Is the CIA on Its Way to Hacking the Sky?

The news seemed tailor-made to drive conspiracy theorists and members of the tinfoil hat club into a frenzy.

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, which only underscores how desperate our climate predicament has become. When it comes to hacking the sky, we’re damned if we do, doomed if we don’t.

“If I had to sum it up in a single word, I would say I’m ambivalent,” says Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist with the Carnegie Institution, a leading research organization. Caldeira’s lab at Stanford University has conducted some of the most cutting-edge research into geoengineering, at first in the hopes of disproving the idea. After running experiments through his sophisticated climate models, Caldeira was dismayed to find that some techniques to manipulate the atmosphere got results. “Each attempt to poke holes showed that while [geoengineering] wasn’t perfect, it seemed to work,” he says. “Obviously, I would be much happier if we were not building any more smokestacks or tailpipes. But that’s not what we’re doing.”

Geoengineering schemes range from the whimsy of science fiction to the unnervingly plausible, with none free from concerns about unintended adverse consequences. University of Arizona astronomy professor J. Roger Angel’s idea of launching a cloud of mirrors into space to reflect some of the sun’s light away from Earth is probably a nonstarter. But several other geoengineering proposals are well within our technological capabilities. John Latham of the National Center for Atmospheric Research has suggested sending out a fleet of computer-directed boats to roam the oceans spraying seawater into the clouds to make them whiter; increasing the reflective power of the clouds by 3 percent, he predicts, could offset higher global temperatures. Another proposal involves dumping iron fillings into the oceans to spur blooms of carbon-dioxide-gobbling plankton that, after dying, would sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking the carbon with them. Several small-scale ocean fertilization experiments, however, have had mixed results.

The most widely discussed geoengineering technique goes by the somewhat Orwellian name of “solar radiation management.” Scientists would inject a sulfur-dioxide aerosol into the stratosphere, and the extra particles would reflect more sunlight away from Earth in a planetary version of pulling down the shades, something nature has already tested: The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, a long-smoldering volcano in the Philippines,  hurled an estimated 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, where the ash turned into droplets of sulfuric acid that scattered the sun’s light. The following year, global temperatures dropped by half a degree Celsius, and the summer melt of the Greenland ice sheet slowed.

Computer models have shown that humans could replicate the experience. “A continuous injection of a few tens of kilograms per second would be enough to offset a doubling of carbon dioxide,” Caldeira told me when I started looking into geoengineering a few years ago. Powerful artillery could launch a sulfur-dioxide aerosol into the atmosphere. Another dispersal method would employ giant, high-altitude blimps equipped with hoses to carry sulfur from the planet’s surface to the sky. A fleet of airplanes continuously circling the globe could also do the trick. Sulfur dioxide is plentiful and cheap (ironically, it’s a byproduct of the coal combustion that’s warming the planet), and as little as $1 billion a year could decrease sunlight by 1 percent.       

Geoengineering skeptics cite a number of potential problems, ranging from the unpredictability of atmospheric manipulation to the chance that some rogue nation (or rogue billionaire) might start climate engineering without a global consensus.

For starters, no one is sure how ecosystems would react. What if blocking sunlight disrupted the South Asian monsoon cycle on which hundreds of millions of farmers depend? In a May New York Times op-ed, Australian academic and vocal geoengineering critic Clive Hamilton called out the threat of the unknown unknowns. “If there is one lesson we have learned from ecology, it is that the more closely we look at an ecosystem the more complex it becomes,” wrote Hamilton, who is also the author of Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering. “Now we are contemplating technologies that would attempt to manipulate the grandest and most complex ecosystem of them all—the planet itself.”

Geoengineering boosters say the solution may be to gradually deploy climate-control technology. “You could do 1 percent this year and 2 percent next year and then extend a plateau of non-warming,” Caldeira says. “If things went awry, you could taper it back out and do it as gently as you can.” But a steady ramp-up would be a nonstarter politically. One of the virtues of the sulfur-dioxide aerosol scheme is that it’s speedy, unlike emissions reductions, which will take decades to have a noticeable effect. “The most politically plausible scenario is that nothing is done until there’s a real crisis and an untested system is deployed,” Caldeira says.

Yet the very prospect of some last-minute, civilization-saving contraption could make us more cavalier about wrecking the climate. “It might be tempting to do [geoengineering] rather than the harder work of [greenhouse gas] mitigation,” says Alan Robock, a Rutgers environmental sciences professor who received a National Science Foundation grant to plumb the political and ethical implications of geoengineering. “If you tried to do it without mitigation, it would be a disaster.”

Even geoengineering backers acknowledge this problem. “It’s fast, cheap—and imperfect. Those are the defining characteristics,” says Harvard applied physics and public policy professor David Keith, author of the forthcoming book A Case for GeoEngineering. “People with ski helmets go faster. People drive closer to bicyclists who have helmets on than bicyclists who aren’t wearing helmets. It’s called risk compensation. It’s ubiquitous, and it’s rational.”

But according to Robock, at least one study has shown that, when told about the prospect of geoengineering, people become more concerned about global warming. If leading scientists are thinking about tinkering with the atmosphere, things must be bad, some people conclude. There could be an interesting political dimension at work as well. A study published last year by Yale law and psychology professor Dan Kahan found that self-described conservatives were more likely to accept evidence of man-made climate change if they were told about the possibility of geoengineering. Notably, prominent conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute have expressed interest in geoengineering.

There are also serious geopolitical complications involved with geoengineering, probably one of the main factors fueling the CIA’s interest in the technology. The problem has to do with global governance. Who would decide when it’s time to hit the launch button, and who would control the global thermostat? What if Brazil wants it cooler, but Russia wants it warmer?

“If we are talking about sulfate aerosol spraying, once we start, we will not be able to stop,” Clive Hamilton wrote to me in an e-mail. “So who will control the world's weather for the next thousand years? The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party?  The Pentagon? A U.N. expert group? The Security Council? In the end, there will be a power struggle over who will regulate the climate. If I were a poor farmer in Bangladesh, I would not be confident that my interests would be taken seriously.”

In the absence of global consensus, some country (or a small group of countries) might decide to do geoengineering on its own. That could lead to conflict, even war. The potential of for unilateral geoengineering seems to be driving the CIA’s interest in the technology. Both David Keith and Alan Robock say they have been interviewed by a CIA contractor investigating the potential of another country weaponizing geoengineering. (The CIA did not respond to phone calls asking for comment.)

Equally worrisome is the prospect of some well-intentioned but overreaching billionaire deciding to rescue the world solo—a James Bond-like situation that some have cheekily dubbed a “Greenfinger” scenario. “What if Richard Branson wanted to save the planet?” Robock says. “He’s got a lot of airplanes.”

This isn’t an academic concern. In July 2012, California businessman Russ George, founder of the for-profit geoengineering outfit Planktos, dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of British Columbia. The experiment seemed to work: Satellite images showed a plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometers. But the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization expressed “grave concern” about the test, which violated a 2010 the UN Framework Convention on Biological Diversity agreement that put in place a (largely symbolic) moratorium on geoengineering research. (Interestingly, Bill Gates is one of the largest funders of Ken Caldeira’s geoengineering research. Caldeira says the support comes from Gates’ private pockets, not his philanthropic organizations.)

Once we start messing with the sky, there will be no going back. If we were to suddenly lose the technological or financial ability or political will to keep altering the sunlight, global temperatures would spike rapidly, putting us in even greater danger. We will always be fearful of letting our grip slip from the lever that keeps the planet in a semblance of balance. It would be existential anxiety unlike any we’ve felt since the nuclear-weapons hair trigger of the Cold War.

Other psychological ramifications shouldn’t be underestimated. More than 20 years ago in his prescient, The End of Nature, Bill McKibben warned of “the imposition of our artificial world in the place of a broken one.” A sulfur-dioxide aerosol could, for instance, bleach the daytime sky, fading its blueness, and at the same time turn sunsets into Martian-like displays of super-saturated reds and oranges. Who knows how this would affect us. Perhaps we’d feel nothing. But maybe it would be maddening—an outcome suggested by the expressionist painting “The Scream,” inspired by the otherworldly sunsets that followed the 1883 eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa.

For at least the last 25 years, we’ve been dumping carbon and methane into the air knowing full well the risks of doing so. When it comes to planetary-scale manipulation, we crossed the line a long time ago. Still, something like solar radiation management would mark an unprecedented leap in humanity’s ownership of Earth. Geoengineering would turn us into a kind of bubble species, all of us living inside a massive armature. If that comes to pass, the world might no longer give us the comfort of home. Instead, the Earth might come to seem like a foreign country, a vague and threatening enemy. A prospect, it appears, that makes even the CIA nervous. 

Comments

Jason:
I enjoyed the article.
However, one request: could you at east once in a future article on geoengineering (the term used 30 times) refer at least once to the part of geoengineering called carbon dioxide removal (CDR)? The term solar radiation management (SRM) appeared twice (I would have preferred 30 times and geoengineering twice).
My interest in CDR is through biochar - a technology moving much faster than any form of SRM. Look up last week's announcement on several hundred million of dollars going into two small biofuel refineries in Louisiana, where biochar is an important co-product. Company is Cool Planet. Well funded and has an aggressive expansion plan. So, I hope you can get the CIA to look into biochar and other CDR as well. (I know the NAS/CIA study has two CDR approaches in mind as well - but not biochar.)

Any technological attempt to remove carbon from the atmosphere will be like attempting to empty the oceans with a teacup. It took 150+ years of the combined effect of all industries worldwide to cause the problem, how can we ever hope to come close to matching that in an effort to turn Global Warming around? As far as large scale seeding of the atmosphere or ocean with chemicals, first of all, it would take a LOT of chemicals, and what would those chemicals do to the environments they're released into? Poison the land? Kill the oceans? I think that any such grand-scale approaches could finish us off. No, engineering methods to remove the excess carbon from the atmoshere would be astronomically expensive, dangous and ineffective. Our best bet is to plant and restore forests and STOP BURNING HYDROCARBONS, i.e. fossil fuel. We might as well forget about reversing GW. We should focus our attention on stopping it and in learning to adapt to the consequences of industrial folly.

According the article, Mt. Pinatubo "hurled an estimated 20 tons of sulfur dioxide into the upper reaches of the atmosphere..." But by the end of May 1991 the volcano was emitting 5000 tons per day. Perhaps the author meant "20 million tons"?

The reason a "cloud of mirrors" in orbit is a non-starter is that it would kill all future space flight (manned or unmanned) by making the odds of collisions much higher, since it would add even more too-small-to-track objects in orbit. And even TRACKED objects raise the fuel costs of keeping a spacecraft in orbit, since each avoidance maneuver uses precious fuel from its limited lifetime supply sent up from Earth. The ISS can get extra fuel deliveries from rockets with its crew changes, but space telescopes, GPS satellites, and geosynchronous satellites are pretty much stuck with one lifetime load of fuel for station keeping and maneuvering, being too high for current manned missions to reach. GPS and communications satellites must return to their assigned orbits as soon as possible after any evasive maneuver; the latter must hover over a fixed point on the equator, and the former will give navigation users (cars, aircraft, and possibly MISSILES) wrong readings during evasion. Space collisions are not what we want to multiply!

The sulfur promulgation is not too bad an idea, if we can put it up in the higher altitudes where it will not produce acid rain onto the surface. One way might be to use higher sulfur jet fuel in aircraft, even after "greening" aircraft to use biofuel.

The socio-political question is, will geoengineering, even when it works AS DESIGNED, which is not guaranteed, be carried out by dominant groups of people (countries OR corporations) to tailor the climate to THEIR benefit, or by some as yet nonexistent authority that actually considers the welfare of ALL humanity? I hate to think of Bangladesh being threatened with loss of hurricane prevention services if they cannot afford to pay "protection" money to Arthur Daniels Midland, for example.

Nice article. I would like to have seen more discussion of geo-engineering as a stopgap - a stop-the-clock maneuver that would allow us to survive to complete the transition to non-fossil energy while removing the excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Obviously this would require using a cooling process that could be turned on and off, and dialed down as carbon in the air came down to pre-industrial levels, and you still have all the issues of who's in charge, etc. But given the lack of progress on the political front on carbon emissions, it may be our only hope.

The tragic irony (or is it ironic tragedy) that I rarely hear mentioned in these discussions of geoengineering is that we were set up to use the burning of hydrocarbons for our greater good - if only we had the political will to override the moneyed interests and let scientific knowledge determine our course. Absent human effects, we will be heading into another ice age cycle in a few thousand years, as part of the ongoing natural cycle of slight changes in orbital parameters and axis tilt (Milankovitch cycle). At that time we could use this bounty of buried hydrocarbons and burn them at a controlled rate to increase average global temps and offset the effects of the cooling phase of the Milankovitch cycle. Kind of like having our cake and eating it too. But sadly we are in an all out race to see how fast we can burn the planet's hydrocarbons, just so that the absurd wealth accumulation that players in the energy extraction biz have can continue. As if they didn't have enough money to split up already. It's amazing that in a world where we have solved so many technological problems our own innate stupidity as a species can rear its ugly head so easily.

Whatever scientific merits of this undertaking, what's truly disturbing to me is that our politics in this country have become so dysfunctional that research like this can only be undertaken by a secret security agency spending from its secret budget.

can't we please talk about saner forms of geoengineering like ripping up pavement and planting trees??

For one thing, engineering the climate would be a gargantuan task. It has taken at least 150 years of the combined effect of all industries worldwide to change it as much as it has... how much effort and expense would it take to turn that around? I'd say the cost is prohibitive. For another, such an effort would have huge political implications. Who would decide what was to be done, and how can we know that profit, and not the restoration of the 18th century climate, would not be the actual goal? I suspect that 21st century supercorporations would consider it as just a humongous business opportunity. The bottom line, though, is that it would be far too expensive, and take far too long in any case. A much easier, cheaper and more certain approach would be to 1) plant trees, of course, to soak up as much carbon as possible, an insufficient amount to be sure, but better than nothing (what we really need is to put a million years worth of forests back into the ground, something we can NEVER do), and 2) STOP BURNING FOSSIL FUEL! We are trying to put at least 1000 ancient forests, since preserved as coal and oil, back in the ground, using just ONE world forest, so we know that won't do much, so we need to STOP adding to atmospheric carbon! THAT is the ONLY way we will reasonable stop the progression of global warming and climate change.

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