“The big thing nuclear weapons did wasn’t all the details,” says Harvard climate scientist David Keith. “The really big thing is, they changed what it means to be a nation-state.” It’s on his mind because as the next century unfolds, Keith expects it to happen again.
Scientists usually shy away from Oppenheimer comparisons, but in the case of geoengineering, they’re a given. Spend enough time at geoengineering conferences, and you’re guaranteed to hear a reference to The Bomb. Keith, who has grown into geoengineering’s leading advocate after his recent book on the topic, says the technology would be “as disruptive to the political order of the 21st century as nuclear weapons were for the 20th.” It’s an exciting, dangerous idea — and it already has its opponents. In the years that he’s been researching geoengineering, Keith says he’s received two death threats serious enough to warrant calls to the police.
[…] Certainly, geoengineering is not the first technology to provoke strong contestation about the relationship between humans and nature. But the central role that the idea of “messing with nature” played in the workshops we conducted suggests that there is something about the prospect of controlling the climate that triggers contemplation about our place in the world.
Over 30 years ago, the prominent green thinker Bill McKibben published a book titled The End of Nature, in which he argued that natural systems could no longer be considered independent from human influence. The impacts of the industrial revolution had grown steadily as they had become more globalised. According to McKibben, nature had become fundamentally shaped by human activity:
By the end of nature I do not mean the end of the world. The rain will still fall and the sun shine, though differently than before. When I say ‘nature’ I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it.
Geoengineering may take McKibben’s argument one step further – where once human impacts shaped the natural world, now we seek to actively control it. And although it may not be possible to draw an objective line between humans and the “natural world”, our findings suggest that “messing with nature” through geoengineering is likely to be met with a chorus of contestation.
The Central Intelligence Agency is funding a scientific study that will investigate whether humans could use geoengineering to alter Earth’s environment and stop climate change. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) will run the 21-month project, which is the first NAS geoengineering study financially supported by an intelligence agency. With the spooks’ money, scientists will study how humans might influence weather patterns, assess the potential dangers of messing with the climate, and investigate possible national security implications of geoengineering attempts.
The total cost of the project is $630,000, which NAS is splitting with the CIA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA. The NAS website says that “the US intelligence community” is funding the project, and William Kearney, a spokesman for NAS, toldMother Jones that phrase refers to the CIA. Edward Price, a spokesman for the CIA, refused to confirm the agency’s role in the study, but said, “It’s natural that on a subject like climate change the Agency would work with scientists to better understand the phenomenon and its implications on national security.” The CIA reportedly closed its research center on climate change and national security last year, after GOP members of Congress argued that the CIA shouldn’t be looking at climate change.
The goal of the CIA-backed NAS study is to conduct a “technical evaluation of a limited number of proposed geoengineering techniques,” according to the NAS website. Scientists will attempt to determine which geoengineering techniques are feasible and try to evaluate the impacts and risks of each (including “national security concerns”). One proposed geoengineering method the study will look at is solar radiation management—a fancy term for pumping particles into the stratosphere to reflect incoming sunlight away from the planet. In theory, solar radiation management could lead to a global cooling trend that might reverse, or at least slow down, global warming. The study will also investigate proposals for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.