‘Geostorm’ Movie and Climate Hacking: Are the Dangers Real?
By Jane A. Flegal and Andrew Maynard
Hollywood's latest disaster flick, "Geostorm," is premised on the idea that humans have figured out how to control the earth's climate. A powerful satellite-based technology allows users to fine-tune the weather, overcoming the ravages of climate change. Everyone, everywhere can quite literally "have a nice day," until—spoiler alert!—things do not go as planned.
Admittedly, the movie is a fantasy set in a deeply unrealistic near-future. But coming on the heels of one of the most extreme hurricane seasons in recent history, it's tempting to imagine a world where we could regulate the weather.
Despite a long history of interest in weather modification, controlling the climate is, to be frank, unattainable with current technology. But underneath the frippery of "Geostorm," is there a valid message about the promises and perils of planetary management?
Fiddling with our global climate
The technology in the movie "Geostorm" is laughably fantastical. But the idea of technologies that might be used to "geoengineer" the climate is not.
Geoengineering, also called climate engineering, is a set of emerging technologies that could potentially offset some of the consequences of climate change. Some scientists are taking it seriously, considering geoengineering among the range of approaches for managing the risks of climate change—although always as a complement to, and not a substitute for, reducing emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change.
These innovations are often lumped into two categories. Carbon dioxide removal (or negative emissions) technologies set out to actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. In contrast, solar radiation management (or solar geoengineering) aims to reduce how much sunlight reaches Earth.
Because it takes time for the climate to respond to changes, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, some level of climate change—and its associated risks—is unavoidable. Advocates of solar geoengineering argue that, if done well, these technologies might help limit some effects, including sea level rise and changes in weather patterns, and do so quickly.
But as might be expected, the idea of intentionally tinkering with the earth's atmosphere to curb the impacts of climate change is controversial. Even conducting research into climate engineering raises some hackles.
Global stakes are high
Geoengineering could reshape our world in fundamental ways. Because of the global impacts that will inevitably accompany attempts to engineer the planet, this isn't a technology where some people can selectively opt in or opt out out of it: Geoengineering has the potential to affect everyone. Moreover, it raises profound questions about humans' relationship to nonhuman nature. The conversations that matter are ultimately less about the technology itself and more about what we collectively stand to gain or lose politically, culturally and socially.
Much of the debate around how advisable geoengineering research is has focused on solar geoengineering, not carbon dioxide removal. One of the worries here is that figuring out aspects of solar geoengineering could lead us down a slippery slope to actually doing it. Just doing research could make deploying solar geoengineering more likely, even if it proves to be a really bad idea. And it comes with the risk that the techniques might be bad for some and good for others, potentially exacerbating existing inequalities, or creating new ones.
For example, early studies using computer models indicated that injecting particles into the stratosphere to cool parts of Earth might disrupt the Asian and African summer monsoons, threatening the food supply for billions of people. Even if deployment wouldn't necessarily result in regional inequalities, the prospect of solar geoengineering raises questions about who has the power to shape our climate futures, and who and what gets left out.
Other concerns focus on possible unintended consequences of large-scale open-air experimentation—especially when our whole planet becomes the lab. There's a fear that the consequences would be irreversible, and that the line between research and deployment is inherently fuzzy.
And then there's the distraction problem, often known as the "moral hazard." Even researching geoengineering as one potential response to climate change may distract from the necessary and difficult work of reducing greenhouse gas levels and adapting to a changing climate—not to mention the challenges of encouraging more sustainable lifestyles and practices.
To be fair, many scientists in the small geoengineering community take these concerns very seriously. This was evident in the robust conversations around the ethics and politics of geoengineering at a recent meeting in Berlin. But there's still no consensus on whether and how to engage in responsible geoengineering research.
Climate outcomes are not good for humanity in the Hollywood version of geoengineering.Still image from 'Geostorm'
A geostorm in a teacup?
So how close are we to the dystopian future of "Geostorm"? The truth is that geoengineering is still little more than a twinkle in the eyes of a small group of scientists. In the words of Jack Stilgoe, author of the book "Experiment Earth: Responsible innovation in geoengineering":
"We shouldn't be scared of geoengineering, at least not yet. It is neither as exciting nor as terrifying as we have been led to believe, for the simple reason that it doesn't exist."
Compared to other emerging technologies, solar geoengineering has no industrial demand and no strong economic driver as yet, and simply doesn't appeal to national interests in global competitiveness. Because of this, it's an idea that's struggled to translate from the pages of academic papers and newsprint into reality.
Even government agencies appear wary of funding outdoor research into solar geoengineering—possibly because it's an ethically fraught area, but also because it's an academically interesting idea with no clear economic or political return for those who invest in it.
Yet some supporters make a strong case for knowing more about the potential benefits, risks and efficacy of these ideas. So scientists are beginning to turn to private funding. Harvard University, for instance, recently launched the Solar Geoengineering Research Program, funded by Bill Gates, the Hewlett Foundation and others.
As part of this program, researchers David Keith and Frank Keutsch are already planning small-scale experiments to inject fine sunlight-reflecting particles into the stratosphere above Tucson, Arizona. It's a very small experiment, and wouldn't be the first, but it aims to generate new information about whether and how such particles might one day be used to control the amount of sunlight reaching the earth.
And importantly, it suggests that, where governments fear to tread, wealthy individuals and philanthropy may end up pushing the boundaries of geoengineering research—with or without the rest of society's consent.
Hollywood's version of the technology is one thing, but it's time to talk about what a real future could be. Still image from 'Geostorm'
The case for public dialogue
The upshot is there's a growing need for public debate around whether and how to move forward.
Ultimately, no amount of scientific evidence is likely to single-handedly resolve wider debates about the benefits and risks—we've learned this much from the persistent debates about genetically modified organisms, nuclear power and other high-impact technologies.
Leaving these discussions to experts is not only counter to democratic principles but likely to be self-defeating, as more research in complex domains can often make controversies worse. The bad news here is that research on public views about geoengineering (admittedly limited to Europe and the U.S.) suggests that most people are unfamiliar with the idea. The good news, though, is that social science research and practical experience have shown that people have the capacity to learn and deliberate on complex technologies, if given the opportunity.
As researchers in the responsible development and use of emerging technologies, we suggest less speculation about the ethics of imagined geoengineered futures, which can sometimes close down, rather than open up, decision-making about these technologies. Instead, we need more rigor in how we think about near-term choices around researching these ideas in ways that respond to social norms and contexts. This includes thinking hard about whether and how to govern privately funded research in this domain. And uncomfortable as it may feel, it means that scientists and political leaders need to remain open to the possibility that societies will not want to develop these ideas at all.
All of this is a far cry from the Hollywood hysteria of "Geostorm." Yet decisions about geoengineering research are already being made in real life. We probably won't have satellite-based weather control any time soon. But if scientists intend to research technologies to deliberately intervene in our climate system, we need to start talking seriously about whether and how to collectively, and responsibly, move forward.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
In celebration of Earth Day, a star-studded cast is giving fans a rare glimpse into the secret lives of some of the planet's most majestic animals: whales. In "Secrets of the Whales," a four-part documentary series by renowned National Geographic Photographer and Explorer Brian Skerry and Executive Producer James Cameron, viewers plunge deep into the lives and worlds of five different whale species.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b102b19b2719f50272ab718c44703dd0"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/xOySOlB78dM?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Herring are a primary food source for Norway's orcas. Luis Lamar / National Geographic for Disney+
Belugas are extremely social creatures with a varied vocal range. Peter Kragh / National Geographic for Disney+
A Southern Right whales is pictured in the accompanying book, "Secrets of the Whales." Brian Skerry / National Geographic
The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
A Coeligena helianthea hummingbird is photographed during a birdwatching trail at the Monserrate hill in Bogota on November 11, 2020. Colombia is the country with the largest bird diversity in the world, home to about 1,934 different bird species, a fifth of the total known. JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images
1. Choosing the Right Binoculars<p>Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have <a href="https://vashonaudubon.org/all-about-vashon-birds/binoculars-check-out/" target="_blank">binocular loaning programs</a> for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.</p><p>When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some <a href="https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/optics/top-10-tips-buying-binoculars-bird-watching.php" target="_blank">major considerations</a> might include size, ease of use, <a href="https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/binoculars.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">magnification</a>, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.</p><p>For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.</p>
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area<p>When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-these-20-common-birds_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recognize common birds</a> in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will <a href="https://nestwatch.org/learn/focal-species/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vary by region</a>, as will those migrating through it.</p>
3. Get Out and Explore<p>Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).</p><p>If you are able to travel a bit further from home, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuges/" target="_blank">national wildlife refuges</a> and <a href="https://www.americasstateparks.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state/national parks</a> are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists <a href="https://www.aba.org/aba-area-birding-trails/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">birding trails by state</a>, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify <a href="https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Important Bird Areas (IBAs)</a> across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.</p>
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat<p>The National Audubon Society recommends the "<a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-find-bird" target="_blank">stop, look, listen, repeat</a>" mantra when seeking and identifying birds.</p><p>First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.</p><p>When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.</p><p>While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you'll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon's Bird Guide app or by learning from their <a href="https://www.audubon.org/section/birding-ear" target="_blank">Birding by Ear series</a>.</p><p>Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you. </p>
5. Identification<p>When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-identify-birds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major considerations when identifying birds</a> are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sibley Guide to Birds</a> and the <a href="https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peterson-field-guide-to-birds-of-north-america-second-edition/9781328771445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peterson Field Guide</a> are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/what-bird-guide-best-you" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">specialized guides</a> focus on specific species or regions as well.</p><p>Plenty of <a href="https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/05/27/boucher-bird-blog-apps-smart-birder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bird identification apps</a> have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-best-birding-apps-and-field-guides" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">field guide in your pocket</a>. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.</p>
6. Recording Your Sightings<p><span>As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their </span><a href="https://www.thespruce.com/what-birds-count-on-a-life-list-386704#:~:text=A%20life%20list%20is%20a,which%20birds%20you%20have%20seen." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">life list</a><span>.</span></p><p>While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more <a href="https://www.riteintherain.com/no-195-birders-journal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">structured birder's journal</a> with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.</p><p>Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding</a>, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ebird/id988799279" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird app</a>.</p>
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard<p>Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.</p><p>Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/?pid=1142" target="_blank">seeds that will appeal to them</a>.</p><p>Beyond filling a birdfeeder, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/eco-friendly-lawn-2651194858.html" target="_self">transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis</a> is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.</p><p>While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster unlikely interactions between different species</a>, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cleaned to prevent the spread of infection</a>.</p>
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community<p>Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdersfund/" target="_blank">Black & Latinx Birders Fund</a>, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdability/" target="_blank">Birdability</a>, and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/feministbirdclub/" target="_blank">Feminist Bird Club</a> highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like <a href="https://www.instagram.com/hood__naturalist/" target="_blank">Corina Newsome</a> and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/tykeejames/" target="_blank">Tykee James</a>. The work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a>, <a href="https://camilledungy.com/publications/" target="_blank">Camille Dungy</a> (read her poem <a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58363/frequently-asked-questions-10" target="_blank">Frequently Asked Questions: 10</a>), and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start.</p><p>Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a> and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.</p>
9. Get Involved<p>To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a <a href="https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/" target="_blank">directory of birding festivals</a> across the country.</p><p>Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.</p><p>Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A <a href="https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees" target="_blank">2019 report released by the National Audubon Society</a> found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Protection Act</a> – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.</p><p><em>Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. </em><em>Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.</em></p>
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