When news about Operation Popeye broke, public outrage came fast and furious. Leaders responded by quickly throwing together a treaty that supposedly banned the use of weather as a weapon. However, much like other instances where the U.S. government self-regulates, this move was symbolic and lacked teeth. The Popular Science article continues:
Environmental Modification Convention, the international treaty bars any action undertaken by military or otherwise hostile forces that could result in “earthquakes, tsunamis; an upset in the ecological balance of a region; changes in weather patterns (clouds, precipitation, cyclones of various types and tornadic storms); changes in climate patterns; changes in ocean currents; changes in the state of the ozone layer; and changes in the state of the ionosphere.” The convention is, in effect, so comprehensive it bans many forms of weather modification that, at least according to publicly-available knowledge, do not yet exist. While there’s an elaborate 12-step WikiHow for a tornado in a bottle, storms don’t appear to be that easy to create—or, for that matter, stop—in the real world. Cloud seeding, if and when it works, is successful only because it piggybacks on existing weather, rather than creating new storm fronts from scratch.
But Deborah Gordon, director of the energy and climate program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the convention is ultimately toothless. “You don’t even know where to look,” she says of current weather manipulation efforts. “There’s a lack of transparency in the research. We don’t even know what people are working on. You can’t govern something you can’t see. And that’s for peaceful applications.” Without the ability to measure these modifications, the Environmental Modification Convention or any other weather-related treaty is nearly impossible to enforce. “How will we know that there aren’t Operation Popeyes… going on or not?” she asks.
Given our inability to monitor these activities, there’s reason to be concerned that the United States or other nations could quietly violate the terms of the convention. But, Gordon says, the more pressing question is whether thousands of small-scale environmental modification projects already underway will eventually add up to global impact. “It didn’t matter [that there was no transparency], because there were so few projects,” Gordon says of the 20th century. But “in the last decade,” she says, “the uptick in experimentation in terms of climate engineering has not only picked up from the government’s point of view… it’s now picked up in the private space.”
In recent years, Gordon says, we’ve also seen the move beyond privately-led weather-altering schemes to climate-altering ones. Big corporations like Shell, as well as dozens of smaller startups like Carbon Engineering, have developed and begun to implement carbon capture technology. While these peacetime projects are all intended only to benefit the local community, they’ve become so widespread they could have an affect at a planetary scale. “If there’s enough local weather modification,” she asks, “at what point does that add up to more than the sum of its parts?”