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Terraforming War

dr_strangelove_war_room_generals.jpgNo nation that sees itself as a great power is going to be willing to risk having its climate and environment completely in the hands of another nation. Research into methodologies for geoengineering will happen simply out of self-preservation -- after all, nobody wants to fall victim to a "terraforming gap."

I am increasingly convinced that, whether we like it or not, geoengineering is going to become a leading arena of environmental research and development in the coming decade.

This is not because geoengineering -- the intentional large-scale manipulation of geophysical systems in order to change the climate and/or environment -- is the best way to deal with global warming. It's most decidedly not. The more we examine the initial proposals, in fact, the more we find that the risks outweigh the benefits. While we can't rule out a breakthrough discovery making this strategy safer, for now, its only environmental value appears to be as a desperate, last-ditch effort to head off catastrophe. Nonetheless, for many nations, this last-ditch possibility would be enough to warrant further research.

But as the observation at the top of the page suggests, geoengineering could be seen as having another kind of value: as a tool of international power.

When I wrote the above comments in March of 2007, it was in response to an observation by Dr. Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist who has gained recent attention for his discussions of geoengineering. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, he'd noted that uncoordinated work on intentionally altering the climate could lead to a "geoengineering arms race," with countries working on different -- and conflicting -- temperature and environment agendas. In such a situation, it seemed to me, great power nations could start to see geoengineering as another arena for competition. I elaborated a bit on the idea in October, when talking about the Politics of Geoengineering, citing the possibility of climate manipulation technologies being used as a tool of quiet warfare.

The more I think about this possibility, however, the more it seems like a disturbingly plausible scenario.

Rumors abound that the militaries and intelligence services of a variety of great power countries have, in the past, worked on dubious approaches to weather control. The idea of a geoengineering arms race may superficially parallel this line of thinking, but it's actually a very different concept. Unlike "weather warfare," geoengineering would be more subtle and long-term, and would have nothing to do with steering hurricanes or inducing local droughts; moreover, unlike weather control, we know it can work, since we've been unintentionally changing the climate for decades.

Geoengineering as a military strategy would appear to offer a variety of benefits. Research can be done out in the open, taking advantage of civilian work on anti-global warming geoengineering ideas. If my argument that nuclear weapons and open-source warfare have made conventional warfare essentially obsolete is correct, climate-based warfare would offer an alternative non-nuclear weapon, one that would be out of the reach of non-state actors. And the more we learn about how human activities alter the climate -- in order to alter those activities -- the more options might open up for intentionally harmful manipulation.

But wait: if global warming and climate disruption are, well, global, wouldn't "harmful manipulation" hurt the manipulating country, too?

Not necessarily -- or, at least, not to the same degree. The effects of global warming can vary dramatically, depending upon local geography and economy. Weather effects like hurricanes and heat waves depend on regional preconditions. The resilience of local technological and social infrastructures will also prove critical for determining how well regions handle climate disruption. For many of these reasons, many specialists worry that the regions hit the hardest by global warming will be in the developing world.

More importantly for this argument, it's for these reasons that some nations may believe that they can deal with global warming better than their competitors, or even benefit from it -- that, in the words of Vladimir Putin, it "wouldn't be so bad." Putin may have been joking, but a number of Russian scientists presenting at the 2003 World Climate Change Conference in Moscow seemed to make the same argument. Moreover, as this recent article in El Pais documents (English summary here, Google translation here), Russia's doing nothing to reduce its carbon emissions, and is instead building more coal-fired power plants; the only reason that it's in compliance with the Kyoto treaty is that its economy has declined relative to 1990. Given Putin's hardline propensities, if he thought that Russia would be harmed less than its competitors (or even benefit), would he be willing to reject the idea of taking advantage of that situation?

Lest I appear to be picking on Russia, one could make a similar argument for most great power leaders, if they saw the same opportunities. Much as Cold War nuclear strategists (parodied in Dr. Strangelove) could argue with a straight face about "winning" a nuclear war by having more survivors, advocates of a Global Warming War might see the US or Europe as better able to "ride out" a climate disaster than (say) China or the nations of the Middle East. It's awful to imagine, but that's why early nuclear strategists like Herman Kahn talked about "thinking the unthinkable."

In this scenario, even passive resistance to action against global warming could be seen as a mode of terraforming warfare.

How realistic is this idea? It depends. Given the high likelihood of further research into geoengineering projects for purely anti-global warming reasons, it seems almost certain to me that military or government officials in more than one country will come to similar conclusions about the technology's potential as a weapon. Actual weaponization of geoengineering methods would (one hopes) be slowed or stopped as more information comes in about unanticipated results of geoengineering tests, cost and/or efficiency, and the irrationality of believing that variations in the impact of climate disruption would be enough to alter balances of power.

One hopes. But it's hard to go wrong by assuming that someone in power is going to want to take advantage of a new way of "winning," no matter how difficult or irrational.

Welcome to the era of the Earth itself as a weapon.


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