Ask the Experts | Energy & Sustainability
Is manipulating Earth’s environment to combat climate change a good idea–and where, exactly, did the idea come from?
By David Biello | February 25, 2011
STARFISH PRIME: This nighttime atmospheric nuclear weapons test generated an aurora (pictured) in Earth’s magnetic field, along with an electromagnetic pulse that blew out streetlights in Honolulu. It is seen as an early instance of geoengineering by science historian James Fleming. Image: Courtesy of US Govt. Defense Threat Reduction Agency
As efforts to combat climate change falter despite ever-rising concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, some scientists and other experts have begun to consider the possibility of using so-called geoengineering to fix the problem. Such “deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment” as the Royal Society of London puts it, is fraught with peril, of course.
For example, one of the first scientists to predict global warming as a result of increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius—thought this might be a good way to ameliorate the winters of his native land and increase its growing season. Whereas that may come true for the human inhabitants of Scandinavia, polar plants and animals are suffering as sea ice dwindles and temperatures warm even faster than climatologists predicted.
Scientific American corresponded with science historian James Fleming of Colby College in Maine, author of Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, about the history of geoengineering—ranging from filling the air with the artificial aftermath of a volcanic eruption to seeding the oceans with iron in order to promote plankton growth—and whether it might save humanity from the ill effects of climate change.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What is geoengineering in your view?
Geoengineering is planetary-scale intervention [in]—or tinkering with—planetary processes. Period.
As I write in my book, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, “the term ‘geoengineering’ remains largely undefined,” but is loosely, “the intentional large-scale manipulation of the global environment; planetary tinkering; a subset of terraforming or planetary engineering.”
As of June 2010 the term has a draft entry in the Oxford English Dictionary—the modification of the global environment or the climate in order to counter or ameliorate climate change. A 2009 report issued by the Royal Society of London defines geoengineering as “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change.”
But there are significant problems with both definitions. First of all, an engineering practice defined by its scale (geo) need not be constrained by its stated purpose (environmental improvement), by any of its currently proposed techniques (stratospheric aerosols, space mirrors, etcetera) or by one of perhaps many stated goals (to ameliorate or counteract climate change). Nuclear engineers, for example, are capable of building both power plants and bombs; mechanical engineers can design components for both ambulances and tanks. So to constrain the essence of something by its stated purpose, techniques or goals is misleading at best.
Geo-scale engineering projects were conducted by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union between 1958 and 1962 that had nothing to do with countering or ameliorating climate change. Starting with the [U.S.’s] 1958 Argus A-bomb explosions in space and ending with the 1962 Starfish Prime H-bomb test, the militaries of both nations sought to modify the global environment for military purposes.
Project Argus was a top-secret military test aimed at detonating atomic bombs in space to generate an artificial radiation belt, disrupt the near-space environment, and possibly intercept enemy missiles. It, and the later tests conducted by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, peaked with H-bomb detonations in space in 1962 that created an artificial [electro]magnetic [radiation] belt that persisted for 10 years. This is geoengineering.
This idea of detonating bombs in near-space was proposed in 1957 by Nicholas Christofilos, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His hypothesis, which was pursued by the [U.S.] Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency [subsequently known as DARPA] and tested in Project Argus and other nuclear shots, held that the debris from a nuclear explosion, mainly highly energetic electrons, would be contained within lines of force in Earth’s magnetic field and would travel almost instantly as a giant current spanning up to half a hemisphere. Thus, if a detonation occurred above a point in the South Atlantic, immense currents would flow along the magnetic lines to a point far to the north, such as Greenland, where they would severely disrupt radio communications. A shot in the Indian Ocean might, then, generate a huge electromagnetic pulse over Moscow. In addition to providing a planetary “energy ray,” Christofilos thought nuclear shots in space might also disrupt military communications, destroy satellites and the electronic guidance systems of enemy [intercontinental ballistic missiles], and possibly kill any military cosmonauts participating in an attack launched from space. He proposed thousands of them to make a space shield.
So nuclear explosions in space by the U.S. and the Soviet Union constituted some of the earliest attempts at geoengineering, or intentional human intervention in planetary-scale processes.
The neologism “geoengineer” refers to one who contrives, designs or invents at the largest planetary scale possible for either military or civilian purposes. Today, geoengineering, as an unpracticed art, may be considered “geoscientific speculation”. Geoengineering is a subset of terraformation, which also does not exist outside of the fantasies of some engineers.
I have recently written to the Oxford English Dictionary asking them to correct their draft definition.
Can geoengineering save the world from climate change?
In short, I think it may be infinitely more dangerous than climate change, largely due to the suspicion and social disruption it would trigger by changing humanity’s relationship to nature.
To take just one example from my book, on page 194: “Sarnoff Predicts Weather Control” read the headline on the front page of The New York Times on October 1, 1946. The previous evening, at his testimonial dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, RCA president Brig. Gen. David Sarnoff had speculated on worthy peaceful projects for the postwar era. Among them were “transformations of deserts into gardens through diversion of ocean currents,” a technique that could also be reversed in time of war to turn fertile lands into deserts, and ordering “rain or sunshine by pressing radio buttons,” an accomplishment that, Sarnoff declared, would require a “World Weather Bureau” in charge of global forecasting and control (much like the “Weather Distributing Administration” proposed in 1938). A commentator in The New Yorker intuited the problems with such control: “Who” in this civil service outfit, he asked, “would decide whether a day was to be sunny, rainy, overcast…or enriched by a stimulating blizzard?” It would be “some befuddled functionary,” probably bedeviled by special interests such as the raincoat and galoshes manufacturers, the beachwear and sunburn lotion industries, and resort owners and farmers. Or if a storm was to be diverted—”Detour it where? Out to sea, to hit some ship with no influence in Washington?”
How old is the idea of geoengineering? What other names has it had?
I can trace geoengineering’s direct modern legacy to 1945, and have prepared a table of such proposals and efforts for the [Government Accountability Office]. Nuclear weapons, digital computers and satellites seem to be the modern technologies of choice. Geoengineering has also been called terraformation and, more restrictively, climate engineering, climate intervention or climate modification. Many have proposed abandoning the term geoengineering in favor of solar radiation management and carbon (or carbon dioxide) capture and storage. Of course, the idea of control of nature is ancient—for example, Phaeton or Archimedes.
Phaeton, the son of Helios, received permission from his father [the Greek sun god] to drive the sun chariot, but failed to control it, putting the Earth in danger of burning up. He was killed by a thunderbolt from Zeus to prevent further disaster. Recently, a prominent meteorologist has written about climate control and urged us to “take up Phaeton’s reins,” which is not a good idea.
Archimedes is known as an engineer who said: “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the Earth.” Some geoengineers think that this is now possible and that science and technology have given us an Archimedean set of levers with which to move the planet. But I ask: “Where will it roll if you tip it?”
How are weather control and climate control related?
Weather and climate are intimately related: Weather is the state of the atmosphere at a given place and time, while climate is the aggregate of weather conditions over time. A vast body of scientific literature addresses these interactions. In addition, historians are revisiting the ancient but elusive term klima, seeking to recover its multiple social connotations. Weather, climate and the climate of opinion matter in complex ways that invite—some might say require or demand—the attention of both scientists and historians. Yet some may wonder how weather and climate are interrelated rather than distinct. Both, for example, are at the center of the debate over greenhouse warming and hurricane intensity. A few may claim that rainmaking, for example, has nothing to do with climate engineering, but any intervention in the Earth’s radiation or heat budget (such as managing solar radiation) would affect the general circulation and thus the location of upper-level patterns, including the jet stream and storm tracks. Thus, the weather itself would be changed by such manipulation. Conversely, intervening in severe storms by changing their intensity or their tracks or modifying weather on a scale as large as a region, a continent or the Pacific Basin would obviously affect cloudiness, temperature and precipitation patterns with major consequences for monsoonal flows, and ultimately the general circulation. If repeated systematically, such interventions would influence the overall heat budget and the climate.
Both weather and climate control have long and checkered histories: My book explains [meteorologist] James Espy’s proposal in the 1830s to set fire to the crest of the Appalachian Mountains every Sunday evening to generate heated updrafts that would stimulate rain and clear the air for cities of the east coast. It also examines efforts to fire cannons at the clouds in the arid Southwest in the hope of generating rain by concussion.
In the 1920s airplanes loaded with electrified sand were piloted by military aviators who “attacked” the clouds in futile attempts to both make rain and clear fog. Many others have proposed either a world weather control agency or creating a global thermostat, either by burning vast quantities of fossil fuels if an ice age threatened or sucking the CO2 out of the air if the world overheated.
After 1945 three technologies—nuclear weapons, digital computers and satellites—dominated discussions about ultimate weather and climate control, but with very little acknowledgement that unintended consequences and social disruption may be more damaging than any presumed benefit.
What would be the ideal role for geoengineering in addressing climate change?
That it generates interest in and awareness of the impossibility of heavy-handed intervention in the climate system, since there could be no predictable outcome of such intervention, physically, politically or socially.
Why do scientists continue to pursue this then, after 200 or so years of failure?
Science fantasy is informed by science fiction and driven by hubris. One of the dictionary definitions of hubris cites Edward Teller (the godfather of modern geoengineering).
Teller’s hubris knew no bounds. He was the [self-proclaimed] father of the H-bomb and promoted all things atomic, even talking about using nuclear weapons to create canals and harbors. He was also an advocate of urban sprawl to survive nuclear attack, the Star Wars [missile] defense system, and a planetary sunscreen to reduce global warming. He wanted to control nature and improve it using technology.
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.”