Having spent a fair amount of brainpower and energy over the past month trying to convince right-leaning folks and libertarians that having three bureaucrats sit down and come up with a default ‘vanilla option’ checking account won’t be a first step on the road to serfdom, I’m somewhat confused by the wave of excitement among right-leaning folks and libertarians for having three bureaucrats sit down and come up with the optimal level of sulfur to be pumped into the stratosphere at the north and south poles.
I want to point out a comment from Will Wilkinson, in his “For More Responsible Climate Politics”:
Just suppose that some form of climate engineering could (1) do as much or more to slow or halt warming than could regulatory approaches (2) at a much lower cost while (3) posing no special problem of international coordination. Perhaps Avent has already made the case that some technology (or combination of technologies) meeting this description is less likely to emerge in the coming decades than an effective scheme of international carbon emission controls. If he has, I’ve missed it….
Of course, the probabilities aren’t independent of public opinion, which isn’t independent of our attempts to persuade. I sense that Avent believes that an increased awareness of and interest in climate engineering would come at the cost of public support for domestic climate legislation and international regulatory coordination. That is, I sense that he believes he is combating a danger to the prospects of his favored policy.
This argument cuts both ways though. If the government credibly signals that, past a certain point of carbon levels, it will start pumping sulphur into the stratosphere above the North pole, where is the incentive to come up with other technologies that combat global warming? Why wouldn’t that be a massive moral hazard, akin to a government ‘bailout’ of the environment?
I assume Ryan likes his plan because it involves giving people incentives to come up with new technologies to reduce carbon outputs. If the government decides to go with the plan that it will simply alter the stratosphere sunlight short-term rate in accordance with its projections of the carbon cycle (Go Team Bernanke!), why would anyone pay to reduce carbon? It would just have them have their prices undercut by those relying on the government to up the sulphur emissions to take in their costs. The smart innovative money would be coming up with technology to deal with the new sulphur problems, like tech to fight ocean acidification or ozone depletion.
My background reading
I’d recommend Graeme Wood’s excellent article at The Atlantic, as well as this Real Climate review of a geoengineering conference. There are two levels we talk about with climate engineering. One is carbon capture and sequestration, which I’ll call “air capture.” This is the “Building a Better Tree” style geoengineering. We grab carbon out of the air through some technology – bioengineered plankton blooms with iron sprinkles in the oceans, special tower vents, etc. We take that carbon and store it somewhere – underground, at the bottom of the ocean, etc. This will actually reduce carbon out of the air, and as long as we store it correctly (a big if!) it will reduce carbon in the atmosphere, fighting global warming.
“Air capture” is not what most people, especially economists that you are likely to read, are talking about. A typical report (Real Climate link above) will say something like: “air capture technologies do not appear as promising as solar radiation management from a technical or a cost perspective.” So what’s solar radiation management? This is the plan to inject sulfate aerosol precursors into the stratosphere at the North and South poles using tech like jet fighters, balloons, a hose if we can design it to deliever it – this report (“The Benefits, Risks, and Costs of Stratospheric Geoengineering”) is a good overview. This will block out the sun, in effect engineering a massive volcanic eruption, which would cool the Earth. So that’s a plus.
Minuses are the trade-offs to weigh against. Here’s a list of some negatives. We’d have that ozone depletion problem back on the table. We’d also be effecting wind and precipitation patterns; initial models suggest severe droughts in Asia and Africa. From The Atlantic piece:
But, as with nearly every geo-engineering plan, there are substantial drawbacks to the gas-the-planet [sulfate aerosol] strategy. Opponents say it might produce acid rain and decimate plant and fish life. Perhaps more disturbing, it’s likely to trigger radical shifts in the climate that would hit the globe unevenly. “Plausibly, 6 billion people would benefit and 1 billion would be hurt,” says Martin Bunzl, a Rutgers climate-change policy expert. The billion negatively affected would include many in Africa, who would, perversely, live in a climate even hotter and drier than before. In India, rainfall levels might severely decline; the monsoons rely on temperature differences between the Asian landmass and the ocean, and sulfur aerosols could diminish those differences substantially.
Ah, that old 6 billion up, 1 billion down problem. Seems hard to get around it. Like most government interventions, it would pick winners and it would pick losers – perhaps it can be negotiated, but I’m not necessarily sure how.
What if we want to change course?
But the biggest problem, you may have notice, is that we aren’t removing any carbon from the air in this strategy. Thought exercise: the carbon could be at a point where global temperatures would rise 5 degrees, but we’ve engineered the stratosphere to be 5 degrees cooler by putting sulfur in the stratosphere. So we are net neutral temperature. Things that are related to carbon in the atmosphere that aren’t temperature related, like ocean acidification, would continue to go crazy.
But now let’s then assume that the sulfur is causing too many side effects, and we want to shut it down. Then what happens? The sulfur rains out over the course of a short time period, say a year, and then the Earth heats up 5 degrees very, very quickly. No gradual increase over this time period; we have the same carbon amount as we had before. We haven’t lost any weight, we were just wearing bigger pants. That would be a nightmare situation, and as such even if the side-effects were terrible it would be difficult to “turn off” such a plan.
So given that there’s a moral hazard to the problem – once government agents commit to doing it, we alter any subsequent decision by private agents to invest in carbon removing technologies – and there’s a series path dependency with turning it on – once we start doing this it is incredibly dangerous to stop doing this – I wouldn’t treat the decision for the government to add this to our intellectual and global warming portfolio of options as trivial.