Thursday, December 3, 2009
Monday, November 23, 2009
For over two months, Dan Opalacz (2010) and I (Foster Huntington 2010) have been working on a project to build small autonomous planes for aerial mapping and imaging at Colby. On Sunday we had our first successful flight of out airframe, a Multiplex Easystar, at sunset.
Dan and I will keep you updated with pictures and videos from our project.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Historical Perspectives on “Fixing the Sky”
Prepared Oral Remarks
Dr. James Fleming
Professor and Director of Science, Technology and Society
Committee on Science and Technology
U.S. House of Representatives
November 5, 2009
Thank you Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Hall, and members of the Committee on Science and Technology for the opportunity to discuss the history of geoengineering and its governance. “In facing unprecedented challenges, it is good to seek historical precedents.” History matters –— and informed policy decisions will require interdisciplinary, international, and intergenerational perspectives.
I was once asked when humans first became concerned about climate change — I immediately responded, “In the Pleistocene.” Modern humans emerged during the ice ages, and all of recorded history lies within the latest interglacial era, which began about 12,000 years ago. With huge temperature swings of up to 27o F, I am sure early humans had important tribal councils to discuss changes in the environment and how they might adapt to climate change. Mitigation was not yet an option.
European explorers and early American settlers were surprised that the New World was so much colder than areas of the same latitude in Europe; for example, Washington, DC and Lisbon, Portugal. Colonists worked to “improve” the climate by cutting the forest, tilling the soil, and draining the marshes. Benjamin Franklin thought this was possible. Thomas Jefferson thought it was actually happening. He called for an “index” of the American climate to document the changes being caused by human intervention.
The quest to control nature, including the sky, is deeply rooted in the history of Western science. Some climate engineers claim they are the “first generation” to propose the deliberate manipulation of the planetary environment, but history says otherwise. In the 1830s America’s first national meteorologist, James Espy, who worked for the US Army Surgeon General, advanced a large-scale engineering proposal to emulate “artificial volcanoes.” He proposed lighting huge fires each week (he preferred Sunday evenings) all along the Appalachian Mountains to control and enhance the nation’s rainfall. Espy argued that the heated updrafts would trigger rain and would not only eliminate droughts, but also temperature extremes, and would render the air healthy by clearing it of miasmas. A popular writer at the time, Eliza Leslie, immediately pointed out that manufactured weather control would generate more problems than it solved and would satisfy no one.
This image of a technocrat pulling the levers of weather control appeared on the cover of Collier’s Magazine in 1954. We were in a weather control race with the Soviet Union, and an airforce general had just announced in the press that “the nation that controls the weather will control the world.” The magazine article inside, by President Eisenhower’s weather advisor Harold Orville, provided detailed ways of conducting weather warfare.
A year later the noted Princeton mathematician John von Neumann asked, “Can We Survive Technology?” He wrote that climate control through managing solar radiation was not necessarily a rational undertaking. In his opinion, climate control could alter the entire globe, shatter the existing political order, merge each nation's affairs with those of every other, and lend itself to forms of warfare as yet unimagined. He compared climate control to the threat of nuclear war.
Here Archimedes is acting as a geoengineer and technology is his lever. But where is he standing? And where will the Earth roll if tipped? Geoengineering is not “cheap” since the side effects are unknown. Quoting Ron Prinn of MIT, “How do you engineer a system you don’t understand.” While some argue we can control the temperature of the globe, ironically, at a recent NASA meeting on the topic of “Managing Solar Radiation,” a meeting coordinator apologized for not being able to control the temperature of the room.
This is the track of Hurricane King, which the US air force seeded with dry ice as an experiment in 1947. Immediately after the intervention, the storm turned ashore and scored a direct hit on Savannah, Georgia. A planned press conference was immediately cancelled. Natural steering currents were later blamed for the change of direction, but Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir, whose lab developed the technology, continued to claim that such storms could be controlled. He also claimed that one of his small seeding devices in New Mexico was influencing the weather across the entire country and proposed that a mega-experiment in the Pacific Ocean would generate climate-scale effects. Such scientific claims I call “pathological.”
Other diplomatic disasters included Project Storm Fury in the 1960s during which Fidel Castro accused the United States of diverting hurricanes to damage Cuba and operation POPEYE, the top secret military cloud seeding operation over Vietnam that was made public right here in Congress and led to the 1978 treaty by the United Nations outlawing the hostile use of environmental modification. Who among us would want to make such decisions?
My final historical example comes from Harry Wexler, Head of Reasearch at the US Weather Bureau, who warned in 1962 of the dangers of climate control. Using computer models and space technologies, Wexler described ways to warm or cool the planet by several degrees. He also warned, notably, that the stratospheric ozone layer was vulnerable to inadvertent or intentional damage, perhaps by hostile powers, from small amounts of a catalytic agent such as chlorine or bromine.
Wexler wrote in 1962, “[Climate control] can best be classified as “interesting hypothetical exercises” until the consequences of tampering with large-scale atmospheric events can be assessed in advance. Most such schemes would require colossal engineering feats and contain the inherent risk of irreparable harm to our planet or side effects that outweigh any possible short-term benefits.” This is still true today. In 2007 the distinguished Swedish meteorologist Bert Bolin, first chair of the IPCC, wrote the following: "The political implications [of geo-engineering] are largely impossible to assess and the idea is therefore unrealistic.... In general, geo-engineering is not a viable solution because in most cases it is an illusion to assume that all possible secondary changes can be foreseen."
At recent meetings those calling for the study of history, politics, and governance of geoengineering have been compelling, more so than geo-scientific speculation of a more technical nature. It is an emerging view in climate studies that historical and governance perspectives are sorely needed that transcend the limits of our individual memories.
History matters—it shapes our identity and behavior; it is the sum total of our integrated collective past; and its perspective is needed to inform sound public policy. History can provide scholars in other disciplines with detailed studies of past interventions by rainmakers and climate engineers as well as social analysis and analogues from a broad array of treaties and interventions. Only in such a coordinated fashion, in which researchers and policymakers participate openly, can the best options emerge that promote international cooperation, ensure adequate regulation, and avoid the inevitable adverse consequences of rushing forward to fix the sky.
Climate change is simple, and we all should seek ways of having less impact on the planet though a “middle course” of reducing emissions that is amenable to all, reasonable, practical, equitable, and effective. But the climate system is extraordinarily complex, perhaps the most complex system ever modeled or observed, with the most important consequences imaginable for life and ecosystems. Certainly clouds, oceans, ice sheets and even monsoons make it more complex. But the wildest of the wild cards in the system is the human dimension, so studying that is absolutely essential.
Throughout its long and checkered past, weather and climate control were motivated by the pressing issues of the day and were proposed or practiced using the most current technologies. But today’s science is tomorrow’s history of science. We simply cannot proceed without integrating the history of climate change and geoengineering with public policy. I suggest this should be Interdisciplinary in essence and International in emphasis, with Intergenerational training and participation. In these ways I believe history can effectively inform public policy.
Thank you for your attention.