Climate Engineering Carries Serious National Security Risks − Countries Facing Extreme Heat May Try It Anyway, and the World Needs to be Prepared

Yves here. This column warns that like it or not, geo-engineering, or what this piece calls climate engineering, is coming, like it or not. We are already seeing a failure to take anything other than marginal steps to reduce greenhouse gas output.

One example discussed below is dumping reflective particles into the high atmosphere. I would be much happier with the “reflect more sunlight” solution mentioned in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in the early 2000s, of painting all flat roofs and treating most/all roads with highly sun-reflective material like titanium dioxide. The advantage of treating surfaces is that would not be difficult to reverse. Spewing material into the atmosphere is an entirely different matter.

By Ben Kravitz, Assistant Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Indiana University and Tyler Felgenhauer, Research Scientist in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Duke University. Originally published at The Conversation

The historic Paris climate agreement started a mantra from developing countries: “1.5 to stay alive.” It refers to the international aim to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.8 Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial times. But the world will lgeikely pass that threshold within a decade, and global warming is showing little sign of slowing.

The world is already facing natural disasters of epic proportions as temperatures rise. Heat records are routinely broken. Wildfire seasons are more extreme. Hurricane strength is increasing. Sea level rise is slowly submerging small island nations and coastal areas.

The only known method able to quickly arrest this temperature rise is climate engineering. (It’s sometimes called geoengineering, sunlight reduction methods or solar climate intervention.) This is a set of proposed actions to deliberately alter the climate.

These actions include mimicking the cooling effects of large volcanic eruptions by putting large amounts of reflective particles in the atmosphere, or making low clouds over the ocean brighter. Both strategies would reflect a small amount of sunlight back to space to cool the planet.

There are many unanswered questions, however, about the effects of deliberately altering the climate, and there is no consensus about whether it is even a good idea to find out.

Potential climate engineering techniques. Chelsea Thompson NOAACIRES

One of the largest concerns for many countries when it comes to climate change is national security. That doesn’t just mean wars. Risks to food, energy and water supplies are national security issues, as is climate-induced migration.

Could climate engineering help reduce the national security risks of climate change, or would it make things worse? Answering that question is not simple, but researchers who study climate change and national security like we do have some idea of the risks ahead.

The Massive Problem of Climate Change

To understand what climate engineering might look like in the future, let’s first talk about why a country might want to try it.

Since the industrial revolution, humans have put about 1.74 trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, largely by burning fossil fuels. That carbon dioxide traps heat, warming the planet.

One of the most important things we can do is to stop putting carbon into the atmosphere. But that won’t make the situation better quickly, because carbon stays in the atmosphere for centuries. Reducing emissions will just keep things from getting worse.

Countries could pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and lock it away, a process called carbon dioxide removal. Right now, carbon dioxide removal projects, including growing trees and direct air capture devices, pull about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere per year.

However, humans are currently putting over 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually through fossil fuel use and industry. As long as the amount added is larger than the amount removed, droughts, floods, hurricanes, heat waves and sea level rise, among numerous other consequences of climate change, will keep getting worse.

It may take a long time to get to “net-zero” emissions, the point at which humans aren’t increasing greenhouse gasconcentrations in the atmosphere. Climate engineering might help in the interim.

Who Might Try Climate Engineering and How?

Various government research arms are already gaming out scenarios, looking at who might decide to carry out climate engineering and how.

Climate engineering is expected to be cheap relative to the cost of ending greenhouse gas emissions. But it would still cost billions of dollars and take years to develop and build a fleet of airplanes to carry megatons of reflective particles into the stratosphere each year. Any billionaire considering such a venture would run out of money quickly, despite what science fiction might suggest.

However, a single country or coalition of countries witnessing the harms of climate change could make a cost and geopolitical calculation and decide to begin climate engineering on its own.

This is the so-called “free driver” problem, meaning that one country of at least medium wealth could unilaterally affect the world’s climate.

For example, countries with increasingly dangerous heat waves may want to cause cooling, or countries that depend on monsoon precipitation may want to restore some dependability that climate change has disrupted. Australia is currently exploring the feasibility of rapidly cooling the Great Barrier Reef to prevent its demise.

Creating Risks for Neighbors Raises Conflict Alarm

The climate doesn’t respect national borders. So, a climate engineering project in one country is likely to affect temperature and rainfall in neighboring countries. That could be good or bad for crops, water supplies and flood risk. It could also have widespread unintended consequences.

Some studies show that a moderate amount of climate engineering would likely have widespread benefits compared with climate change. But not every country would be affected in the same way.

Once climate engineering is deployed, countries may be more likely to blame climate engineering for extreme events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts, regardless of the evidence.

Climate engineering may spark conflicts among countries, leading to sanctions and demands for compensation. Climate change can leave the poorest regions most vulnerable to harm, and climate engineering should not exacerbate that harm. Some countries would benefit from climate engineering and thus be more resilient to geopolitical strife, and some would be harmed and thus left more vulnerable.

Is geoengineering a risk worth taking?

While small experiments have been carried out, nobody has conducted large-scale climate engineering yet. That means that a lot of information about its effects relies on climate models. But while these models are excellent tools for studying the climate system, they’re not good at answering questions about geopolitics and conflict. On top of that, the physical effects of climate engineering depend on who is doing it and what they’re doing.

What’s Next?

For now, there are more questions about climate engineering than answers. It’s hard to say whether climate engineering would create more conflict, or if it could defuse international tensions by reducing climate change.

But international decisions on climate engineering are likely coming soon. At the United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2024, African countries called for a moratorium on climate engineering, urging all precaution. Other nations, including the United States, pressed for a formal scientific group to study the risks and benefits before making any decisions.

Climate engineering could be part of an equitable solution to climate change. But it also carries risks. Put simply, climate engineering is a technology that can’t be ignored, but more research is needed so policymakers can make informed decisions.

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  1. dk

    Here’s a related article, examining issues of contention among scientists and researchers about the merits and potential hazards of atmospheric geoengineering, including political risks.

    The Harvard researchers hoped to launch a high-altitude balloon, tethered to a gondola equipped with propellers and sensors, from a site in Tucson, Arizona, as early as the following year. After initial equipment tests, the plan was to use the aircraft to spray a few kilograms of material about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) above Earth and then fly back through the plume to measure how reflective the particles were, how readily they dispersed, and other variables.

    Critics, including some climate scientists, have argued that an intervention that could tweak the entire planet’s climate system is too dangerous to study in the real world, because it’s too dangerous to ever use. They fear that deploying such a powerful tool would inevitably cause unpredictable and dangerous side effects, and that the world’s countries could never work together to use it in a safe, equitable, and responsible way.

    These opponents believe that even discussing and researching the possibility of such climate interventions eases pressures to rapidly cut greenhouse-gas emissions and increases the likelihood that a rogue actor or solitary nation will one day begin spraying materials into the stratosphere without any broader consensus. Unilateral use of the tool, with its potentially calamitous consequences for some regions, could set nations on a collision course toward violent conflicts.

    But many believe it’s essential to learn more about the role that solar geoengineering could play in easing global warming, and whether the side effects could be moderated. There’s a simple reason: if it does work well, it could save many lives and ease suffering as climate change accelerates.

    The hard lessons of Harvard’s failed geoengineering experiment
    Some observers argue the end of SCoPEx should mark the end of such proposals. Others say any future experiments should proceed in markedly different ways.

    Personally, I get a little apprehensive about broad claims of “saving lives and reducing suffering” without clearer definition of actual effects and distribution of consequences. I’m reminded of the “just add another lane to reduce highway traffic” fiction, and the current cheering for LLMs that create gibberish with enough polish to lull rote thinkers and tech posers.

    1. Carolinian

      Thanks for the link.

      theirs became a lightning rod. In their effort to be upfront and transparent about their plans, Keith believes, they set off a self-reinforcing cycle of overheated press coverage and fierce attacks from critics, all of which inflated public concerns about what he contends was an ordinary experiment with negligible environmental impact.

      So the “failure” was on the public relations front and not anything to do with science. Meanwhile in the thirty or so years since this AGW issue came to the fore we have been conducting an experiment in papering over the problem with feel good pr that also carries massive risks if, say, Greenland melts and Europe falls into a new ice age. Therefore who is making the rational argument here? I’d say what’s really going on is an argument between proponents of failed solution number one versus those of not yet failed solution number two. You can’t make wise choices unless you know the facts and those who block discovery of the facts are acting more like cult members than problem solvers. In that sense they aren’t much different from those who deny the problem even exists or believe it will correct itself.

      And perhaps that last group–learn to live with AGW–is the truly rational one if no solution will work. But lets make it about science and not about politics. That’s a big ask when the least rational seem to be ruling the planet at the moment. We may have to solve that problem first.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Yves’s prologue reminds me of what General Rommel said once about the difference between a risk and a gamble. He said that if you do a course of action which does not work out but can recover your former position, you undertook a risk. But if you undertook a course of action that does not work out but you cannot recover from it, that was actually a gamble. So Yves’s mention of painting all flat roofs and treating most/all roads with highly sun-reflective material like titanium dioxide is a risk as if it goes wrong, you can rip it all out. But if you do massive climate engineering and it all goes wrong, you just did a gamble and now everybody is stuffed.

    But let me propose the following possible scenario as to how things can go wrong. So a billionaire like Musk decides to save the world and sets up a project in Phoenix, Arizona to change the climate. Initially results are good & crops are doing great but then China finds that they are experiencing massive droughts in their north which they trace back to this experiment. China demands that the President shut it down but he says that Musk’s scientists have informed him that it cannot possibly be them. Besides, he says that this is a private corporation doing it and so they have no say on this. China gives the US one last chance and declares that this weather warfare is a weapon of mass destruction aimed at them. The President and Congress refuses. Question. Are the Chinese then entitled to launch several non-nuclear missiles at that Phoenix complex to save their own country?

    1. Michaelmas

      Rev Kev: if you undertook a course of action that does not work out but you cannot recover from it, that was actually a gamble.

      Don’t assume that proceeding without geoengineering is not itself a course of action that will not work out and that we cannot recover from, and thus is itself a massive gamble.

      1. The Rev Kev

        I would contend that the whole point of geoengineering is so that we don’t actually have to change our ways, no cutting back on fossil fuels, no cracking down of polluting corporations, etc. as this ‘wonder weapon’ will save us. It’s like when we go for electric vehicles to replace internal combustion engines and imagine that this will put us ahead and pat ourselves on the back for it.

    2. Ben Panga

      What does “entitled” mean in this context? If we get that far down the jackpot road I think all concerns of that nature will become moot.

      I also heard Musk has a cunning geoengineering plan involving stratospheric smoke and mirrors. Just needs a couple of trillion bucks from us to get it going.

  3. MFB

    As far as I can see geoengineering, to be effective, would be gigantically expensive. I know that Kim Stanley Robinson wrote about the Indians doing it with a small fleet of old transport aircraft, but that was political fantasy, not science fiction. It has to be global; if, for instance, South Africa were to somehow develop massive heat reflectors, the oceans around South Africa would continue to warm and the warmed air would drift over the borders.

    You can fantasise about a cheap geoengineering way of solving the world’s problems which could be done in Houston or Ougadougou or wherever, but in reality any such operation would not be cheap, nor would it be quick. So I think that the article is largely setting up a fantasy problem, like so many products of NATO academia, the purpose of which is largely to legitimate seizing global control of the debate and if possible of all actions everywhere.

    Meanwhile, though, given that nobody really understands how climatology works in any particularly accurate way (we seem largely to run on historical data, and since global warming is changing the patterns historical data seems to be less effective than it used to be) I seriously doubt that anybody could develop a reliable, predictably effective form of geoengineering.

    Of course, the geniuses running NATO’s foreign policy would not be worried about that, because they all know better.

  4. jefemt

    “Ministry for the Future”, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Compelling read.

    Whatever we do, do NOT ask anyone, anywhere, to cut back on anything.
    That would be a failure of leadership (on behalf of TPTB and BAU)…
    I mean, look at Jimmy Carter— lowered speed limits, put on a sweater, installed gen-one Solar on white house. Walked the talk. Embraced Conservation of energy, the least-cost most respectful low-hanging fruit approach. Received with open arms and enthusiasm!

    Everything old is new again- we need to re-visit Amory Lovins, “Soft Energy Paths”, Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”, and THINK every day before we act and proceed into the usual inane dither the exact way we dithed the day before. I’m not hopeful, world population and demands have doubled since the late 1970’s.

    Trump and Biden are NOT on it. Xi might be. Modi and Putin are treading water and fighting to stay at their helms. It’s up to each of us, individually, to bend the projected curve, by our daily pursuits and actions— or choices to act less.

    And the Freedumb caucus will yowl and obstruct anything, anytime, anywhere… but that’s their problem, right?

    1. thousand points of green

      To those who will say that a million or a hundred million individual persons doing a hundred million sets of individual things will not make an actual difference, I would reply that the million or hundred million individual persons would see eachother doing these individual things.

      Those individuals could form into a group-unified or at least co-affiliated culture-load of people who could then grow a political strike-force movement for forcing effective pro-conservation changes into effect through whatever culture or political or governmental power-centers they could capture, conquer and hold.

      While conservation living would have to start with individuals, it would not have to end there.

    2. plurabelle

      Consumption of animal products is the leading cause of the greenhouse effect. Why? Because the vast amount of agricultural land – 50-90% – is used to grow crops (grain, soy, fodder, pasture) to feed the animals that we then eat. The hugely rising demand for animal products requires deforestation; forests are an important carbon sink, and thus, deforestation is a far greater driver of the climate catastrophe than carbon emissions through fossil fuels, especially when viewed historically:

      This is the reason why switching to a plant-based diet (and stopping contributing to animal agriculture) is urgent, if you care for the future of your children and grandchildren:

      “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.

      The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.”

      If you find it difficult to kick the habit of eating animal flesh and secretions for the vague goal of your children’s future, or even your own health (epidemiological evidence showing that it is the leading cause of the biggest killers of humanity, as strong as the evidence linking cigarette smoke to lung cancer; ref. The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Caldwell Esselstyn, etc), the very best way to get that motivation is to watch the documentary on how those products are made, hopefully exercising some empathy for the sentient beings enslaved, tortured and victimised in the process: Absolutely excellent motivation, truly effective!

  5. TomDority

    “nobody has conducted large-scale climate engineering yet”
    Actually, advanced economies and the world have been conducting climate and environmental experiments for decades and the results are available to see -the addition of economics/finance as part of war arsenals and politics or just plain short sighted-ness are obscuring what both finance and economics can do to change course.
    “Risks to food, energy and water supplies are national security issues, as is climate-induced migration.
    We have decades already, as a result of fossil fuel regarding negative “national security issues” with all the cash going to guard our national security by destructive war and domination strategies that are in diametric opposition to National Security.
    So despite all the rhetoric about how expensive this is going to be regarding provisioning for national security – why not redirect our destructive security spending into solving the issues at hand – something that can be done with the right priorities and plan

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    MFB at 9:55 am: “…nobody really understands how climatology works in any particularly accurate way…” consistent with:
    “Accumulating evidence supports the interpretation in our Pipeline paper: decreasing human-made aerosols increased Earth’s energy imbalance and accelerated global warming in the past decade. Climate sensitivity and aerosol forcing, physically independent quantities, were tied together by United Nations IPCC climate assessments that rely excessively on global climate models (GCMs) and fail to measure climate forcing by aerosols. IPCC’s best estimates for climate sensitivity and aerosol forcing both understate reality.”
    Hansen, Sato, Kharecha, “Global Warming Acceleration: Hope vs Hopium”

    We could allow the shipping fleet to go back to burning thick, sulfur-laden “bunker” fuel. That would be a short-term and inexpensive way to again add reflective aerosols to the atmosphere. That might undo the accelerated warming observed since the 2020, requirement that the global shipping fleet slash the noxious emissions from thick, sulfur-laden “bunker” fuel … [ref. “At Last, the Shipping Industry Begins Cleaning Up Its Dirty Fuels”, — \sarc

    Besides the profit opportunities geoengineering can provide, it serves as the third step in Mirowski’s analysis of the Neoliberal program for dealing with Climate Chaos. Mirowski argues that the chief purpose of that Neoliberal program is maintaining the continued burning of fossil fuels. [ref. Prof. Philip Mirowski keynote for ‘Life and Debt’ conference … disappeared from YouTube the last time I checked.] The Rev Kev makes the same point at 7:03 am, above.

    I might watch “Snowpiercer” again tonight.

  7. River Churning Clam

    Based on the OurWorldInData graph, there is scant reason to hope that the climate modellers will get it right about what the true effects of climate engineeringwill be. The graph shows “land use change” as more or less flat-lined since 1850, with a small hiccup around 1960. This in spite of massive deforestation in the 1970’s and 80’s and still going on. Even if rates of deforestation have somewhat dropped recently, every hectare of cleared land continuously contributes to atmospheric CO2 by the amount of carbon that it no longer sequesters.

  8. steppenwolf fetchit

    I would expect that China or India or maybe both would be the first two countries to attempt planet-scale geo-engineering to slow or stop the warming once they get tired enough of waiting around for zero action from the rest of the world. I would expect China or India or maybe both to do it before Elon Musk tries it.

  9. Skip Intro

    This post would be incomplete without a reference to Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, which explores not only the political conflicts arising from geoengineering, but also the possible consequences of ceasing those interventions.

  10. WillD

    Just like in western medicine we are trying to suppress the symptoms – but the difference is we are also trying to suppress the perceived causes. Both approaches are fraught with danger, simply because neither are understood nearly well enough. Despite all mainstream claims that the ‘science is settled’ there are many scientists who violently disagree and are brave enough to risk their careers by speaking out.

    Humans do not have a good track record on natural interventions, and any attempts at global climate ‘engineering’ are almost guranteed to have unexpected consequences that may endanger the planet more than the original problem!

    If we can’t even recognise or understand the true impacts of massive deforestation, or over-fishing, or heavy use of chemicals in agriculture, or widespread use of displosable plastics, and other polluting then how can we possibly address the warming problem safely?

    Any country that attempts anything of this kind will cause problems for its neighbours and potentially the whole planet. Some will comnsider it an extremely hostile and dangerous act, and it could easily cause serious conflict.

    1. steppenwolf fetchit

      The Indian Nations humans have a very good track record on natural interventions. All over North America they maintained very nice habitats for their human selves to live in by maintaining those ecosystems at an ever-shifting sub-climax state with controlled burns, etc. That’s why the early explorers found such a nice place landwise when they came here.

      The Amazon Basin Nations were busily up-terraforming the Amazon Basin when the Spanish and Portugese explorers set off their Great Germocaust of the Amazonian People by bringing in their European diseases. But the legacy terra preta do indio soils are still living on in scattered sites all over Amazonian Brazil.

      As to the tobacco-lobby-style merchandising of FUD concerning the current state of climatological knowledge; I can only note, as a mere amateur science-buff, that the predictions the warmists started making a few decades ago are coming true as predicted. The “science” appears to be at least that robust, anyway.

  11. Synoia

    And the old joke:

    Nothing can go wrong, can go wrong, can go wrong, can go wrong, can go wrong,

    All climate actions need two controls:

    1. Turn an action off.
    2. Have a process to reset to the starting point.

  12. Jp

    We always focus on a one sided problem/ solution. The solution here, being to spray some reflective nanoparticules in the atmosphere globally. However I can’t find anywhere in these articles (and the comments btw) what will these nanoparticules be ? Aluminium ? Or some kind of chemicals ? Has toxicity assessment of these products at scale & in this exact form been made already ? Because it won’t stay up there forever, it will finish in the rain, and in the soil and therefore infect all the food chain. And what will be the consequences then ? I know life is adaptative, but if you finish the job of killing what lives in the soil, you’ll end life on the planet, but at least we wouldn’t die feeling too warm…

      1. Paleobotanist

        Great! add to ocean acidification! We don’t need no coral reefs nor coccoliths pumping out a large portion of the planet’s oxygen from photosynthesis anyway! /sarc

  13. Jp

    Thanks for the answer and your link. However this piece is almost 10 years old and seeing the “speed of science” (sic) these days I guess it’s not so relevant anymore.. It seemed at the time that soil contamination was not their main problem.
    Anyway as usual with these programs we won’t have our say, just the usual media blitz required for the population to not think too much and agree too whatever.
    It always work that way.
    Have Good sunday !

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