Scientist Disputes Report That He Plans To Spray Chemicals To Change the Climate

The British newspaper The Guardian published a story on Tuesday that said in its first sentence that two Harvard engineers are about to “spray sun-reflecting chemical particles into the atmosphere to artificially cool the planet.”

But according to one of the two engineers, James G. Anderson, that is not at all what he and his research partner David Keith are considering doing. “The irony is we are doing the opposite of that,” Anderson said, claiming that the article “completely massacred the facts.”

Anderson, a professor of atmospheric chemistry, said that the actual project idea—though it has not even been formally proposed yet—is to spray a small amount of chemicals into the air to test their effect on free radicals that could destroy ozone, not to change the planet’s climate.

“Our primary purpose is to protect the stratosphere by developing methods that will clearly demonstrate what the response of the stratospheric system is, without affecting the ozone,” Anderson said.

Rather than spraying chemicals in an effort to change the Earth’s climate, Anderson said his experiment would likely serve to eliminate the possibility of anyone doing exactly that, because it will prove that a climate-changing chemical blast would have adverse effects.

“I’m extremely worried that the entire idea of putting sulfate into the stratosphere is dead on arrival, because the result of putting it in the ozone will be intolerable,” Anderson said. “If we see what we believe we will see, it will eliminate the possibility of people doing this.”

In order to properly test the chemicals’ effect, the experiment does have to transpire in the open air, rather than in a laboratory, Anderson said. But he said that if he and Keith carry out their experiment, it should have a negligible environmental effect.

“All we have to do is add minute amounts of those chemicals and look at the species that would attack ozone,” Anderson said. “You don’t need to destroy any ozone. You just need to do a microscopic amount and see the immediate response of the system.”

He said that he had not been contacted by The Guardian. “It’s so completely twisted,” he said. “My entire scientific career is based on defending the stratosphere. The last thing I’d ever do was compromise it.”

Keith, who was quoted in The Guardian’s article, could not be reached for comment for this story. He told Business Insider that “the story is substantially fabricated.” Both professors claimed in a statement on the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences website that The Guardian’s report was incorrect.

The Guardian declined to comment, and the article’s writer, Martin Lukacs, could not be reached.

The Guardian’s article said that some scientists saw geoengineering as potentially “disastrous” and quoted an expert who foresaw dire consequences of Keith and Anderson’s supposed project.

Anderson said he was unsure whether backlash against his idea prompted by The Guardian’s characterization of it would derail the experiment. “We don’t know,” Anderson said. “All we can do is deal with the facts and straighten them out as best we can.”

—Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at jacobfeldman@college.harvard.edu.

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