Geoengineering: genie out of the bottle?
The common narrative about geoengineering has been, as we put it last month, that ‘it adds to and may amplify systemic risk, with unquantifiable, unpredictable and barely imaginable potential consequences.’
Of particular concern are Solar Radiation Modification (SRM) measures, that include stratospheric aerosol injection, marine cloud brightening, cirrus cloud thinning and ground-based albedo modification. All of these might reduce some of the global risks associated with rising temperatures but would, at the same time, alter precipitation patterns. As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report notes, uncertainties around these measures ‘include technological immaturity; limited physical understanding about their effectiveness to limit global warming; and a weak capacity to govern, legitimise and scale such measures.’
For these reasons, authors of the report propose a cautious approach to weather modification. Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) might be used as an emergency measure if mitigation methods fail and global warming gets beyond the 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Only if that fails, SRM methods might be considered.
Genie Out of the Bottle?
Meanwhile China is launching a weather-control machine to induce rain across an area the size of Alaska. Attempts to artificially induce rain have been carried out since the 1940s and are by now fairly common practice around the world. China have been doing it enthusiastically for a while—notably to ensure good weather conditions for the 2008 Olympic Games—but this is the largest project to date. The clouds across 620,000 miles of the Tibetan Plateau will be seeded with silver iodide particles in the expectation of producing 10 billion cubic metres of rainfall each year.
Part of what makes international regulation of geoengineering projects so difficult is finding the ‘stop’ line on a continuum between short-term tinkering with local rainfall at one end and large-scale modifications that tip global weather patterns, at the other. Where on the spectrum does the Tibetan Plateau scheme fall? It is also difficult to find the line between helpful and harmful projects, and to prevent any group from using any seemingly benign technology harmfully.
Despite regular and increasing use by China and use by other countries including the US, India, Israel, Kuwait, Russia, Mali, Niger, the UAE to deal with water scarcity, or potential flooding, the effectiveness of artificial rain is not established. Evaluators are not convinced the rain would not have fallen anyway.1 The point is that, like other weather modification technologies, the outcomes even small scale are uncertain.
More worrying is a question of whether rain induced in one drought-stricken region might otherwise have fallen on another area that was depending on it. As water supply becomes one of the urgent, big challenges of the next few decades (see Water Shortages) and more promising rain-inducing technology is sold to desperate regions, it is easy to see that this might cause conflict. As Dr James Lee, an Adjunct Professor at the American University in Washington DC, has said “The line between peaceful and hostile uses of weather modification is extremely thin’.
In fact the US have already used cloud-seeding as a weapon: in the Vietnam War it was used to disrupt enemy supply convoys. Despite the 1977 Environmental Modification Treaty, introduced in the wake of this and designed to prevent weather-changing activities for the purposes of inducing damage or destruction, the USAF wrote a paper to ‘outline a strategy for the use of a future weather modification system to achieve military objectives’, entitled ‘Weather As A Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025’2
The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) programme run, until 2015 by the US military in Alaska, that studies the effects of exciting ‘a limited area of the ionosphere’ is believed by some scientists to be involved in weather modification, with the intention of using weather as a weapon of war.
National Interests Before Global
Perhaps the essential problem is not so much that countries are looking for weather wars, but that the signs suggest nations have national interests at heart before global ones at a time when we need global cooperation to solve global issues.
The 1.5C above pre-industrial levels target will be hard to meet and the world’s governments are ‘nowhere near on track’ to meet their commitments, according to one of the authors of the IPCC report. The danger is that as it becomes apparent that we will fail to meet that target, as many believe we will, and as distressing effects of climate change begin to bite, governments will come under pressure to alleviate problems at home whatever the global—and eventual—effect. Nor is it comforting to know that some measures that may be used were developed by one advanced nation with the intention of ‘owning the weather’.
In a worst case scenario an arms race gets out of control: “if an unfriendly nation solves the problem of weather control and gets into the position to control the large-scale weather patterns before we can, the results could be even more disastrous than nuclear warfare.” said Captain Orville in the Pasadena Star News in 1958. 3
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