Also check out Ryan Avent on Geoengineering – Part I and II. Fantastic stuff, and better put than my quick thoughts here.

1) I understand a broad portfolio of research and technologies are the best means to combat global warming. But just a first pass at what I’m hearing makes me think that this will be the Missile Defense Shield of my generation. Amazing super-duper technology that won’t be able to pass a highly massaged beta test, and do nothing but piss off other countries in the process.

I mean, as an engineering feat, shooting a disc to block out the sun is by an order of magnitude (engineers, give me an estimate?) more difficult than getting one missile to hit another missile. And we can’t get one missile to hit a missile. If we were on track, shouldn’t we be able to shoot them down with orbital lazers by now? Luckily government military research doesn’t need to hit real deadlines.

2) Joe Weisenthal thinks liberals are uncomfortable with geoengineering because it will distract from our agenda of destroying meat eaters who drive SUVs in rural areas of Western nations.

Actually my first reaction is that we’ll give billions to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon to develop a sun disc that won’t launch without doing any type of responsible due-diligence in advance to see if the project has any chance of working, because we have a fantastic track record of that as a nation.


But implicit in Joe’s critique is that if tomorrow, a joint announcement was made by the UN Security Council and Ben Bernanke that we’ve found an optimal amount of 18.72% of the sun needs to be blocked out, and we’ll start working on that tomorrow, I think Red America would be more mad than Blue America. By a wide margin. I mean, just the idea of black UN helicopters flying over Iowa gives people a bad feeling; imagine a public announcement that black copters would instead fly up to the stratosphere to dump toxic sulphur in order to protect the people of Bangladesh 85 years from now. How would that poll in Peoria?

3) But my biggest problem with geoengineering is the nature of the debate; geoengineering is fantastical, when it really should be boring. It is, as Yglesias points out, something like giving people a $100 tax credit to paint their roofs white. It is planting more trees in parking lots. It is not going to be something cool and dramatic and make the issue solved immediately – like a giant lazer.

All the big massive solutions, as opposed to the little marginal ones, even theoretically proposed have massive side effects – no free lunches! – and are, effectively, the equivalent of a weight loss plan that is solely “buy bigger pants.”

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4 Responses to Geoengineering

  1. mtraven says:

    Your point 1) is probably roughly right, but geoengineering is easier than missile defense, because you are not working against an opponent. Missles are trying to not get hit; whereas the orbit of the sun is completely predictable. So “a disk to block out the sun” would be easy to engineer; what is hard is predicting the efects of that or any other geoengineering product on the complex system of the earth’s climate.

  2. gabe says:

    I think the best way is to shoot our Star Wars space lasers directly into volcanoes to make them erupt.

  3. gabe says:

    At the very least, all these geoengineering proposals need to be tried out by the next Bond villians to freeze the earth. Something like Moonraker 2.

  4. gabe says:

    All joking aside, I think you and Avent are right on this one. A parallel is Mankiw’s constant posts on Pigovian taxes, and then total rejection of any actual attempts to implement them when it’s a democratic president or if it’s not in the perfect form they want it in. If only one of these republican Pigouvian economists could have had Bush’s ear in the Council of Economic Advisors……

    Instead of looking at policies that might actually be practically implemented to solve real world problems, you want to support something like a giant tube to avoid having to deal with the fact that global warming is real and that conservation and taxation will probably have to be a big part of the solution. Look at shiny!

    Watch for the geoengineering to be popular among right-wing economists until an actual workable plan comes out. Then it will be called imperfect, fiscally irresponsible, more liberal pie in the sky ideas, etc. The point is to move the goalposts so you can support reasonable policies in the abstract while not having to support said policies in practice.

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