From Rainmaking to Geoengineering
FIXING THE SKY: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control. James Rodger Fleming. xvi + 325 pp. Columbia University Press, 2010. $27.95.
When I was studying cloud microphysics in Socorro, New Mexico, back in 1992, I sometimes heard anecdotes about rainmaking and weather modification. However, I never realized how extensive the history of such efforts is until I read James Rodger Fleming’s Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control. Fleming is a professor of science, technology and society at Colby College and has an academic background in astronomy, atmospheric science and history. The book provides a detailed account of weather modification, discussing the role it has played in mythology, literature and science fiction, and describing its history, covering the rainmaking efforts of both scientists and con artists, as well as such topics as fog removal in the early years of aviation and the weaponization of weather control. Fleming also gives an account of weather modification’s standing today in a concluding chapter about current ideas and proposals that aim to address climate change through geoengineering.
When I started reading the book, I was a bit put off by the rather disjointed and sometimes tedious first chapter, which discusses how the theme of weather modification has been treated in Greek mythology and in a wide range of works of art, from Dante’s Inferno to Disney cartoons. But after having read the rest of the book, I became more appreciative of the first chapter’s discursions. Because the tales related there deal with attempts to control nature, they raise ethical questions and highlight the dangers of hubris, and that gives them relevance to current policy debates about whether to pursue geoengineering solutions for anthropogenic global warming.
Fleming makes it clear right away that he is no fan of weather modification, and he critiques it from a number of different angles. Charlatans and folly are common in his stories, and some of the historical episodes he describes are quite absurd in hindsight. There are some good stories—many past efforts to control the weather appear to have been worthy of an Ig Nobel Prize. Fleming says in the preface that he views this history as a tragicomedy—indeed, a farce—and he can be quite sarcastic and ironic in his treatment of it.
In general Fleming gets the science right, with only minor inaccuracies and an occasional lack of precision. The book is not too technical and includes some nice illustrations. Most people will find it accessible. However, some passages are a little confusing on first reading, and it is not easy to get a clear overview when confronted with such a gigantic mosaic of anecdotes, so varied in chronology and theme. Nevertheless, the tales are intriguing.
The book’s last three chapters are probably the most interesting. “Weather Warriors” looks at links between scientists and the military and between meteorology and the military, and at instances of weather modification that have had a military connection. During the Cold War, there was talk of seeding clouds to produce droughts or flooding that would hamper the enemy, and of creating hurricanes that could cause as much damage as a nuclear weapon. And during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force seeded clouds with the intention of producing rainfall that would make travel along the Ho Chi Minh Trail more difficult.
The chapters titled “Fears, Fantasies, and Possibilities of Control” and “The Climate Engineers” are about proposals for geoengineering the global climate. Fleming portrays geoengineers as being like the weather warriors in that both groups appear to be attracted to climate modification as a macho activity that shores up their masculinity—as boys who want big, shiny, expensive toys to play with. But this culture is not the only problem.
One of Fleming’s main arguments against geoengineering is that climate is unpredictable. However, the very existence of climate models means that we believe that there are aspects of climate that are to some extent predictable. The question of predictability depends on spatial and temporal scales and the degree of precision aimed for. Climate models can realistically reproduce large-scale patterns of temperature, precipitation and circulation. But when it comes to the prediction of regional patterns of temperature and rainfall, Fleming makes a good point—I think it is legitimate to say that we will not be able to predict the outcome of geoengineering for a specific country.
As Fleming emphasizes, geoengineering raises ethical and legal issues. Who has the right to control the climate? We know that even adaptation measures such as irrigation and dam construction can cause conflicts. That anthropogenic global warming is such a hot-button political issue is of course a bad omen for achieving any kind of consensus about what sort of geoengineering—if any—to undertake. And the potential for international conflicts seems enormous. Furthermore, the implementation of a geoengineering project on a global scale would require great sums of money; imagine lobbyists trying to influence decisions about how those tax dollars would be spent!
The topic is an important one, and the book is relevant for scientists, stakeholders, policy makers and concerned citizens alike. I already had my doubts about the feasibility of geoengineering before I read the book, but now I am convinced that it will open a can of worms.
Rasmus E. Benestad, a physicist, is senior scientist at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and a contributor to the RealClimate blog (www.realclimate.org).