Normalizing Geoengineering as Foreign Aid

The Artificial Intelligence of Geoengineering, Part 3 

(To Read Part 1 and Part 2)

Climate Drift: Geoengineers have a problem. Computer modeling suggests that blocking solar radiation in the temperate zone (to preserve Arctic ice or to forestall massive methane releases) could cool the Northern hemisphere but its impact could also drift South, creating severe climatic disruptions by dampening down Asia’s monsoon while drying out Africa’s Sahel. Not a popular proposition.

Now, geoengineers may hope they have a solution. A new study in Nature Climate Change[i] by the UK Government’s Meteorological Office suggests that some form of solar radiation management could mitigate the conventional vicissitudes of nature. According to the report, volcanic eruptions north of the equator in the 20th century either contributed to – or caused – droughts along the African equator and further South. The Met Office guys reason that if the North (home to most volcanoes) were to have another major (and, ultimately inevitable) eruption, drought might be prevented by unleashing counter (artificial) volcanoes below the equator.  The sulfuric blasts could even increase precipitation in sub-Saharan Africa, increase  biomass growth and benefit regional food security.

To make their point, the authors of the Nature Climate Change study point to Mexico’s 1982 El Chichón eruption that, they fear, created or exacerbated the devastating famine that swept across the Sahel and Ethiopia. Would lives have been saved had geoengineering been available?

Normalization: Geoengineering, then, would no longer be identified as the self-serving gambit of climate-deniers and cringing politicians in the temperate zone, it would be “foreign aid.” This is the geoengineer’s version of mission creep. The once shockingly abnormal thought of manipulating planetary systems becomes normalized as new uses are found. 

This is not the first time that geoengineering has been linked to famine relief. It was India’s Bihar famine in the late 1960s that occasioned Lyndon Johnson to launch Operation Gromet – a major weather modification exercise. The US Air Force, with India’s permission, seeded clouds to encourage rain. It didn’t work and food aid had to be rushed in.[ii] But the exercise wasn’t wasted. Richard Nixon adopted the idea for the Vietnam War and Operation Popeye tried to flood the Ho Chi Minh trail and drown out North Vietnam’s rice paddies. Plowshares into swords?

The political fallout from the American weather experiments was the UN Environmental Modification Treaty (ENMOD) adopted by all major governments at the end of the 1970s. Under this Treaty, signatories are prohibited from geoengineering the planet for military purposes. Is it conceivable that any country or “coalition of the willing” could manipulate planetary systems without military consequences?

Modern history gives many examples of the willingness of some governments to modify the planet to achieve military advantage. In 1980, science historian David Collingridge analyzed two potentially earth-shattering examples of normalization or mission creep where diverse interests cobbled together strategies to keep their research running even when the purpose had evaporated:[iii]

First, World War II’s Manhattan Project was an all out US–UK defensive move to counter what was thought to be Nazi Germany’s goal to build an atomic bomb.[iv] By the early 1940s, however, British intelligence (not the artificial kind) confirmed that the Germans had abandoned the bomb. The original mission – to build the “unthinkable,” solely for defense, morphed into an opportunity to use the bomb offensively against Japan. The desperately abnormal got normalized and, by the mid-1950s, became ‘Atoms for Peace.’

Second, in the early 1960s, US fears that the Soviet Union was developing an anti-ballistic missile system (ABM) provoked an emergency move to build MIRV – Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles (nuclear missiles with multiple warheads).[v] By 1965, however, US intelligence concluded that the Soviet research had been dismantled. Rather than scrap the work, the US tweaked the mission (again, from defense to offence) and pressed on despite Congressional alarm that MIRVs would escalate the arms race. Detecting the US program, the Soviets had no choice but to develop their own MIRVs and the Cold War became immediately more precarious. Once the research ball is rolling, vested industrial and military interests keep it rolling opportunistically even if the original mission has been lost in the fog of real events.

Big Chill? Contributing to the normalization of geoengineering, Oliver Morton, science editor of The Economist, on his personal blog, likes the argument  that geoengineering could save Africa from the next Northern volcano.[vi] Morton doesn’t deny that the Temperate North may judiciously introduce solar radiation management anyway to protect the Arctic and that, therefore, the South will have to engage in defensive geoengineering to keep Sahelian famine at bay. It’s hard to see the sunny side of this for tropical and subtropical countries. Since most of the proposals involve layering the stratosphere with sulfate particles that remain aloft for roughly 2 years, Morton and the geoengineers might spare a little artificial intelligence to figure out what to do if a real or second “inevitable” volcanic eruption overlaps the manufactured kind. How would a triple-whammy of sulphates (a north injection, a south injection and then an unexpected volcanic addition) shift the climate. Would you need to double the artificial injection? How can you then scale back afterwards?

Creepy Missions: The kind of mission creep that could prevent devastating drought in Africa, of course, doesn’t seem such a bad idea. Sort of “swords into ploughshares.” Industrialized countries, after all, have an obligation to prevent famine. If another volcano blows somewhere along the North Pacific rim, foreign aid experts should either be better ready to respond to another Sahelian famine with all the complexities of famine relief operations or, maybe more simply, just deploy a counter (artificial) volcano in the Southern hemisphere and avoid all the trouble of setting up tent camps and supply lines. To be ready, then, scientists should start testing the hardware and running field experiments now. This conveniently lets scientists carry on with their climate engineering research under another name.

Returning to Plan A: The alternative, of course, would be to pull out and dust off the many practical proposals that have been around for decades that would plant trees, push back the Sahara, and support sustainable agricultural strategies in the region. And, if that’s not enough in a dire emergency, then make sure there is sufficient food aid. Anchoring and strengthening African soils and supporting African farmers lacks the drama of 20 km high pipes blowing sulfates into the stratosphere or fleets of military jets spreading sulfuric acid vapor, but it has the advantage of taking actions now that can have an immediate positive impact whether or not a volcano erupts, while simultaneously contributing to long-term food security. And, unlike in geoengineering, planting trees and growing crops has a low downside. If the foreign aid agencies of industrialized countries aren’t capable of doing the obvious and the easy then they can’t be trusted with techno-fixes that have unpredictable implications. According to the UK MET office Solar radiation management that increases rainfall in the Sahel or sprays sea salt to whiten clouds off the Namibian coast could dry up Northeast Brazil. Then, foreign aid’s geoengineers would have to deploy in the Amazon with the risk of impacting Asia. This could begin a marvelous – and permanent – employment opportunity.

Footnote: Headquartered in Canada, ETC Group has to point out that the Canadian government – the Poster Child of climate procrastination – is not concerned about desertification. Even as Nature Climate Change reported on geoengineering’s desert benefits, Canada withdrew from the UN’s Desertification Convention[vii] (as it did Kyoto) and simultaneously rolled its foreign aid programme (the Canadian International Development Agency) into a commercially-focused mega-department whose senior services are Foreign Affairs and International Trade.[viii] Of course, if the Tar Sands’ vast unused sulfate residues could be bought and blown into the stratosphere, Canada would become a climate keener...

[i] Jim. M. Haywood, Asymmetric forcing from stratospheric aerosols impacts Sahelian rainfall, Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate1857, March 31, 2013.

[ii] Ronald E. Doel and Kristine C. Harper, Prometheus Unleashed: Science as a Diplomatic Weapon in the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration, Osiris, volume 21, p. 66-85, 2006.

[iii] David Collingridge, The Social Control of Technology, Frances Pinter publisher, 1980.

[iv] Ibid p.130-141.

[v] Ibid p.66-85.

[vi] Oliver Morton blog, Climate Geoengineering for Natural Disasters,, March , March 31, 2013.

[vii] Paul Heinbecker, It’s not just the drought treaty. Canada is vanishing from the United Nations, The Globe and Mail,  April 01, 2013.

[viii] Daniel Schwartz, Should international aid serve Canada's commercial interests? Mixed views on merging CIDA with Foreign Affairs, CBC News, March 28, 2013.