Watch | Should we re-freeze the Arctic? Exploring climate repair with Sir David King

As the planet edges closer to a climate change tipping point, UK policymakers need bold solutions to prevent catastrophe

September 12, 2023
© Alamy
© Alamy

 Imagine you could invite a Minister for the Future to tackle society’s toughest problems. The minister has both the power and authority to break free of departmental silos, and an obligation to deliver game-changing ideas. The remit is wide, the thinking must be long-term.

This is the idea behind a current project from Prospect and Nesta, the programme’s sponsor. The third in a series of Minister for the Future debates took place at the end of October. The topic: climate change. Putting forward the proposition: Professor Sir David King, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, founder of the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, and the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor from 2000 to 2007. The proposition: it’s time to re-freeze the Arctic.

Listening to the case was the “Minister for the Future”, in this instance the collective wisdom of a live audience, who ended the evening by voting on the proposition (the results are revealed at the end of this article).

A distorted jet stream

Sir David began setting out the case for his radical solution with an example of an extreme weather event. In summer 2021, he noted, the west coast of North America registered historically scorching temperatures: in Lytton, British Columbia they reached 49.6°C. “Who would expect British Columbia to experience a temperature like that?” he asked rhetorically. The spike in heat led to hundreds of deaths while 90 per cent of Lytton was destroyed in a wildfire. As a point of contrast, Texas experienced equally exceptional temperatures earlier in the same year: -16°C at one point.  

“The origin of these extreme weather events,” Sir David said, “is very largely down to what is happening in the Arctic Circle region.” The planet is reliant on jet streams circulating cold polar air to the tropics. However, as the Arctic Circle heats up – it is currently 3.1°C above the pre-industrial level – so the jet stream becomes less effective. Exposed to unprecedented sunlight across three summer months, the Arctic Sea continues to heat up. “What’s happening there is not only impacting on that polar region but it’s massively affecting the rest of the world because that jet stream is severely distorted.”

The solution? Re-freeze the Arctic Sea during the polar summer. 

Biomimicry not geoengineering

“How would we do this? There are only two viable ways,” said Sir David. One is to create white cloud cover over the Arctic Sea. The other is to put sulphates into the stratosphere and reflect sunlight away, akin to what happens following a big volcanic eruption. Both options are about “creating time”.

When it comes to creating white cloud cover over the Arctic Sea, Sir David rejects the loaded term “geoengineering”, preferring instead “biomimicry”. Why? “Because what we are doing is mimicking the way white clouds are normally formed over the oceans, creating tiny droplets of sea water each containing a tiny crystal of sodium chloride.”

Sir David acknowledged that the project will be expensive – capital costs are likely to be in the region of $10 billion a year or more – and there is no guarantee, at this stage, that it will work. The plan is predicated on building hundreds of bespoke vessels and the creation of perfectly formed droplets. The vessels will be operated remotely and, ideally, powered by the motion of the sea. Research costs to date have been met by philanthropic donations but to operationalise the idea will require international agreement and funding. 

Despite the obstacles, Sir David insisted that this project – or one like it – is an essential part of effectively addressing climate change. He talks in terms of “the four ‘Rs’” – reduce emissions deeply and rapidly, remove excess greenhouse gases from the environment, introduce resilience measures from region to region, and repair the broken parts of the climate system. 

The last of these leads to re-freezing the Arctic. “We are pretty confident that if we create the cloud cover in the summer months, it will cool the water. But that’s all to be discovered.”

Unintended consequences

Once Sir David had laid out his case, three expert witnesses were invited to respond. 

For Alice Bell, head of climate and health policy at Wellcome, the central question was whether such projects had unintended health implications. “We know that climate change hurts, we know that it kills but we don’t really think in precision terms about who it hurts and who it kills,” she said. “We need to be thinking about that and the health impacts of all these technologies, whether it’s the more dramatic ideas we’re talking about today or whether it’s about where we situate a wind turbine.” 

“If we are going to have this conversation, we’re going to need to invest in better health research in our climate policy decision making.”

Three questions

Akshat Rathi, an award-winning climate reporter for Bloomberg News, said he used three questions to help him assess the worth of any intervention designed to tackle climate change: What can we do? Should we do it? And, how do we do it? 

When it comes to re-freezing the Arctic, the answer to the first question – and the promise of allowing more time for other mitigation – was compelling, he said. “But the other two questions are so much harder to answer,” said Rathi. 

As to whether we should do it, Rathi said it was important that a decision of this magnitude was not taken arbitrarily but through more democratic means. While accepting that COP (Conference of the Parties, the decision-making body of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change) “is a broken forum in a number of ways, it remains an important forum because it is the only place where lots and lots of developing countries have a voice.”

As to how we do it, Rathi remained sceptical about financing the project (“To assume that any government … will produce that money is hard.”) and about a successful outcome (“I don’t think we have the climate models that actually show whether once we do re-freeze the Arctic we do buy time”). 

Despite his concerns he backed “100 per cent” continued investigation into the viability of the idea. “I would support research because there are so many questions that remain unknown. If we don’t know the answers now, we can’t know whether to do it at scale or not.” 

If not this, then what?

Gaia Vince, journalist, writer and broadcaster and an honorary senior research fellow at UCL, echoed the other expert witnesses. “We need to talk about this and make democratic decisions about whether we’re going to use [these solutions], and under what circumstances,” Vince said. “There are no easy solutions. Everything has trade-offs. If we use these technologies, what’s the regulatory procedure? How are we going to acknowledge and compensate for any negative effects? Who will be in charge of deciding how decisions are made? And how would we deploy it?”

Those questions remained unanswered, she said, before adding: “We are on the verge of a tipping point, so if we decide not to do this, what is the alternative?”

The verdict

Despite the pushback, Sir David’s proposition prevailed. 

Asked whether the UK government should now consider unique climate repair techniques to tackle the climate crisis, 90 per cent of attendees (aka the Minister for the Future) agreed that the government ought to explore geoengineering technologies as a means to address climate change and its consequences, including initiatives such as re-freezing the Arctic. The remaining 10 per cent believed the UK should halt any exploration of geoengineering given the risks involved. 

‘Should we re-freeze the Arctic? Exploring climate repair with Professor Sir David King’ – the third in a series of Prospect/Nesta ‘Minister for the Future’ debates – took place on 31st October 2023. It was introduced by Alexandra Burns, interim director of discovery at Nesta, and hosted by Prospect editor Alan Rusbridger.