You Can’t Beat Climate Change With Weather Guns

Sergey Nivens via Shutterstock

AA Font size + Print

Just because changing weather is a national security threat doesn’t mean you can defeat it with guns, say researchers. By Patrick Tucker

John Kerry gave a speech in Jakarta, Indonesia, last weekend where he referred to climate change as “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, have made similar statements. Yet the most recent research shows that the human output of carbon dioxide, a leading cause of climate change, is only getting worse, increasing the probability that mean global temperatures will rise by the end of this century, perhaps by as much as 4.5 degrees Celsius, which would be disastrous.

Some researchers have proposed changing the weather deliberately, a strategy referred to as geoengineering. It’s sometimes considered the last-ditch effort to avert the worst possible effects of climate change and it’s controversial to say the least.

One weather-shifting tactic that’s received a lot of attention from researchers involves enormous injections of sulfate into the atmosphere via boats or even balloons. The sulfate works like a volcanic ash cloud bouncing more of the sun’s light back into space and resulting in cooler global temperatures. The idea works, in theory, but a team of researchers from the University of Washington this week found that, if not properly maintained, any attempt to change the weather by continually pushing sulfate into the atmosphere will backfire.

They describe their findings in this paper:

Here’s the key point: “If such an enhanced stratospheric aerosol layer were produced, any interruption to its continual maintenance would cause a quick return to natural aerosol levels within 1–2 years…In turn, global temperature would increase rapidly as the climate adjusts to the full, unmasked GHG radiative forcing.”

If the U.S. or some other government were to begin a program of solar radiation management with sulfate, and continue the program for decades, it would need to keep up the program, perhaps indefinitely. Without consistent injections, warming could get much worse very quickly, bringing about the dreaded  4°C rise in as little as a decade.

In other words, our climate could get hooked on sulfate.

The University of Washington researchers aren’t the first team to point out the potential dangers of geoengineering. But they are the first to find that the extreme variability in weather patterns that would result from abruptly ceasing sulfate blasts would be higher than researchers had previously anticipated.

The GAO has recommended continued research into geoengineering before any anyone makes an attempt to purposely tamper with the climate. And the researchers say if solar radiation management is tied to aggressive and sustained efforts to actually curb greenhouse gases, the results will be better.

In short, global warming may be the newest security threat, but that doesn’t mean we’ll defeat it by shooting at it.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from DefenseOne.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

    Download
  • Military Readiness: Ensuring Readiness with Analytic Insight

    To determine military readiness, decision makers in defense organizations must develop an understanding of complex inter-relationships among readiness variables. For example, how will an anticipated change in a readiness input really impact readiness at the unit level and, equally important, how will it impact readiness outside of the unit? Learn how to form a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of readiness and make decisions in a timely and cost-effective manner.

    Download
  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

    Download
  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

    Download
  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.