Université de Strasbourg

Fellows Seminar - Cold War climate engineering

December 10, 2020
From 15:30 until 17:00
Salle de Table ronde, MISHA

By Matthias Dörries, 2018 Fellow

Climate engineering, the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s climate, is currently in vogue. A recent New York Times article listed numerous, generously funded, projects that explore various techniques of reducing the Earth’s surface temperatures on a global scale. Scientific research on climate engineering has expanded ever since atmospheric scientist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen appealed to the scientific community in 2006 to consider technical solutions to the policy problem of global warming. Crutzen’s call broke a taboo within the scientific community, which from the 1970s had mostly avoided addressing topics of large-scale geoengineering.

So what made Crutzen’s appeal reasonable again? To better understand this turnabout, I propose to go back to the Cold War years of the 1950s and 1960s, when scientists proposed numerous large-scale engineering projects, including creating artificial harbours using H-bombs, nuclear bombing of the moon, and the manipulation of climate over enemy territory. What fueled scientists’ speculative enthusiasm during the postwar decades and led them from the safe ground of what might be regarded as solid scientific inquiry? Why were these speculative scenarios, sketched out by leading scientific minds, considered reasonable scientific projects? My talk will discuss a history of scientific rationality deeply embedded in Cold War culture and mindset. Returning to the Cold War context provides insights into the current enthusiasm for climate engineering projects.


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