The Problem With Geoengineering: What if It Works?

The postponement of a massive experiment is a chance to think about what would happen if we had the power to control the weather
A major experiment to use a one kilometer-long hose to pump water droplets into the atmosphere as a precursor to a large-scale geoengineering interventions has been postponed for six months. More than 50 groups, led by Canada's ETC Group, had recently signed a letter condemning the field trial, calling it a "Trojan Hose" and imploring the British government to suspend it until an international agreement to govern geoengineering efforts has been reached. The letter read in part:

It is unacceptable for the UK government to sponsor - even chair - discussions at the [Convention on Biological Diversity] while simultaneously funding experiments and developing hardware for the deployment of stratospheric aerosols, one of the most controversial geoengineering technologies under discussion. This apparent conflict of interest will undermine the credibility of the UK, not only at the CBD, but also in other climate-related negotiations, notably at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).

That said, protecting the political process from these sorts of conflicts of interest is a lesser concern to geoengineering's critics than the potential moral hazards and environmental damage. What happens if something goes wrong? What if efforts to right the planet's climate result in famine or mass extinctions?

Such scenarios are horrifying, but even they don't capture the full range of problems that geoengineering poses. The failure of geoengineering could be a nightmare, but perhaps even scarier is the possibility that geoengineering might actually work.

The Green ReportThis is a tough line to toe. If we could engineer ourselves out of the calamity that is global warming, shouldn't we obviously do it? But we have to wrestle with the possibility that the ability to control the weather is a power so massive that our international political system could not cope with it. One paper in Nature argued that "it may not be possible to stabilize the climate in all regions simultaneously" using solar deflection schemes. Who would decide which places get to have which climates? How would the world make those decisions? Could they ever even approximate fairness? Or, as James R. Fleming, author of Fixing the Sky, wrote in The Wilson Quarterly (my former stomping grounds):
While most of the world may want to maintain or increase polar sea ice, Russia and some other nations have historically desired an ice-free Arctic ocean, which would liberate shipping and open potentially vast oil and mineral deposits for exploitation. And an engineered Arctic ice sheet would likely produce shorter growing seasons and harsher winters in Alaska, Siberia, Greenland, and elsewhere, and could generate super winter storms in the midlattitudes.

Such concerns may raise some anti-science red flags, but I think it's important to note that the problem isn't science per se but the ability to use it fairly and safely.

In an interview in Wired, Alexis Madrigal asked Eli Kintisch, author of Hack the Planet, about a statement from atmospheric scientist David Battisti that, "You hope to God this is never used but if you have to use it, you better know how it behaves." Kintisch replies:

At this point, a lot of scientists feel the cat is out of the bag. If anything, a desperate politician 30 years form now may suddenly decide, "I need to cool the planet." And if we don't study it, scientists won't have any way to warn this leader of what the consequences will be. From that perspective there is a Pandora's box that has been opened.

Geoengineering is a bad idea whose time has come. It is something that you have to study and hope to never use. [For the atomic scientists], the other side has nuclear weapons and they are pointed at you, so you have no choice but to develop a deterrent. In this case, the nuclear weapons are the unknown chance that the planet's sensitivity to CO2 is very high and will respond to some of these worst-case tipping points.

Kintisch is right that if you're going to try to manipulate the climate, it's better to at least know what you're doing. But if it is ever possible to control the weather, it will be very, very difficult to prevent regimes from doing so unilaterally. The international community has so far proved to be incapable of dealing with global climate change. Why would it be any better equipped to control the weather? The ETC Group is right that we should create international standards for how we would use this power if we had it, before we do actually have it.

The human desire to control the weather is an ancient one, seen in various rain dances and prayers across religions and continents. If one day we can control the weather, we may long for the old days, when the skies were out of our control and we didn't know how good we had it.

Image: AP.