Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Four)


Contemporary Projects 

As the discussion of geoengineering has developed and emerged from the scientific fringe, the development and research of technologies has accelerated and “the first few field trials have taken place” (Preston, 2013: 27). Programmes involving weather modification have grown in number around the world over the past thirty years (Garstang et al., 2005), and modification programmes, at least concerning cloud seeding, remain a “large-scale though scientifically controversial endeavor” – Kintisch (2010) cites estimates that “up to $100 million” a year is spent on cloud seeding programmes “in more than thirty-five countries” (88). The support atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen (2006) gave to geoengineering has led to “even committed environmental advocates” changing their stance about the feasibility of climate intervention to stave off the climate crisis (Factor, 2015: 310). More importantly however, the IPCC’s (2013) decision to include geoengineering as a possible policy option in the Fifth Assessment Report “gives permission to those who have been supporting geoengineering in private to do so in public” (Hamilton, 2014).

Confirmed projects include current efforts in California to reduce the impacts of the historical drought by using cloud seeding to induce rainfall (Pentland, 2014; Abraham, 2015), and in China “agencies are involved in a significant level of weather modification activity” (Beijng has its own “Weather Modification Office” (Feblowitz, 2010)) as shown by efforts to ensure the presence of clear skies during the 2008 Olympic Games (Edney and Symons, 2014: 320). Ocean fertilisation efforts were first initiated in 1993 in the Pacific Ocean under the name “IronEx-1” where the “iron hypothesis” was first proved on a small scale (Factor, 2015). In more recent years an American businessman “dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean” in 2012, creating “an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres”, prompting a legal backlash (Lukacs, 2012).


Geoengineering efforts haven’t been able to proceed without restrictions. Conventions prohibiting or restricting such programmes emerged partly as a backlash to such projects like Operation Popeye or ocean fertilisation efforts.

The “Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques” or ENMOD is an international treaty prohibiting the military or hostile use of environmental modification techniques which could have severe spatial or temporal effects (UN, 1976). Signed by over seventy nations, it was prompted by the backlash against weather modification efforts after Operation Popeye was disclosed to the public and came into force in 1978 (Kintisch, 2010; Buck, 2012). However ENMOD contains a loophole which could be exploited in the coming years of climate crisis – Article 3.1 of the convention reserves “the entitlement to use weather and climate modification ‘for peaceful purposes’” (Bellamy et al., 2012: 598).

Additionally there is the “Convention on Biological Diversity of 2010”, which bans geoengineering until “there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts”, although small-scale experiments are exempted from this moratorium (Pearce, 2010). Further the “London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter” was recently invoked regarding Russ George’s (1) geoengineering experiments as it prohibits “for-profit ocean fertilisation activities” (Lukacs, 2012).

The Impacts

In the interests of objectivity it has to be highlighted that were geoengineering efforts to be successful, there is significant potential to “lessen an enormous amount of human suffering and environmental harm from global climate change” (Preston, 2013: 24), and the use of SRM could “generally lead to less extreme temperature and precipitation anomalies” compared to uncontrolled climate change (Ricke et al., 2010: 537). But as the IPCC dryly reports, “CDR and SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale” (IPCC, 2013: 29). It is unsurprising therefore that “most scientists concur that geo-engineering should be used only as an emergency response to a climate crisis” (Brown & Sovacool, 2011: 128). Were geoengineering efforts to begin, what impacts would we see?

There is scientific confirmation that geoengineering efforts would indeed reduce global temperatures, especially compared to baseline predictions with no emission reductions (Ricke et al., 2010; Grandey and Wang, 2015). These temperature reductions would have a myriad of unintended impacts. One of the most obvious issues is that of land use change, especially associated with CDR-related afforestation efforts which could affect competition for land for agriculture or population growth unless only marginal land is used (Becker et al., 2013). SRM efforts could adversely affect crop productivity (Preston, 2013) although temperature reductions in a “high-CO2 climate” could cause some crop yields to increase (Pongratz et al., 2012). The most adverse impacts would, however, affect precipitation.

Though there is evidence that SRM geoengineering could reduce extreme weather-related flooding and hurricane risks (Moore et al., 2015) most studies predict extraordinary variations in precipitation on a regional and global scale (Grandey and Wang, 2015). Ferraro et al (2014) predicted that SRM would “put the brakes on a mechanism of atmospheric turnover and cause a sharp drop in rainfall in the equatorial belt” causing massive reductions in tropical rainfall. Rasch et al (2008) identified regional “significant” changes in rainfall (and temperature) as well as potential ozone depletion due to sulphate aerosols (4007). Robock et al (2008) found that SRM geoengineering would “disrupt the Asian and African summer monsoons, reducing precipitation to the food supply for billions of people”, and producing a hotter and drier climate for sub-Saharan Africa than under climate change scenarios (2). These issues seem somewhat obvious in context – the Pinatubo eruption that is used as an analogy for SRM “also caused a global drought and substantially reduced river flows” (Jackson and Salzman, 2010: 70).

Precipitation issues do not just concern SLR however – some CDR techniques have been estimated to cause “rainfall response[s]” that would “adversely affect water resources” (Grandey and Wang, 2015). As Trenberth and Dai (2007) wryly suggest in their own analysis of SRM, “creating a risk of widespread drought and reduced freshwater resources for the world to cut down on global warming does not seem like an appropriate fix”.

There is in fact evidence of a trade-off between geoengineered temperature reductions and precipitation alterations. Ricke et al (2010) found that “it is physically not feasible to stabilize global precipitation and temperature simultaneously as long as atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise” (537), and Kleidon and Renner (2013) found that interventions in the atmosphere to compensate for GHG-induced surface warming meant that “the changes in hydrologic cycling” cannot be prevented (455). As a result “reflecting sunlight by geoengineering is unlikely to restore the planet’s original climate” (EGU, 2013).

So geoengineering efforts will no doubt create unintended impacts that could adversely affect the lives of billions. Despite this research and enthusiasm continues. Who would gain from geoengineering, and what drives the continued interest in planetary modification programmes? As we shall see geoengineering offers opportunities for business-as-usual capitalism to maintain its process of accumulation whilst maintaining regional geopolitical inequalities, while in the sidelines a latent technocracy that sees geoengineering as a quick-fix, or even a weapon, are waiting for their moment to shine.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Part Five coming soon

(1) Russ George is an American entrepreneur who founded the (now defunct) company Planktos and was former head of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, both of which were engaged in oceanic iron fertilisation experiments (McClain, 2012; CBC News, 2013).

(2) Klein (2014) cites a scientific report on geoengineering that acknowledges that Solar Radiation Management ‘could conceivably lead to climate changes that are worse than the ‘no SRM’ option’ (261). Indeed Philip Rasch, “one of the world’s experts on solar radiation management” (Preston, 2012: 196) told the US House Committee on Science and Technology in 2010 that “it is important to recognize that geoengineering is a gamble” (Rasch, 2010: 2).


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Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Three)


Enter Stage: Geoengineering

“Most scientists concur that geo-engineering should be used only as an emergency response to a climate crisis. However, there is no consensus as to what constitutes such a crisis.” — Brown & Sovacool, 2011


Although the definitions of geoengineering can vary subtly (Bellamy et al., 2012) they all share themes of manipulation and control of the environment on an unprecedented scale as a reaction to climate change, and most importantly that such manipulation is intentional:


Bellamy et al., 2012: 600

Additionally the context of geoengineering is usually that of a “climate emergency”, responding to the threat of “insufficient mitigation” and the resultant “climate change impacts”:


Bellamy et al., 2012: 605

Some scientists and institutions, such as the Climate Institute, make a distinction between geoengineering techniques that seek to “address the symptoms of climate change” (“climate intervention”) and those that seek to sequester carbon (“climate remediation”) (Leinen, 2011). The former is commonly known as Solar Radiation Management (SRM), the latter is referred to as Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR).

Two Forms

SRM focuses on three techniques: “albedo enhancement”, increasing the reflectivity of clouds or the land; “space reflectors”, using spacecraft to reflect sunlight before it reaches the planet; and “stratospheric aerosols” which involves introducing reflective particles (usually sulphur-based) into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight (Hogenboom, 2013; Ferraro et al., 2014). Brown and Sovacool summarise SRM as controlling “how much solar energy reaches the planet’s surface. It manipulates the planet’s radiation budget to ameliorate the main effects of GHGs” (2011: 129-130). Out of these three techniques the most commonly proposed is the use of stratospheric aerosols, often cited as being “fast”, “effective”, and “cheap” compared to CDR and other SRM options (Preston, 2013: 24). It is often referred to as the “Pinatubo Option” after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 which created a worldwide cooling effect of about 0.5–0.6°C (Preston, 2012: 190; Klein, 2014: 258).

Mclaren (2015) likened SRM to “nuclear weapons” and an “archetypical Anthropocene technology” as it would “effectively determine the living conditions of all humanity”.

CDR has a larger variety of techniques, including but not limited to afforestation, biochar, “ocean fertilisation”, and “ocean alkalinity enhancement” (for a full list see Hogenboom, 2013), and is often seen as “less morally problematic” and more “natural” compared to SRM due to its mimicking of natural processes (Preston, 2013: 24). CDR controls “how much heat escapes back into space, which depends on how much CO2 is in the atmosphere” (Brown and Sovacool, 2011: 130). The proposal of ocean fertilisation – increasing primary productivity in the ocean to remove “excess” carbon dioxide” – has sometimes been seen as both a CDR and SRM technique as “associated increase in marine primary productivity may lead to an increase in emissions of dimethyl sulphide” which would have a cooling effect similar to the Pinatubo Option (Grandey and Wang, 2015).

In one simplification SRM “deals with short-wave solar radiation” and CDR “with long-wave radiation” (Brown and Sovacool, 2011: 130). In many workshops and consultations with the public, government bodies, and industry “carbon dioxide removal approaches were favoured over solar geoengineering approaches”, probably due to the reasons described above (University of Leeds, 2014). Indeed, CDR is “often portrayed as ‘good’ geoengineering” compared to the “high-risk, top-down, technological-dependent techniques” of SRM (Yusoff, 2013: 2799).

It is prudent here to point out the difference between geoengineering and a similar anthropogenic phenomenon, weather modification, which can be argued paved the way for current geoengineering efforts. The difference is usually the spatial and temporal scales of the action achieved. Weather modification often affects on the scale of clouds or hurricanes, and has a local and immediate impact, whereas geoengineering concerns atmospheric systems on a larger timescale, as well as with a higher degree of unpredictability (Travis, 2008). One science journalist described weather modification as the “localized cousin” of geoengineering (Kintisch, 2010: 77).


The very concept of controlling the weather and climate of Earth has been with humanity for millennia. It is part of “a rich history in ancient mythologies and religions, including those of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire”, exemplified by Archimedes’ statement of “give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the world” (Bellamy et al., 2012: 598). Klein describes geoengineering as having a “distinctly retro quality” inspired by the times when “taking control over the weather seemed like the next exciting frontier of scientific innovation” rather than as part of a response to a climate emergency (Klein, 2014: 257). The earliest efforts of weather modification and early geoengineering proposals were a product of the Cold War and the “budding atomic revolution of the 1950s” with the corresponding technological enthusiasm on both sides of the world (Kintisch, 2010: 86). Some of the earliest proponents of geoengineering (and indeed megascale engineering in general) were the Soviets where the goal of controlling nature was linked to the nascent Soviet technocracy and the need to boost the national development of agriculture, industry, and infrastructure (Kintisch, 2010). As Buck (2012) describes, Soviet scientists and engineers “entertained grandiose visions of increasing temperatures in Russia by warming Arctic sea ice or injecting metallic aerosols into orbit to form rings” (256).

But it was the USA that surged ahead in the sciences of weather modification and early geoengineering. It was in 1965 after the first warnings of climate change were reported to Lyndon B. Johnson by the President’s Science Advisory Committee where the only “solutions considered were technological schemes like modifying clouds and littering oceans with reflective particles” (Klein, 2014: 261). Only two years later the US Department of Defense began “Operation Popeye”, a

“top secret rainmaking campaign over large parts of North Vietnam and Laos…The operation used US C-130 aircraft from the Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base to spray chemical mixtures designed to induce precipitation into cloud formations. In total, the U.S. flew 2,602 missions and expended 47,409 cloud seeding units over a period of five years … According to declassified Defense Department documents, the objective of Operation Popeye was to “increase rainfall sufficiently in carefully selected areas to deny the [Viet Cong] the use of roads by (1) softening road surfaces, (2) causing landslides along roadways, (3) washing out river crossings, and (4) maintaining saturated soil conditions beyond the normal time span.”” (Pentland, 2014)

An early confirmed form of weather modification, this was also one of the first modern instances of weather warfare (New York Times News Service, 1974). But when the press learned of the operation “scientists were aghast” and “the Senate passed a resolution against weather war” (Kintisch, 2010: 87-8). Other weather modification programmes such as Project STORMFURY, a government programme intending to “weaken Atlantic hurricanes” via cloud seeding (1) between 1962 and 1983, “failed to yield statistically meaningful results” during its duration (Kintisch, 2010: 87).

Regardless of their success or failures, the recognition that humanity could intentionally alter the weather was “a major paradigm shift, arguably on the order of the Copernican Revolution” (Donner, 2007: 233).

Part One | Part Two

Part Three coming soon

(1) “Cloud seeding” is the process of artificially inducing precipitation in cloud formations, often using chemicals such as silver iodide (Moseman, 2009; Feblowitz, 2010; Nobel, 2016).


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Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Two)


The Root Cause 

“As capitalism is an ‘externalizing machine’, the system as a whole will not observe and respond to externalities like climate change.” — Buck, 2012

It is important to first address the basics of capitalism, the economic system we live in, and how it relates to the climate crisis. A basic introduction can inform us that capitalism is characterised by three things – wage labour, private ownership of the means of production, and production for exchange and profit (libcom, 2011). These three characteristics result in “huge differences in wealth and income” in society, causing “class divisions” which unfortunately for most “induce huge differences in decision-making influence and quality of life” (Albert, 2004: 8-9). In essence “society’s surplus product (the total product minus what is necessary to meet the population’s basic needs)” under capitalism “is controlled by a privileged minority that forms the ruling class” (Li, 2009). But one of the most important problems that arises from capitalism is its grow-or-die imperative, encouraging perpetual change and dynamic evolution in order to survive regardless of its social or environmental impact (Bookchin, 2003). Later in the series there will be further detail how this is important.

Capitalism as the prime economic system for the past few hundred years has brought us to the beginning of the climate crisis. Anthropogenically-induced climate change has been an undeniable scientific fact for some time (NASA, 2015), but importantly the longstanding “guardrail” idea of limiting global warming to a “safe” +2°C threshold has been recently derided as inadequate (UNFCCC, 2015: 18). Despite this, the year 2015 is “likely to be the warmest on record” (WMO, 2015) and is set to be the year that global temperatures “reach [the] 1°C marker for first time” (Met Office, 2015). Some climate scientists claim that the historical inaction in limiting GHG emissions means temperatures could rise by 4°C to 6°C degrees this century (World Bank, 2012; Connor, 2015). From next year the Earth’s climate will be entering a new “permanent reality” of high CO2 concentrations and corresponding ecological disruptions (Vaughan, 2015). The increase in global temperatures is already predicted to have a variety of effects, from ocean acidification (Mora et al., 2013) to crop yield loss (Challinor et al., 2014) to widespread coastal flooding (National Research Council, 2011). Additionally the danger of large-scale climatic “tipping points” occurring is likely to increase as temperatures rise (Lenton et al., 2008). The impacts of global warming, according to the IPCC, are likely to be “severe, pervasive, and irreversible” (IPCC, 2014).

As Keefer (2006) maintains capitalism is inextricably linked with fossil fuels and the resulting climate change as “at the root of industrial capitalism and its astonishing conquest and transformation of the world in the past 250 years is the fossil fuel powered machine” (8). “Perhaps, one day,” Eric Pineault muses, “capitalism will succeed in breaking away from its dependence on fossil fuels as a source of energy…but all signs indicate that for the moment, this material dependence is only becoming more profound” (2015: 3). The idea that capitalism can “save the world from a crisis caused by capitalism” has been thoroughly disproven (Klein, 2014: 252) and attempts at “green” economic growth have been ambiguous and abortive (probablyasocialecologist, 2015). This, as Wallerstein (1979) asserts, is because capitalism is based on the “endless accumulation of capital” (272). A “crisis of justice”, climate change in fact represents a potential source of profits for capitalism as it seeks opportunities in disaster (Klein, 2007; Schneider, 2014). Janet Biehl summarises it well when she says “capitalism and the global ecology simply cannot coexist indefinitely” (1998: 140).

Part One 

Part Three coming soon


Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part One)


“If history is any guide, it will be the wealthy with their hands on the levers. Climate imperialism, anyone?” — David Roberts, 2010


In the face of looming catastrophic climate change and the resultant biocrisis (1) the practice of geoengineering (2), the large-scale engineering of the Earth’s biosphere and atmosphere, has gained traction as a solution to this global predicament. Heralded as a technological solution that is scientific and objective, geoengineering efforts hope to leapfrog the slow bureaucracy of international negotiations and bypass the need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or slow down economic growth. Why not counteract climate change by increasing the Earth’s albedo (3) thereby preventing the rise in global temperatures? Or artificially stimulate explosions of phytoplankton life in the oceans to increase carbon dioxide drawdown? The solutions seem seductively simple and straightforward, presenting a “third way” alongside mitigation and adaptation efforts, or a “Plan B” for planet Earth.

The truth is that geoengineering is unreliable, undemocratic, and dangerous. With a checkered history including the weaponisation of weather modification and full of uncritical technological optimism left over from the 1950s, geoengineering offers a mythical silver bullet as a response to the climate crisis while ignoring the root cause – capitalism and its corresponding “grow or die” imperative that necessitates that economic growth trumps all other considerations. To this end the capitalist system aims to use geoengineering to facilitate – by any means possible – a climate scenario that will allow for business as usual. But this “business as usual” will not be “usual” but unprecedented, characterised by exacerbated geopolitical imbalances, an ever-larger north/south divide, unpredictable climate responses, the danger of weather as a weapon of war, massive infrastructure burdens, and the ever-growing danger that the belief in a “techno-fix” to something as complex and convoluted as the Earth’s climate will threaten human civilisation.

The thesis of this article will be that a reliance on geoengineering to “solve” the climate crisis is not only a false solution, but an attempt to ensure the expansion of capitalist hegemony by extending commodification from “genes to species and to ecosystems” (Sullivan, 2009: 26) to the atmosphere (probablyasocialecologist, 2015) and now to the earth system as a whole (Szerszynski et al., 2013). Such a “solution” is neither desirable or necessary. After a brief look at the basics of capitalism, the most recent science regarding climate change, and how the roots of the climate crisis lie within our economic system, this article will study the basics of geoengineering including definitions, its history, its methods, contemporary examples, relevant legislation, and the predicted impacts. The bulk of this article will then concern the three P’s – predictions, possibilities, and problems of geoengineering. After this, the conclusion will detail the best way forward when confronted with the promises of geoengineering, including the alternative approaches already known to us and how a rational outlook needs to address the non-neutrality of technological solutions, and the required creation of a new economic system to better suit our role (willingly or not) as planetary stewards.

Part Two coming soon

(1) “We can call the real wave of extinctions caused by extreme ecological degradation the “biocrisis” … The biocrisis is the true in the moment of the apocalyptic false.” (Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009: 9) 

(2) Also referred to as “climate engineering” or “climate intervention”.

(3) “Albedo is a non-dimensional, unitless quantity that indicates how well a surface reflects solar energy.” (NSIDC, 2015)