Can We Change the Weather? H. H. Shugart on the Peril and Promise of Geoengineering

H. H. Shugart, Foundations of the Earth

One of the issues H. H. Shugart explores in Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job is whether and to what extent should humankind should see itself as “masters of nature”.

In the chapter, “Making Weather and Influencing Climate,” Shugart looks at geoengineering, one of the ultimate examples of humans trying to master nature. He examines both the possible benefits, such as remedying global warming, and the possible dangers. Here is the conclusion to that chapter:

It is no surprise that the power to control the weather is a principal dimension of divine omnipotence. Does the sensitivity of simulations of the Earth’s climate to inadvertent human changes in the atmosphere and the planet’s surface imply that geoengineering could be effective to manifest planetary-scale changes? In other words, if we can change the climate by accident, just think what we could do if we really put our minds to it. The stakes to control the weather have always been high.

Certainly, control of weather has both tactical and strategic war-fighting implications. Choosing to fight battles under favorable condi­tions has been an aspect of warfare since time immemorial. Predict­ing these conditions is intrinsic to modern warfare. Modifying the environment to favor one military opponent over another has been deployed in the past but is currently under international injunction through treaties.

If to intensify storms, blizzards, hurricanes, and hail is the ultimate weapon, then to moderate these same calamities is the ultimate magna­nimity. Breaking or causing droughts could control the fates of regions and cultures. Simply being able to produce rain at critical times during the growth and maturation process of crop plants could determine eco­nomic success or failure of agriculture at a myriad of scales. Issues asso­ciated with the geoengineering of the Earth have parallels with these issues. One problem is to know when and how geoengineering might favor one people or one nation over another. This was a persistent con­cern with respect to the USSR’s climate modification plans. The melt­ing of the Arctic Sea was one of the preferred Soviet schemes. The possibility of this event worsening climate elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere was a worrisome consequence of this action. Ironically, at the time of writing there is a decline in Arctic Sea ice attributed to a general warming of the Arctic.

Can we really geoengineer the Earth? Some scientists would see humans as having had a profound change on the climate with the dawn of agriculture. A majority of atmospheric scientists feel that human activities are altering climate today. Given the potential consequences of a climate change, geoengineering is becoming a popular technological solution to a difficult policy problem. Sev­eral holistic scientists see geoengineering as the challenge from which we cannot walk away, particularly at our population density and per capita use of materials. A reenvisioning of our energy production capacity, an intrinsically complex and costly option with nothing, including nuclear energy, off the table, is likely to be as contentious a debate in the future as it was in the past. Others express concern with the feasibility, ethical appropriateness, and likelihood of success of geoengineering. Is it cheaper to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than to modify the planet somehow to compensate for our actions? The methodologies involved can be divided into those for managing solar radiation or for managing the atmospheric inputs that effect outgoing radiation (notably carbon dioxide). It appears that scrub­bing carbon dioxide from industrial processes may cost as much as a thousand dollars per ton of carbon dioxide removed from the atmo­sphere, implying a multitrillion-dollar cost each year. Still others are keenly aware of the importance to consider the options wisely: encouraging research but stopping large-scale field experiments to develop scientific oversight.

We have the challenge of navigating the moral and ethical issues that attend climate modification. There is a significant concern that rogue geoengineers might take it upon themselves to change the planetary climate. We must at the same time assess the feasibility, risks, and costs. The history of weather and climate modification portends consider­able difficulty in negotiating these difficulties, but it is an assessment that must be undertaken wisely and soon.

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