Environment: Interview

"Owning the Weather" - A documentary about climate ...

For millennia the weather has been the most important thing in human existence. Filmmaker Robert Greene investigates whether modern technology could control it ...
Robert Greene: \'A lot of people don’t know about it, but 18 percent of Texas is under cloud-seeded .../ Credits: Reuters
Allianz Knowledge: You made a movie about manipulating the weather. Why should anyone try to do this?
Robert Greene: The weather affects the economy, our emotions, and the growth of societies. So we asked what would happen if we could control it. We explored the history of weather manipulation and then geoengineering, which is about ways to mitigate climate change.

That includes things like putting 16 trillion mirrors in space to block sunlight or mimicking what a volcano does by putting sulfur dioxide in the air. But it is also a philosophical question: What does it mean to control your environment?

Do you think our relationship with the weather has already changed that much?

We used to be at the mercy of the weather. It was the most important thing in our lives for most of human history.

Then a series of scientific revolutions gave us greater control over the elements. If you think of things like fans, air conditioning, cars, even a coat, you can look at the history of applied sciences as a history of trying to control the weather.

We have managed to shield ourselves from the weather, but never managed to control it. Has this changed?

Well, there has always been this dream, but not until maybe 60 years ago, when cloud seeding was discovered, did we actually start to think seriously about manipulating the weather.

No scientist will ever say that we want to “control the weather.” Our point is to say that now, with climate change, it is time to start thinking about absurd possibilities. What happens if the climate gets so out of control that modifying hurricanes or rain clouds becomes almost like a survival thing?

Cloud seeding is the mother of all weather manipulation. But does it really work?

Cloud seeding is when you put little particles of silver iodide in a cloud, water droplets form around them, and drop out of the cloud as rain. It works in a lab, but there is almost no way to tell how much it works in the outdoors.

The heydays of cloud seeding ended in the mid 1970s, when it was discovered that the United States used cloud seeding in Vietnam to rain out the Ho-Chi-Minh trail and it lost most of its federal funding. There was some evidence that it worked but it was all circumstantial.

In the U.S., it now only happens on a local basis in the West. A lot of people don’t know about it, but 18 percent of Texas is under cloud-seeded skies because local farmers and businesses want more rain.

What happens if you seed a cloud and the rain that was supposed to fall doesn’t fall where you needed it or maybe it takes rain from somewhere else?

There is also the chemical itself, which is mostly dissolved in water. They claim that it is less dangerous than using photographic paper, which uses a similar chemical. Nevertheless, the chemicals do add up at some stage.

What other technologies are being proposed to manipulate the weather?

There are basically several brands of weather modification.

Hurricane mitigation technology has been proposed but not yet attempted, like putting oil slicks on the ocean to reduce evaporation or putting a giant gel in the ocean that sucks up moisture from the atmosphere and adds it to the ocean.

Bill Gates has patented a hurricane modification technology which pumps cold water up from the bottom of the ocean, because hurricanes are fuelled by warm water.

Geoengineering is the really large scale, sci-fi projects like putting 16 trillion tiny discs in space to reflect about 2 percent of sunlight back into space.

The most popular idea is that of the so-called “man-made volcano.” It means spraying sulfur dioxide up into the sky and that would mimic what happens when big volcanoes erupt and sulfur dioxide acts like a thin sheet in the atmosphere that could block two to four percent of sunlight. When big volcanoes erupt, the world cools by 2 to 4 degrees.

But this could also damage the ozone layer and what happens if a volcano erupts after you have sprayed sulfur dioxide? Are you then looking at a new ice age?

Let’s imagine this would all work, wouldn’t it be a great way to fight climate change?
The big question then is how do you decide what to do. The Russians, for example, are looking forward to a warmer planet because it means they can move people into Siberia. So what happens if the U.S. wants to keep New York from flooding and the rest of the world says no?

And how, for example, do you arrange for the sulfur to be sprayed in the atmosphere.  What kind of treaty would be needed to do that? 

It just seems a little crazy. Most of the scientists we spoke to are aware of these problems; they see geoengineering as some sort of last ditch insurance policy. 

What could go wrong?
We have no clue. The problem is that this is really messy science. Climate change science is a developing science where we are constantly changing models.

Scientists who want to research geoengineering often use surgery as a metaphor. We know very little about the brain, but do brain surgery all the time. You do surgery when you have an ailment. There are risks involved but you still prefer to do that than die. 

Where do you think we will be in 20 years time? Will we be manipulating the weather?
I don’t think we will be controlling the weather in 20 years, but the slow march from being a victim of the weather to being its master will continue. I think we will be closer to knowing the physics of cloud seeding. Seeding for rain is probably going to be more common. 

There will probably be some technologies that try to nudge hurricanes. I don’t think Bill Gates is in the business of Don Quixote-like chasing windmills projects.

Of course there could be a huge public backlash and these things go back in the cellar. But if we don’t think of the weather as an act of God anymore how does this change the way we look at the world? That is a huge philosophical question.

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