In July, the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that the CIA is helping to underwrite a yearlong study examining atmospheric geoengineering—deliberate, planetary-scale manipulation of the climate to counteract global warming. As reporters took jabs at the idea of “spooks” seeking to “control the weather,” the National Academy of Sciences tried to brush away concerns. “We are not producing anything, building anything, or deploying anything. It’s more of a state-of-the-science review,” an academy spokesperson told me, noting that NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are also helping to pay for the study. Still, the CIA’s interest in geoengineering marks a turning point in the simmering debate about the controversial technology: More and more people are starting to take the once-laughable idea seriously.
Both supporters and skeptics of geoengineering schemes—which range from spewing sulfur dioxide particles into the stratosphere to dumping iron filings in the oceans—say planetary manipulation of the atmosphere is a Pandora’s box that could unleash all kinds of environmental and geopolitical problems. While the CIA worries about other countries trying to weaponize the weather, environmentalists are anxious about the unforeseen ecological knock-on effects. Philosophers, meanwhile, caution that human ownership of the sky would place us in a new kind of existential bind.
Geoengineering has stood on the fringes of global-warming policy discussions for years. White House science adviser John Holdren is reported to have talked about it with President Barack Obama soon after he took office. In 2010, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held hearings on geoengineering; committee members stopped short of advocating for deployment and said research into the it should be “open and transparent,” and spearheaded by the Department of Energy. Now the idea is taking on greater urgency. With the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide above 400 parts per million (the highest level in millions of years, according to NASA scientists) and global politics locked in a stalemate over emissions reductions, some climate scientists say we need to consider Plan B. Having unintentionally warmed up the planet, we may have no choice but to intentionally cool it back down.
Some of geoengineering’s most prominent backers have mixed emotions about the enterprise….
Geoengineering projects are any attempts to alter the way the planet or its weather systems operate. The project at NAS is not to conduct any such engineering but to study several options that have been suggested by people in the geoengineering community as a means of reversing global warming. Such options include sending particles into the atmosphere to reflect back some of the sun’s heat, or building a machine that could suck carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it somewhere. NAS has been given $630,000 to conduct the study which is to last 21 months.
More specifically, the project goals are to study ways in which weather patterns might be artificially influenced, assess possible negative impacts of doing so and to try to determine national security issues related to global warming or trying to reverse it. The CIA has previously looked into the issue of global warming as it applies to national security and even had a research center dedicated to its efforts. That center was closed down last year, however, after members of the U.S. Congress objected to the agency’s involvement in such activities. It’s not yet known how government officials will respond to this new initiative or whether private entities (conspiracy theorists) will consider such funding part of a larger effort by the agency to exert control over the rest of the world.
To date, there have already been attempts to alter the weather—the U.S. military (carrying out a CIA plan) famously tried to make it rain more during the Vietnam War to bog down enemy supply lines. More recently, China tried seeding clouds prior to the Summer Olympics hoping to cause rain to fall before reaching Beijing. A private company also recently seeded a portion of the ocean off the coast of Canada with the idea of igniting plankton growth that would suck carbon out of the air. Unfortunately, testing whether any such efforts have actually worked has proven difficult, if not impossible—how can you determine if the amount of rain that fell after cloud seeding, was more than it would have been otherwise?