Fears, Fantasies, and the Possibility of Climate Control: A useable history of climate engineering

Prof. James Rodger Fleming
Science, Technology and Society Program, Colby College, Waterville, Maine


No chemist, physicist, or mathematician who has not lived with and learned to understand the peculiar nature of meteorology can pass valid judgment on how the atmosphere will react if one interferes with the details of the natural processes &mdash Sverre Petterssen.

This presentation examines climate fears, climate fantasies, and the possibility of global climate control in the third quarter of the twentieth century. It illuminates technical, scientific, social, and popular issues and moves us beyond the time-worn origin stories of these fields into a marketplace of wild ideas, a twentieth-century Hall of Fantasy, or even Twilight Zone whose boundaries are that of imagination. It does so by examining some of the chemists, physicists, mathematicians, and yes meteorologists, who tried to "interfere" with natural processes, not with dry ice or silver iodide, but with new Promethean possibilities of climate tinkering opened up by the technologies of digital computing, satellite remote sensing, nuclear power, and atmospheric nuclear testing. Aspects of this story involve engineers' pipe dreams, that mega-construction projects could result in an ice-free Arctic Ocean, a well-regulated Mediterranean Sea, or an electrified and well-watered Africa. Pundits also fantasized about engineering the climate and possibly weaponizing it, using, for example, nuclear weapons as triggers. Far from being a heroic story of invention and innovation, global climate control has, from its first mention in the literature, a dark side, hinting at the possibility of global accidents or hostile acts.

The analysis is framed by the warnings of two close scientific associates, one famous and one relatively obscure. John von Neumann, the multi-talented mathematician extraordinaire at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, was deeply involved in the development of digital computers and had just designed a computer of his own for calculating the weather. It was the dark side of climate control that led von Neumann to wonder in his eloquent and oft-cited article of the same name, "can we survive technology?" One of von Neumann's closest associates was Harry Wexler, chief of scientific services at the U.S. Weather Bureau, who helped advance the agenda for climate modeling and promoted many other technologies, especially meteorological satellites. It was Wexler who institutionalized climate modeling and conducted the first serious technical analysis of climate engineering that warned about the possibilities of climate control. It was the darker side of climate control, specifically the very real possibility of purposeful destruction of stratospheric ozone, that led Wexler to spell out, in great technical detail, the dangers of climate tinkering.

An even larger context, perhaps the "Hall of Fantasy" in which these frameworks are hung, is bounded by the Greek myth of Phaeton and the recent aspirations of the climate engineers, both of which involve "managing" solar radiation.