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Dubai’s fake rain offers hope that we can innovate our way out of the climate crisis

Cloud seeding is exactly the type of risk we must take. What is the alternative? Do nothing? Hope that politicians enforce worldwide laws to reduce the effects of the climate crisis? That moment has passed

Rupert Hawksley
Thursday 22 July 2021 14:11 BST
Artificially-induced rain falls in Dubai

When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, there are, broadly speaking, two opposing views: those who believe we must reduce emissions and reverse, as far as possible, the damage; and those who believe humans can innovate their way out of the crisis. “Druids” and “engineers” is the oft-used shorthand. In truth, we desperately need a combination of the two. We must continue to cut emissions as fast as possible, while also using all available technology to reduce the devastating human impact on the planet.

Nevertheless, the “engineers” will no doubt feel vindicated by the footage coming out of Dubai this week. At this time of year in the UAE, it is blisteringly hot, with temperatures regularly reaching 50C (and you thought Britain’s mini heatwave was bad). On average, just four inches of rain falls each year in the country. But heavy rain has nevertheless been drenching Dubai over the past few days. How? By cloud seeding.

It is an extremely complex procedure, which involves firing either electrical charge or chemicals, such as silver iodide, into the clouds. My colleague Bevan Hurley explains: “The project tries to get the water drops to merge and stick when they receive an electrical pulse, ‘like dry hair to a comb’.” Professor Maarten Ambaum, who has been working on cloud seeding, told the BBC: “When the drops merge and are big enough, they will fall as rain.”

The UAE is a punishingly hot country anyway, so it is unclear whether or not the temperatures recorded are linked to the climate crisis. But we do know that, elsewhere in the world, the effects of the climate crisis have now arrived. We were warned. Flooding in Europe and China; droughts in the Amazon; wildfires in California. Only the real crackpots – people like Trump and Bolsonaro – seriously deny that the climate crisis is real. Which is why we should welcome the UAE’s cloud seeding efforts.

I have become increasingly pessimistic about the “druid” approach. While there is a growing movement of people, particularly young people, who are demanding action, it seems to me that, for all the rhetoric, there simply isn’t the political appetite at the highest level to enforce the changes to our lifestyles needed to tackle the climate crisis. So we must adapt. If we can create rain, we must hope and believe that we can innovate more successful methods to capture carbon and lower temperatures.

There will be mistakes. Already people are warning of the dangers of playing God with the weather. There are concerns that, while cloud seeding increases precipitation, it is hard to control the rate at which it falls, which could lead to flooding.

Likewise, we still don’t yet know what effect the chemicals used in cloud seeding might have on agriculture. Titanium dioxide nanoparticles are often used in cloud seeding, for example, something which worries ecologist Marie Simonin. She told Wired magazine earlier this year: “Without more intensive research on titanium dioxide nanoparticles’ ecotoxicity, I would be concerned about a large-scale application like cloud seeding that would affect large surfaces, especially if they are agricultural zones.”

But these are the risks we must take. What is the alternative? Do nothing? Hope that politicians enforce worldwide laws to reduce the effects of the climate crisis? That moment has passed. It is time to be radical.

Rather than condemn the UAE for cloud seeding, we should applaud the ingenuity, accept that the process is fraught with worry, and then stand full square behind it. Let’s not stop cutting emissions – but accept that innovation caused the climate crisis. Now let innovation fix it.

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