Will climate engineering save the planet?

August 12, 2019

For thousands of years, man has dreamt of intervening in the Earth’s climate. Now climate engineering is trying to make this reality. Scientists and governments are taking the idea more seriously as climate change accelerates. But it is not just a desperate measure for desperate times. The rise of climate engineering is the result of systemic change across culture, technology and geopolitics.

Our observations

  • The global scientific community is taking more seriously the idea of climate engineering (or geo-engineering): active intervention to change the climate through technological measures. For instance, Harvard scientists are preparing to launch a balloon capable of spraying reflective particles into the atmosphere to mitigate the effects of global warming.
  • Governments across the world are increasingly experimenting with climate engineering. Especially cloud seeding, a technique to change the amount or type of rainfall, is gaining traction. It is now employed in more than 50 countries, particularly in those that face severe droughts (e.g. the UAE, India, Indonesia, Thailand). China is developing the world’s most ambitious project across the Tibetan plateau and Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion Neom city will artificially produce rain.
  • One of the largest projects to date illustrates the changing debate over climate engineering. In 2012, American entrepreneur Russ George dumped 100 tons of iron sulphate in the Pacific Ocean to absorb carbon dioxide. His efforts triggered a widespread backlash. Environmentalists worried that experiments like these could trigger ecological catastrophes. However, more recently, researchers have begun to explore George’s technique of “ocean fertilization”, as this idea has graduated from a fringe proposal to one seriously contemplated by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC).
  • The use of climate engineering technology is already considered a geopolitical risk. For example, what if China suffers from severe droughts as the result of U.S. climate engineering?
  • The Council of Councils has argued that the United Nations (UN) should play a central role in the governance of geo-engineering. In March 2019, UN negotiations on geo–engineering technologies abruptly ended when opponents (e.g. the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Brazil)argued that these technologies pose huge potential risks to people and nature.

Connecting the dots

The idea of intervening in the climate is ancient. It traces back to myths of the climate as a form of moral retribution that manifestedthemselves in traditional society in the custom of praying to gods of weather. However, as man came to understand himself as the center of the cosmos, modern man has become the subject facing the climate as a malleable object. Nineteenth century scientists already argued that technological weather intervention would become possible. Climate prayer became climate engineering: instead of praying to the clouds, we are now blasting hail cannons into the clouds to prevent storms. Moreover, the manipulation of the climate through technology is actually all around us already. Air-conditioning, the planting of trees and supercharged plants are basic forms of climate engineering. Much more ambitious types of climate engineering are now emerging, such as solar radiation management (reflecting sunlight to reduce global warming) andstratospheric aerosol injection (spraying particles into the stratosphere to block sunlight).

To be sure, many experts are skeptical about these types of climate engineering and some warn against unforeseen consequences of using them. Scientists also worry that publicity for climate engineering will lend legitimacy to the idea that we can simply turn back the clock on climate change. It is still useful, though, to wonder why climate engineering is now emerging as a serious response to climate change. It is not just a desperate measure for desperate times. In fact, climate engineering is the product of sociocultural, technological and geopolitical change.

First, climate engineering befits the zeitgeist of climate fatalism. As the critical threshold of 2°C of global warming comes closer, governments must adapt to the changing climate besides hoping to reach global consensus. Indeed, local experimentation with different types of climate engineering is a practical alternative. Looking ahead, successful experiments will improve the cultural perception of climate engineering. Ideaslike those of Russ George and Oliver Morton, author of The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, could gain prominence: Morton argues that climate engineering is not an antidote to climate change, but an additional form of climate change, one that has effects that oppose those brought on by greenhouse warming. Similarly, viewing climate engineering as a supplement to, and not a substitution for reducing emissions, has given rise to its comparison to airbags and medicine. Furthermore, some argue that radical types of climate engineering are actually fairly “natural”. For instance, supporters of stratospheric aerosol injection argue that it simply mimics volcanic eruptions: in 1815, a volcano in Indonesia ejected huge amounts of aerosols into the upper atmosphere, deflecting so much sunlight that the following year was known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’.

Second, in recent years, technological innovation has created many more possibilities. State-led weather modification programs have been around for decades (a notorious example is Operation Popeye, an American cloud seeding operation during the Vietnam War to increase rainfall). But innovation in solar tech, satellite imagery, AI and chemical manufacturing has provided the opportunity for new types of climate engineering, which have already found their way into state-led programs (e.g. China, Neom city) and scientific research. Furthermore, as the scientific legitimacy of climate engineering grows, it is likely that innovation will gain momentum too.

Thirdly, as more and more countries have started to experiment with climate engineering, it is becoming a geopolitical weapon. Since climate change increasingly also threatens powerful countries, instead of only poor countries, more and more countries will experiment with climate engineering. As the risk of the unilateral use of climate engineering grows, countries will have to invest even more to protect themselves. A certain type of “mutual assured destruction” of climate engineering could be the future.

All in all, the rise of climate engineering has not simply been born out of desperation. It is the product of systemic change across culture, technology and geopolitics, which could significantly boost the momentum for climate engineering in the coming years. It is even possible that this could trigger a climate change Manhattan Project.


  • Countries with high capabilities (i.e. those that are wealthy and powerful), vulnerable geography (e.g. those affected by desertification), and urgency (e.g. those suffering from growing severity of droughts) are most likely to invest in ambitious climate engineering projects in the coming years (e.g. China, India, Gulf countries).
  • China could become the leader of climate engineering by supporting its legitimization with its currently running projects.
  • The unilateral use of climate engineering technology will become an increasingly important geopolitical risk.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

At sister company Dasym, Alexander has been assigned a variety of tasks, for his interests transcend branches of knowledge as well as geographical boundaries. In brief, he writes policy papers, interprets and elucidates global developments, and conducts thematic investment research. His academic background spans public administration, history of international relations, and philosophy, having published dissertations on smart cities, Ethiopian sovereignty and independence, and Chinese philosophy towards technology. Integral to his responsibilities, Alexander wades through the latest literature on geopolitics, technology, financial markets and cultural anthropology.

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