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.