Good 'Geo-engineering' vs. Bad 'Climate Modification'

Richard Fernandez22 May, 2024 5 Min Read
Nothing so out of date as a future that's obsolete.

For centuries civilizations have sought to control the weather, or at least its effects. The ancient Egyptians constructed a vast network of canals and levees to manage the ebb and flow of the Nile. But it was not until the late 19th century, leaving aside shamanic rain dances, that men believed they could control the rain by greening the ground. "Rain follows the plow is the conventional name for a now-discredited theory of climatology that was popular throughout the American West and Australia during the late 19th century."

The theory was widely embraced in its day, partly because it coincided with land development schemes in the American great plains and south Australia. It held that cultivation could "trap" moisture, a belief still popular among advocates of reforestation who think turning barren hills into green land will alter the landscape forever. "Newly planted trees and shrubs increased rainfall as well, as did smoke from trains, or even the metal in the rails or the telegraph wires. Another hypothesis stated that the increased vibrations in the atmosphere due to human activity created additional clouds, from which rain fell. This idea led to the widespread dynamiting of the air across the Great Plains in the 1870s."

Unfortunately this did not lead to long-term climate modification and once the temporarily favorable agricultural conditions under which the high plains were settled under the Homestead Act of 1862 had passed, the infamous Dust Bowl followed. Yet The Grapes of Wrath notwithstanding, government's love affair with weather modification had only just begun.

California, there we went.

The Cold War saw renewed interest in climate engineering. As a Harvard publication noted: "In the United States... the emphasis was almost entirely on weather control, particularly on the enhancement of precipitation. In contrast, in the USSR there was sustained interest in climate modification." By this time of course, scientists on both sides of Iron Curtain felt themselves beyond the steampunk technology of "rain follows the plow" and finally masters of technology.

Enough power over weather to turn it into a weapon. Alarmed by this prospect both the U.S. and the USSR signed the ENMOD treaty in 1978, prohibiting the deliberate manipulation of the dynamics, composition or structure of the earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space for presumably warlike purposes. They could not have foreseen the the sudden demand for carbon sequestration, ocean-chemistry modification, and sky darkening by activists in the first part of the 21st century as a good thing. The Cold War past of the ENMOD treaty is now casting an unexpected shadow over efforts to use geoengineering to combat "climate change." From a technological point of view there is no difference between evil ENMOD and planet-saving climate engineering but intent.

The problem is that, while some [environmental modification techniques] EMTs may be employed for peaceful purposes, it cannot be guaranteed that their effects, which are often transboundary in nature, will not be perceived as hostile by other states. Such unintentionally hostile effects of EMTs highlight the loophole created by the ambiguous terms “hostile” and “peaceful”; something that ENMOD did not account for. This ambiguity has implications for the growing interest in EMTs for the purpose of addressing the intensifying climate crisis.

The problem now facing climate activists is how to enable 'good' geoengineering while holding 'bad' modification in check. The problem of unintentional harm -- a la the Dust Bowl -- is particularly acute. "Unintended consequences typically occur when people intervene in complex systems, like our environment or climate. There are generally unforeseen side effects on both large and small scales as these interventions lead to changes in physical systems as well as in the incentives faced by households, businesses, civil society, and governments."

The partial answer of the World Economic Forum is to harness the help of artificial intelligence (AI) to avoid missteps. "Existing AI systems include tools that predict weather, track icebergs and identify pollution... The power of artificial intelligence (AI) to process huge amounts of data and help humans make decisions is transforming industries." By employing the superhuman powers of machine intelligence governments hope to avoid making mistakes. "The trajectory of machine learning for climate projections is looking really promising," says computer scientist Aditya Grover at the University of California, Los Angeles.

But there is one problem which even the World Economic Forum can't work around: the enormous energy consumption of AI data centers. To access this power requires power. It acknowledges that "the computational power required for sustaining AI's rise is doubling roughly every hundred days. To achieve a tenfold improvement in AI model efficiency, the computational power demand could surge by up to 10,000 times. The energy required to run AI tasks is already accelerating with an annual growth rate between 26 percent and 36 percent."

To even put a dent in this tsunami of consumption is difficult, the WEF admits. "Capping power usage during the training and inference phases of AI models presents a promising avenue for reducing AI energy consumption by 12 percent to 15 percent... Shifting AI workloads to align with times of lower energy demand — like running shorter tasks overnight or planning larger projects for the cooler months, in place where air conditioner usage is widespread — can also lead to substantial energy savings."

Pulling more power than it produces.

But these little economies don't change the basic situation. For EMT technologies to work, they need AI. For AI to work it needs torrents of power, more power than it had hoped to save. The truth is American AI data centers may use as much energy as new U.S. solar farms produce, according to the Financial Times. This means the renewable energy business may pointlessly run double time just to keep even with the demands of machine intelligence.

In fact, according to Microsoft, AI is making it fall behind its own efforts to become carbon neutral. "In 2020, we unveiled what we called our carbon moonshot. That was before the explosion in artificial intelligence. So in many ways the moon is five times as far away as it was in 2020, if you just think of our own forecast for the expansion of AI and its electrical needs."

Climate activism calculated that they could recruit industrial allies looking to make money by replacing gas engines and legacy power plants. Together they would march arm-in-arm to the future. But now many allies, especially in tech find they can make more money on the AI revolution if only they get the electricity to become dominant. The environmentalists had bet as it turned out, on a less advanced future than their erstwhile allies chose to pursue. There's nothing quite so out of date as a future that's obsolete.

Richard Fernandez is the author of the Belmont Club. He has been a software developer and co-authored Open Curtains which proposes privacy as an information property right.


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