Bring back the weathermen

Controlling the weather is nearly within our grasp. We shouldn't shy away.

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics Science & Tech

How should we respond to the challenge of global warming? One suggestion is cut back on the energy use responsible for production of greenhouse gases. Another is to adapt to a warming world by offsetting problems with solutions such as flood control, as well as taking advantage of any positive opportunities that present themselves.

Among environmentalists, adaptation is less popular than cutting back. But even less popular is the idea that we should find ways to intervene positively in order to create a better climate.

You might think that the only problem with the idea of climate control is that we don’t know how to make it work. But today, ethical objections are raised against research that attempts to change this.

There have been a number of proposals put forward for climate engineering. The simplest idea is to inject dust into the upper atmosphere using artillery shells or aircraft. The dust would then scatter some of the sun’s rays back into space, cooling off the Earth. Another proposal is to add iron to the oceans, which would suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by encouraging algae to grow.

There are also more ambitious plans, including a scheme to place a 2000-kilometre-diameter lens between the Earth and the sun, which would deflect as much as two percent of the sun’s light away from Earth. Such a project would be beyond our present capabilities, but the problems are of engineering rather than basic science. There seems to be no physical reason why it would not work (1).

But these ideas are not popular today. A conference evaluating ideas for climate engineering held in Cambridge, UK, in January 2004 illustrated the predominant outlook. ‘Some of the macro-engineering options which have been suggested are big and rather scary, and some may even appear to be crazy’, said Professor John Shepherd, a director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. He continued: ‘That is precisely why they should be evaluated – and if necessary dismissed – as soon as possible, so that society can decide which should be developed as serious options for future use, if and when they are needed.’ The event was presented very much as an exercise in cutting off climate engineering options, before anybody started thinking about them as a sensible response to global warming. Engineering is countenanced only as a desperate last-ditch response to climatic catastrophe (2).

But it was not always so. In the years after the Second World War, many scientists, most famously the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, thought that scientific advances had put weather modification on the agenda. Von Neumann had helped to design and build the first electronic computers, and believed that the new machines would be the tool needed to shape the climate.

In 1956, Soviet engineers suggested damming up the Bering Strait. They hoped to regulate the flow of water between the Arctic and Pacific Oceans, and thereby warm the frozen Russian north. The Soviets had long been enthusiastic about large-scale plans for engineering, though their economy had never permitted them to put these ideas into practice. But the Bering Strait proposal prompted US presidential candidate John F Kennedy to say that the idea was worth exploring. Indeed, the idea didn’t go away altogether until the 1970s (3).

Why have we cooled on the idea of climate engineering? One explanation is that we have become more aware of the difficulties involved. Certainly, many early experiments did not have a good track record. Many plans that appear good on paper founder when the attempt is made to put them into practice. No doubt we have a greater appreciation today of the complexity of climate, with its non-linearities and feedback loops.

But history suggests a more complex reason. The reaction against climate engineering began in the 1970s, at the same time that environmentalism became a widespread outlook. The new environmentalism was not a simple response to scientific facts. Rather it was informed by a particular moral position, which prioritised the natural environment and problematised human intervention.

The new environmental criticisms arose out of the left, and involved rejecting the military associations of climate control. Von Neumann, the most public spokesman for climate engineering, also advocated immediate nuclear war: ‘If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at five o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?’ (4) It was the possibility of climatological warfare that drove research. In Vietnam, attempts were made, albeit unsuccessfully, to cut supply lines by seeding clouds over the Ho Chi Min trail.

The criticisms of climate engineering followed those of nuclear technology. What began on the left as important criticisms of the way in which specific technologies were used, gave way to environmental criticisms of technology itself. As the economy slowed in the early 1970s, Western elites became reluctant to spend on big projects. In the absence of any vision on the Right that went beyond militarism, environmentalism carried the day.

It is an aversion to intervening with nature that explains climate engineering’s bad reputation today, more than any practical difficulties. Leading climate scientist Stephen Schneider is strongly suspicious of what he calls ‘geoengineering’. Although he cites scientific uncertainty as the reason, it is clear that he sees human consumption as a habit to be stemmed rather than aided. ‘The following health metaphor seems apt: it is better to cure heroin addiction by paced medical care that weans the victim slowly and surely from the drug addiction than by massive substitution of methadone or some other “more benign” or lower cost narcotic.’ He goes on to call geoengineering ‘planetary methadone’, with dangerous potential side-effects (5).

Schneider admits that his position is strongly influenced by a personal moral position. But he nonetheless warns what he describes as ‘responsible’ people to be cautious about even raising the possibility of geoengineering, for fear that it might be taken seriously as an alternative to cutting greenhouse emissions.

An article penned by a high-profile team of Margot Wallström, the European commissioner for the environment, Bert Bolin, the founding chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Paul Crutzen, a Nobel laureate for work on atmospheric chemistry, and Will Steffen, executive director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, recently argued that our intervention in nature is already reaching dangerous levels. ‘The Earth has entered the so-called Anthropocene Era – the geological era in which humans are a significant and sometimes dominating environmental force’, they wrote. Human intervention, they claim, has left us two options: ‘Will we accept the challenge to respond in a precautionary manner, or wait until a catastrophic, irreversible change is upon us?’ (6)

The idea that we have already entered an Anthropocene Era exaggerates our impact on the Earth. For the moment, our capacity to intervene on a planetary scale remains relatively puny. Our ability to detect a human effect on climate is testimony to the sensitivity of our instruments and the sophistication of our theories more than the scale of our mastery of nature. Global warming may yet cause us problems, but compared to geological forces such as volcanic eruptions or asteroid impacts, humanity barely registers.

However, there is increasingly some truth to the idea that humanity can have an effect on a planetary scale. We should not accept the two options put forward – to abandon intervention, or to sit back and wait for disaster. Engineering our environment on a more local scale, shaping both town and country, has increased both human health and happiness. Why shouldn’t geoengineering take the process forward?

Our knowledge of climate is not yet sufficiently advanced to undertake real planetary geoengineering. We have neither a precise enough understanding of global warming nor the confidence to understand the effects of intentional interventions. But as research on climate change advances, this is changing. It is entirely sensible to start the experiments with technologies – and the political discussions – needed for global engineering now, so that we can welcome the coming of a real Anthropocene Era in the future.

Joe Kaplinsky is a patent and technology analyst. He is speaking at the spiked-seminar The future of energy, in central London on the evening of Thursday 19 February 2004. For further details, email

Read on:

spiked-issue: Global warming

(1) ‘Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability: Energy for a Greenhouse Planet’, Hoffert et al, Science 2002 298: 981-987

(2) See Climate Modification Schemes; and The Discovery of Global Warming, by Spencer Weart

(3) Planet-sized solutions for global warming: international experts evaluate the options, Tyndall Centre press release, 7-9 January 2004

(4) Quoted in Science and the Retreat from Reason, John Gillott and Manjit Kumar, p176

(5) Schneider, SH, 1996, ‘Geoengineering, Could – or should – we do it?’, Climatic Change, 33, no3, p291-302

(6) ‘The Earth’s life-support system is in peril’, Margot Wallström, Bert Bolin, Paul Crutzen and Will Steffen, International Herald Tribune, Tuesday, January 20, 2004

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Topics Science & Tech


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