Could an obscure international treaty protect developing countries from geoengineering gone wrong?

What's to come?
Sept. 23 2010 11:00 AM

ENMOD Squad

Could an obscure treaty protect developing countries from geoengineering gone wrong?

Future Tense: ASU | NEW AMERICA | SLATE

This piece arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. A Future Tense conference on geoengineering will be held at the New America Foundation on Monday, Sept. 27. (For more information, please visit the   NAF Web site.) Read more of   Slate's special issue on geoengineering.

Feed one set of assumptions into a climate model, and filling the Earth's upper atmosphere with levitating nano-particles seems like a reasonable way to rein in the worst effects of climate change. Feed in other assumptions, and the Asian and African monsoons falter, wiping out food and water security for 2 billion people. Of course, if climate change continues unfettered, the monsoon, increasingly chaotic, may tip into havoc, anyway—in Bangladesh, India, and other places that are especially vulnerable to both climate change and the risks of geoengineering gone wrong. 

Calculations like these have led an increasingly vocal group of scientists and policymakers from wealthy nations to conclude that since geoengineering the climate may at some point be necessary, we should start tinkering now. The risks of geoengineering are outweighed by the risks of doing nothing at all, they argue, especially in a world with no climate treaty and the looming possibility of runaway global warming.

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Yet those who have the most to lose in either case haven't had much of a say so far. Countries across the developing-world spectrum—from small island states, some of which are already drowning, to India and China, whose huge populations depend on existing weather patterns—should be able to agree on one point, and soon: Geoengineering must not go forward without a formal way to protect nations from—and compensate them for—its potentially catastrophic results.

Happily, a serviceable (though dated) framework for policing climate intervention exists—and its name is ENMOD. The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques might be better thought of as the Bond Villain Treaty. It deals with "deliberate manipulation" of "the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space." Each of its signatories agrees not to "engage in military or … other hostile environmental modification" with "widespread, long-lasting, or severe" consequences. The United States and 74 other countries consider ENMOD "legally binding"—the magic words that have proven so elusive in the climate negotiations. (China has yet to join.)

In the 32 years ENMOD has been around, it's never been used. Cases in which legal scholars think the treaty could have been invoked but wasn't read like the Book of Job channeled by Thomas Pynchon: In 1998, the Mexican army targeted that well-known insurgent, the Mediterranean fruit fly, for "phytosanitary" reasons; Zapatistas alleged that the army was trying to wipe out the rebels' food crops. Also in the 1990s, the United States' spookily named HAARP program created giant antennae that beam powerful frequencies into the ionosphere. Russia alleges that these can induce not just regionwide headaches and psychological distress but rupture oil and natural gas pipelines. ENMOD, however, stayed silent on these—and all other—occasions. 

Still, the group's power, at least in theory, is considerable. In a detailed study, legal experts Susana Pimiento Chamorro and Edward Hammond point to the "remarkably simple and direct" language with which ENMOD commands its fact-finding committee to take complaints straight to the U.N.'s most powerful agency, the Security Council—which has lately shown signs of leaving its war footing and warming up to climate as a security-related concern.

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