As geoengineering becomes a more politically and technologically appealing approach to addressing climate change, it is critical to heed the lessons of history and understand the limits of our control over nature, said James Fleming
of Colby College. Speaking at the launch of his new book, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control
, at the Wilson Center on October 6, Fleming brought what he called a “historically informed view of the humanities” to a growing policy discussion
: the possibility of using geoengineering as a “quick fix” for the problem of climate change.
Not So Ancient History
“When facing unprecedented challenges, it’s good to take a look at the precedents,” said Fleming. He pointed to recent weather management projects conducted in China, U.S. experiments in the 1940s, and older historical discussions about geoengineering as evidence of humanity’s long fascination with “fixing of the sky.”
In 2008, “they had 30,000 Chinese artillerists shooting chemicals at the clouds to keep either the venues clear or get the rain down on the weekend before the Olympics started,” Fleming said. “And they’re still doing this kind of stuff. So now there’s inter-regional tensions in China, because imagine rains comes across the country, some places get hit some places get missed, there’s intermittent showers, but now every intermittent shower is seen as a managed event where ‘you took my rain away from my farmland.’ So as soon as you start managing the sky, you start fighting about it.”
In 1839, the United States’ first meteorologist, James Espy, proposed lighting regular fires along the Appalachians to induce rainfall on the eastern seaboard. “What if Espy’s idea actually worked?” asked Fleming. “It’d very much like that Chinese story today, where there’s internecine struggles between keeping and taking the rain away from others,” he said.
The Threat of Militarization
Fleming highlighted a number of fundamental ethical concerns raised by atmospheric scientist Alan Robock:
In 1947 Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir, in conjunction with GE and the U.S. military, experimented with controlling Hurricane King by seeding it with dry ice. They expected the storm to continue its course off the coast of Florida into the Atlantic, but instead it veered west and hit Savannah, Georgia, causing considerable damage. The lesson, said Fleming, is that “you can intervene in a cloud, but you can’t point it downwind – you can’t tell it what to do.”
- Who has the moral right to change the climate?
- Where would be the “global thermostat” be?
- Will it reduce incentives for mitigation?
- Could it be commercialized and/or militarized?
Other U.S. military research into geoengineering included researching the possibility of inducing west-to-east moving rain storms in Europe to help neutralize a Soviet invasion and using the magnetosphere to create selective blackouts over Moscow.
“Shall we fix the sky – is it broken?” asked Fleming. “And if it is broken should we have people with military hardware shooting at it?”
One possible institutional counter could be strengthening the UN Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), which Fleming said “has been revisited again twice, and could be revisited again if large-scale environmental modification were to get more serious – if there’s deployment of geoengineering techniques.” The treaty prohibits environmental modification “through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes – the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space.”
The Once and Future Earth
The Greek myth of Phaeton illustrates how old, but also flawed, the human desire to control climate really is, said Fleming. In the myth, Phaeton convinces his father, Helios, to let him drive the sun’s chariot for a day. However, Phaeton falters, lacking the strength and experience to control the reins, and Zeus intervenes to save the world from immolation. “Take up Phaeton’s reins,” said Fleming, should be interpreted as “control your carbon emissions,” rather than trying to control the sky.
We should consider geoengineering to be only an “interesting hypothetical exercise,” said Fleming, until the consequences and results of such colossal tinkering can be better assessed. “Even perfect climate prediction would lead to climate chaos, because the country that could do that could trump its competitors” in various markets, he said. However, such predictions might never be possible, considering the difficulty in modeling cultural and ethical norms, as well as the geostrategic implications – in short, the human element.
Fleming cautioned against the fundamental belief that you can accurately model the impact of geoengineering projects, reminding would-be geoengineers that “you can only have one Earth to experiment on, you don’t have a lot drosophila Earths or laboratory rat-Earths – you only have one.”
Sources: NASA, Toronto Star, U.S. State Department.
Image Credit: Adapted from original by Craig Phillips for The Wilson Quarterly, reproduced with permission.