Weaponized Weather

Proposed global warming 'solutions' could do double duty as weapons

| May 3, 2007

As the world slowly wakes up to the threat of global warming, a few high-profile scientists known as geoengineers are pushing plans for large-scale technological 'solutions' to the looming crisis. According to David Shiga, writing for the New Scientist's environmental blog, the various ideas have included a proposal to launch trillions of tiny 'sunshades' into space to angle the sun's rays away from the earth and a plan to inject sulfur into the atmosphere to create a sort of global shade. Shiga questions the plausibility of these plans, asking whether 'even entertaining these ideas take[s] focus away from practical, if somewhat inconvenient, steps we will have to take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?'

The real problem with geoengineering might be worse than simple distraction. Historian James R. Fleming writes for the Wilson Quarterly that the United States has been pursuing geoengineering technology since the 19th century. Early attempts by American scientists focused on rainmaking to combat droughts, but the projects quickly turned militaristic as the US government realized the potential of turning earth's climate against its enemies.

After World War II, Fleming writes, advances in 'cloud seeding' technology were quickly turned against the post-war enemies of the United States. North and South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Panama, Portugal, Okinawa, and Cuba have all been the targets of US programs of artificial rainmaking, Fleming reports, all under military sponsorship with 'direct involvement of the White ­House.' When evidence of those programs emerged in the 1970s, the United Nations quickly banned the use of environmental modification techniques for hostile purposes.

Today's geoengineering projects, however, are presented as efforts to protect the earth, rather than acts of war. Writing for the electronic engineering magazine IEEE Spectrum, William Gail acknowledges the militaristic history of geoengineering, but still maintains that such projects are needed to combat global warming. In fact, according to Gail, the question is not if these projects will be implemented, but when. '[I]t is inevitable,' he writes, 'that we will begin to apply our newfound capabilities to actively manage -- even engineer -- climate.'

In spite of the United Nations ban, the Wilson Quarterly's Fleming argues, 'it is virtually impossible to imagine governments resisting the temptation to explore military uses of any potentially ­climate-­altering ­technology.' When scientists speak of injecting the atmosphere with sulfur, the idea begs the question: Who will control the weather? Fleming points out that many countries, including Russia, may have differing views from the United States on what an ideal environment is (for example, the Russians might want an ice-free Arctic Circle open for trade routes). Should these two nuclear powers end up butting heads over their preferred climates, the so called 'solution' to global warming may end up causing more harm than the problem itself.

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