It could be any country, but let’s say it’s Vietnam.
The year is 2069. World governments failed to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 — the deadline set in a 2018 United Nations report — setting off a chain of rapid warming. Megastorms and wildfires regularly kill hundreds and displace tens of thousands, and coastal cities are abandoning low-lying neighborhoods to the rising sea. Freshwater and food are in short supply as drought dries wellsprings and parches the Mekong Delta’s rice basket.
In an effort to provide some relief and rein in the chaos, global superpowers decide to block out the sun.
The world’s most powerful militaries take the lead, deploying aircraft to soar 32 miles upward into the stratosphere and spray particles that reflect sunlight. The technique mimics one of the planet’s most awesome natural functions: the cooling effect that comes from volcanoes erupting and filling the atmosphere with reflective gas that bounces energy from the sun back into space.
A new world order emerges that is defined by those who shape the climate.
This kind of solar geoengineering, already planned by some scientists back in the year 2019, comes with a tremendous risk called “termination shock.” This dystopian-sounding term denotes the chaotically fast warming that could occur if such engineering were to suddenly stop. In other words, once we turn to such solutions to reduce the harm of climate change, we must continue them indefinitely. By some estimates, stopping could cause decades’ worth of warming in just five years. A November 2017 study found that the rate of temperature change after halting solar geoengineering could be as much as four times larger than that caused by climate change itself.
But geoengineering will require maintenance and resources; it may be deployed cheaply, but coordinating and administering the program and accounting for early mistakes could be expensive. What happens when one of the countries sponsoring it — perhaps the United States, China, or Russia — wants to pull out? Or when one of the countries affected by its side effects decides to rebel?
As the months passed in 2069, Vietnam found some relief thanks to the solar geoengineering project. But things eventually take a turn. With the South China Sea lapping inland along more than 2,025 miles of shoreline, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi grow ever-more crowded and smog-choked as hungry farmers give up on betting against increasingly unpredictable growing seasons and flee to find work in metropoles.
The solar geoengineering, while staving off heat waves in Paris and New York, contributes to a drought in the Mekong Delta. The sulfur aerosols that calm storms in the northern Atlantic strengthen one of the dozens of typhoons that hit Vietnam each year and claim many lives.
Geoengineering is revealed as a political force. The most powerful nations — those with the resources to develop and deploy the technology — exert their will through the sun-reflecting spray, directly affecting life in smaller countries. In response, perhaps the people of Vietnam — the sliver of a country that managed to expel the French and American empires and repel the Chinese in roughly two decades during the 20th century — push back, sparking a new conflict. Or maybe they don’t, and a new world order emerges that is defined by those who shape the climate.
The hypotheticals, far off as they may seem, merit examination, especially as some now call geoengineering “inevitable.”
There are few international rules governing geoengineering.
“There’s questions about how precisely we could do it, whether there would be disagreements, what the risk of termination shock would be, whether it would undermine emissions cuts,” said Jesse Reynolds, a geoengineering researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Whether it’s technically possible has never been a question.”
In October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined that world governments must halve emissions by 2030 to keep the planet from warming 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels. Beyond that average temperature, the droughts, storms, and sea-level rise wrought by climate change are expected to be cataclysmic, causing up to $54 trillion in damages and diminishing food and water resources that — even without global warming — would face stress from a ballooning global population.
Even with ambitious efforts to reduce emissions, extra action will be necessary, the IPCC found. The report suggested that “negative emissions technologies” were needed to suck greenhouse gases out of the air. The authors emphasized at a press conference that the first and most reliable “technology” to absorb emissions is trees. But solar geoengineering is emerging from the fringes of the broader climate policy debate.
Despite the swelling interest in the subject, there are few international rules governing geoengineering. In 2010, the United Nations declared a moratorium on geoengineering under the guise of its Convention on Biological Diversity, citing the unknown effects that “technofixes” for climate change could have on wildlife.
The convention’s mandate is buttressed by another 1977 convention, which states that “the term ‘environmental modification technique’ refers to any technique for changing — through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes — the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space.” But it goes on to say that “the provisions of this Convention shall not hinder the use of environmental modification techniques for peaceful purposes.”
Short of worldwide consensus about how the technology should be used and who should control it — and remember now that nations can barely agree on an acceptable path toward curbing their own emissions — geoengineering would be controlled by a great power like the United States, China, or Russia. One or more of these world powers would carry out the project and enforce the rules, propelling us into a new era of climate imperialism where the very fundamentals of life in smaller nations — how much it rains, how much sunlight plants can absorb — are directly affected by the actions of a hegemon.
The risks have left climate scientists “sharply divided over geoengineering, in much the same way that Manhattan Project scientists were divided over nuclear weapons after World War II,” wrote Clive Hamilton, an Australian public ethics researcher, in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 2013. “Testing a geoengineering scheme, such as sulfate aerosol spraying, is inherently difficult,” he wrote. “Deployment would make political decision makers highly dependent on a technocratic elite. In a geoengineered world, experts would control the conditions of daily life, and it is unlikely that such a regime would be a just one.”
That hasn’t stopped countries, namely China, from experimenting with small-scale geoengineering schemes already. Faced with declining snowfall in the Tibetan Plateau, a major source of water for Asia, the Chinese government began deploying an array of silver iodide furnaces to “seed” clouds over the region last year. The furnaces burn chemical fuel to produce a special smoke that mixes with clouds, setting off a chain reaction that causes precipitation. The plan has been called the “largest-ever weather modification project.”
China maintains iron-fisted control over Tibet, so officials there have little choice but to go along with the scheme. That same project on a larger scale would be much harder to enforce. Military strength would likely be necessary to support such endeavors. “There is, of course, a long history of military being involved in forms of weather modification, so they are often seen as likely partners for geoengineering,” said Nick Buxton, a consultant with the nonprofit research outfit Transnational Institute, by email. “And, of course, the governance issues raised by it are likely to cause geopolitical conflict.”
But James Wakefield, a British activist who wrote about the threat of climate imperialism last year for the Trouble, said it’s more likely that world leaders could use softer forms of power to pressure smaller nations into participating in geoengineering programs. He said countries like China or the United States could level tariffs and sanctions or withhold aid from a climate change-ravaged nation like Vietnam. “Solar radiation management may be necessary,” Wakefield said, “but it’s easy to imagine it would just fall into the pro-imperialist forms of control and oppression.”
A country like Vietnam, for example, would have few options to oppose a program endorsed and carried out by the United States and China, said Olaf Corry, an associate professor of climate politics at the University of Copenhagen. “The small power, as the geopolitical physics would dictate, would have a lot less leverage, but small powers have other ways of acting,” he said. “One of the things talked about is counter-engineering, where you could cancel it out on your own or retaliate. You could make it a threat.”
In that scenario, even a small nation like Vietnam could deploy its air force to oust aerosol-injecting crafts from its airspace. It could also take steps toward “counter-geoengineering.” This could include spraying substances into the atmosphere that directly neutralize reflective aerosols or increasing the output of greenhouse gases to increase warming in opposition to geoengineering, according to a study released in May 2018.
Such a country could also find a constituency among at least one of the world’s great powers. Corry pointed out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s history of casting doubt over climate science while his country profits as its icy northern reaches thaw, noting that Russia might see the sort of geoengineering project the United States and China could get behind “as contrary to its interests.”
Given the rise of nationalist strongmen in recent years, including Donald Trump in the United States, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, it’s difficult to imagine international institutions growing in strength and evolving to command the power they’d need to oversee a geoengineering program in the coming decades.
Yet Reynolds, who bets solar geoengineering is “still 20 years away,” says he’s optimistic that new international institutions will arise to safely and democratically oversee such a project. “There wasn’t a World Trade Organization 25 years ago, and now it appears indispensable to the global economy,” he says. “Fifty years is a long time for international institutions.”
Much of the “substantial criticisms” of imperialistic tendencies among international financial institutions like the WTO, World Bank, or International Monetary Fund come from the conditions they attach to loans to developing countries. “That understandably fosters a sense of resentment due to external influence,” Reynolds says. “Climate engineering wouldn’t work that way.”
But researchers like Corry say that optimism is blind to the reality that militaries would be the most likely agents to carry out such a program. “One of the things that is overlooked at the moment is that it’s mainly climate scientists modeling this stuff,” Corry says. “They won’t be the ones implementing this.”
In 1967, the U.S. military began Operation Popeye, a secret effort to spray silver or lead iodide over Vietnam, causing clouds to thicken and rain to worsen. Months after he learned of the operation, Senator Claiborne Pell, a Rhode Island Democrat, went public, warning: “The thing that concerns me is not rainmaking per se, but when you open Pandora’s box, what comes out with it?”
Pell’s revelations led to the international treaty that prohibited environmental modification less than a decade later. The test now is to see whether, in a warming world, it’ll be enough.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated a Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion; 1.5 degrees Celsius is equivalent to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.