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This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.
he perceived color of the sky is determined by three interrelated factors: sunlight composed of many different wavelengths, molecules in the earth’s atmosphere that scatter light, and the sensitivity of the human eye. Conventional wisdom holds that the characteristics of sunlight and the atmosphere are an immutable fact of nature. However, China’s government has engaged in a campaign that seeks to control local meteorological conditions to produce blue skies on command, a phenomenon referred to here as “blueskying.”
Blueskying implies the intentional clearing of smog to ensure blue sky conditions, particularly for important events which provide international prestige. In recent years, China has developed a strong desire to host global mega events as a way to showcase the results of the country’s dramatic economic reforms. During such events, China has the responsibility for safeguarding the health and wellbeing of its international guests, which includes keeping them safe from China’s rampant industrial pollution. For instance, guests are shielded from water pollution through a constant supply of bottled water. However, protecting these guests from China’s notoriously poor urban air quality presents a different challenge, and local residents frequently remark on how the air quality in their cities miraculously improves when a high-level foreign delegation arrives. The striking blue skies that accompanied the 2014 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Beijing were locally referred to as ”APEC Blue,” a phenomenon arranged partly through rearranging industrial and commercial schedules, including the temporary closure of polluting factories and construction sites, encouraging residents to stay off the streets or to leave town entirely, and additional restrictions on personal and commercial vehicle use. Such social engineering measures were also used to ensure the Beijing’s 2015 “Parade Blue”, Ningbo’s 2016 “G20 Blue”, and Beijing’s 2018 “One Road One Belt Blue”.
A second measure involves active weather modification through aggressive cloud seeding prior to mega events to ensure clear skies during the event itself (Chien et al. 2017). While cloud seeding is widely used for commercial or agricultural purposes around the world, China is seemingly unique in using weather modification for propaganda purposes. The most famous example was prior to the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games.This use of weather modification to ensure good weather can be traced back to 1984, when China’s Air Force organized a team to “produce” good weather for the National Day Parade in Beijing. In addition to the central government, this kind of weather modification is also practiced by local governments, for events including the 2000 Henan Chrysanthemum Festival, a 2004 event marking the administrative upgrade of Ulanqab in Inner Mongolia, the 2008 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ningxia Autonomous Region, the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, and the 2014 Summer Youth Olympics in Nanjing. In fact, the China Meteorological Bureau has institutionalized Blueskying for outdoor events, having published an official document to standardize the workflow for such event-based meteorological services.
Politics of Blueskying
This blueskying phenomenon provides an opportunity to analyze the relationship between the state, society and nature from the lens of volume (Elden 2013). First, it is increasingly clear that in state hands, blueskying is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, China clearly demonstrates it has the capacity to tame the weather to meet its propaganda needs, and blueskying is thus a tool for ensuring the government’s global legitimacy (Adey 2014). On the other, the sudden improvement in weather and air quality conditions coinciding with the arrival of international dignitaries is seen cynically by local citizens as an indication of their relative worth in the government’s eyes, thus likely damaging the government’s domestic legitimacy.Second, the practice of blueskying asks us to reconsider concepts of ownership and sovereignty. For example, weather modification has created disputes over who owns the airborne water resources used in cloud seeding. These disputes can take place within countries, such as a lawsuit between adjacent counties in Henan province, or even between two countries, with Iran and India complaining that their cloud resources had respectively been hijacked by Israel and China. In addition, a social outcome is that bluesky practices are not equitable to the rich and the poor. A bluesky “performance” during the 2017 winter in Beijing required nearby towns to temporarily switch from coal to gas for cooking and heating. Some middle-class communities experienced limited impact as they were already connected with existing gas infrastructure. However, underdeveloped outskirts ended up with neither coal nor gas as the gas supply was not built up yet, leaving poor residents to sleep in in minus 6 degree Celsius weather overnight. The poor suffer more than the rich in order for both to enjoy the same created bluesky. Finally, blueskying presents a new ideology that rain and even the sky’s color are subject to human (i.e. state) control (Chien et al. 2017). Prior to blueskying, human control over nature was limited to “territorial” activities (e.g., the domestication of livestock and agriculture), rather than “volumetric” activities. Today, United Nations proposals for addressing the growing climate change crisis are limited to solutions that focus on mitigation or adaptation to extreme weather challenges. In contrast, blueskying presents a pioneering concept of aggressive weather-taming through temporal restructuring and weather modifications practices. In other words, blueskying can be seen as realization of a small scale geo-engineering exercise. In recent years, there has been a rise of the controversial geo-engineering idea that humans can (and should) deliberately intervene in the earth’s climate system at a planetary scale, in practices such as solar radiation management and green gas removal (Dalby 2015). Yet, in western European democracies, geo-engineering projects have only been attempted in computer models or laboratory tests, because both the public and scientific community have faced difficulties in reaching a consensus around conducting outdoor experiments (Stilgoe 2015). On the contrary, China, with its political will and technological capability, and operating in an authoritarian context (e.g. through the limited freedom of media and civil society), may well be a pioneer in turning these controversial geo-engineering ideas into reality. The case of blueyskying is a reminder that more preparation is urgently needed to face the age of geoengineering that will come much sooner than expected.