technical power we have available to address the problem that we've created.
So the analogy that I like to use when explaining the problem to people is that climate change and global warming is like cancer that we got while smoking, uh, fossil fuels. But Right. now it's not possible to cure the cancer by stopping to smoke because the problem out there has a life of its own. It's still going to grow and amplify heating that's locked in. It will certainly bring us past to 2 degrees Celsius somewhere around 2045, and that's more or less independent of how we manage our emissions from now going forward.
[00:31:11] Rachel Donald: That's interesting. So your argument then, I assume, would be that we have to devote research to technology that can combat this problem. It's not as simple as just stopping everything tomorrow and the world will sort itself out eventually.
[00:31:25] Ye Tao: Correct. There's no way to get out of this by looking at the mitigation, and by mitigatio. I mean the conventional definition of mitigation of only working on the greenhouse gas emission and capture side, it's just not possible.
[00:31:42] Rachel Donald: I don't think I had quite understood that. So what kind of things do we need to be looking at then? What else do we need to be looking at? Because there were a couple of reports recently about carbon capture technology—the emissions that it takes to create those plants will always outweigh that which they can actually recover from the atmosphere. You don't really ever see anything hopeful about the technology that we're currently working on.
[00:32:10] Ye Tao: Carbon capture technologies are all intrinsically limited by both the speed at which they can happen and also how much energy they actually need in order to run. So currently you need roughly to devote 10 years worth of energy to run the process, to capture one year of emissions.
[00:32:30] Rachel Donald: Oh, right. Okay.
[00:32:31] Ye Tao: So essentially at the current state, the technology is, excuse the word, a scam. Because it doesn't really do what it's publicized to do. It's doing more harm than good when we're trying to catch carbon because the process is so material intensive and so energy intensive.
[00:32:50] Rachel Donald: What direction do you think technology needs to go? In addition to Meer?
[00:32:57] Ye Tao: I think it’s to just return to a simplicity of how we live and become more connected to the land. So we need to educate the next generation about the reality that we're facing, and we need to really teach how to, as far as we can, slow down the pace of life and just learn to avoid key emissions. There's a few like low hanging fruits out there that can have a quite drastic impact. Examples include car transportation and also heating of houses. We talk about airline emissions and international shipping, but these are only like on the order of 2% of global emissions
[00:33:57] Rachel Donald: Yeah.
[00:33:58] Ye Tao: In comparison, car transportation, it's upward of 10%.
[00:34:03] Rachel Donald: But what can we do about those emissions that are locked in, about that 2 degrees that we're going to hit in 2024?
[00:34:10] Ye Tao: That's why some form of solar radiation management such as using ground-based mirrors are absolutely necessary because essentially heat comes in as shortwave radiation from the sun. It gets converted into heat and stays a little while in the biosphere and then radiates out as longwave radiation.
So greenhouse gases operates at the exit end, but that end is a very slow and recalcitrant. So the only way we can make an impact is on the input side of heat. We want to intercept some of the lights so that they don't get converted into heat in the first place. And when there's less heat to get rid of, then we essentially bypass their greenhouse gas one way of tracking mechanism.
[00:35:01] Rachel Donald: That's so interesting. The heat that you're directing away from the planet, can you also capture that as a form of energy?
[00:35:11] Ye Tao: First of all, yes. And there are many companies working on that and here was a company that's doing mirror based electricity heat production. But, once again, energy production is not the big problem that we're facing.We're really facing ecological crisis by heat coming into the biosphere. And, in comparison, you know, human power consumption—18 terawatt—it’s dwarfed by the 1000 terawatts that's heating the earth. So the problem out there is way bigger than just the energy provisioning that we're trying to also solve.
[00:35:58] Rachel Donald: I find this so interesting because of the way that the ecological crisis is so often framed, you know, the focus on fossil fuels, which we just can't stop from one day to the next; the lack, in my opinion, of attention on forests—so we could stop deforesting one day to the next and it would have a huge impact.
But also this—I’ve never heard the numbers put down in the way that you just have: 18 terawatts of sort of human produced energy versus all of the energy that's raining down from the sun that's been locked and due to, essentially, not direct geo-engineering, but the geo-engineering that we've done accidentally since the industrialization and with a fossil fuel based economy.
You hear about the sun being a source of energy, and people wanting to harness it, and you hear about global warming, about that output, as you're putting it, the end result of the impacts that we're having on the climate, but I don't think I've ever heard anybody talk about the fact that the amount of heat raining down on us by that giant battery in the sun is an issue in itself, and is something else that needs to be combated.
[00:37:07] Ye Tao: Yeah, I think the lack of system discussion is a very good illustration of the socialization of academia. So people that work on materials and energy, they basically just cite that climate change is caused by energy. Therefore we need to make energy more efficient and that's how they motivate their papers and write their proposal grants.
And very few, basically nobody in my opinion, has really taken a step back and asked the question: is becoming a renewable going to be sufficient for addressing the crisis? Of course in the past a couple of years there's more people realising and speaking in these terms, but you know, when we started to work on this topic in 2017, 2018, there was basically no mention of this fact.
[00:37:55] Rachel Donald: Even the conversation around renewable, what I'm hearing interviewing experts, is more of the fact that we'll never be able to power the world in the way that we currently do using renewable energy, the amount of energy it takes to create renewables and rebuild them and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It's kind of a pipe dream. We need to decrease energy consumption so that the critiques that are there are still always about, as you say, energy.
When I've thought about the ecological crisis and the planetary boundaries, I very much thought of the planet and haven't really gone beyond the larger solar ecosystem that we're a part of that is equally impacting us every day. It's just not something I've thought of. And I think it's something a lot of people wouldn't have thought of because prior to us messing about with how the world works, the sun was such an intrinsic part of what makes life possible on the planet. So you would just never think of it as a problem.
[00:39:01] Ye Tao: Yeah. I mean, because nature has been so good to us in the past 10,000 years in providing a very stable environment and this constant backing in our evolutionary history.
[00:39:13] Rachel Donald: How was it that you got onto the thermal probe?
[00:39:16] Ye Tao: Through reading a lot of literature on the ecosystem and the agricultural side of things. It's really just through learning what other scientists are doing. And it was really going through thousands to tens of thousands of papers, and synthesizing that collective learning by the community of the colleagues in different fields that we realized it's not really CO2 concentration per se.
It’s really the heat that's generated as a result of the initial perturbation and CO2 concentration that's really killing ecosystems and driving adverse climate events and extreme weather. So it's a result of synthesizing the literature.
[00:39:58] Rachel Donald: And how is it being received in academia thus far? Are people excited about the idea?
[00:40:03] Ye Tao: I think that most people, like colleagues who are scientists, hear this the first time and they say, of course it makes total sense.
Bt of course we have not really put out peer reviewed publications yet on the topic. These are still in writing because we're collecting field data and working on that processing. But at conferences and in private communications, it's been very well received.
[00:40:32] Rachel Donald: Who's funding you now that you've left Harvard?
[00:40:36] Ye Tao: From the beginning, it's clear that we would only have two or three years to work on this maximum and that COVID hit, then we lost a year of productivity. So we were not even able to finish the first round of plant experiments and write the papers. So, we basically are just giving the ideas out to different collaborators and hope to have the work continued in different laboratories.
So we have been partially successful in doing that.We have a collaboration with Plymouth State in New Hampshire. Several labs there are participating in field research and also then HTI, the community college in Concord, New Hampshire. And then recently we're starting a collaboration with a group at Stanford to do continuous measurement of water evaporation impact and water cooling using floating mirror rays, because they have much better weather there compared to New Hampshire for that kind of research.
And there's also farmers and people who reached out to us wanting to collaborate. So we're also gonna start citizen science projects, basically working with concerned citizens. There's many retirees these days, engineers and professors who are retired with rent kids who are concerned, who want to join us.
But, of course, funding is a problem because we’re basically funding ourselves, the group members, we have maybe 30, 40 people who are all volunteers and very dedicated. We donate our own money to the project.
[00:42:16] Rachel Donald: Wow. And is that because, as you said a few minutes ago, the ideology behind this is to have all of your data open source? So have you been approached by funders who then aren't interested in actually giving the money when they realize it's going to be more difficult to capitalize on the results of your research?
[00:42:36] Ye Tao: Ys, because that would be like contract signed, we wouldn't be able to really disclose the technical innovations to the public, which is not what we want to do. So, the fact that we're trying to develop everything open source and have that shared in a real time, open source manner is hindering progress because of the lack of the financial backing.
[00:43:01] Rachel Donald: Wow. Do you think that there could come a point where you need to get that financial backing and close the source of the—you know, make it a profitable venture for somebody just in order to be able to continue the research?
[00:43:16] Ye Tao: Well, there are parts of the framework that are suitable for such ventures, including, making distributed the solar energy capture systems that individual households can purchase. And that would work much more efficiently than conventional PV, for example. So for selected projects we’re open to such investments, but for the grand goal of agricultural and ecosystem applications, we have already shared the basic ideas. It's out there. I don't think it's patentable. So basically, I don't think investors would be interested in spending money or funding it because it's already freely available.
[00:43:57] Rachel Donald: Yeah, true. What other issues do you foresee as this project moves forward? Do you think that the public will like it? Do you think governments will like it?
[00:44:09] Ye Tao: Initial applications include, as we mentioned, the safeguarding agriculture, but also alleviating urban heat island effect, especially in crowded regions and areas, for example, in India and the Arabian peninsula where wet bulb days temperature exceeding human tolerance are expected in the coming years to decades.
So we have a branch of the Meer framework near urban, trying to collaborate with local universities in India to assess the cooling impact of mirror roofing against other alternatives, including white roofs, concrete roof and metal roofs. But, of course, it's again totally humanitarian, for nonprofit purposes.
[00:44:57] Rachel Donald: I was actually going to ask you if it would be more useful for people to have solar panels on their roofs, or these mirrors?
[00:45:04] Ye Tao: It really depends on where you are. If you're in very northern latitudes where most of the energy needs residentially is heating, then local cooling is probably not something that's great for you. But, of course, even using mirrors can also boost the efficiency of solar panels when the whole system is properly designed.
But for most of the global south where the major problem is overheating, then the cooling, the passive cooling benefits—it’s much cheaper compared to PV to implement, to bring it about some measurable impact.
[00:45:53] Rachel Donald: You said for those in Northern latitudes, the passive cooling probably isn't what people need, but would that not have a global effect anyway? Or is this solution very much tied to locale?
[00:46:06] Ye Tao: No, implementing mirrors everywhere on earth would have a global cooling impact. But the question is when the project is so advanced that such a global impact becomes relevant, I'm sure climate scientists in simulation departments would have investigated the impact of different patterns of implementation and their impact on the global circulation patterns.
So that's something in the future that will be very important for sure. In the short term, from an adaptation point of view, Meer can bring about local benefits, because I think just making sure that they did not have unintended consequences even on the local scale is a priority.
[00:46:57] Rachel Donald: Yeah. of course. When do you think you'll be able to establish all of that? How long would does that kind of research take?
[00:47:04] Ye Tao: In this coming year, we'll be able to say more about the soil and air cooling impact of a medium Meer rays on the order of a few tens of meters squared, as a function of aerial coverage of the mirrors. And we will also be able to say more about soil moisture retention as a function of the coverage.
And there's also one experiment looking at cooling of apartment buildings, by putting a mirrored roofing on top. So I think by this time next year we'll have most of the basic data to share.
[00:47:45] Rachel Donald: God, there really are a lot of benefits then, it goes beyond crops. I mean, if you were to put them on the top of buildings as well. In summary, you can keep heat down and people don't have to install air conditioning and then use energy that way and et cetera, et cetera. How interesting. It does seem to still like quite an alien idea, though. The idea of like 10% of cropland being covered in a mirror, there’s something so futuristic about it.
[00:48:11] Ye Tao: Yes, indeed. I mean, it's not a small undertaking. It’s a gigantic endeavor. It takes global coordination to be successful or to even, you know, merit a place in the discussion of how to deal with climate change.
But, uh, from an energy needs, from an energy intensity and material intensity perspective, it’s probably one of the most affordable and the most durable of proposals.
[00:48:45] Rachel Donald: Why the most durable?
[00:48:47] Ye Tao: Because glass is extremely stable and it's 100% recyclable. So let's say we were to implement this as strategy to temporarily stabilize the climate and also complete the energy transition to renewables, also using mirrors to boost renewable efficiencies.
Then greenhouse gases will eventually decay over centuries to millennium timescales as a result of natural processes. And as that happens, we need to retire the mirrors – what can we do with them? I mean, the glass you can just melt and make into construction materials or other structural materials.
So it’s a system that you can build now to tackle this climate challenge. But then, over time, you can then repurpose completely to other purposes as the greenhouse gas driver decays by natural processes.
[00:49:43] Rachel Donald: And how long would that take?
[00:49:46] Ye Tao: The natural decay takes 10,000 years to go to roughly 10% of the current levels.
[00:49:52] Rachel Donald: That's a long time.
[00:49:54] Ye Tao: Yeah, basically if you look at the data of human recorded human civilizations, that's a four to five standard deviations outside of the log normal distribution, which means that we'll never—you know, no civilisation can last that long.
Who knows? We always want to believe we are special.
[00:50:13] Rachel Donald: 10,000 years. Do you think the mirrors could last that long?
[00:50:19] Ye Tao: The glass and material will certainly last several centuries. I think there's a different loss mechanisms, and that's very likely location specific. So mirrors that are in the path of a hurricane or a tornado certainly would be gone, but there are locations where they would not be impacted at such events and then they can last for longer.
So the variety of the loss mechanisms and the average lifetime of these devices can conceivably be scaled to low number century timescales, certainly beyond the decadal timescale, because the existing solar mirrors have already demonstrated field lifetimes of 30, 40 years without meritable degradation. So we know it's somewhere in the century timescale.
[00:51:11] Rachel Donald: Why put them on the ground? Why not put them in the sky?
[00:51:16] Ye Tao: Because of the cost of launching them. If one does the fuel cost analysis, one realizes that space-based methods are essentially never going to happen because we don't have enough fuel or material to support such an endeavour.
[00:51:33] Rachel Donald: Right. Okay. It's as simple as that.
[00:51:35] Ye Tao: Yeah. It comes down to how much energy we'd have to work this as a civilization, and how much heat we need to reject.
So remember the bare minimum is energy rejected per energy invested of at least 50 times, because 50 times is the mismatch between global warming power and the total thermal power humanity has to work with.
But of course that's doing nothing, but to make the infrastructure and we need to eat, we need to house ourselves and heat our homes. So in the very optimistic event that we could somehow divert 3 or 4% of our energy to tackle climate change, then we'd need something that's much more durable.
[00:52:18] Rachel Donald: I see. I'm not a numbers person, I'm still trying to wrap my head all the different numbers. Are there other people working on different kinds of projects that are equally cost-effective and durable that you're really excited by and that you would like to see deployed alongside Meer?
[00:52:35] Ye Tao: So among the solar radiation management measurement schemes, stratospheric, aerosol injection is most prominently studied and highlighted, but—
[00:52:47] Rachel Donald: Is this where they blast stuff into the clouds?
[00:52:49] Ye Tao: Yes. Not into the clouds, into the stratosphere. But that method, I think is potentially the worst flavor of solar geoengineering to implement. The reason being that when you cut out sunlight like so uniformly, you also reduce the amount of visible light available for renewable energy generation—so for an ecosystem, photosynthesis, overall. So there are basically no spatial selectivity and thereby you impede the transition to renewables because there’s less light for modules to capture.
And especially when you have a nanoparticle scattering in the light into different directions, light comes in not as a collinated beam that's straight from the sun to the ground infrastructures. So many new technologies that operate based on concentrating solar technologies with sulphur onwards of 10 to 20%, decreasing efficiency by the end of the century. So that's a long way to basically ensure that we stayed on fossil fuel path. That's the worst type that you can imagine.
But I am quite interested by Marine cloud brightening technology. The idea is that these clouds are very white and they reflect sunlight just basically the same as mirrors. But the Marine clouds in a troposphere, first of all, they're short lived. They live for two or three days. So if something went wrong, they just rain down after a few days. So the ability to terminate experiments, that's one good thing about the proposal.
And the other proposal I think is the most of the promising is calling for injection of salt nanoparticles from the ocean itself. So you don't have a material limitation problem there. You're taking the salt from the ocean, which is so large it's barely making any difference. So the flux of salt into the air that's required is a small fraction of what sea spray and processes and hurricanes are already putting into the atmosphere. So there's minimal atmospheric disturbance from a chemical point of view. I think it's quite promising.
The difficulty, however, for this operation is, again, one of technology and energy costs. Retired professor Steven Filcher proposes to use wind power, a completely wind-powered system. But the challenge there I see is to do the mechanical designed for the system and test it and perfect it is a multi-decadal sort of engineering challenge. So how you get the energy to run the process, and also the metal fabricated, droplet making wafers in order to inject and to make the salt particles protocols at a really high throughput with a very high uniformity, that's something that just doesn't exist in the literature yet.
So it's an open question, whether the proposal is at all feasible from an engineering standpoint. But the intent, I think, the ability to on demand cool a patch of ocean to alter or divert hurricanes, and also to protect coral reefs, let’s say, during a heatwave event, these are very attractive applications. Te challenge is one of feasibility, both of engineering and time it takes, in order to make it viable.
[00:56:36] Rachel Donald: There's a lot of talk, though, around geoengineering. We kind of touched on this a little bit earlier, but that without dismantling the current economic framework and consumption rates, geoengineering is not the answer. Do you think that you've created a project with your team that, even if you don't dismantle the current economic framework, will be beneficial over the next century, no matter what?
[00:57:04] Ye Tao: Well, it depends on how it would be defined as a beneficial—helping industrial civilization to persist a few decades longer, yes, that would be one potential impact. But how do we define success or beneficial to humankind, and that’s another discussion of how we measure success of this organism.
We already on the concept concept of time. We want human life and human civilizations to last. So apparently that's one, maybe, objective empirical metric to measure success of the individuals and also different organisms, because what we call successful organisms are ones that last for many millennia. So time is one thing, but also know that time can not be arbitrarily amended because there may be some statistical or underlying mechanisms that can be seen from the statistics over the lifetime of different civilizations that limits how long we can aspire to last as civilization, as individuals, before given things, including mutations, make us a completely different mammalian species.
So time is one thing, but that's not the only thing. The other is, I think, in layman's terms, life satisfaction, and if we really want to be quantitative, we need to integrate the life satisfaction of every individual that has ever lived throughout the existence of homo sapiens.
And if we use this aggregated integrated measure of level of happiness satisfaction over time for our species then it becomes quite clear that perhaps what we call beneficial is to just improve the life experience of people over the remaining time of their species in civilization.
And the way to do that is to distribute the resources broadly and dismantl the current money-oriented, incentive structure, and to decouple money from other things like power status and popularity, which should be natural outcomes of each of us engaging in something we’re deeply passionate about.
So for politicians,why do we need politicians? They're there to serve the people. They’re public servants. And in exchange for this privilege to serve, and for artists in exchange for the privilege to provide art and be known, perhaps they should relinquish some financial and monetary advantage just to make it equal.
So I think, you know, we keep coming back to this, social engineering aspect, but the end, if we define the success of human race as a integration of the life satisfaction of every member of our species over the existence of our species from origination to extinction, then that's what we should be considering doing.
[01:00:32] Rachel Donald: Beautiful note to end on. Lovely to hear that from a scientist who's working in geoengineering. Congratulations on keeping the project open source. I hope more people follow in your footsteps.
[01:00:43] Ye Tao: Yes.
[01:00:45] Rachel Donald: Where can people find it more about Meer? Because I'm sure everyone will want to because obviously we haven't covered all of the tech and everything behind it.
[01:00:52] Ye Tao: So most of our information are embodied in lectures that I've given online and interviews I've given. We do have a website, but it's quite rudimentary because we have limited human power to really maintain it at the current state. But if you’re interested also in helping and participating in becoming part of the Meer framework, you can reach out to us. We do have volunteer coordinators who will be looking at your request and opefully we can work with you.
[01:01:25] Rachel Donald: Oh, fantastic. And then finally, who would you like to platform?
[01:01:30] Ye Tao: I mean, these are probably people you know, have you heard of Julia Steinberger?
[01:01:34] Rachel Donald: I am on it!
[01:01:35] Ye Tao: Just to give another female scientist I respect deeply—Sabine Hossenfelder. She has a YouTube channel. She’s a theoretical astrophysicist or theoretical physicist. And I'm sure she has great things to say about freewill and meaning of life and the nature of the reality, things like that.
[01:02:01] Rachel Donald: Fantastic. It was such a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you for taking the time to explain Meer.
[01:02:08] Ye Tao: Yeah, likewise. Thank you.