The unseasonable snow that fell on Beijing for 11 hours last Sunday was the earliest and heaviest there has been for years. It was also, China claims, man-made. By the end of last month, farmland in the already dry north of China was suffering badly due to drought. So on the night of Oct. 31 China’s meteorologists fired 186 explosive rockets loaded with chemicals to “seed” clouds and encourage snow to fall. “We won’t miss any opportunity of artificial precipitation since Beijing is suffering from a lingering drought,” Zhang Qiang (張強), head of the Beijing Weather Modification Office, told state media.
The US has tinkered with such cloud seeding to increase water flow from the Sierra Nevada mountains in California since the 1950s, but there remains widespread scientific sniffiness in the West at such attempts at weather control. The chemicals fired into the sky, usually dry ice or silver iodide, are supposed to provide a surface for water vapor to form liquid rain. But there is little evidence that it works — after all, how do investigating scientists know it would not have rained anyway?
Such doubts have not stopped China claiming mastery over the clouds. Officials said the blue skies that brightened Beijing’s parade to celebrate 60 years of communism last month were a result of the 18 cloud-seeding jets and 432 explosive rockets scrambled to empty the sky of rain beforehand. Last year, more than 1,000 rockets were fired to ensure a dry night for the Olympic opening ceremony.
Magic or not, there is growing interest in such attempts to deliberately steer the weather, and on a much larger scale. In the spring, a group of the world’s leading experts on climate change will gather in California to plan how it could be done as a way to tackle global warming, and by whom. The ideas, some of which, similar to cloud-seeding, involve firing massive amounts of chemicals into the atmosphere, can sound far-fetched, but they are racing up the agenda as pessimism grows about the likely course of global warming.
As interest grows, so does concern about whether such techniques, known as geoengineering, could be developed and unleashed by a single nation, or even a wealthy individual without wide international approval. “What will happen when Richard Branson decides he really does want to save the planet?” asks one climate expert. If China thinks it can make cloud seeding work, then what about geoengineering?
“If climate change turns ugly, then many countries will start looking at desperate measures,” says David Victor, an energy policy expert at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Logic points to a big risk of unilateral geoengineering. Unlike controlling emissions, which requires collective action, most highly capable nations could deploy geoengineering systems on their own.”
Victor is a heavyweight policy analyst, but one of his most impressive academic feats could have been to smuggle the name of the world’s favorite secret agent into the sober pages of the Oxford Review of Economic Policy. “Geoengineering may not require any collective international effort to have an impact on climate,” he wrote in an article published last year. “A lone Greenfinger, self-appointed protector of the planet and working with a small fraction of the [Bill] Gates bank account, could force a lot of geoengineering on his own. Bond films of the future might [enjoy incorporating] the dilemma of unilateral planetary engineering.” Move over, Goldfinger.