Image credit: Owning the Weather
Long criticized as snake-oil salesmen at best and dangerous crackpots at worst, scientists who aim to manipulate and control the weather have always been viewed as mad scientists. But is geoengineering a tool that can protect humans from climate change? Or are these innovators taking too many chances by "playing God"? That is the root of the question behind the film Owning the Weather, a documentary that explores the world of weather modification and geoengineering in the United States.
Made by Robert Greene, the fascinating film follows cloud seeders as they struggle to earn credibility and refine their control over Mother Nature. Released earlier this year, Owning the Weather will be screened on Sunday, December 13 during the COP15 conference as part of the events sponsored by the activist group Hopenhagen.
TreeHugger caught up with Robert Greene to discuss if we should control the weather, who should do it, and the difference between weather modification and geoengineering.
TreeHugger: What role do you see weather modification playing in a world struggling with climate change?
Robert Greene: It depends on who wins the coming debate about geoengineering (or climate engineering, global weather modification, whatever you prefer). For scientists advocating geoengineering research and possible implementation, this is one big insurance policy. They say, "We'll only flip the switch if we have to"—if we see runaway climate change about to happen. The problem is that many of these scientists and thinkers aren't as concerned as I think they should be about the vast political and social implications of flipping that proverbial switch. But on the other hand, those opposed to the entire concept of geoengineering may have some explaining to do if New York or Sydney goes underwater and we did nothing to stop it.
Ultimately, like everything, it's a question of money and power. Who will these climate controllers be if geoengineering becomes "necessary"? How will international politics be affected if there is even the perception that someone—some government, agency, or company—has control over the climate? These are major questions a global society might have to tackle.
TH: Based on your research and experience, could weather modification systems ever really be used as a reliable tool?
RG: Here it's important to differentiate a bit between traditional weather modification and geoengineering. When people say "weather mod," they are generally referring to cloud seeding to make rain or snow or maybe bigger dreams like stopping weather events such as hurricanes, hail storms, or tornadoes.
In terms, of "reliability," cloud seeding has always had a major problem: it's basically unprovable on any sort of large scale. No one doubts it works in a lab, but there are major questions about how well it works in real, vast, chaotic weather systems. This sort of "provability stigma" has generally tainted the bigger, more theoretical dreams like hurricane modification. But there's no reason to believe that this problem can't be solved eventually.
Now with geoengineering, there is generally a consensus that the major proposals would work to some degree. That is, they would cool the earth. Overall, though, the question really is, "What would happen if they did work?" Who's to say what's "reliable" when the consequences of the treatment could be worse than the disease? If we learned to "reliably" steer hurricanes and we ended up screwing with the energy budget of the planet or causing mass social trauma when New Orleans gets spared over Biloxi, then are we really able to call that technology "reliable"?
TH: To the casual observer, it appears that China has emerged as the leader in weather modification. How do their efforts compare to others around the world?
RG: China and Russia are generally considered the international leaders in cloud seeding. There are very active programs in places like India and Israel, as well. But the reason China and Russia are the leaders is pretty obvious: They are generally top-down societies in terms of government organization, and somebody, somewhere has made the scientific and political calculation that cloud seeding is "provable enough" to go with it.
In the U.S., weather modification research dollars have basically been gone since the 1970s (when the public found out we cloud seeded in Vietnam) and current activities are limited to local and regional players. There is, however, a real sense of urgency on the part of the U.S. cloud seeders to catch up to the world, and they are making every effort they can to recreate a federal support system.
TH: Speaking of China, they may or may not have just caused a massive and deadly snow storm through weather modification. If we only have minimal control over large natural systems, are these tactics really safe?
RG: No. It's not safe. Weather is chaotic and things happen. But the likelihood that any single event was "caused" by cloud seeding is very difficult to prove. Cloud seeding is used to help bring people water or snow to live better, or to "rain out" clouds to prevent unwanted flooding in populated areas. It can be a good thing.
But there's always going to be major weather events that kill people and cause damage. When we're not cloud seeding, these events are called "acts of God." But when we are modifying the weather, things change. In our collective perception of things, there are no more "acts of God." That event could have been caused by human beings messing with the weather. Or it might have happened anyway. But the chance of the former should send chills up your spine.
TH: Your film will be airing at COP15 on December 13. What message do you hope conference attendees will take away from the viewing?
RG: We want to kick into high gear a real, honest, open debate about climate engineering and weather modification of all forms. As a global society, we have some big questions to ask. We're just starting. We hope the film can frame the debate a little and get people to consider some of the philosophical and even "existential" questions at the root of the issue. But we also want people to step back a little, be entertained, and maybe laugh at our long-standing preoccupation with controlling things. I also want people to realize that we're already controlling the weather in our immediate lives and to think about that that means.
A special screening of Owning the Weather will take place on December 17 at 8PM at the Astoria Indies theaterin New York
Watch the trailer:
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