Geoengineering had its coming out party earlier this year when White House science adviser John Holdren told reporters that he had mentioned it to President Obama as a possible, admittedly desperate, option to combat climate change. Before then, the idea of hacking the planet was largely outside the realm of public discussion, which is why few people know that when Lyndon Johnson became the first president to be warned about global warming, his science advisers offered up geoengineering as the only possible solution.
4th Row FilmsThis insistence upon the manipulation of nature as the answer to the climate problem is the subject of a new documentary called Owning the Weather, which chronicles attempts over the last century to unlock the planet’s most mysterious and intricate of systems for both personal and societal gain. Director Robert Greene makes the case that the large-scale, biosphere-altering effects of geoengineering can’t be understood without examining smaller scale weather modification, such as cloud seeding to produce rain.
The film begins its focus on this particular practice with the largely forgotten story of Charles Hatfield, who was hired by San Diego County in 1915 to end a four year drought. Within a month of Hatfield burning proprietary chemicals that he claimed would attract moisture, it had rained 35 inches, with 14 deaths tied to the inundation. Hatfield quickly left town and was never paid; the county decided the rain was an act of God, not Hatfield’s doing. He ended up spending the rest of his life selling sewing machines. Oddly, the film says, to this day the reservoir where Hatfield conducted his “work” still experiences rains during what should be the dry season.
A sense of mystery continues to pervade the different methods of weather modification. Not only is the practice completely baffling — the film shows farmers igniting what looks like a small gas flame that in turn burns purported cloud seeding agents — but the results are unpredictable at best. The film depicts several die-hard proponents of cloud seeding caught in a catch-22, where they are perceived as charlatans by almost everyone in the realm of science, but can’t seem to get the government funding to conduct research that could show that seeding works.
In a further ironic twist, scientists seeking funding for geoengineering research are being forced to lobby with the cloud seeders. These two disparate groups of people — one hailing from the farm belt and the other from universities and research institutions — both want the same bill passed to establish a national weather modification policy and extend funding for experiments. But the United States has so far been reluctant to test international laws governing weather modification, which were enacted shortly after it was revealed in 1971 that the U.S. military attempted cloud seeding to extend the monsoon season in Vietnam to flood the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Owning the Weather wrestles with this sketchy past, as well as the legitimate potential that exists with geoengineering — a concept with far more science behind it than cloud seeding, but wrought with far worse possible consequences. Unlike the cloud seeders, geoengineers seem to be more aware of the drawbacks. Stanford University climate scientist and leading geoengineering proponent Ken Caldeira speaks with such self-doubt in the film that he might as well be Woody Allen in a lab coat.
Meanwhile, Bill McKibben, whom I desperately hoped would condemn the insanity of geoengineering schemes, exhibited a similarly wavering tone in the film, saying “one of the great sadnesses and proofs that we’ve let global warming get completely out of control is they don’t sound quite as crazy anymore.” Such cautious reasoning left me feeling far more mixed about the idea of planet hacking than I like to admit. But that’s the point. We simply don’t know enough yet to make any kind of sound decision, as our previous attempts to control the weather exhibit.
Although Owning the Weather can be too interview-heavy at times, with one talking head bouncing to the next, the film is at its best when it goes beyond the physical consequences of human-made weather and ponders how society and our own consciousness might change as well. The subtle irony beneath this question, however, is that mankind has already geoengineered the weather, thanks to 150 plus years of industrial pollution.
The purity of a wholly natural climate may be lost, but Mother Nature is still in full control — a fact those of us living in wealthy countries can’t seem to accept. We’re so used to controlling our home environment with the flick of the thermostat that controlling the weather seems entirely possible. And so it’s this sense of hubris that might be the scariest thing of all.
Watch It: Owning the Weather (4th Row Films) will be shown at the 92Y in Tribeca on Jan. 7. The film is also currently available via Amazon and cable video on demand. For more information, visit owningtheweather.com.