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COULD TERRORISTS WEAPONIZE GEOENGINEERING TECHNOLOGY?

Richard Catherina, Emergency Management, Health, and Hazards (EMH2) Team

Week of Monday, May 10, 2021


Diagram of Solar Radiation Management[1]


Terrorists in the next 10-15 years may weaponize geoengineering technology to create food and economic insecurity. Climate change could force governments to use geoengineering to prevent the potential effects of climate change without lowering emissions. This technology that can mitigate climate change’s effects could also be exploited by terrorist groups for agroterrorism. If geoengineering technology were to fall into the hands of terrorists, it could be used to affect the environment from which humans obtain necessary resources. Action needs to be taken now to get ahead of this threat.


Rising global temperatures are continuing to drive climate change and governments need to take action. While unveiling the World Meteorological Association’s State of the Global Climate 2020 report, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stated in a press conference that by 2050, all countries need to reach net-zero emissions.[2] Some countries will likely take increased precautions to lower emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide (CO2). If efforts to lower GHG emissions are initially unsuccessful or ineffective, countries will likely begin to consider alternative ways to mitigate climate change. One way to stop rising temperatures would be through geoengineering, the concept of using technological and scientific innovations to mitigate the effects of climate change without lowering GHG emissions. Geoengineering methods generally fall into two categories: CO2 removal, the process of actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere, and solar radiation management, which lowers the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface.[3] Some examples of geoengineering techniques include ocean fertilization (OF), a form of carbon capture, and stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), a form of solar radiation management.[4] Both of these techniques have the potential to mitigate the harmful effects of GHG emissions without lowering them, making them viable alternatives for confronting climate change.


While geoengineering technologies do have benefits, they also have associated ecological risks with their use. OF involves dumping nutrients such as iron dust into the ocean, which can create plankton blooms that absorb CO2. Blooms can use up other nutrients such as nitrates, phosphates, and silica from nearby waters.[5] This could result in fewer plankton growing in nearby waters, which could have a detrimental impact on the food chain, shrinking fish populations. If these populations are a source of food, a decrease in fish could increase food and economic insecurity by harming the local fishing industry and depleting food supplies.


SAI can protect the planet from getting warmer by injecting materials, such as sulfur dioxide, into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight. While this would cool the Earth’s surface, it could also prevent crops from getting enough sunlight. If crops do not get enough sunlight, they could fail, increasing food insecurity. It is unknown whether SAI could be targeted to specific regions, or whether targeted SAI injections could be dispersed to unintended regions by weather patterns, reflecting sunlight away from much more of the world than originally intended.[6] Regions where SAI particles traveled to may see their crops not get enough sunlight, diminishing crop yields. Additionally, it can cause ozone depletion, which increases ultraviolet radiation exposure.[7] If sulfur dioxide was used, an injection could deplete the ozone in these areas, increasing ultraviolet radiation exposure. This could negatively impact the health of people living in these regions.


There has been discussion of governance regarding geoengineering and ensuring that accidental damage is minimized.[8] Much of this discussion is purely theoretical due to our limited understanding of geoengineering’s potential negative effects. The impact of using geoengineering technologies has only been analyzed through scientific models that have been able to show potential detrimental effects on the environment and human beings. The possibility of using geoengineering to produce harmful effects suggests that the technology can be used for agroterrorism.


A terrorist group could eventually use geoengineering technology to impact food and economic security in a country. By dumping large amounts of iron dust into a specific location, they could create a plankton bloom to use up nutrients from nearby waters. This could cause downstream effects on the food chain, leading to diminished fish populations.[9] If a country’s fisheries were a crucial component to its food or economic security, smaller fish populations could drive human insecurity. Additionally, if targeted stratospheric injections are possible, terrorists could use a targeted injection to prevent a region from getting enough sunlight. A decrease in sunlight could be large enough to affect crop yields.[10] In countries whose economies depend on agriculture, diminished crop yields could drive economic insecurity, as well as food insecurity if the country depends on the agricultural sector for its food supply.


A terrorist group’s use of geoengineering technology would be unlikely to produce a backlash from the affected population. Since there are short-term variations in weather and ecological conditions, it would be difficult to conclude that geoengineering was the direct cause. The only way to confirm this would be to detect the use of OF or SAI.[11] Without an explicit public backlash harming their support, terrorists could take advantage of insecurity to recruit individuals in the targeted region. For individuals who lost their jobs, joining a terrorist group could provide a source of income. If terrorists provided food, they could gain legitimacy among food insecure individuals. Destroying or stealing stockpiled food supplies could create a limited supply to put pressure on the government.


This scenario is dependent on the assumption that terrorist groups have the capability and intent to use geoengineering technology for agroterrorism. Terrorists would have to be able to acquire enough resources to buy the technology, the materials, and a dispersal mechanism. It would be possible for a group to buy enough of the resources, especially if they had financial backing from a state actor.[12] If a state actor is willing to risk the possible international repercussions of getting caught, they might provide backing to terrorists. Whether this backing is used to acquire geoengineering technology will depend on terrorist groups’ assessment of geoengineering technology’s potential as a weapon.


There is currently no evidence that terrorists have any intent to use geoengineering technology for harm. This is likely due to the limited knowledge about its harmful effects. While terrorists could have enough resources to use geoengineering technology, money spent pursuing it could alternatively be spent on firearms or anything else they might value. There is less uncertainty in the functionality of other goods they could purchase, so terrorist groups will likely stick to acquiring them instead of experimenting with geoengineering technology, at least in the near term. The EMH2 team assesses there is almost no chance that terrorists will use geoengineering technology as a weapon within the next year.


As more research is conducted on geoengineering, there will be a greater possibility that military applications may be studied by countries interested in using them.[13] Terrorists may have an increased interest if research on geoengineering technology reveals possible harmful effects and that the technology could be effectively targeted. The EMH2 team predicts that if this technology can be used for targeted destructive applications, there is a roughly even chance that terrorist groups will pursue its use as a weapon.


It is also possible that research will show that geoengineering is too unpredictable. Terrorists who are looking to engage in environmental modification for hostile purposes may consider using weather modification technology, such as the “artificial rain enhancement rockets” that China has developed, as an alternative.[14] Weather modification technology could be used to induce large amounts of rainfall to cause property damage and endanger lives. Damage from increased rains could also increase economic insecurity and unrest, and give terrorist groups leverage. We assess that the choice of using weather modification technology or geoengineering technology as a weapon would be determinant of each technology’s effectiveness, cost, and availability.


Governments have not taken much individual action on the regulation of geoengineering technology or its possible uses. Currently, there is no federal body in the United States (USA) regulating the sale or use of geoengineering technology.[15] Because individual countries have not regulated this technology, the capability and intent are the only factors limiting a terrorist group’s acquisition. If the technology’s harmful effects were bad enough, and the cost was low enough, terrorist groups would have an incentive to purchase it, and could easily do so due to lack of regulation. However, there are some regulations at the international level that could apply to geoengineering technology. The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD Treaty) bans the use of environmental modification for military purposes.[16] This could cover the use of geoengineering technology, but non-state actors (NSAs) would not be impacted. Some believe that the weaponization of geoengineering technology is possible, and suggest using nuclear security frameworks to govern the technology.[17] Others believe that the potential for geoengineering technology being used as a weapon is vastly overstated.[18] Both perspectives bring up good points, however much of the discussion focuses on use by state actors. The possibility of NSAs using geoengineering technology is not addressed. NSAs would likely be less worried about harming people outside of the targeted region than state actors. This increases the likelihood that NSAs would use geoengineering technology as a weapon even if the harmful effects could not be contained. This should be considered by governments when creating regulations.


Regulatory bodies could be similar to the United States Bureau of Industry and Security which regulates exports of certain goods.[19] If governments decide that the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change is to use geoengineering technology, and this technology has applications in warfare, they will need to set up regulatory bodies. Governments will need to think of the technology as dual-use, similar to nuclear technology.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends commissioning studies on the national security implications of geoengineering technologies, particularly regarding scenarios where the technology falls into the hands of terrorists. Studies on military applications of geoengineering technology should be highly classified to avoid giving terrorists potential ideas. We also recommend researching defense capabilities to ensure food security for areas that could be impacted by agroterrorism via geoengineering. CTG also recommends the creation of government bodies to regulate the sale and export of geoengineering technologies. Finally, CTG recommends cooperation across countries to mitigate the proliferation of potentially dangerous geoengineering technologies.


All of these actions are dependent on the necessity of geoengineering technology being used to avert the effects of climate change. Agencies, organizations, and companies (AOCs) should do everything they can to lower GHG emissions. If humanity can get a handle on GHG emissions, this question may not have to be explored.


CTG works to detect, deter, and defeat terrorism around the world by analyzing worldwide data, searching for hidden information, developing knowledge, and providing solutions. EMH2 works to mitigate the negative impacts of emergencies, health threats, global hazards, and related terrorist activity. It is not impossible that terrorist organizations over the next 10-15 years could use geoengineering technology for their purposes. The EMH2 team will continue to monitor the research and technological developments in geoengineering technology to analyze whether its use as a weapon will become more likely in the future.


__________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]SPICE SRM overview” by Hugh Hunt, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

[2] World on the verge of climate crisis ‘abyss’, warns UN, Al Jazeera, April 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/19/world-on-the-verge-of-climate-crisis-abyss-warns-un

[3] Geoengineering: How It Works and How It Can Help Fight Climate Change, Green Matters, May 2021, https://www.greenmatters.com/p/geoengineering-examples

[4] Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering, ETC Group, n.d. https://www.cbd.int/doc/emerging-issues/etcgroup-geopiracy-2011-013-en.pdf

[5] Fertilizing the Ocean with Iron, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, November 2007, https://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/fertilizing-the-ocean-with-iron/

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Going rogue? Scenarios for unilateral geoengineering,” Futures, 2016, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016328716300775

[8] Engineering the Climate—or Deploying Disaster? Applying Just War Theory to Geoengineering, New Security Beat, June 2018, https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2018/06/engineering-climate-or-deploying-disaster-applying-war-theory-geoengineering/

[9] Fertilizing the Ocean with Iron, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, November 2007, https://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/fertilizing-the-ocean-with-iron/

[10] What is geoengineering—and why should you care?, MIT Technology Review, August 2019, https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/08/09/615/what-is-geoengineering-and-why-should-you-care-climate-change-harvard/

[11] “Going rogue? Scenarios for unilateral geoengineering,” Futures, 2016, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016328716300775

[12] Re-Engineering the Earth, The Atlantic, July/August 2009, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/07/re-engineering-the-earth/307552/

[13] Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering, ETC Group, n.d. https://www.cbd.int/doc/emerging-issues/etcgroup-geopiracy-2011-013-en.pdf

[14] Has China Mastered Weather Modification? Should We Worry?, Bloomberg, December 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-12-17/has-china-mastered-weather-modification-should-we-worry

[15] GEOENGINEERING: PARTS I, II, AND III, United States House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, November 2009, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-111hhrg53007/pdf/CHRG-111hhrg53007.pdf

[16] Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, U.S. State Department, n.d., https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/isn/4783.htm

[17] An Internationalism that Protects: Why We Need to Reboot the Baruch Plan for Geoengineering, Council on Foreign Relations, March 2021, https://www.cfr.org/blog/internationalism-protects-why-we-need-reboot-baruch-plan-geoengineering

[18] Can Solar Geoengineering Be Used as a Weapon?, Council on Foreign Relations, April 2021, https://www.cfr.org/blog/can-solar-geoengineering-be-used-weapon

[19] Economic Sanctions Policy and Implementation, United States Department of State, n.d., https://www.state.gov/economic-sanctions-policy-and-implementation/

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