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Progressive Policy Review

Topic / Environment and Energy

Don’t Let Them Steal Our Sky

“Really?” the grandchildren asked, “The sky was that blue?” They crowded in the narrow hallway, fingers smudging a framed photo of your childhood home in the Appalachian mountains.

 “Yes, darlins, it once was. We’d even step outside without sunscreen!” You turned to the window, just to check. The white, hazy sky lingered, as always.

 “D’you ever see the Great Barrier Reef?” The oldest asked, nearly shouting at this point.

 “Wow!” You smiled, their enthusiasm contagious. “They still teach that in schools? I always meant to go, but it completely bleached before I got the chance. I managed to see Victoria Falls before it dried up, if you know about that.” The hinges of the front door creaked as your daughter stepped in from the greenhouse. You nudged the children in her direction.

“Now, go help your parents unpack! You know how tired they get.” Like most in their generation, your children had the misfortune of growing up breathing toxic air before medical workarounds were commonplace, leaving their lungs severely stunted compared to yours and those of your grandchildren.

 “Just look at those tomatoes! Are those Dow® or Bayer®?” your son-in-law asked as he emerged from the greenhouse, a folded e-bike in one hand and his suitcase in the other. After droughts made most natural crops untenable, water-efficient GMOs complete with patented seeds and greenhouses became standard for most gardeners in your area.

 As the family crammed into the apartment, a chorus of voices bouncing off the walls, your mind wandered back to holidays when you were a child yourself: running up and down the mountainside, constructing snow forts and ducking from snowballs behind fig trees. Now your winter memories feel like a hazy dream, and not just because of the number of years gone by. The small joy of catching snowflakes on your tongue is no longer something your grandchildren can experience – snow doesn’t fall around here much anymore, and what little arrives has a pH akin to vinegar when it melts.

“Last one in, make sure to close the door!” you stressed. “I know you megacity folk can barely smell, but I don’t want that stench in here.”

Everyone’s elbows practically bumped the walls, but any inconvenience was overshadowed by the joy of being together in person instead of in pixels. Fifteen minutes into the first course, the lights dimmed. 

“One hour warning!” 

Last year, your neighborhood voted to automatically taper excess electricity use every weeknight—overhead lights first.

After dinner, the kids scurried up the ladder out back to watch the sunset. “They go crazy for a good view,” your daughter sighed, tidying a few plates licked clean. “Always talking my ear off about their friends who live higher up.”

“Say, why don’t we go join ‘em?” you proposed, folding the last of the chairs into the hall closet with a grin. “I’ll grab a mask or something.”

The kids said nothing when the adults snuck in behind them, no doubt mesmerized by the fiery cirrus tendrils whipping across the sky. After some jokes from the adults about stealing the ladder, everyone huddled together to brace against the creeping cold. As you twirled your grandchild’s curls in your lap, they pointed to the roof’s lone feature.

“What’s that dusty table for?”

“That’s a solar panel. Used to get electricity from ‘em before the haze.” 

When the dark clouds took over, the group descended, but you decided to stay. While the sunset burned intense with fury, the night sky existed in apathy. Even with the new light pollution regulations, you still couldn’t find a single star. 

“You comin’?” you heard from downstairs.

“I’m just looking for a… yeah, I’m comin’.”



The above future is one fast approaching, where the powers that be decide to mitigate Global Warming by pumping around 12 teragrams (1 million tons) of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere every year. This idea, known as stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), is an appealing one; SAI can halve the warming due to climate change in a matter of months and at a fraction of the cost of other plans (estimates range from $2B to $200B per year). In fact, the idea is spearheaded by Harvard’s own Keith Group via opinion pieces and the first ever experiment of the plan. 

Though the above story is not necessarily outright dystopia, this plan is a bad idea for three reasons. First, excess sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere has many known downsides and a plethora of unknowns. Second, this plan does not address many of the challenges posed by climate change, only warming. Finally, this idea abides by and reinforces the same logic that started the climate catastrophe in the first place. 

In addition to many of the problems noted in the story above—acid snow, drought, a permanently white sky, ozone depletion, hamstrung solar power—sulfur dioxide also affects satellite remote sensing, air travel, and has a host of complex effects on the atmosphere. This will disrupt entire fields (e.g. astronomy) and permanently change weather patterns in ways we cannot hope to predict. These changes could mean intensifying regional disparities like hastening desertification in Africa and Asia.

The lack of upsides is also a troubling feature of this plan. SAI will not regrow the ice sheets, stop ocean acidification, mitigate wildfires, help endangered species, or do much of anything besides reduce warming. Additionally, the cooling effects fade as fast as they begin; injections would have to occur constantly or else catastrophic warming would return in mere months. Some plans say this means 6,700 injection flights a day for 160 years

And what might we do with a cooler Earth? Jevons’ Paradox—the observation that, under capitalism, savings from efficiency increases are reinvested, ultimately increasing consumption—suggests any gains will evaporate as quickly as they come. SAI is cheap enough for large corporations to independently emit sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide hand-in-hand, claiming their net effect is “warming-neutral.” Small countries could run a modest SAI program as a cover for ongoing emissions, and large ones could single-handedly manipulate the Earth’s temperature. Likewise, human modification of the atmosphere is what started this mess; a comprehensive plan to counteract ecological destruction must dismantle the ideology that the most powerful among us are entitled to wreck the Earth for profit.

The most frustrating aspect of proposals like these is that they are unnecessary; we already have the technology to decarbonize our society and prevent catastrophic ecological harm. Spending precious funding and airtime on ideas that deepen the ideological problems underpinning climate change only lowers our chances of getting out of this alive. 

It is for these reasons I implore you to resist technocrats with stuffed pockets telling you to sell your atmosphere even further. Don’t put SAI on the table. Don’t let them steal our sky. 



Prose citations:

Sulphur Dioxide causes acid rain/snow: [1] [2]

pH of acid snow: [1] [2]

Air pollution stunting lung growth: [1]

Air pollution and scent: [1]

Effects of haze on solar power/plants: [1]

Sulphur Dioxide and drought: [1] [2] [3]

Plant extinction risks: [1] [2]

Seed copyrights: [1] [2]

Climate change and wildfires: [1] [2]

Pollution and sunsets: [1] [2]

Various negatives of sulfur dioxide: [1] 

Information on aerosols generally: [1]