Hands Off That Thermostat


James Fleming explores the checkered history of attempts to “fix the sky”

By Stephen Collins '74

Fixing the Sky
Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Change
James Fleming (STS)
Columbia University Press (2010)

Fleming in the media

Links to interviews with Fleming and stories about Fixing the Sky

WICN (Central Massachusetts public radio)
Interview with Mark Lynch
Nov. 10, 2010

American History Association National History Center
New Books in History
Interview with Marshall Poe
Nov. 20, 2010

Late Night Live
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Interview with Philip Adams
Nov. 19, 2010

National Public Radio
Cool the Earth with Geoengineering? Some Say Wait
Nov. 5, 2010

Chronicle of Higher Education
The Doom Boom
Nov. 28, 2010

Science magazine (AAAS)
Weathering Defeats
Jan. 14, 2011

Few threats to planet Earth are scarier than those describing apocalyptic climate change. But in his new book, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, Professor of Science, Technology, and Society James Fleming makes a case that some of the proposed cures—and the scientists who advocate them—will do much to “Keep Fear Alive.”

Fleming says he set out to write a tragicomic history for a general audience—a cautionary tale recounting past and present schemes to modify the weather and control the climate. His chapter titles—“Rain Makers,” “Rain Fakers,” “Foggy Thinking,” “Pathological Science,” “Weather Warriors” among them—suggest his biases.

Fleming believes proposals to “fix the sky” and combat global warming cannot be exclusively the realm of technicians. History, culture, and public policy cannot be ignored, he says, and the discussion needs intergenerational, interdisciplinary, and international perspectives. On NPR’s All Things Considered, Fleming asked: Who gets to control the thermostat?

His goal studying and writing about geoengineering has been to get a place at the table with the geoengineers, and to a large degree he’s been successful. Over fall break in October Fleming spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Government Accountability Office, and the National Academy of Sciences. “I am in meetings about every month, or twice a month, with some of the cast in the book.” And not all of them are happy with the way they were characterized.

Fixing the Sky combines full documentation (more than 500 footnotes) with a storyteller’s voice. Fleming’s mordant wit leavens a thorough history of weather and climate engineers—past and present doctors Strangelove and their Rube Goldberg concoctions.

When would-be climate engineers met at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California in 2006 to discuss managing solar radiation, Fleming was there. He savors the irony that the meeting included an apology—organizers couldn’t control the temperature of the conference room.

Bill Gates advocated fighting hurricanes by draining warm surface water through a long tube deep into the ocean; Fleming cites a comment expressing the hope that the technique “might work better than the Windows operating system!”

At heart a humanist scholar, he begins with the story of Phaethon, from Greek mythology. Reluctantly granted one wish by his father, Helios, young Phaethon takes the reins of the sun chariot for a day but is unable to steer a middle course and sets the Earth on fire. The descriptions in translation are eerily like the worst-case scenarios currently in circulation.

Claiming that geoengineers usually see themselves as the first generation to tackle large-scale tinkering with weather and climate, Fleming reviews the history as well as literature from Dante to Jules Verne to the Disney cartoon “Donald Duck, Master Rain Maker.” He describes Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction—Ice Nine in Cat’s Cradle and the militarization of science in the “Report on the Barnhouse Effect”—and then draws a straight line to brother Bernard Vonnegut, who worked at General Electric and discovered that silver iodide dropped into a super-cooled cloud triggers a chain reaction of ice crystal formation and precipitation.

Fleming describes ancient archers shooting arrows to stop hail, and he cites practices persisting from the late 1600s into the 20th century where men believed shooting guns and explosives at and around storms would either suppress the storms or intensify them.

Under Presidents Johnson and Nixon more than 2,600 cloud-seeding sorties were launched over Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand in an attempt to bog down the enemy on the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War. “Even if the cloud seeding had produced a tactical victory or two (it did not),” writes Fleming, “the extreme secrecy surrounding the operation and the subsequent denials and stonewalling of Congress by the military resulted in a major strategic defeat for military weather modification.”

Schemes cloaked in scientific-sounding hocus pocus are still with us and are increasingly sophisticated. In 2003 commissioners of Webb County, Texas, were ready to spend $1.2 million for “ion-generating rain towers” until a TV meteorologist pointed out there was no evidence the system had ever worked and debunked the “science” that suggested it would. Also, “during the 2008 Summer Olympics, China spent more money on rainmaking and rain suppression than any other nation—but with no verifiable results,” Fleming writes.

Noah Bonnheim ’11, one of six Colby research assistants cited in the book’s acknowledgements, tracks new weather and climate controls as they unfold. “Every day I get some Rube Goldberg thing in my inbox,” Fleming said.

Mandy Reynolds ’12, another research assistant credited in the book, offered a review that Fleming submitted to Columbia University Press in case it wanted a one-word dust-jacket blurb for Fixing the Sky.

“Spooky,” she said.

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