October 07, 2010

On Geoengineering, Learning from the Greeks

“Everything is unprecedented if you don’t read history,” said James Rodger Fleming, author of Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, at an event yesterday at the Wilson Center. With an increasing amount of attention given to geoengineering, Fleming has set out on a challenging but laudable task: bringing the history of geoengineering (yes, there’s a history there) to bear on public policy discussions. That’s no easy feat. But the time for mobilizing that perspective is now.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that the recent focus on geoengineering is in part a response to a growing consciousness in the policy community of the challenge of global climate change. The Post’s Juliet Eilperin summed it up rather nicely: “It's come to this: Climate-conscious policymakers are beginning to contemplate the possibility of playing God with the weather in the hope of slowing global warming.”

But what lessons can we learn from our having dabbled in geoengineering before? What is it we need to know before we start “playing God with the weather” in a serious effort to address climate change? These are important questions and were at the heart of Fleming’s discussion – and his book.

Fleming, a Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Colby College, had clearly done his homework, offering the audience compelling examples of what he described as the tragicomic history of geoengineering, beginning in the mid 1800s and continuing through the 1970s. The schemes he described clearly illustrated his point: geoengineering has a troubled history, there is a lot we do not know and it might be dangerous. Writing in the September 23 edition of Slate Magazine, Fleming explained:

Indeed, the history of these schemes provides a valuable perspective on what might otherwise seem to be a completely unprecedented challenge. Geoengineering has been proposed before, many times. In the 1950s Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir wanted to seed the entire Pacific basin to control storms. In the 1960s the Russians declared war on permafrost and sought to engineer an ice-free Arctic Ocean. About a decade before the ozone concerns of the 1970s, Weather Bureau scientist Harry Wexler identified catalytic chemical reactions that could devastate the stratosphere—a potential "bromine bomb." In the 1990s a committee of the National Academy of Sciences suggested using naval guns to shoot sulfates into the high atmosphere, since it was cheaper than reducing carbon emissions.

During his discussion yesterday, Fleming enumerated several points that I think really begin to flesh out the challenges with geoengineering, especially as they pertain to the foreign policy community. First, who has the moral right to engineer the climate? It is, after all, a global system. No one country should have control over the global climate.

In thinking through what this means for foreign policy practitioners, I reflected on the work CNAS has pioneered on the contested global commons (sea, air, space and cyberspace), “those areas or dimensions of the world no one state controls but that act as the connective tissue that binds the international system together.” If states begin to engage in geoengineering, does that mean that climate could become the fifth dimension of the contested commons, especially given its likely contested nature with who has control over managing it - if managing it means you can deny states access to certain climatic conditions? To paraphrase Fleming’s warning: as soon as you start managing the sky, you start fighting about it.

It is not outside the realm of possibility. It has all the makings and trappings of being a contested common – and as Fleming emphasized, it needs to be a topic for international negotiations – and it has to be intergenerational and interdisciplinary. But how do you manage geoengineering in the international community? Do existing treaties, such as the 1977 Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile use of Environmental Modification Techniques, provide the necessary framework to negotiation geoengineering, or is a new treaty needed? This is certainly a question to consider.

But what then of the reason geoengineering is considered in the first place: climate change? Would geoengineering reduce incentives to mitigate climate change? Would we just turn to technology to fix our problems without addressing the real problem – that is, our need to seriously reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions?

Then there’s the “what we don’t know we don’t know” about geoengineering: the unknown side effects. Actually, the side effects are rather predictable Fleming argued – for example, seeding the sky with chemicals above the Asian continent and accidentally shutting down the Indian subcontinent monsoons – we just can’t predict where they’re going to happen.

Fleming’s book is certainly worth reading in full. It is, I think, a well researched cautionary note about the potential perils of hubris and overreaching with engineering the global climate. As Fleming noted, advancements in science go from promise to hype too quickly, and before we begin to discuss experimenting with the global climate, we need to look to historical precedent so we don’t repeat past mistakes.

As Fleming pointed out, it’s quite compelling when the Greeks can address today's issues. Fleming recalled the Greek myth he dubbed “Phaeton’s Blunder.” In short, Phaeton, the son of Apollo – God of the Sun, asked his father if he could drive Apollo’s chariot, the Chariot of the Sun. Apollo warned that the steeds driving the chariot were so powerful that Apollo himself could barely restrain them. Yet Phaeton chose to proceed despite his father’s warning. And so it goes: Phaeton couldn’t control the steeds and he nearly wrecked the Earth. It is another cautionary tale from the Greeks on hubris and overreaching, and why history must be a part of public policy discussions on geoengineering - lest we follow in Phaeton’s footsteps and watch our own experiment go awry.

To learn more about Fleming and his work, follow his blog, Atmosphere: Air, Weather, and Climate History Blog.