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Author and Historian Questions Whether “Fixing the Sky” Can Address Climate Change

Amid concerns about global climate change, many scientists now support serious research on manipulating the climate by methods such as pumping sunlight-reflecting particles into the atmosphere. But proposed technological “fixes” for the sky are not new, according to historian James Rodger Fleming of Colby College.

For well over a century, scientists, military officials, and charlatans have tinkered with schemes to control weather and climate, Fleming told a AAAS audience, and the checkered history of such pursuits offers a cautionary tale to those who back what is now being called “geoengineering.”

“There are a lot of historical precedents” aimed at “fixing the sky,” Fleming said. But the results have been decidedly mixed, he said, and raise questions about the wisdom of pursuing such proposals to counter-act the effects of global climate change.

James Rodger Fleming

Fleming spoke at a 7 October seminar co-sponsored by the AAAS Archives, the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy. His new book, “Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control,” was published in September by Columbia University Press. Fleming did much of the research for the book while he was a AAAS Roger Revelle Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2006-2007.

Almost from the beginning, Fleming said, Americans have been intrigued by notions of improving the weather. Early settlers were puzzled by harsh winters (they had expected orange groves and spice plants, Fleming said) and spoke of trying to make it better. In the 1840s, James Espy, the first meteorologist employed by the United States government, proposed using massive fires as artificial volcanoes to trigger regular rains along the eastern seaboard and improve the health of the region.

Scientists in the United States and elsewhere had been mulling large-scale weather modification efforts well before the recent concerns about global warming. During the 1950s, Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir—who did cloud-seeding experiments in an effort to control a hurricane off the Atlantic coast—talked grandly of seeding clouds over the entire Pacific basin to control storms. He also talked of turning the arid Southwest into fertile farmland. In the 1960s, the Russians actively sought to engineer an ice-free Arctic Ocean.
[ILLUSTRATION] The cover of ‘Fixing the Sky’ [Book cover image courtesy of Columbia University Press]

Book cover image courtesy of Columbia University Press

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. military seeded clouds over South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with silver iodide in an effort to create rains that would disrupt movement of North Vietnamese troops and materiel.

And in the 1990s, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that naval guns could be used to shoot sunlight-blocking sulfates into the upper atmosphere as a cheaper way to reduce global temperatures than trying to reduce heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions from industrial activity.

But Fleming said some scientists also recognized that there could be unintended consequences from geoengineering, including tensions between nations that had the capability to tinker with the weather and those that did not. Computer pioneer John von Neumann, even as he sought a perfect weather forecasting machine, warned in 1955 against climate control as a thoroughly “abnormal” industry.

Fleming said today’s proponents of geoengineering for climate control need to look beyond the technical details of proposals. He argues, as he put it in his book, for “the relevance of history, the foolishness of quick fixes, and the need to follow a ‘middle course’ of expedited moderation in aerial matters, seeking neither to control the sky nor to diminish the importance of the environmental problems we face.”

Fleming called his book his “first attempt at a tragic-comedy,” an account of both humorous and threatening efforts to control the environment. He said that the military has long had an interest in climate engineering. The Army medical service funded meteorologist James Espy, he noted, and the U.S. Army Signal Office served as the United States’ first national weather service.

During the Cold War, an Air Force general famously quipped: “If you control the weather, you can control the world.” U.S. Weather Bureau scientist Harry Wexler concluded in the 1960s that a nation with hostile intent could devastate the earth’s protective ozone layer using a “bomb” containing bromine or chlorine.

U.S. and Soviet scientists actually undertook what Fleming considers geoengineering experiments during the Cold War when they detonated atomic and hydrogen bombs in space. The intent was to seed the outer atmosphere with electrons and show that electromagnetic pulses from the blasts could disrupt enemy communications a half a world away.

View the video of James Rodger Fleming's 7 October talk on geoengineering.

According to Fleming, physicist James Van Allen—who won fame for discovering the belts of charged particles surrounding the Earth that now bear his name—joined the secret military program to study the effects of detonating H-bombs in space, although he later regretted his involvement.

Fleming cautioned that attempts to engineer the climate by putting reflecting aerosols or other substances into the stratosphere can bring unknown side effects, including the possibility of shutting down the Indian monsoon season and affecting food production in Asia.

There are also scientists who have urged caution, of course. Fleming noted a series of questions from Rutgers University meteorologist Alan Robock, who has opposed even small-scale technology deployments until scientists ensure that adverse consequences can be avoided. Among Robock’s objections: Once begun, can we ever stop the use of geoengineering? Who has the moral right to do it? Will it undermine steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions?

“My goal is not to form public policy or tell the Pentagon what to do or to tell the National Academy how to think, but to have a place at the table and to have something to say” when finally invited to the table, Fleming said. He said there is a need for “applied humanities” as a way to broaden the conversation about geoengineering. “We need to have a lot of people talking from international, intergenerational, and interdisciplinary perspectives,” Fleming said.

A large-scale, technocratic, one-size-fits-all approach to geoengineering, he said, “is certainly not supportable.” He called for a middle path that emphasizes continued computer modeling and research “indoors” on potential geoengineering schemes while also emphasizing steps to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate changes as they occur. He asked for “a richer conversation than a technocrat saying, ‘I’ve got a great idea, let’s try this.’”

As Fleming writes in his book: “Like the pseudoscientific rainmakers of yore, today’s aspiring climate engineers wildly exaggerate what is possible and scarcely consider the political or ethical implications of attempting to manage the world’s climate—with potential consequences far greater than any of their predecessors were ever likely to face.”

Earl Lane

22 October 2010


Earl Lane

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