Many years ago Richard Weaver published a book with the superficially trite title Ideas Have Consequences. In fact it’s an enormously important insight. And right now a pair of ideas risk having dreadful consequences. They are that the science on climate is settled and we know warming must be stopped. As Ivor Williams recently warned, people who believe both things are increasingly tempted to modify the climate believing they know that they must and how to go about it. Creating a very real danger that they will succeed. And in doing so fail horribly.
As Williams points out, efforts to alter the weather have been going on for a long time, sometimes through mechanisms hard to understand in retrospect. For instance “In the mid-1800s huge bonfires were lit in parts of the USA to make it rain harder.” If anyone now remembers how it was meant to work, let alone why it was thought desirable, please let us know. And then there was that business of seeding clouds with dry ice in the mid-20th century, perhaps technically less risible but still a flop.
We won’t even mention things like rain dances or throwing maidens into volcanoes for fear of seeming culturally insensitive. But it is worth noting that the worst that could be said of these things is that they were completely ineffectual. Whereas the immense increase in humans’ ability to modify weather, coupled with an increasingly dogmatic belief that we must do so to save the planet, means that some current plans might be effectual in disastrous ways.
It’s easy to see the arrogance and stupidity of fairly recent plans to modify weather. For instance, Williams mentions a 1982 UN Conference where there was a serious proposal to nuke the oceans in order to release vast quantities of steam in order to… heat the planet so the looming Ice Age would go away. And to blacken the deserts and the snowfields for the same reason. (In 1958 the Director of the US Weather Bureau, Williams also notes, wanted to drop 10 “clean” nuclear bombs on the Arctic to blacken the icecap so it would reflect less sunlight.)
Reading such proposals nowadays one is inclined to raise an eyebrow then leap frantically from one’s chair yelling “Are you all insane?” Not only because the most likely result a la Henderson the Rain King would have been to turn the Arctic radioactive without changing the planet’s temperature. Also because, according to today’s “settled science”, in the unlikely event that it had worked as advertised we’d be even deeper in even hotter soup than we are.
Now nuking the Arctic for the benefit of all mankind might seem like a primitive superstition today. But, as Williams again notes, our capacity to undertake massive interventions is greater, and more diverse, with ideas like high-altitude mirrors or reflective chemicals. So even if tossing H-bombs around no longer seems very cool, our arrogance has not diminished as our capabilities have grown. Instead these modern geoengineering ideas are gaining traction with the great and the good including Prince Charles as things like the Paris Accord prove to be the flops they were always doomed to be and planting trees to absorb CO2 lacks glamour and Buck Rogers whiz-bang appeal. (By the way if you try to comment that sinister high-altitude geoengineering is already going on and chemtrails are proof, we will delete your post and urge you to engage in hat modification involving an aluminum layer.)
To drive home his point, Williams quotes the BBC’s Science Editor saying in 2014 “Schemes to tackle climate change could prove disastrous for billions of people, but might be required for the good of the planet, scientists say.”
Oh well then. If “scientists say” it must be OK to cause disaster for billions through reckless arrogance. Just ask Dr. Strangelove.