Geoengineering had its coming out party earlier this year when White House science adviser John Holdren told reporters that he had mentioned it to President Obama as a possible, admittedly desperate, option to combat climate change. Before then, the idea of hacking the planet was largely outside the realm of public discussion, which is why few people know that when Lyndon Johnson became the first president to be warned about global warming, his science advisers offered up geoengineering as the only possible solution.
This insistence upon the manipulation of nature as the answer to the climate problem is the subject of a new documentary called Owning the Weather, which chronicles attempts over the last century to unlock the planet’s most mysterious and intricate of systems for both personal and societal gain. Director Robert Greene makes the case that the large-scale, biosphere-altering effects of geoengineering can’t be understood without examining smaller scale weather modification, such as cloud seeding to produce rain.
The film begins its focus on this particular practice with the largely forgotten story of Charles Hatfield, who was hired by San Diego County in 1915 to end a four year drought. Within a month of Hatfield burning proprietary chemicals that he claimed would attract moisture, it had rained 35 inches, with 14 deaths tied to the inundation. Hatfield quickly left town and was never paid; the county decided the rain was an act of God, not Hatfield’s doing. He ended up spending the rest of his life selling sewing machines. Oddly, the film says, to this day the reservoir where Hatfield conducted his “work” still experiences rains during what should be the dry season.
A sense of mystery continues to pervade the different methods of weather modification. Not only is the practice completely baffling-the film shows farmers igniting what looks like a small gas flame that in turn burns purported cloud seeding agents-but the results are unpredictable at best. The film depicts several die-hard proponents of cloud seeding caught in a catch-22, where they are perceived as charlatans by almost everyone in the realm of science, but can’t seem to get the government funding to conduct research that could show that seeding works.