James Rodger Fleming, meteorological historian

The history of climate change holds lessons for us, he says, including this: Trying to fix the weather might not be worth the headache. Interview by Sandra M. Chung

May 25, 2010

Photo courtesy of James Rodger Fleming / Kennebec Journal
James Rodger Fleming wants people to get real and adapt to climate change. A professor of science, technology and society at Colby College in Maine, he's also the founder and president of the International Commission on the History of Meteorology. Fleming wrote the seminal historical text on scientific and public thinking on climate, as well as a biography of Guy Stewart Callendar, who first proposed that rising atmospheric CO2 was related to global temperature. In November 2009, Fleming testified before the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology about the implications of large-scale geoengineering research.

Geoengineering, a set of still-theoretical technological fixes for climate change, has been gaining momentum in the popular, science, and policy press. The U.S. and U.K. governments are considering national support for large-scale climate experiments, including seeding clouds to deflect solar radiation, or fertilizing the oceans with iron to pump up the growth of algae that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.

At the February 2010 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego, Fleming opened one of three geoengineering symposia with a set of cautionary tales from the field's history. Climate change isn't merely a technical problem, Fleming says; it's a complex blend of social, cultural and technical factors that demands an interdisciplinary approach. His current focus is on coordinating an international effort among social scientists to bring their expertise to bear on upcoming climate policy decisions.

Fleming's next book, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, comes out in August 2010. His hobbies are camping and fishing, good barbecue, and building the community of historians of geoscience. SciCom's Sandra Chung caught up with him after his talk.

When did you get interested in the history of climate change?

In 1990. Jim Hansen [head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies] had just been in The New York Times and the Senate in 1988 telling everyone that global warming had begun. Yellowstone was on fire, and the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] had been founded. I was reading almost all the literature and I found it extremely repetitive. "CO2's rising, temperatures predicted to rise, we're gonna be in trouble." I thought there must be something more to the narrative than simply current concerns and future projections.

You weren't always a historian. You were a scientist first, yes?

I studied astronomy as an undergrad, and in my final year I discovered the great meteorology department at Penn State. I learned about micrometeorology and climate dynamics and earth systems. Then I went off to Colorado State University and did an atmospheric science degree and worked for a couple of years as an atmospheric researcher in a flight crew. We'd fly only when the weather was bad.

One time we were flying in cumulus clouds. Our glider was collecting cloud particles. In the evening the policemen came to our motel and said, you'd better come to the hangar because your glider has just been sabotaged with a molotov cocktail. Somebody had thrown a firebomb and burned the wing of the glider at the hangar because they thought we were cloud seeding. They thought we were stealing cloud water.

"Fighting global warming, battling climate change. The language is full of that kind of metaphor. A lot of technocrats and middle-aged males were deliberating this topic of weather control, a 'boys with their toys' thing."

That's not the first encounter you had with weapons and weather control.

When I was a student of atmospheric science, I became aware of weather control, but I wasn't convinced about its usefulness. There was a military guy, a corporal. He was trying to get his master's degree in atmospheric science as part of an Air Force rotation. His project was to shoot laser beams at clouds to see if he could make them get bigger and angrier. It never worked. But he had this mindset, well what do you do with a cloud? You shoot at it.

Fighting global warming, battling climate change. The language is full of that kind of metaphor. It's a war against poverty, a war against drugs. A lot of technocrats and middle-aged males were deliberating this topic of weather control, a "boys with their toys" thing. You could use rockets, you could use high-altitude military balloons.

You often characterize climate change policy as being a discussion among Western males. How would discussion be different if there were more international participants?

It's the difference between imagining what other people would think and actually asking them what they think. When you look at pushback from the developing world on processes like the IPCC, their agendas are really quite different from the northern Western agendas. In the case of the climate modeling that [Rutgers University atmospheric scientist] Alan Robock did on damaging the Indian monsoon, it would look quite different to people living in India than it would to people living in California who say, "Well if there's damage somewhere else, we'll try to make amends."

What do you think are some of the major flaws in mainstream discussions of climate change?

Giving too much attention to technical versus social issues. Social scientists don't have the same level of funding. We don't understand how to do team research that well, or group grant writing.

Also, climate anxiety isn't new and it's not only in the West. What's missing is an international and intergenerational and interdisciplinary approach. It's not, "Let's have a woman from a developing country speak now after twelve men have spoken," but to have a real kind of world conference. Maybe it would be electronic so we wouldn't have to fly around all the time.

What's the political status of geoengineering? Are any national governments seriously considering geoengineering measures?

The country is poised at a very important moment right now. The [U.S.] House Science Committee, the U.K. House of Commons, and the Royal Society of London are pursuing this. Maybe it's a cold day in summer, the pool just opened, you're tiptoeing out to the end of the board and you're trying to get up the courage to jump over. They're getting their toes near the end of the diving board.

I don't think science policy is truly a rational, calculated thing. I think it depends on who gets whose ear and who thinks it's politically supportable. [U.S. Energy Secretary] Steven Chu talked about white roofs to reflect sunlight without really understanding the dynamics of having white everything all the time. In the wintertime, you might want the roofs to be more absorptive and allow the buildings to be heated more efficiently. White and cooling fits the bulk idea of the earth warming, but it doesn't fit the local situation. It just seems a very crude, very first-order suggestion.

Jerry Elwood of the U.S. Department of Energy said the [George W.] Bush administration had discussed geoengineering, but tabled the idea because they thought it would give the impression of trying to get out of international efforts to reduce emissions.

If they had gone out in public in favor of geoengineering, they would have said climate change is happening, it's a real concern and we can fix it. But the first two statements would not be part of their policy portfolio.

Do you agree with Rutgers University philosopher Martin Bunzl when he says that geoengineers don't have a good handle on the international political implications of what they're suggesting?

I think he was right on that. When we were technically trained, we were trying to get more quantum mechanics and less elective courses in social science. Then people turn and they try to become policy people without any training. We become technical experts and policy amateurs, and then we let our technical panels move forward.

What are the chances that a large-scale geoengineering experiment will actually move forward?

I can imagine a rogue nation or the Chinese or Bill Gates funding something that would go forward. I thought about an event like Starfish Prime that actually did go forward without any announcement. [In July 1962, the U.S. Defense department and the Atomic Energy Commission detonated a 1.5-megaton hydrogen bomb 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean to create an artificial version of the Van Allen radiation belt, a diffuse band of charged particles reined in by Earth's magnetic field.] It was meant not for scientific research per se but as a shield against Russian shenanigans, to disrupt radio communications. It knocked out a bunch of satellites and prevented James Van Allen from studying the naturally occurring radiation belts he'd just discovered.

Why isn't geoengineering experimentation a good idea?

I told Congress that instead of giving special money to geoengineers to go outdoors and experiment, I think what's needed is better understanding of basic atmospheric processes, rather than trying to control it or intervene in it. If you did move a hurricane on purpose, the whole path would be a litigious path. Anybody that got hurt would have a lawsuit because somebody did it to them. You'd have just a hell of a mess and it would all come out in specific legal cases against geoengineers for damages downstream.

Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira says that even if we drastically reduce emissions now, we're still going to be in a pickle if we don't figure out how to get rid of the carbon dioxide that's already built up in our atmosphere.

The geoengineers work on the premise that climate change is happening quickly and it's very dangerous. They say that reducing emissions is not going to be enough, it's going to be too slow.

Are those valid conclusions?

I haven't been convinced by the projections yet to be alarmed. Mike Hume, who is the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in the U.K, thinks that a lot of the worst-case scenarios are projections of the future based on models with no change in human behavior. Take the French heat wave [which killed 14,800 people in 2003]. The French didn't have air conditioners in older people's apartments. But there was another heat wave a few years after that. People by that time had bought air conditioners and the city had taken some action. Social learning and adaptation might catch up with some of the worst projections.

[French sociologist] Bruno Latour, at a conference in England, said, "Well I guess we're all Dutch now." We have to think about setbacks from the coast, if the sea is coming and it's a force of nature.

Why are we ignoring adaptation?

It's saying like we are a dumb species and we're just gonna have the tidal wave crash across the Statue of Liberty someday. It's not coming at that pace. It's fast, but human change and the change of technology happen faster than environmental change. I have a map of what Florida might have looked like 100,000 years ago. It was basically Orlando Island. This is the first time in human history that Florida's going to go away but there's gonna be condos on the beach.

Our species has been around through one full Ice Age cycle, 100,000 years or so, and we've had something like a 12ºF temperature change in our species history. There have been events like the Younger Dryas [12,000 years ago], when things changed very quickly and tribes had to migrate or change. Some of those tribal gatherings under cold conditions were really like the first IPCC. They said, what are we going to do? What's our policy options here? Do we get more fuel? Do we get better furs? Do we move south? They had to deliberate, and humans are going to have to do that again.

How do geoengineering proponents respond to your views?

They appreciate my role, ‘cause if there's an overinflated balloon in the room, I'm deflating it. I'm kind of a prick, in that sense.

Sandra M. Chung, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned her bachelor's degrees in biology and brain and cognitive science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her master's in public health in environmental sciences and engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked as a reporting intern at the Salinas Californian, the SETI Institute's "Are We Alone?" radio program, and the Stanford University School of Medicine (multimedia). She will spend six months as a science writing fellow at the Idaho National Laboratory.

© 2010 Sandra M. Chung