In the summer of 2008 the Chinese were worried about rain. They were set to host the Summer Olympics that year, and they wanted clear skies. Surely clear skies, they must have thought, would show the world that China had arrived. So they outfitted a small army (50,000 men) with artillery pieces and rocket launchers (over 10,000 of them) and proceeded to make war on the heavens. The idea was to “seed” clouds with silver iodide before they got to Beijing and rained on the Chinese parade. Or maybe the idea was to frighten the rain gods. Who knows? In any case, none of it worked: the massive, loud, and surely expensive operation had, according to most experts, no measurable effect on the weather around the Chinese capital.
You might say you can’t blame them for trying. But according to James Rodger Fleming, you can. In his incisive new book Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (Columbia UP, 2010), Fleming shows that although people have always dreamed of controlling the weather, and many have tried to do so, no one has ever succeeded. The reason is simple: the atmosphere of the Earth is not like your refrigerator or oven. It’s just too big and complex to be man-handled by any known or even realistically imagined technology. But, as Fleming demonstrates, there are always desperate people who refuse to accept this intuitive fact. So we are presented with a gallery of rain-making mountebanks, charlatans, and swindlers ever-ready to part rain-seeking fools and their rain-seeking money. In Fleming’s excellent telling, the story is entertaining though a bit sad. It’s sadder still that the weather-controlling con is still being run by seemingly well-intentioned people who claim they can “fix” global warming by means of some out-sized, outrageous, and out-of-this-world engineering scheme. Fleming, who both knows the science and has looked at the history, is more than dubious. The only way we can “fix” the sky is to leave it alone and hope for the best. It turns out, however, that leaving the sky alone is hard. It’s actually easier to attack it, proclaim victory, and continue as before. Just ask the Chinese.
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