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The ultimate concept of power: nature; in the hands of man, has never been the fodder of public debate in America – or, at least none that I've been privy to – but is nevertheless very much the subject of development by the U.S. government on the down-low.

Without doubt or dissenting position, Planet Earth is the most powerful entity [in and of itself] known to man. Given that fact, and it may sound like science fiction, but it’s only a matter of time before the worlds militaries learn to wield the planet itself as a weapon.

Geoengineering is the application of technology for the purpose of influencing the global properties of a planet. Until recently, the goal of this theoretical task has usually centered on making other worlds habitable for life. But the potential power of our own planet, which is limited only by what its inhabitants are capable of harnessing, could conceivably be directed in a number of alternative directions.

The science of geoengineering involves human engineered, large scale modifications to the Earth’s geophysical systems in order to change the environment. The aforementioned modifications can include sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide in the oceans, changing the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface, or pumping particles into the stratosphere to block a portion of incoming sunlight.

The website Foreign Policy says it better than I ever could:

Many of these proposals mimic natural events, so we know that—in principle—they can work, although there is insufficient understanding of their potential side effects. Unsurprisingly, geo-engineering is highly controversial, and even proponents view it as a "Hail Mary" pass, to be considered only after all other options have failed.

Preventing global warming from becoming a planetary catastrophe may take something even more drastic than renewable energy, super-efficient urban design, and global carbon taxes. Such innovations remain critical, and yet disruptions to the Earth’s climate could overwhelm these relatively slow, incremental changes in how we live. As reports of faster-than-expected climate changes mount, a growing number of experts worry that we might ultimately be forced to try something quite radical, i.e. geo-engineering.

But geo-engineering presents more than just an environmental question. It also presents a geopolitical dilemma. With processes of this magnitude and degree of uncertainty, countries would inevitably argue over control, costs, and liability for mistakes. More troubling, however, is the possibility that states may decide to use geoengineering efforts and technologies as weapons. Two factors make this a danger we dismiss at our peril: the unequal impact of climate changes, and the ability of small states and even non-state actors to attempt geoengineering.

Let’s face it; climate change is not an equitable force of despair. For a variety of political and natural reasons, it affects some countries differently than it does others. Countries burdened with fragile economies and weak infrastructures are considerably more vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Therefore, climate disruptions in the form of geoengineering, could accelerate and concentrate any current conditions for those countries. Bangladesh’s vulnerability to monsoons; Northern China’s accelerating desertification, and perhaps, most notably as late – New Orleans’ exposure to hurricane’s like Katrina -- are but a few examples of current susceptible regions.

Warming and altered rainfall patterns may—temporarily—improve conditions for countries in extreme latitudes, increasing harvests in Canada and Russia for a few years. Similarly, intentional changes meant to fight global warming would also have differential results.

At the same time, the resources required for geoengineering projects can vary dramatically. A start-up company called Climos and the government of India have each begun to prepare tests of "ocean iron fertilization" to boost oceanic phytoplankton blooms, in order to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, at a cost of just a few million dollars. At the other end of the spectrum, projects like the injection of megatons of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to simulate the effects of a volcano would easily cost in the tens of billions of dollars—still within the means of most developed countries.

It’s this combination of differential impact and relatively low cost that makes international disputes over geoengineering almost inevitable. Even if there is broad consensus, that geoengineering is too risky, research into environmental modification will happen simply out of self-preservation—nobody wants to fall behind. Moreover, it’s not hard to imagine some international actors seeing geoengineering as something other than solely a way of avoiding environmental disaster.

But, looking at the planet as a weapon isn’t a new thing. Back in the early 1970s, Project Popeye [developed by the Pentagon] attempted to use cloud seeding to increase the strength of monsoons to conceivably bog down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. More recently, a group of U.S. Air Force and Army officers working with the Air Force 2025 Program produced a document titled: "Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025." (or PDF here) Fortunately or unfortunately, (depending on your perspective) the program apparently went nowhere. Predictably, around the same time, the Soviet Union reportedly had similar projects underway.

But although the idea of a geoengineering arms race may superficially parallel this line of thinking, it’s actually a very different concept. Unlike "weather warfare," geoengineering would be subtle and long term, more a strategic project than a tactical weapon; moreover, unlike weather control, we know it can work, since we’ve been unintentionally changing the climate for decades.

The offensive use of geoengineering could take a variety of forms. Over-productive algae blooms can actually sterilize large stretches of ocean over time, effectively destroying fisheries and local ecosystems. Sulfur dioxide carries health risks when it cycles out of the stratosphere. One proposal would pull cooler water from the deep oceans to the surface in an explicit attempt to shift the trajectories of hurricanes. Some actors might even deploy counter-geoengineering projects to slow or alter the effects of other efforts.

The subtle, long-term aspects of geoengineering could make it appealing. Because the overt purpose of geoengineering would be to fight global warming, and because complex climate systems would make it hard to definitively blame a given project for harmful outcomes elsewhere, offensive uses would likely be hard to detect with certainty. And, in a world where nuclear deterrence remains strong but the value of conventional military force has come under question, states will look for alternative, unexpected ways of boosting their strategic power relative to competitors.

Despite the global impact of geoengineering, the differential climate patterns and the resilience of local technological, economic, and social infrastructures guarantees that some states will fare better than others.

The world could come to look upon countries like the U.S., Western Europe and Russia as the inevitable winners of a "global warming war." Much like in a nuclear war, the "winner" would most-likely be determined by how many survivors a country has left, which leaves less developed countries like China and India, (even with their exploding populations) and countries in the Middle East at a distinct disadvantage. It’s kind of like the new version of an old Cold War saying: "thinking the unthinkable."

However, smart policies could lessen these risks. The 1977 Environmental Modification Convention produced by the United nations in response to Project Popeye, prohibits the use of engineered weather or environmental changes for military purposes. Signatory countries may wish to look at ways of monitoring and enforcing this treaty.

In the eyes of most experts, outright banning of geoengineering research is highly unlikely, as it offers a last-ditch hope for staving off climate disaster. Instead, putting research into the hands of transparent, international bodies could reduce the temptation to "weaponize" geoengineering. Internationalization could also help to spread the liability and costs, reducing one potential source of tension.

The best strategy to avoid the possible offensive use of geoengineering techniques, however, is twofold: First, embrace the social, economic, and technological changes necessary to avoid climate disaster before it’s too late; and second, expand the global environmental sensor and satellite networks allowing us to monitor ecosystem changes—and manipulation. This strategy may not reduce the temptation to look at geoengineering as an offensive capacity, but it would ensure that experiments and prototype efforts couldn’t readily be hidden under the cover of fighting climate change.

We know all too well that the international contest for power will continue even in the face of a growing global threat. It would be a tragedy if, in seeking to avoid environmental catastrophe, we inadvertently enabled a new quest for geopolitical advantage. The risks of turning the Earth itself into a weapon are far too great.

Likewise, we know all too well the growing penchant for secrecy of the current United States government, which, in all probability is already on the path to unlocking the nascent, potentially unlimited power of this technology. And, if we were to assume past is indeed prologue, plans are probably already underway in Washington for a global advantage to use against other countries if need be, in this growingly retrogressive world.

The next administration must openly and forthrightly disclose any such plans for future use of our planet as a weapon, and instead, take meaningful steps to use any such technology in altruistic ways – to help the planet and those living on it – not jeopardize its very existence.


Originally posted to markthshark on Mon Feb 11, 2008 at 04:46 PM PST.

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