Rain on Roke may be drought in Osskil
-Master Summoner, Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. Le Guin)
One of the most common tropes in discussions of the natural world is that of “balance”. When approaching the topic of using magic to control the weather, most decent fantasy authors include at least some discussion of how meddling with a system that’s “in balance” can have unpredictable, and sometimes catastrophic side effects. When it comes to dealing with the ways in which humans affect our surroundings, there’s a clear history of “cures” causing a great deal of damage all by themselves. One clear example of this was the misguided effort to combat an invasive cane beetle problem by introducing cane toads to Australia. You can learn more about that particular debacle by watching Cane Toads: An Unnatural History. I recommend watching it with friends and intoxicants if that’s your thing. There’s real knowledge to be gained from this film, but the entertainment value is what made the documentary something of a cult classic. Back to the main topic.
Throughout most of human history, we have been largely at the mercy of whatever weather the planet tries to throw at us, and so the notion of using technology to control the weather has long been both a goal eagerly sought, and the source of many cautionary tales. The notion of the world being in some perfect natural harmony has always been more of a romantic fantasy than anything else, but even if one was inclined to put stock in the idea, I think it’s clear that that “balance” has been broken. If nothing else, this entire crisis is being caused by an imbalance between energy entering the planet from the sun, and radiating from the planet into space. Everything is being thrown into chaos, so… what’s the reason to avoid trying to modify the weather again?
Well, there are still some reasons; chemical cloud seeding, for example, can trigger rain by altering atmospheric chemistry, but there are downsides, especially if it were to be done as often as would be needed to keep hot places habitable. Even so, the ability to turn ambient humidity into rain could be extremely useful for emergency disaster relief – like cooling a city if the power goes out during a heat wave. That means getting better at figuring out both what’s effective in triggering rainfall, and what the side effects may be. It’s probably because of the worries surrounding chemical cloud seeding techniques that The UAE has taken an energy-based approach:
Footage recently released by the UAE weather agency shows heavy rain falling in the desert. The fat droplets falling were reportedly the result of a pilot test of the drones. Using unmanned drones that discharge electricity may sound a little foolhardy in the midst of storm clouds, but that electricity could be a key ingredient in getting rain to fall.
Clouds are made up water droplets, which are too tiny to fall out of the sky (hence, clouds exist). The electrical charges essentially encourage those small droplets to collide and condense into bigger ones that do eventually get heavy enough to fall as rain. In a country like the UAE, however, even drops that are big enough to fall as rain can often evaporate before reaching the ground owing to the very low humidity. The electrical charging technique could help fatten those droplets up enough to reach the desert floor and replenish a water table that’s been sinking due the region’s rapacious growth.
This is nice for as far as it goes. It’s a way for a dry region to catch moisture that might otherwise pass it over, and using electricity as the catalyst avoids the issues of doing it with chemicals. I think it’s also worth noting that with higher temperatures will come faster evaporation and more water in the air in general, which means this may actually become an increasingly viable technique. I think it could also be extremely useful for supporting or altering ecosystems. That said, I don’t believe that this will be anything close to a solution to the problems that come with extreme heat. There’s a limit to how much a rainstorm can cool a place, and I worry about the dangers of increasing ground-level humidity. I think this is an important tool to have available to us, and I’m glad that it’s being tried, but by itself it’s the proverbial band-aid on a bullet wound. What matters most is how and why it’s used.
Air conditioning, for example, will likely save all of our lives before too long, but it doesn’t just make heat go away – it displaces it. It moves energy from one location (the inside of a building) to another location (outside the building). That’s why an A/C unit only works if it can vent to the outside.
Spending energy on relocating heat within our climate system can, without question, save countless lives, but without addressing the larger crisis, not only will any form of artificial cooling be inadequate, it will cost more and more energy to get the same results as the temperature rises. As I’ve said before, we’re going to need to rely on air conditioning, but the more efficiently we can do it, and the more we can rely on “passive” temperature control like shade, reflection, and insulation, the better our long-term results will be.
Cloud seeding, as with more conventional air conditioning, moves heat around. Most of us learned about the water cycle as being how water moves around the world, but every stage of that cycle also moves energy. In order to stay in the air as vapor, water requires a ratio of pressure and temperature. If you take the time, you can watch clouds form and dissipate on a clear day. That’s not water fading in and out of existence – the same amount of water is there regardless. What’s happening is that the water is moving in and out of pockets of cooler, or lower pressure air. For this discussion, I’m going to focus on temperature. As the cloud forms, heat is transferred from the water vapor to the cooler air, condensing the water into droplets. If a cloud hits warmer air, it absorbs that heat, turning from a cloud of droplets into invisible vapor.
That heat transfer is also going to be happening, to some degree, as we use technology to create clouds and rainstorms, and in a climate that’s already too hot and chaotic for comfortable living, it’s hard to know what side effects we might get from widespread use of this sort of weather modification. I’m really not sure, but it seems like extensive use of this technology in one location could create an artificial heat wave nearby. The UAE, or the United States, or any other country could well make local conditions better through weather modification, but even with the climate thrown into chaos, moving heat around like that could worsen conditions in other areas. If the world is still operating as a collection of nations in competition with each other, then it’s almost guaranteed that countries with the power to do so will improve their own conditions at the expense of populations who’re unable to protect themselves.
It always seems to come back to this, but the risk/reward analysis is always going to be different depending on who’s calling the shots. As the planet becomes more dangerous, and the actions taken to survive become more drastic, I think nationalism and nationalistic tendencies will become also much more dangerous.
There’s already a long-standing problem of more powerful nations using those with less power not just for cheap labor (or slave labor) but also as dumping grounds. When we’re dealing with any form of artificial cooling, heat is what is extracted and discarded. With much of the world coming ever-closer to the limits of human heat tolerance, for at least some parts of the year, I think that the concept of heat as a waste product is going to become much more familiar.
If we’re going to avoid the same old pattern of enriching a minority by making huge parts of the planet worse, then we need to view nationalism (and fascism in particular) as an immediate existential threat to the entire species. If we’re going to get through climate change, it will be by helping each other on a global scale as various parts of the world become uninhabitable, or suffer crop failures or unexpected disasters. The way the United States responded to the COVID-19 pandemic may give you some insight into how well that “cooperation” thing will work out under a nationalist framework.
This is my worry for virtually every aspect of climate change. The Pentagon rightly describes global warming as a “threat multiplier,” and I would say that includes the threats of nationalism, capitalism, and fascism. Economic and political philosophies that view parts of the population as either expendable or as targets for mass murder already actively hinder international cooperation, and cause massive amounts of death and misery. Many of the refugees at our southern border are fleeing the combination of US-generated political instability and the warming climate. There is zero question in my mind that Guatemala, for example, would have been far more able to cope with its climate disasters had the US not deliberately plunged the country into decades of brutal civil war and genocide. The same goes for Nicaragua, El Salvador, and numerous other countries in Central America, South America, Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and we’re kinda running out of parts of the planet. At the same time, U.S. officials involved in those atrocities still hold influence in the United States – go through this tiny list of indictments for the Iran-Contra Affair and see who, of those still alive, still have sway on corporate boards, political campaigns, and administrations. And remember – those are just the ones who got indicted, in a country now famous for protecting its war criminals.
In the coming decades, we will need to make a planetary effort unlike anything in the history of our species. We need to work together for the benefit of all humanity, and of every other species on the planet that we can save. We will need weather modification technology for cooling, or watering entire forests, or helping to grow crops. We will need nuclear power. We will need to build new infrastructure. We will need to develop the means to relocate large amounts of goods and large populations without using fossil fuels. We will need to radically increase the efficiency of the technology we use, and we will need to end profit-driven overproduction.
The politics of nations and national borders are an impediment to all of that, and will increasingly undermine our ability to do anything as the situation gets worse. Everything I just listed can be used or misused to harm people, if used for that purpose. It can also harm people if used neglectfully. I like the anarchist approach to political change not because I necessarily think that we’ll achieve an anarchist society in my lifetime, or because I think such a society would have an easy time dealing with global warming, but because I see it as the best means for people to build collective power and resilience to take collective control of decisions that affect all of us.
Our ability to influence the weather isn’t magic, but I see no reason why the precautions that might be taken by a responsible wizard would not also apply to weather manipulation via technology. In either case, the consequences of doing it for the benefit of a tiny ruling class could be as disastrous as the results of doing it for the benefit (and with the consent) of all humanity could be wondrous.
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