GEOENGINEERINGWhat Are the Geopolitical Risks of Manipulating the Climate?

By Doug Irving

Published 30 December 2021

It would only take one country—watching its crops shrivel or its water run dry—deciding to take a chance to set in motion a global geoengineering climate experiment, and technologies which could, for example, block the sun’s rays or siphon huge amounts of carbon from the air are not that far out of reach. The effects could get out of hand quickly. Yet the international community has not established the kinds of guardrails you might expect for potentially world-changing technologies. As a result, no single governing body is overseeing geoengineering efforts on a global scale.

The snowstorm seemed to come out of nowhere. It coated the roofs of Beijing in a white glaze and brought traffic on a dozen highways to a standstill. The city, caught in the grip of a decade-long drought, had not seen so much precipitation in months. It was anything but normal.

In fact, the storm in February 2009 was the result of a remarkable confluence of cold air, cloudy skies, and 313 sticks of silver iodide fired into the atmosphere by weather engineers hoping to make something out of nothing. Their success in tinkering with the weather underscores a growing risk that has not received the serious international debate it deserves. What happens if someone in our ever-warming world decides to tinker with the climate?

Technologies that could block the sun’s rays or siphon huge amounts of carbon from the air are not that far out of reach, a recent RAND analysis found. They could have world-altering consequences that would make a snowstorm in Beijing look mild by comparison. Yet the international community has not built any real consensus around such basic questions as when such technologies would ever be used, how, or by whom.

“Some of these technologies have been almost taboo to talk about,” said Emmi Yonekura, a physical scientist at RAND who helped lead the study. “But if we don’t get our act together with climate mitigation, there might be real pressure to turn to them in the future. We want to make sure that we can do it safely and with some understanding in the international community.”

In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson received the first presidential briefing on climate change. At the time, geoengineering—the intentional manipulation of the climate—was presented as one of the only possible solutions. Proposals since then have ranged from the fanciful (dropping billions of white balls into the oceans to absorb sunlight) to the formidable (unfurling a giant sheet of reflective mesh between the Earth and the sun). Those ideas may sound “outlandish and upsetting,” one scientific journal acknowledged—but they could give us an emergency brake to pull if we can’t stop global warming.