Last on geoengineering

Some last thoughts to follow up on previous writing on geoengineering.

1) I want to link to this excellent writeup by Nate Silver, and this quote from “Dr. John Latham, a seventysomething British scientist employed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder”:

“The thing that has scared everyone I know working in geoengineering, and the thing that has caused a lot of very good scientists to say we shouldn’t have it is the worry that if it was announced that geoengineering was to be thoroughly examined, there would be a temptation on behalf of the oil companies to say, “Oh well, they’re going to solve the problem, we can keep burning fossil fuels”. Which is the last thing anyone wants. But then to not examine it would be irresponsible. If we reach that tipping point, we want to be in the position to be able to help out.”

This is in large part of what I meant earlier by “moral hazard”, and I do think it’s a serious issue. The government needs to have a mechanism to bind it to several approaches.

2) To re-iterate, because I see a lot of the discussion not touching this, we focus on the warming part of global warming because it is the most obvious feature of increasing the carbon in the atmosphere. But there’s a lot of other effects, both known and unknown, that won’t be touched by altering the stratosphere. One such scary issue is ocean acidification, which will increase with more carbon in the atmosphere.

3) The issue that geoengineering would make the poorest 1 billion worse off is very serious. One of the stronger arguments against fighting global warming is that it would cost too much, and those costs would fall on the poorest people in the world the most. It’s better to try and make the poor richer through growth so they can then fight global warming rather than make them poorer to take a chance of fighting global warming. Karl Smith had a moving take on this.

Geoengineering throws this out the window. The best evidence we have currently is a decline of monsoons for India (deadly to the point of famines) and a more dry Africa. Ironic, because in the short run global warming would have a more wet India (though the water may be too volatile to collect for drinking purposes). This changes the moral calculus for me drastically.

4) My heart and mind are always guided by sound financial engineering principles. When evaluating any “hedge” against a risk, it’s important to quantify the risks in unwinding that hedge. If a trader or analyst told me that unwinding a hedge would involve cataclysmic risks, I would probably think it isn’t that great of a hedge. Especially if the hedges involved unknown risks.

So the idea that unwinding geoengineering would be dangerous, regardless of how bad the side effects of the plan are, makes me think it is less of a hedge than it is normally.

5) For fun before the weekend starts, from comments:

“Moral hazard” is a very respected phrase. However the logic of the moral hazard argument is Leninist “The worse it is the better it is.” Now Leninist is not a nice word, but what exactly is the difference in the reasoning. Of course a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn and Lenin’s argument might be valid in this case.

Ha! My blog feels all grown up – this is my first “I’m not saying you are a Leninist, I’m just saying you are making arguments very similar to what Vladimir Ilyich Lenin would be making in this situation” comment.

And if you don’t mind me bragging, any random Jenny From The Block can be called a Liberal Fascist these days for not eating meat or thinking schools should encourage children to exercise or whatever. “Liberal Leninist” is a pretty sweet new term, and if it becomes the next best-selling book of conservative philosophy I just want it noted that I was at the vanguard (get it? ha!) of it.

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10 Responses to Last on geoengineering

  1. pushmedia1 says:

    So should geoengineering research be subsidized or not?

  2. Mike says:

    Sure. I’m not a scientist, nor funder outside of taxpayer, so I don’t know the optimal amount of funding, but from what I understand it is woefully underfunded, and as we’ll want to know more about it as the future unfolds let’s get it going. Practically, getting climate scientists involved, as opposed to the economists and political scientists and other social scientists who currently have taken the public sphere debate flag (see the Real Climate article in the previous article) would be helpful in getting realistic estimates of this.

    But research doesn’t take place in a vacuum; do you not see a potential for a moral hazard here?

    I’m more interested in the responsibility of the talking-head class, the class of people who deal with the dissemination of information to mass audiences who aren’t necessarily scientists. I think there’s way too much talk about this as a ‘free-lunch’, and it’s always important to get people to think in terms of tradeoffs.

    Also, general audience, fwiw, I dropped a tortured metaphor between climate and the underwater banks and the idea of ‘papering-over’ excess carbon in the atmosphere, keeping it unacknowledged through increasingly complicated means. You are all welcome.

  3. pushmedia1 says:

    The “moral hazard” problem (that’s a bad name for this issue, imho) isn’t a big issue. If people could be induced to voluntarily reduce carbon output then it might be an issue. They would see geoengineering as a reason not to change their behavior (b/c its a substitute to doing so).

    *economist hat on* You’re not going to get people to voluntarily change their behavior. They’ll need inducements. You’ll need to change the price of carbon or whatever. This can be done whether or not geoengineering is a substitute policy. *economist hat off*

    Now, do the politics change because of geoengineering? I don’t know… I don’t have the appropriate hat. My guess is “not much” because carbon pricing is a non-starter to begin with. I just don’t see how we’d get India and China to sign up to retard their economic growth rates.

  4. Mike says:

    Robert Waldmann, in the comment I linked to in #5, said that pushing on the geoengineering front would be a credible threat to India, which will be spun into a nightmare if we start this process, to get them to co-operate when it comes to carbon pricing. I think that’s true, regardless of whether or not we saber-rattle it.

    I too don’t have a good hat to know how that plays out – presumably there’s a story where they co-operate, and there’s a story where it gets ugly.

  5. pushmedia1 says:

    People should get DoD grants for their geoengineering research then!

  6. Skeptical Engineer says:

    Given how complex weather and climate is I don’t understand how people can think we can do some massive change to the atmosphere and think we understand the impacts it could have. As you say, if this is your hedge and your hedge has the possibility of severe catastrophic impacts – its not a good hedge.

  7. gabe says:

    I still have yet to see any climate scientist that supports geoengineering as a subsitute for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. (I would love to read one if anyone can find one).

    Geoengineering seems like a potentially cheap but very risky way to solve the problem, but it should be given some research funds along with renewable energies, etc. Maybe it should get the science-fictiony, high payoff, very-low-probability-of-success portion of the defense budget that currently goes to Star Wars…

  8. Pingback: Weekend Reading/Viewing Laundry List (10/23/09) « Chasing Fat Tails

  9. Oliver says:

    On point 3), which is well taken, it’s worth pointing out that though the spatial pattern of some geoengineering schemes (not, I think, all) does disadvantage some poor countries, the temporal pattern of emissions reduction, in which temperatures continue to rise throughout the century on all but the most extreme scenarios, also disadvantages some poor countries, as the brunt of the warming comes when they are still poor. Hybrid schemes such as Tom Wigley’s in which some sort of aerosol geoengineering buys time by slowing the warming and is then tapered out as reductions in CO2 kick in may have something to recommend it in this respect, and also speaks to point 4) about winding up. But it undoubtedly increases the moral hazard.

  10. I read somewhere that Lenin opposed geoengineering. I think you’re skating on thin ice here….

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