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:
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”:
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).
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 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).
- Bellamy, R., Chivers, J., Vaughan, N. E., Lenton, T. M. (2012). A review of climate geoengineering appraisals. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 3 (6), 597-615.
- Brown, M. A., Sovacool, B. K. (2011). Climate Change and Global Energy Security: Technology and Policy Options. MIT Press, Massachusetts.
- Buck, H. J. (2012). Geoengineering: re-making climate for profit or humanitarian intervention? Development and Change 43 (1), 253-70.
- Donnor, S. D. (2007). Domain of the Gods: an editorial essay. Climatic Change 85 (3), 231-236.
- Feblowitz, J. C. (2010). Controlling the Weather: Science Fiction, or Reality? Student Pulse 2 (1).
- Grandey, B. S., Wang, C. (2015). Enhanced marine sulphur emissions offset global warming and impact rainfall. Scientific Reports 5.
- Hogenboom, M. (2013). Are ideas to cool the planet realistic? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24033772 Accessed 28 November 2015.
- Kintisch, E. (2010). Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope – Or Worst Nightmare – for Averting Climate Catastrophe. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New Jersey.
- Klein, N. (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Simon & Schuster, New York.
- Leinen, M. (2011). The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies: Background and Overview. Stanford Journal of Law, Science & Policy 4, 1-5.
- McLaren, D. (2015). Where’s the justice in geoengineering? http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2015/mar/14/wheres-the-justice-in-geoengineering Accessed 28 November 2015.
- Moseman, A. (2009). Does cloud seeding work? http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/cloud-seeding-china-snow/ Accessed 29 November 2015.
- New York Times News Service (1974). Rainmaking used as a Weapon in SE Asia. Daytona Beach Morning Journal. Daytona Beach, Florida.
- Nobel, J. (2016). The quest to change the weather. http://theweek.com/articles/597995/quest-change-weather Accessed 19 January 2016.
- Pentland, W. (2014). As Water Supply Reaches Record Low, California Combats Drought With Black-Ops Weather Control Technology From Vietnam War. http://www.forbes.com/sites/williampentland/2014/02/04/as-water-supply-reaches-record-low-california-combats-drought-with-black-ops-weather-control-technology-from-vietnam-war/ Accessed 29 November 2015.
- Preston, C. J. (2012). Beyond the End of Nature: SRM and Two Tales of Artificity for the Anthropocene. Ethics, Policy & Environment 15 (2), 188-201.
- Preston, C. J. (2013). Ethics and geoengineering: reviewing the moral issues raised by solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 4 (1), 23-37.
- Travis, W. R. (2008). Geo-Engineering the Climate: Lessons from Purposeful Weather and Climate Modification. http://www.colorado.edu/geography/class_homepages/geog_3402_s07/Travis_geoengineering.pdf Accessed 29 November 2015.
- University of Leeds (2014). Geoengineering our climate is not a ‘quick fix’. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141125205712.htm Accessed 28 November 2015.
- Yusoff, K. (2013). The Geoengine: Geoengineering and the Geopolitics of Planetary Modification. Environment and Planning A 45 (12), 2799-2808.