Geoengineering has slowly and quietly been gaining traction as a serious and in some ways radical solution to the climate crisis. No longer a utopian (or dystopian) science fiction pipedream, geoengineering scenarios are being discussed and debated in various halls of power across the world — even at the UN.
Most definitions of geoengineering assert that it is an intervention in the Earth's natural systems to counteract climate change.
But geoengineering could be an ecological catastrophe, its potential side-effects are uncertain and likely to be unevenly spread. The Global South stands to lose the most, with effects on weather patterns in areas dependent on agricultural production potentially causing major issues — especially in states with already stretched capacities.
Worse still,the burden induced by the acquisition of territory from the land, sea and sky necessary to implement, monitor and manage geoengineering will likely fall upon poorer nations.
And finally geoengineering, far from being a neutral scientific proposal, is deeply tied to imperial geopolitics and militarism — representing nothing less than a militarisation of the atmospheric commons. From the research infrastructure that it inherits to the logistics of its implementation and management, the claws of militarism are deep in the geoengineering project.
Geoengineering has built momentum in some corners of business, science and government. But among climate activists and the general public discussion is scant. As the climate crisis continues to worsen and lack of action by governing parties around the world renders radical action more urgent, geoengineering is likely to keep climbing the agenda. If we are to build a just, eco-socialist future, geoengineering must be resisted and made obsolete.
As James Rodger Fleming argues in his book Fixing the Sky, meteorology has long had a mutually supportive relationship with the military.
The Cold War arms race, in particular, had played an important role in the development of ‘weather changing’ tech. Both the USA and the USSR experimented with various forms of ecological engineering. The US is famous for researching so-called ‘cloud seeding’ technology, to see if it was possible to manipulate weather patterns to help achieve certain geostrategic goals. Weather control could be used to disrupt or improve agricultural economies, to improve the position of geopolitical allies or used to undermine the enemy in times of war.
Weather control as a means of imperialist warfare quickly moved from speculation to material reality. During the Vietnam War, the US military was particularly keen to see if cloud manipulation could be used against the Vietnamese. The idea was to disrupt the use of the Ho Chi Minh trail by inducing a longer and more severe rainy season, with the intended effect of rendering the trail unusable — severely impacting the supply of men and weapons to the Viet Cong from the north. More rain over a longer stretch of time meant damaged supplies, muddied paths alongside more frequent natural disasters such as mudslides.
Cloud seeding in south-east Asia was tested over Laos before being used on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, leading to the establishment of the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD). Though not directly geoengineering, the history of weather modification reveals a long and well-documented interest in meteorology and climatology from military agencies. As Kevin Surprise has noted elsewhere this interest has persisted long after the end of the Cold War.
It is becoming more apparent that militaries, especially the militaries of hegemonic states, have been interested in the geosecurity implications of the climate crisis. Institutions linked to the US military complex like the Department of Defense and the CIA have commissioned reports on geoengineering, and it’s not hard to see why.
Catastrophic climate change could have an unprecedented impact on the global order. As Surprise notes, the US military appears to be concerned about the impact on global supply chains, the movement of people, and the stability of states in the Global South where their economic and strategic interests lie.
While most advocates of geoengineering, have a firm belief in a multilateral approach to geoengineering governance, this emphasis only serves to mystify the real global distribution of power between the Global South and the hegemonic states of the Global North.
There is a massive diplomatic challenge to overcome here, as it would likely involve asking poorer nations to take on the burden of risk while a wide array of corporations in the Global North, from aerospace engineering to data science and management, would stand to gain much from the dishing out of contracts. The logistics of geoengineering implementation and management compound the risk of militarisation and unilateralism.
The involvement of the military in the implementation of geoengineering scenarios, alongside military involvement in contemporary geoengineering research, undermines international confidence in the project — and makes multilateral agreements harder to achieve.
"Geoengineering directly and materially empowers the militaries of hegemonic states, expanding their purview to environmental governance — in effect militarising the atmospheric commons."
Geoengineering is a logistically complicated proposal that would involve a range of actors to secure its implementation. Military contractors would necessarily form a key part of any deployment strategy, as any large scale geoengineering project would be dependent on the expertise, technological infrastructure and mobilising capacity of large militaries. In this way, geoengineering directly and materially empowers the militaries of hegemonic states, expanding their purview to environmental governance — in effect militarising the atmospheric commons.
As Kai Heron argues, “the Global North's anti-capitalist left has lost the ability to make important connections between anti-war movements and struggles for global climate justice.” If we are to resist the militarisation of climate mitigation strategies, the green left needs to place anti-imperialist solidarity at the centre of its environmentalism.
That means taking the threat that geoengineering poses seriously. It’s easy to dismiss the ideas behind geoengineering as half-formed or fantastical, but they are more than just a set of utopian fantasies. Geoengineering is built on top of a historical legacy of militarised science and serves to materially empower the militaries of imperialist states.
We must recognise that as the climate crisis intensifies, the signifier of ‘crisis’ can be used as a mobilising force by the state and its institutions as much as it can be used to spur radical change. If we are to build a just, eco-socialist future, geoengineering must be resisted and made obsolete.
George Buskell is a UK based climate justice campaigner and writer, focusing on the relationship between ecological breakdown and colonialism.
Feature image: James Vaughan/Flickr.
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