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By Jamais Cascio

Posted January 2008

It may sound like science fiction, but it's only a matter of time before the world's militaries learn to wield the planet itself as a weapon.

Preventing global warming from becoming a planetary catastrophe may take something even more drastic than renewable energy, superefficient urban design, and global carbon taxes. Such innovations remain critical, and yet disruptions to the Earth's climate could overwhelm these relatively slow, incremental changes in how we live. As reports of faster-than-expected climate changes mount, a growing number of experts worry that we might ultimately be forced to try something quite radical: geoengineering.

Geoengineering involves humans making intentional, large-scale modifications to the Earth's geophysical systems in order to change the environment. These can include sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide in the oceans, changing the reflectivity of the Earth's surface, and pumping particles into the stratosphere to block a fraction of incoming sunlight. Many of these proposals mimic natural events, so we know that- in principle- they can work, although there is insufficient understanding of their potential side effects. Unsurprisingly, geoengineering is highly controversial, and even proponents view it as a "Hail Mary" pass, to be considered only after all other options have failed.

But geoengineering presents more than just an environmental question. It also presents a geopolitical dilemma. With processes of this magnitude and degree of uncertainty, countries would inevitably argue over control, costs, and liability for mistakes. More troubling, however, is the possibility that states may decide to use geoengineering efforts and technologies as weapons. Two factors make this a danger we dismiss at our peril: the unequal impact of climate changes, and the ability of small states and even nonstate actors to attempt geoengineering.

For a variety of political and natural reasons, global warming affects some countries differently than others. Fragile economies and weak infrastructures tend to worsen the results of climate disruptions, a problem exemplified by Bangladesh's vulnerability to monsoons, accelerating desertification in northern China, and, most visibly, Hurricane Katrina's devastation in New Orleans. At the same time, warming and altered rainfall patterns may, temporaily, improve conditions for countries in extreme latitudes, increasing harvests in Canada and Russia for a few years. Similarly, intentional changes meant to fight global warming would also have differential results.

At the same time, the resources required for geoengineering projects can vary dramatically. A start-up company called Climos and the government of India have each begun to prepare tests of "ocean iron fertilization" to boost oceanic phytoplankton blooms, in order to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, at a cost of just a few million dollars. At the other end of the spectrum, projects like the injection of megatons of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to simulate the effects of a volcano would easily cost in the tens of billions of dollars, still within the means of the most developed country. 

It's this combination of differential impact and relatively low cost that makes international disputes over geoengineering almost inevitable. Even if there is broad consensus that geoengineering is too risky, research into environmental modification will happen simply out of self-preservation---nobody wants to fall behind. Moreover, it's not hard to imagine some international actors seeing geoengineering as something other than solely a way of avoiding environmental disaster.