Geoengineering Solution Or Fuel To The Fire?

From March 1967 to July 1972, the United States military carried out Operation Popeye during the Vietnam war. The operation used a type of geoengineering which “seeded” clouds that rained on the Laotian Panhandle. No, this is not a fictitious or dramatic scene from Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Rather an actual action that married the agile technology of its time to a government operation for just over 5 years.

Although Operation Popeye is one of the first widely talked about applications of geoengineering, the technology has been around for much longer. Working under different names, it has a recorded presence of over 7 decades. But as is the case with most cutting-edge technologies, it’s only in the last few decades that it left the government doors. Besides its application as a climate crisis mitigation tool in recent history, it is now being adopted into the programs of elite educational institutions as well as utilized by the corporate world to optimize business profits. In this article, we will briefly cover the two broad categories of geoengineering, its desirable outcomes, and the concerns over its implementation from an economic, environmental, geopolitical, and health standpoints with a particular focus in relation to developing countries.

Geoengineering is an umbrella term for the various types of technologies that are used to deliberately intervene with the Earth’s natural systems with the objective of counteracting the impacts of climate change. Although there are a number of techniques currently being used to fulfill this objective, they all fall under two broad approaches. The first is Carbon Geoengineering or Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR), which aims to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by mechanically trapping it. Solar Geoengineering or Solar Radiation Management (SRM) is the second approach. It focuses on increasing albedo, i.e. the reflectiveness of the clouds, to reflect the sun’s energy away from the stratosphere hence keeping the troposphere relatively cooler. This is the most widely used approach in our current time and it achieves its goal by injecting various types of chemicals, including acids and heavy metals such as aluminum, into the stratosphere. While both of these approaches have been demonstrated to be highly effective technological advancements, they are not entirely without cost. For the purpose of this read we will now focus on the SRM approach.

SRM, to say the least, goes against the very objective of geoengineering which is to mitigate the climate crisis. This technique of manipulating the climate of a given area causes a conundrum of adverse effects on the climate, economy, and health of the surrounding regions. Earth’s natural systems work in respect to each other and as the popular Amharic saying goes, “when you hit the nose, the eye cries.” Such is the case with these natural systems, there is not a single system in the entire world that functions individually and is not affected by its surrounding system. This, justly, was the major source of concern at the time of Operation Popeye in the 60s. Government scientists, and officials involved, made their educated and data-driven concerns known to the US government at the time.

The West, generally speaking, has the financial liberty to counteract the adverse effects by systematically implementing similar techniques in the affected areas as corrective measures. The hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars needed to conduct a single geoengineering experiment is easily affordable to most western countries, leaving them with the luxury of not experiencing an immediate economical threat. On the other hand, for developing countries, even when the costs are covered by various grant programs, the adverse effects pose undeniable and immediate economic danger. For instance, an SRM can cause flooding or disrupt the rain cycle thus causing dry seasons, or it can cause acid rain which destroys crops in a given region. This disruption to food production results in an immediate shortage which then causes fluctuation in the market that impacts the economy.

Unfortunately, this is not the only source of economical threat that is associated with the implementation of SRM technologies. For the last two or more decades, there have been several studies, including those adopted by the World Health Organization, that show the inevitable health threats such technologies are imposing on human health. According to the WHO, the pollution from acid particles that are used in SRM, specifically SO2, leads to more than 500,000 premature deaths annually. This study was from 2005 when there were much fewer SRM implementations worldwide and it does not include nonfatal health complications and hospitalizations, all of which ultimately affect the economy.

There is not a single doubt that geoengineering is an effective technology in producing rain or dissipating rain clouds as required. It does work. But we are also presented with thousands of data and multiple evidence showing the adverse effects and uncertainty of its long-term undesirable consequences. In 2022, we are still left with multiple pertinent questions and concerns that need further research and ought to be answered before continuing the liberal and large-scale implementation of SRM technologies.

Health and Ethical Concerns
What measures have been taken to reduce the premature death numbers and to increase the safety of such technologies? Multiple experts have stated that the long-term safety effects will not be known unless the technology is implemented at a large-scale, so is the recent widespread implementation of geoengineering an attempt to carry out such an experiment? With the WHO raising concerns as early as 2005, what does the current wide-ranging use of this technology imply about the ethics of these projects?

Environmental and Agricultural Concerns
How much disruption in food production is acceptable for developing countries? How much of the fast bee decline is due to SRM chemicals? When SRM causes adverse effects in the natural systems, how much of the current climate crisis is actually attributed to it? Could the recent snowfalls and extreme weather fluctuations in some parts of Ethiopia be due to the adverse effects of such manipulations? Have we exhausted all of the long-studied, proven, repeated, and cost efficient techniques and tools in resolving the climate crisis?

Peace Concerns
How well are developing countries, especially those coming out of war, prepared to deescalate potential geopolitical unrest that can arise due to SRM? Could the adverse effects of not having access to the technology stir-up unrest that can easily escalate into war? What risk management tools have we incorporated to resolve possible conflicts?

Preparedness Concerns
Do we have adaptation responses in place for areas that are already impacted? How well equipped are the hospitals in developing countries to treat patients during outbreaks? Do we have climate information services that are not only drafted by the West but are context-specific to developing countries?

Economic Concerns
Can developing countries afford to miss out on job production due to the sick days of workers’ with health complications from malaria, respiratory diseases, or even death as a result of the technology’s impact on health? How will the Ethiopian government afford such costly projects? And if the funding was granted, could such programs lead the country into more socioeconomic debt?

The widely implemented SRM technologies will continue to pose immediate and inevitable threats to integral aspects of society which will then severely affect the economies of developing countries. The question is, how much are we willing to trade-off for this technology in the presence of numerous concerns and potential adverse effects? Is it ethically sound and scientifically correct to continue the implementation of SRM technologies? Could the unilateral approach of geoengineering towards solving the rapidly escalating climate crisis bring sustainable change and a holistic solution to the issue at hand? Or would it bring more and multifaceted disaster to the developing world?

10th Year • Sep 2022 • No. 110


  • Tsega Tessema

    is an Independent Researcher and Educator with a research biology background. She works on projects that contribute to the betterment of the environment, health, and education. She can be reached at

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  • Tsega Tessema

    is an Independent Researcher and Educator with a research biology background. She works on projects that contribute to the betterment of the environment, health, and education. She can be reached at