by Judith Curry
With efforts to halt climate change on life support, scientists are looking at some radical options to save our planet. But could the cure be worse than the disease? – Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman
Foreign Policy article
Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman have a provocative article in Foreign Policy entitled Playing God. Some excerpts:
All seven billion of us human beings are “free riders” on a planet that is heating up. We put billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, and largely aren’t required to pay for the privilege. There’s too little incentive to stop polluting.
“Free riding” also plagues relations between countries. Some, like the European Union have a cap or tax on carbon pollution. Most are still waiting on the sidelines. Why should any single country cut its carbon emissions when it knows that its reductions will only be a drop in the bucket toward solving climate change — and other nations aren’t asking their citizens to pay their fair share?
“Free riders” are only half the problem. “Free drivers” may be as important. The allure of geoengineering derives from the simple fact that – given what little we know about it at the moment – it appears to be a comparatively cheap way to combat climate change. And it doesn’t take a global agreement to act. It takes one actor – one country – in the driver’s seat.
That’s what makes the “free driver” effect so powerful. Geoengineering is seductively cheap, and it doesn’t take the collective will of billions of people – or policies guiding those billions – to have a major effect. Anyone capable of flying a fleet of planes at high altitudes could conceivably have a go at altering the planet’s atmosphere, and do so at a fraction of the cost of decreasing carbon dioxide pollution. But here’s the catch: Nobody knows the costs of potential unknown and sometimes unknowable side effects, and there could be grave political and legal repercussions when someone starts playing God with the climate.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that pumping one pollutant into the atmosphere in an attempt to offset the effects of another could backfire. It may also be impossible to demonstrate which adverse climate events were caused by which single geoengineering intervention. That throws a wrench into the traditional research model: It’s one thing to study the effects of a past volcanic eruption or to fiddle in a lab with self-contained experiments. It’s quite another to devise an experiment that could be conducted in the real world. It would be all too easy to blur the line between experiment and deployment. That and many other questions need to be answered, lest we enter wholly unchartered territory when it comes to playing with the atmosphere of our shared home.
Talk of geoengineering inevitably leads to the question of “moral hazard.” Will the exploration of these technologies lull humanity into thinking that it need not act responsibly and cut carbon emissions? Perhaps. Seat belt laws may make some drivers feel so safe that they drive more recklessly. Still, that is hardly an argument against those laws.
The worst we can do is fall into the trap of thinking geoengineering is a panacea to our climate change problem. While its initial costs may be seductively low, no one knows the unintended consequences of trying to alter the planet’s atmosphere. Just as it seems to cost almost nothing to emit carbon – leading all of us to emit more than we ought to – geoengineering may appear cheap at first, only to leave humanity and nature to foot a much larger bill later on. “Free riding” turns out not to be cheap after all. “Free driving” may face the same conclusion.
The fact that climate change’s effects are distributed unevenly around the globe may also lead some nations to experiment with geoengineering on their own. All it takes is a single actor willing to focus on the purported benefits to his country or her region to pull the geoengineering trigger. The task with geoengineering is to coordinate international inaction while the international community considers what steps should be taken. The fate of the planet cannot be left in the hands of one leader, one nation, one billionaire.
“Free riding” and “free driving” occupy opposite poles of the spectrum of climate action: One ensures that individuals won’t supply enough of a public good. The other creates an incentive to engage in potentially reckless geoengineering and supply a global bad. It’s tough to say which one is more dangerous. Together, these powerful forces could push the globe to the brink.
OilPrice has an article entitled How Far Should We Go To Battle Climate Change? The article reminds us of examples of unintended consequences of human engineering of natural systems:
- Rabbits were deliberately introduced to Australia, but years later a fence had to be built across the whole continent to keep them at bay, and when that didn’t work diseases were released to try and cull the overwhelming population.
- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent one century straightening waterways to make them more navigable, and the next century putting them back the way they were to prevent flooding.
- The European wild boar was intentionally introduced into California for sport hunting, only to become an agricultural pest that farmers pay now hunters to remove from their vineyards.
- • Salt cedar and tamarisk were deliberately planted by early environmentalists in order to help reduce erosion, and are now being laboriously hand-removed by a new generation of environmentalists to restore the native habitat.
- Suppression of small fires in national forests both interrupts the life cycle of fire-dependent species and leads to mega wildfires that destroy instead of restore.
- Scientists trying to study the effects on animals of a nuclear war under laboratory conditions created killer bees, which escaped and have proven impossible to fully exterminate.
- Westerners put in charge of environmental preservation on the island of Komodo forbade the natives from practicing a religious custom of feeding the Komodo Dragons, resulting in the hungry dragons eating people.
The Gilded Age of Weather Modification
American Heritage has a fascinating article entitled Part III What can we do about it? (I can’t find the first two parts). The subtitle is: For more than 200 years, Americans have tried to change the weather by starting fires, setting off explosions, cutting trees, even planning to divert the Gulf Stream. The question now is not how to do it, but whether to do it at all.
The article provides fascinating historical anecdotes, here are a few:
RAIN MADE TO ORDER: PRELIMINARY EXPERIMENTS IN TEXAS PROVE SUCCESSFUL . The headline might be yesterday’s, but in fact it appeared in August 1891. At that time, an expedition funded by Congress was traveling through the drought-stricken Southwest trying to make rain by aerial explosions. Its early reports exuded optimism, as though the United States, its land frontier erased, had now begun the taming of the weather.
Once a week, [Espy] proposed, let a string of small timber lots, stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf along the Western frontier, be set ablaze. On that chosen day, each week, a long line of rain showers would be formed and would make its way eastward across the states, until it broke over the Atlantic. The passage of this curtain would wring the moisture from the air, and the rest of the week would be clear. The plan, said Espy, would banish all the inconveniences of the fickle weather: drought, floods, “oppressive heats” and “injurious colds,” hail, tornadoes, and “violent wind.” It could be done at a cost of half a cent per citizen per year.
The most widely publicized proposal for climate modification followed a major disaster, the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912. (One of the victims was John Jacob Astor; only in his fictional world had icebergs been banished from the seas.) In September a New York engineer named Carroll Livingston Riker proposed that the government should construct a jetty across the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, blocking the southerly flow of the cold Labrador Current and allowing the Gulf Stream to proceed with its full force into the Arctic. The expected results would more than justify the price tag of two hundred million dollars: the ice of Greenland and the Arctic would melt, fogs be banished from the coast, and the northern lands of America and Europe be made not only habitable but pleasant.
JC comments: In the 1970’s as a student, I had courses in weather modification (cloud seeding) and inadvertent weather modification (pollution, urban heat islands, etc). Cloud seeding is an excellent example of the challenges of producing the desired effect and of documenting that your action had some causative component (it aint easy). The unintended consequences (e.g. downstream droughts or floods) introduce a legal nightmare into such activities. The fundamental challenge is that even now, there are many things we still don’t understand at a quantitative-predictive level about basic cloud microphysics and its interplay with cloud dynamics in producing precipitation.
While I don’t object so much in principle to carbon sequestration, I view modification via atmospheric particulates to be potentially Frankenstein stuff, with possibly horrible unintended consequences. The free driver issue is a substantial and growing concern.
I’m in favor of research into geoengineering options; this provides a practical focus for learning more about how our atmosphere and climate system works, and its useful to have these options in the back of our mind to counter other policy options that are potentially worse. But the line between research and implementation is fuzzy if actual experiments are undertaken in the atmosphere.
And finally, I suspect that 100 years from now, at least some of our geoengineering ideas will look as silly (or dangerous or ineffective) as the 1912 plans to modify the Gulf Stream.