Could Global Warming Be Halted by Controlling the Weather?

The Wall Stree Journal | April 25, 2007
By Wendy Pollack

Frustrated with the limits of public policy to tackle global warming, some scientists say the time has come to engineer a way to control the weather. The idea might seem appealing, says a science scholar, but it could have potentially harmful ramifications. 

Climate engineering has become a popular topic among a group of scientists who are skeptical of the potential other environmental remedies, from carbon taxes to alternative energy, James R. Fleming, a professor of science, technology and society at Colby College, writes in the Wilson Quarterly’s spring issue. But the potential fixes being discussed reflect an overconfidence in technology, Mr. Fleming says, as well as an ignorance of the history of failed efforts to control the weather.

One idea put forth by a physicist involved in climate-control discussions would involve bombarding the Arctic stratosphere with specially engineered particles to deflect the sun’s rays, thereby lowering temperatures. Alternatively, a fleet of crop-dusting airplanes could deliver the particles by flying continuously around the Arctic Circle. An astronomer suggested placing a huge fleet of mirrors in orbit to divert solar radiation. Some of these ideas, says Mr. Fleming, are reminiscent of the optimism that framed the first attempts at climate control, which date to the 19th century. In the 1940s, scientists developed cloud-seeding to produce rainfall, a technique that was later adopted by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to hinder enemy troops movements.

The risk that modern climate controls would be similarly used for military purposes is one of the dangers of the latest batch of ideas, says Mr. Fleming. “It is virtually impossible to imagine governments resisting the temptation to explore military uses of any potentially climate-altering technology,” he says. What’s more, the climate system is so complex that it would be difficult to ever predict how such controls would affect nature. And which countries, Mr. Fleming wonders, could be trusted to equitably control weather in different parts of the world. In the face of a potential climate crisis, doing nothing or too little is “clearly wrong, but so is doing too much.”