Manufacturing the Weather

Cover of 1954 Collier's magazine on climate engineering.

An image of a technocrat pulling the world's weather levers appeared on the cover of Collier's magazine in 1954. Courtesy estate of Frederick Siebel.

Saving the World?

Today proposals for space mirrors, ocean iron fertilization, and injections of reflective sulfates or engineered nanoparticles into the stratosphere for climate control are being pitched by modern rain kings and queens. In China farmers armed with artillery weapons form part of the world’s largest rainmaking (and rain-clearing) force. In 2009 and 2010 government officials from the United States and the United Kingdom convened panels to discuss geoengineering (also known as geohacking or geoscientific speculation) whose advocates propose to modify the earth’s climate deliberately on a planetary scale. In September 2009 the Royal Society of London published Geoengineering Climate, a report on the potential risks of proposals to “fix the sky,” including if, when, and how research and deployment should proceed and how it might be governed. Possible side effects of solar-radiation management via such techniques as stratospheric reflective sulfates include drought in the tropics and damage to the ozone layer. Furthermore, the report notes that “risk exists that some methods could be deployed by individual nation states, corporations or even one or more wealthy individuals without appropriate regulation or international agreement.” This report was followed by panels and testimony on geoengineering in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.K. House of Commons, with many still advocating field research and even deployment despite the risks—and the beat goes on.

In my Congressional testimony in November 2009 I reviewed the checkered history of weather and climate control. I recommended that the first steps toward effective collaboration on geoengineering research and governance should not be technically oriented. Instead it should involve study of the historical, ethical, legal, political, and societal aspects of geoengineering. I made the claim that climate change is not quintessentially a technical issue; it is a sociocultural and technical hybrid, and our effective response to it must be historically and technically informed, interdisciplinary in nature, international in scope, and intergenerational in its inclusiveness.

Geoengineering is in fact untested and dangerous. We don’t understand it; we can’t test it on smaller than planetary scales; and we don’t have the political capital, wisdom, or will to govern it. Planetary tinkering is not “cheap,” as some economists claim, since the side effects are unknown. It poses a moral hazard by possibly reducing incentives to mitigate. It could be attempted unilaterally, or worse, proliferate among rogue states, and it could be militarized (learning from history, it likely would be militarized). Geoengineering could violate a number of existing treaties such as ENMOD, which, as von Neumann warned so long ago, would add to international stresses. Most poignantly, by turning the blue sky milky white or the blue oceans soupy green, by attenuating starlight, and by putting bureaucrats and technocrats in charge of a global thermostat, it will alter fundamental human relationships to nature.

Throughout history rainmakers and climate engineers have typically fallen into two categories: commercial charlatans using technical language and proprietary techniques to cash in on a gullible public and sincere but deluded scientific practitioners exhibiting a modicum of chemical and physical knowledge, a bare minimum of atmospheric insight, and an abundance of hubris. We should base our decision making not on what we think we can do now and in the near future. Rather our knowledge is shaped by what we have and have not done in the past. Such are the grounds for making informed decisions and avoiding the pitfalls of rushing forward claiming we know how to fix the sky.

James Rodger Fleming is a professor in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Colby College, Waterville, Maine.