Global Warming: The Quick Fix Is In

Hopes for the Kyoto Protocol are fading, and carbon trading is a farce. To arrest climate change, industrialized states can either “bite the bullet” and adopt socially responsible policies to dramatically cut fossil fuel use and useless consumption. Or they can hope for a “silver bullet”—some new techno-fix that might let them continue to pollute and avoid human extinction. The silver bullet may be winning.

At the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. government is lobbying for “geoengineering” activities such as deliberately polluting the stratosphere to deflect sunlight and lower temperatures. At least nine national governments and the European Union (EU) have supported experiments to spread iron filings on the ocean surface to nurture plankton and sequester carbon dioxide. At least a dozen additional countries are involved in the modification of stratospheric weather. Commercial carbon traders are engaging in ocean fertilization as well. This experimentation by governments and corporations is taking place in the absence of public discussion.

Global warming demonstrates that we have already geoengineered the earth’s climate. However, the notion that we can successfully correct our unintentional destructiveness with intentional geoengineering seems far-fetched. For the governments who caused the problem to experiment together on geoengineering solutions is a grave miscalculation. To do so outside the UN and without the participation of the Global South, which bears the brunt of global warming and would likely bear the risks of geoengineering, is politically and ethically suspect.

A Brief History of Geoengineering

In 1975, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Newsweek magazine joined forces to warn of “the Cooling World.” It was the same year that British scientists confirmed a hole over the ozone layer above Antarctica. Also in 1975, the Soviet Union and the United States submitted identical draft treaties to the UN General Assembly prohibiting climate modification as a military weapon.1

Thirty years later, everybody—including the U.S. president—was talking about global warming. Scientists warned that the temperature rise on the Arctic ice cap and on Siberian permafrost could “tip” planet Earth into an environmental tailspin. And, the U.S. Congress agreed to study a bill that would establish a national weather modification research program.

“Let’s quit the debate about whether greenhouse gases are caused by mankind or by natural causes,” George W. Bush proposed in 2006. “Let’s just focus on technologies that deal with the issue.” One of the technological silver bullets the United States is currently investigating is most commonly known as geoengineering, which is the intentional and directed manipulation of the earth and its ecosystems. Geoengineering includes a wide range of schemes. Blasting particles of sulfur into the stratosphere is supposed to shield us from the sun’s rays. Dumping iron particles in the oceans is supposed to nurture CO 2 -absorbing plankton. And blasting clouds with chemicals is supposed to nudge them into producing rain. University of Calgary physicist, David Keith, refers to geoengineering as “an expedient solution that uses additional technology to counteract unwanted effects without eliminating their root cause.”2

The notion of a technological fix for global warming isn’t new. In the 1940s, Bernard Vonnegut—a well-respected meteorologist and Kurt Vonnegut’s brother—discovered that silver iodide smoke could cause clouds to give up their rain.3 His discovery kick-started serious government efforts to manipulate the environment. Until then, cloud-seeding had been the preserve of crackpots and con artists. By 1951, however, 10% of the United States was under clouds that had been commercially seeded.4

Governments and industry have a sometimes-ignoble history tampering with the weather. The CIA’s top-secret “Project Popeye” rainmaking campaign, which began in 1966, ran for seven years and conducted 2,300 cloud seeding missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.5 The goal was to make the trail impassible and, as a bonus, to drown out North Vietnam’s rice crop. While rains did increase, the Air Force couldn’t establish a clear link to its covert campaign.

Recently, more convincing experiments have focused on ” hygroscopic cloud seeding “—that is, warm-cloud seeding, as opposed to cold-cloud seeding (glaciogenic). Results from experiments at the South African National Precipitation and Rainfall Enhancement Programme earned researchers there the United Arab Emirates’ 2005 Prize for Excellence in Advancing the Science and Practice of Weather Modification. Other warm-cloud seeding projects have taken place in the United States, Thailand, China, India, Australia, Israel, South Africa, Russia, United Arab Emirates, and Mexico.6 According to the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO), at least 26 governments were routinely conducting weather-altering experiments in 2000.7 By 2003-2004, only 16 WMO member countries reported weather modification activities, although weather modification activities are known to have taken place in several other countries.

Many of the world’s military powers remain fascinated with weather control. A U.S. Air Force report entitled Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025 concluded that the weather “can provide battlespace dominance to a degree never before imagined,” including the ability to thwart an enemy’s operations by enhancing a storm or by inducing drought and making fresh water scarce. In 2004, two Chinese cities in Henan province—Pingdingshan and Zhoukou—came close to fighting when they both tried to alter local weather patterns by blasting tiny silver iodide particles into the troposphere (the lowest portion of Earth’s atmosphere).8 The city downwind accused the city upwind of stealing its weather. This hasn’t deterred the Chinese government from promising the International Olympic Committee that China will use weather modification to guarantee sunny days for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The history of weather modification—both for economic and military purposes—is unquestionably spotty. Will governments do any better responding to climate change? The initial signs are not good. The Guardian recently reported, for example, that the United States is unhappy with the draft of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report because of its “focus on the negative effects” of climate change and its rejection of voluntary agreements. Instead, U.S. negotiators are pushing for techno-fix strategies to be given a prominent place in the final report’s recommendations.9

The U.S. message has been: we don’t need to change our lifestyle, just improve our efficiency. New technologies can supersede belt-tightening and conservation. But this message hits up against the reality of resource use. Humanity has consumed more natural resources since World War II than in all the years before.10 And world energy demand—despite much-publicized potential improvements in efficiency—is forecast to jump 60%, from 2002 to 2030, and to require about $568 billion in new investments every year.11

So, if governments aren’t prepared to ask their citizens to change their lifestyles, is geoengineering a real option? The concept is rapidly gaining ground.

Sky Change

Paul Crutzen stirred up a tempest in a teapot in August 2006 when he wrote an ” editorial essay” in Climatic Change magazine calling for active research into the use of “sub-micrometer”-sized sulfate-based aerosols to reflect sunlight in the stratosphere in order to cool the earth. Crutzen, a Nobel-prize winning scientist at the Max-Planck-Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, opines that high-altitude balloons and artillery cannons could be used to blast sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, in effect, simulating a volcanic eruption. The sulfur dioxide would convert to sulfate particles. The cost, he reckons, would run between $25 and $50 billion per year—a figure he argues is well below the trillion dollars spent annually by the world’s governments on defense. Crutzen notes that the price tag doesn’t include the human cost of a half-million premature deaths from particulate pollution.

Such tiny reflective particles could be resident in the air for two years. Crutzen willingly acknowledges that this is a risky proposition and insists that it should be undertaken only if all else fails. He goes on to add that the political will to do anything else seems to have failed already.

Crutzen’s views are extremely controversial among scientists. However, an editorial in the same issue of Climatic Change by Ralph J. Cicerone, an atmospheric chemist and president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, supports further research on Crutzen’s geoengineering proposals. He told The New York Times in mid-2006: “We should treat these ideas like any other research and get into the mind-set of taking them seriously.”12 Earlier in the year, Cicerone invited Roger P. Angel, a well-established astronomer at the University of Arizona, to speak at the Academy’s annual meeting. Dr. Angel has a plan to put trillions of lenses—each about 2 feet wide but wafer thin—into orbit to deflect sunlight.13

Between Cicerone’s backing and Paul Crutzen’s essay, it has suddenly become politically correct to talk about geoengineering as a legitimate response to climate change: a credibility shift that The New York Times called a “major reversal.”14

What goes up, however, still (usually) comes down. Be it silver iodide, sulfur, or salt spray, the ton of particles that would need to be regularly blasted into the stratosphere will find their way back to earth again. All the issues related to environmental health and safety associated with particulate pollution, including novel manufactured nanoparticles, remain relevant for these intentional polluting schemes. Climate change experts insist that we should distinguish between unintended pollution and climate modification schemes that pump particulate matter into the air we breathe. But our lungs won’t know the difference.15 According to the World Health Organization, more than 4.5 million people die each year from industrial and vehicle emissions and from burning fuels indoors. Geoengineering the stratosphere makes it easier for industry to continue atmospheric pollution but compounds the potential problem by intentionally contributing massively to particle pollution.

Sea Change

Not only are there serious proposals on the table to restructure the stratosphere, governments and industry are also contemplating major modifications to the ocean surface. Since 1993, there have been at least 10 documented government and/or private experiments to “seed” sections of the ocean’s surface to demonstrate the feasibility of iron fertilization for sequestering carbon and countering global warming. Additional ocean fertilization experiments are on the drawing board for 2007.

In October 1993—a year after the Rio Earth Summit—a U.S.-led expedition (dubbed IRONEX I) carpeted a 64 square kilometer patch of ocean with iron particles. The location was the eastern equatorial Pacific about 500 km south of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.16 The project was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the U.S. National Science Foundation and involved nine U.S. research institutions as well as two British universities. The experiment resulted in a doubling of plant biomass, a tripling of chlorophyll, and a quadrupling in plant production.17 The researchers emphasized that their experiments “are not intended as preliminary steps to climate manipulation.”18

Subsequent experiments in iron fertilization were either inconclusive in their effect on carbon sequestration or had worrisome results. For instance, a 2002 expedition, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, dumped almost three tons of iron particles from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography research vessel. The results of this experiment worried many. Dr. Kenneth Coale, chief scientist on the expedition and director of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California, told the science press at the time that iron fertilization could theoretically sterilize portions of the Pacific.

With so many attempts and inconclusive results, one would expect governments to move on to something else. However, if iron fertilization of the ocean can suck up carbon dioxide on a massive scale, carbon traders will be able to make money on it. Carbon trading allows companies or individuals to buy the rights to pollute (i.e., carbon credits) by investing in projects that are deemed by “experts” to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Many ocean scientists—even those who have participated in iron fertilization studies in the past—reject large-scale iron seeding as a means to combat climate change, and they are distancing themselves from commercial iron dumping ventures that aim to make money from the carbon market.

As The Corner House’s Larry Lohmann describes in Carbon Trading, sequestering can be a profitable game of soot and mirrors. Those involved in iron fertilization, for example, optimistically predict annual returns of $100 billion assuming a sequestration cost of about $6.70 per ton and a carbon-trading price of perhaps $33 per ton. But even if iron seeding induces blooms that transfer CO 2 from the atmosphere to the deep sea, there is no scientific basis for arguing that it will stay there permanently. Some scientists assert that the CO 2 reservoirs will eventually be re-exposed.19 But companies serving the carbon market need only keep CO 2 out of sight long enough to cash their checks. If the CO 2 later pops back up to the surface, proving its source and litigating those responsible could be extremely difficult.

Critics of industrial-scale iron fertilization schemes point out that “the oceans’ food webs and biogeochemical cycles would be altered in unintended ways.”20 Others note that iron may not be the ocean’s only nutrient “deficiency”—researchers have identified silicate as a crucial component in carbon export, for example—but each “correction” to ocean water composition could have unintended effects. According to U.S. and Canadian scientists writing in the journal Science, if carbon-trading schemes make it profitable for companies to engage in ocean fertilization, “the cumulative effects of many such implementations would result in large-scale consequences—a classic ‘tragedy of the commons.’”21 Mark Lawrence of the Max-Planck-Institute in Germany adds that large-scale iron fertilization could have unintended atmospheric and climatic impacts—including ozone depletion and intensified ultraviolet levels on the Earth’s surface.22

Future Change

Given the dubious experience with iron fertilization, it could be tempting for desperate governments to try an alternative approach: the release of a living organism made from scratch designed to sequester carbon. This kind of geoengineering is not as “sci-fi” as we would wish.

Many of the Western Hemisphere’s most devastating hurricanes originate when temperatures rise in the mid-Atlantic region of the Sargasso Sea. Although the Sargasso Sea is known for the profusion of seaweed at its surface, biologists have always regarded the sea as relatively barren.

In 2004, with grants from the Department of Energy, Craig Venter—the man who led the private sector mapping of the human genome—steered his yacht into the Sargasso in search of marine microbes sporting novel genes to improve photosynthesis. Months later, Venter told a Washington news conference that he had found 1,800 new microbial species and at least 1.2 million novel genes, including photosynthesis genes that could have a major impact on climate change. With U.S. Department of Energy funding, Craig Venter is committed to creating a new life form—a synthetic construct based upon simple microorganisms—that could be designed to clean up pollution, CO 2, or other greenhouse gases.

There are other—possibly related—developments. In 2005, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) introduced bill S517 in Congress that would establish a committee to oversee a national research program on weather modification. Originally expected to become law before the 2006 hurricane season, the bill never made it out of committee—and is dead in the water for now. It unexpectedly ran into some opposition from the White House science adviser who was concerned that any technologies that might be introduced to modify the U.S. climate would, inevitably, modify everybody else’s climate.

In April 2006, the National Science Foundation held its third Hurricane Science and Engineering Task Force Workshop in Pensacola, Florida. Among the options under consideration, according to the meeting’s co-chair and meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma Kelvin Droegemeier, is creating a biological film over the ocean’s surface to divert hurricanes. Some researchers have lost enthusiasm for the idea of coating the ocean’s surface with an oily film (to restrict evaporation and mitigate hurricanes) because the film breaks up in high-wind conditions.23 Ross Hoffman of Atmospheric and Environmental Research (Lexington, Massachusetts) is using computer modeling to study how to induce minor changes in weather conditions (e.g., air temperature or humidity) to weaken or divert hurricanes away from population centers. According to Hoffman, who received funding from NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts, “the goal is not to change the climate, but to control the precise timing and paths of weather systems.”24 Hoffman speculates, for example, that earth-orbiting solar power stations could supply enough energy to heat the air around a hurricane and adjust the temperature. Hoffman writes that global weather control “might be implemented within a few decades” but will require further breakthroughs in nanotechnology, quantum devices, and other areas.25

At the end of 2006, when the UN Convention on Climate Change convened in Nairobi, the Associated Press reported that geoengineering received a surprising amount of attention. What most surprised government delegates and civil society observers was that everybody was taking seriously Crutzen’s proposal for stratospheric hazing or deliberate atmospheric polluting. Kyoto, according to the wisdom of the meeting, was on its deathbed, and geoengineering was looking more reasonable everyday.

The political and ethical dimensions of climate modification are huge. In a 2005 interview in The Boston Globe, the director of Harvard’s Laboratory for Geochemical Oceanography Daniel Schrag asked, “Suppose we could control hurricanes, but stopping one requires an incredibly hot day in Africa that would burn up all the crops.”26 Schrag goes on, “Let’s say you have a mirror in space. Think of two summers ago when we were having this awful cold summer and Europe was having this awful heat wave. Who gets to adjust the mirror?”27

In September 2001, officials with the President’s Climate Change Technology Program invited about two-dozen scientists to participate in a meeting titled “Response Options to Rapid or Severe Climate Change.” Despite Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto protocol six months earlier, the White House was quietly checking out its options. One of the organizers of the White House gathering was Dr. Michael MacCracken, a former senior scientist at the U.S. Global Change Research Program and, also, formerly with Lawrence Livermore. “We already are inadvertently changing the climate,” MacCracken told one science journal, “so why not advertently try to counterbalance it?”

Fork in the Road

The current U.S. administration and its counterparts in China and Russia are not likely to shy away from geoengineering the stratosphere or the ocean in order to save their oil industries or ward off disaster from their coastal cities. But they should.

Geoengineering is the wrong response to climate change. Experimentation that could alter the structure of the oceans or the stratosphere should not proceed without thorough and informed public debate on its consequences, and only with UN authorization. Geoengineering must not be undertaken unilaterally by any nation. The UN must reaffirm (and, if necessary, expand) the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) recognizing that any unilateral modification of weather or climate is a threat to neighboring countries and, very likely, the entire international community. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should revisit the concept and practice of carbon trading and replace this market-based “solution” with direct, measurable standards for CO 2 emission reduction at source. The industrialized states must redouble their efforts to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and to curtail other wasteful practices that contribute to global warming.

We’ve been down this road before. After World War II, the U.S. military and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography cooperated on studies that led to the atomic bomb testing in the Pacific being called “a wonderful oceanographic tool.”28 The director of the Scripps oceanographic program, Roger Revelle, complained that “ignorance and emotionalism” dominated the discourse about radioactive waste dumping at sea. We have come to understand the perils of dumping such materials in the ocean. Let’s not make the same mistakes again.

End Notes

  1. According to the U.S. State Department (on its web site, November 28, 2005) the United States and the Soviet Union introduced identical treaty texts at the UN in 1975, and the treaty came into force on May 18, 1978. The strongly worded treaty bans all military and other hostile efforts at environmental modification but does not preclude beneficial modifications. To date, 51 countries have ratified the treaty including almost all major OECD and South governments except South Africa and Mexico.
  2. David W. Keith, Forthcoming in “Climate Change Science and Policy,” Steven Schneider and Mike Mastrandrea editors, to be published by Island Press.
  3. Drake Bennett, “Don’t like the weather? Change it – The weird science of weather modification makes a comeback,” Boston Globe, July 3, 2005.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Kate Ravilious, “Kicking up a storm with the cloud seeders,” New Scientist, April 16, 2005, pp. 40-43.
  6. Ibid. This article adds UAE, Australia, Israel, Russia, South Africa, and India to the list of countries using weather modification.
  7. Daniel Pendick, “Cloud Dancers: Will Efforts To Change The Weather Ever Attain Scientific Legitimacy?” Scientific American, 2000, pp 64-69.
  8. Ravilious, op. cit.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. William J. Broad, “How to Cool a Planet (Maybe)” New York Times, June 27, 2006.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. David W. Keith, “Engineering the Planet,” forthcoming in Climate Change Science and Policy, Steven Schneider and Mike Mastrandrea editors, to be published by Island Press.
  16. J.H. Martin et al., “Testing the Iron Hypothesis in Ecosystems of the Equatorial Pacific Ocean,” Nature, Vol. 371, September 8, 1994, pp. 123-129. See also:
  17. J.H. Martin, et al., “Testing the Iron Hypothesis in Ecosystems of the Equatorial Pacific Ocean,” Nature, Vol. 371, September 8, 1994, p. 123.
  18. Ibid. p. 129.
  19. Sallie Chisholm et al., “Dis-Crediting Ocean Fertilization,” Science, Vol. 294, October 12, 2001.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Mark Lawrence, “Side Effects of Oceanic Iron Fertilization,” Science, September 20, 2002: Vol. 297, no. 5589, p. 1993.
  23. Telephone communication with Prof. Kerry Emanuel, MIT and Prof. Kelvin Droegemeier, Meteorologist, University of Oklahoma, January 11, 2007.
  24. Ross Hoffman, “Controlling the Global Weather,” BAMS, American Meteorological Society, February 2002.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Drake Bennett, op. cit.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Helen M. Rozwadowski and David K. van Keuren, eds., The Machine in Neptune’s Garden: Historical Perspectives on Technology and the Marine Environment, Canton, Mass.: Watson, 2004.
Pat Mooney is the Executive Director of ETC Group. Hope Shand and Kathy Jo Wetter of ETC Group also contributed to this article. The full version of the report on which this essay is based, Gambling with Gaia, is available here.