Environmental War

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WORLDVIEW Magazine

March, 1975

U.S. Huey helicopter spraying Agent Orange over Vietnam. CREDIT: U.S. Army via Wikipedia (Public domain)

WORLDVIEW Magazine ran from 1958-85 and featured articles by political philosophers, scholars, churchmen, statesmen, and writers from across the political spectrum. Find the entire archive online here.

A few years after this article was written, the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), formally the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, opened for signature on 18 May 1977 in Geneva and entered into force on 5 October 1978. Nevertheless, environmental warfare remains a threat. Indeed, in the 1990s, Saddam Hussein (Iraq has not signed the Treaty) used environmental warfare against his own people, the Marsh Arabs.


The hurricanes which devastated Honduras and the floods which all but destroyed Bangladesh during the past year served as grim reminders of the arbitrary power of weather. Harnessing weather as a means of warfare would at one time have seemed unthinkable, a grotesque variation on chemical and biological warfare. But "weather war" has already been fought, and if current diplomatic and congressional efforts fail, weather may become a sophisticated weapon in future arsenals.

In January, 1974, former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird admitted that, despite past denials, the United States had in fact modified the weather in Vietnam during its active involvement in the war there. Between 1967 and 1972, $21.6 million was spent in cloud-seeding to cause rain, floods, and landslides to block off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Pentagon estimated that in some instances rainfall was 30 per cent above average.

Representative Gilbert Gude (R.-Md.), cosponsor with Representative Donald Fraser (D.­ Minn.) of a House resolution calling for a prohibition of weather modification as a means of warfare (a similar resolution passed the Senate in 1973), has noted that the U.S. is the world leader in weather modification research and, as such, should take the lead "in proposing a treaty to outlaw military application of this research." America, however, does not seem to be taking that lead. Noting the problems which arise when a nation practices weather war, Gude indicated that it was because of the Vietnam rainmaking that the U.S. weakened a statement on climate modification at the 1972 United Nations Stockholm conference on the environment.

The U.S. agreed to bilateral talks with the Soviet Union on weather and environmental modification during the U.S.-Soviet summit last July. But the language of the agreement was ambiguous: It called for discussion of the "most effective measures possible to overcome the dangers of the use of environmental modification techniques for military purposes." This implies, noted Dr. Edith Brown Weiss of the Brookings Institution, "that it is possible to use techniques of environmental modification for military purposes in an acceptable way."

A few months after the bilateral agreement the Soviet Union introduced a proposed draft convention that offered a much broader ban on environmental modification warfare at the U.N. General Assembly. It called for the "prohibition of actions to influence the environment and climate for military and other purposes incompatible with the maintenance of international security, human well-being and health." The General Assembly accepted the draft proposal and sent it to the U.N. disarmament committee for study by a vote of 126-0, with five abstentions, among which was the U.S.

State Department officials said the reason for the abstention was concern that a convention—as opposed to a declaration of principles or a series of bilateral agreements—might not be the best way to handle the issue. Another concern, officials said, was with definitions: Would fog dispersal to allow aircraft landings, for example, be prohibited? (Dr. Weiss answered this argument before the hearings on the House resolution: An agreement should "prohibit all applications of weather and climate modification for hostile purposes, and If an exception is deemed necessary, to very carefully limit it to the dispersal of fog to facilitate landings on one's own or an allied airfield or ship. This approach would ban; for example, the use of fog dispersal to facilitate the effectiveness of other weapons.")

The apparent American position becomes clearer If we separate the three closely related issues actually under discussion.

1. Weather modification: This Involves activity affecting the weather on a short-range basis. Fog dispersal or cloud-seeding to produce rain are the most obvious examples. The U.S. has taken no explicit stand against the use of such methods.

2. Climate modification: State Department officials have said the U.S. would never engage In climate modification as a means of warfare, but this involves still theoretical modification of the long-range weather situation of an area; this is different from short-range "weather war."

3. Environmental modification: This would involve altering other aspects of the environment in addition to the weather. One example would be the use of herbicides, also used by the U.S. In Vietnam.

Soviet U.N. Ambassador Malik described several more drastic, though largely theoretical, examples to the General Assembly:

  • Creating holes in the ozone layer of the atmosphere which filters out the sun's ultraviolet rays. All life in an area hit by such rays would be destroyed.
  • Creating acoustic fields on the sea to combat navies; infrasound, with a frequency below human hearing, can cause mental derangement.
  • Melting ice caps, causing floods and tidal waves.
  • Creating tidal waves by underwater explosions.

Opponents of all forms of weather, climate, or environmental modifications as a means of warfare make a staggering, if fairly obvious, case:

  • Environmental modification is uncontrollable and unpredictable.
  • It cannot separate military and civilian targets. "The use of weather modification," Gude notes, "is invariably indiscriminate."
  • Environmental modification can affect neutral nations which are neighbors to a nation under attack.
  • Environmental modification technique can be used clandestinely, so that a nation may not even know it is being attacked.
  • The possibility of undetected attack can feed national paranoia; a nation could be led to believe that any unusual weather pattern, for example, resulted from an enemy attack.
  • Environmental modification, like any other weapon, would spread to other nations once one nation used it.
  • Such modifications could affect the environmental balance and the production of crops in a world already facing a food crisis.
  • Long-range, permanent effects of environmental modification cannot be forecast.
  • The effects of such warfare cannot be stopped once a peace accord has been reached; its damage can continue long afterward.
  • As long as environmental modification can be used as a weapon, all legitimate peaceful research will be suspect. Gude said that in the 1974 fiscal year the U.S.—through the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Interior, Transportation, Agriculture, and the National Science Foundation—spent just under $20 million on weather modification research.

Environmental modification as a means of warfare is an area where the domino theory holds up. It's an easy step from cloud-seeding and herbicides to more subtle and crippling techniques. The U.S. has so far advanced no "national security" defense of such weapons. Yet it must be aware that this is an area where, because of the advanced state of U.S. technology, the U.S. Government looks suspect if it doesn't take the lead in protecting peace and the environment—or at least share that lead. The appearance of foot-dragging creates an image of a nation hedging on its stated moral ideals.

---Jim Castelli, Washington reporter for National Catholic News Service; former associate editor of National Catholic Reporter.