It may sound like science fiction, but it’s only a matter of time before the world’s militaries learn to wield the planet itself as a weapon.
Geoengineering involves humans making intentional, large-scale modifications to the Earth’s geophysical systems in order to change the environment. These can include sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide in the oceans, changing the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface, and pumping particles into the stratosphere to block a fraction of incoming sunlight. Many of these proposals mimic natural events, so we know that—in principle—they can work, although there is insufficient understanding of their potential side effects. Unsurprisingly, geoengineering is highly controversial, and even proponents view it as a “Hail Mary” pass, to be considered only after all other options have failed.
But geoengineering presents more than just an environmental question. It also presents a geopolitical dilemma. With processes of this magnitude and degree of uncertainty, countries would inevitably argue over control, costs, and liability for mistakes. More troubling, however, is the possibility that states may decide to use geoengineering efforts and technologies as weapons. Two factors make this a danger we dismiss at our peril: the unequal impact of climate changes, and the ability of small states and even nonstate actors to attempt geoengineering. . .
The offensive use of geoengineering could take a variety of forms. Overproductive algae blooms can actually sterilize large stretches of ocean over time, effectively destroying fisheries and local ecosystems. Sulfur dioxide carries health risks when it cycles out of the stratosphere. One proposal would pull cooler water from the deep oceans to the surface in an explicit attempt to shift the trajectories of hurricanes. Some actors might even deploy counter-geoengineering projects to slow or alter the effects of other efforts. . .
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