If the Grass Looks Greener, It’s Important to Understand the Nature of the Fence

One of the things about politics is that solutions always seem easier to implement and more promising before they stand a real chance of being implemented. People who have for one reason or another fallen in love with the idea of a carbon tax watch the difficulty Congress is having negotiating a passable climate bill and ask why we don’t just pass a carbon tax. It would be so easy! It’s just a tax! Pass it, price carbon, and bada bing, you’re done.

But of course, a carbon tax looks like a clean, simple option at the moment because no one is invested in securing protections or advantages for themselves because a carbon tax isn’t on the table. The moment it looked as though Congress might actually consider and pass a carbon tax, every single interest that has pushed for free carbon credits or other assistance would take on the carbon tax, demanding exemptions or offsetting subsidies of some kind, and generally producing the exact same kind of mess for a carbon tax bill that we have now with a cap-and-trade bill.

It’s worth thinking about this when reading things by people supportive of geoengineering as a solution to the climate change problem. They tend to look at the difficulty the world has had putting in place a system that will succeed at reducing emissions, conclude that the world will fail at reducing emissions sufficiently, and argue that geoengineering is the only way forward.

Now, this is somewhat off base in that it ignores the progress that is actually being made on emission reductions, despite the scope of the problem. Europe is reducing emissions, America may well pass a climate bill within the next year, and even key emerging market nations are rapidly adjusting their positions to accept and move forward on emission reduction measures.

But the question that stands out most to me is just why these geoengineering advocates think that it will be easier to do grand scale, highly unpredictable projects that will affect the earth’s climate in a significant fashion in just a short amount of time than it will be to continue on the path we’re currently following, negotiating for emission cuts. Really, have they thought about this?

Begin with the fact that politicians are extremely risk averse. Who wants to be the guy in charge of the effort to build the who-knows-how-many-billions-of-dollars 18-mile long sulphur dioxide tube? The downside risks are enormous relative to the potential upside benefits.

And why have they not noticed that the public isn’t exactly enamored with intellectuals at the moment, particularly where global warming is concerned. Think about the conspiracy theories being spun on the right at present and then extrapolate out to what might happen if the United Nations determined that massive amounts of gas ought to be pumped into the upper atmosphere.

But the real failing is the inability to consider the way that various interest groups are likely to act. In the best case scenario for geoengineering, costs are likely to be focused on certain groups and certain locations, and those groups may respond to the proposed solution by doing anything from demanding compensation to threatening war, depending on their severity. If risk models indicate that certain particularly bad outcomes might result from the project with certain probabilities, and they will, the potential for those outcomes will be negotation flashpoints, potentially leading to intractable divisions between countries.

Geoengineering seems like the easy approach now, because it’s not on the table. There is no hysterical battle between proponents and opponents, no op-ed bickering between scientists and faux scientists, no global debate on who would and should bear which costs associated with whatever solution is agreed upon. But as soon as it became a real possibility, a fierce debate would rage. And, if one major geoengineering solution were tried and it failed, it is difficult to see how another attempt could win support, and at that point, of course, we’d have lost the ability to address climate change by reducing emissions when it would have helped.

I think it would be irresponsible not to continue studying the issue and looking for potential geoeingineering fixes, but I think that anyone suggesting that we should abandon the effort to cut emissions in favor of a geoengineering approach has not thought the matter through. It should be considered the last ditch effort, only pursued seriously when it is clear that emission cuts will not prevent catastrophic warming.


  1. Mr Joshua says:

    Global economic recession doesn’t count as successfully “cutting carbon emissions.”

  2. reason says:

    The scientific American had a very good article on geo-engineering. The bottom line was that it was dangerous even if it had no side effects and worked, because it would leave the world extemely vulnerable to the effort being stopped (by anything from resource shortage to war or terrorism).

  3. Buzzcut says:

    Well, one geoengineering solution, increasing sulfur emissions in the stratosphere, can be done for zero cost.

    Jet fuel currently has 3000 ppm sulfur content (which is actually very high compared to gasoline and diesel, which are on the order of 8 ppm).

    Refiners go through great cost to remove sulfur from fuel. They must dispose of the sulfur that they remove, which currently is on the order of $400 per ton.

    So, here is the zero cost solution: greatly increase the amount of sulfur in jet fuel. I have no idea what the upper limits are while maintaining engine reliability, but I’m sure someone does. Figure that out, and change the regs to allow it.

    Increased sulfur emissions from jets will greatly increase the amount of sulfur oxides in the stratosphere.

    Is that enough to end global warming? I have no idea. But it would help, and would cost nothing. In fact, at $400 a ton, any decrease in refinery sulfur is a decrease in costs!

  4. Bruce says:

    Just in case you didn’t know this already Paul Krugman quoted you….congrats!

  5. AC says:

    Practicality aside, the more interesting thing about geoengineering is what it reveals about a large number of environmentalists. If we cared more about global warming than symbolic gestures for planetary purity, we’d likely accept the risks and start thinking about artificial volcanoes as soon as we thought warming was hurting us.

  6. 1992-2007 CO2 emissions increased by 38% ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyoto_Protocol ). The world has no proven capacity of even stabilizing CO2 emissions, so what are the chances of 80% reduction or whatever is presumably required to stop global warming?

    Even if US reduces a lot, and EU a bit extra, these changes will be more than compensated by increased emissions in developing countries like China, India, and others.

    How do you intend to stop developing countries from burning coal, oil, and gas? With demand from the West reduced, prices will collapse, so how likely are developing countries to agree not to take advantage of that? Unless you’re willing to bomb them to enforce your rules.

    Political challenges of geoengineering are nothing compared to challenges of massive rapid reductions in emissions – if you just get EU, US, and China on board, you’re done, bribing and/or threatening everyone else into shutting up.

  7. Doug says:

    This is the wrong way to think about anything but “geoengineering” sounds ridiculous. Doubly so for people who can’t build trains.

  8. Dan Staley says:

    If we cared more about global warming than symbolic gestures for planetary purity, we’d likely accept the risks and start thinking about artificial volcanoes as soon as we thought warming was hurting us.

    Having an ecological education allows me to reply: “um, no”.

    As would anyone with an education in the natural sciences. Or anyone who has ever messed with living things in closed systems.

    It is not our toy to risk breaking.


  9. anon says:

    I’m sorry, we’re supposed to believe that the same scientific and engineering community that for 100 years didn’t notice we were doing geoengineering with CO2 is going to wake up one day and be expert enough in geoengineering to calculate the exact geoengineering response to our problem, and then design and deliver it? And that it will be effective, with no intolerable consequences, even though we’re literally mucking around with the sun, aka “the energy source of 99.9% of all food chains on Earth?”

    This is like expecting the Wright Brothers to do precision bombing.

  10. TallDave says:

    Emissions controls are themselves a form a geoengineering. In fact, they are arguably the least cost-effective, least reversible, and most dangerous form of geoengineering possible.

    World GDP per capita is currently about $10K. At 3% real growth, by 2059 it will be around $43K. Assuming population of about 8B, that means world GDP will be $350T — almost six times the current GDP of $60T. We will be more than wealthy enough to do any geoengineering that’s needed. But if emissions control schemes reduce GDP growth to 2%, we would lose $135T of that — and that’s the lost production for ONE year, the total lost production reaches the quadrillons. It’s hard to imagine any geoengineering solution costing that much.

    Also, this argument begins too often with the premise that we know for certain what the ideal level of CO2 would be. We don’t. We don’t even know if the difference between current levels and natural levels matters at all, let alone whether it’s a net boon or net harm. The downside risk of an Ice Age is existential, far greater than coastal flooding associated with warming.

    If, in 50 years, we determine that geoengineering is necessary, it won’t be on the flimsy basis of computer models run by environmentalists; by then there will be some real evidence (hopefully untainted by bristlecones and Yamal-ish cherrypicking of tree rings). The political consensus will be there, and the cost will be bearable.

  11. Adam says:

    TallDave, aren’t you at least a little bit circumspect about an argument that relies on the assumption that in the future we will be infinitely rich, so we will be able to do anything we want?

    Don’t get me wrong — your argument is specious for dozens of more specific reasons. But I’m just wondering if you ever wake up with that niggling sense that this line of reasoning leads in some very odd directions.

    I’m guessing not. If you think that the evidence for climate change is predicated on bristlecones and tree rings, you’ve obviously been drinking from some very swampy waters.

  12. Mesa says:

    The reason there is heated debate and lack of consensus on action re:CO2 is quite simply that the global electorate is not convinced it’s a problem. Nor should they be, based on bogus historical reconstructions looking backward and simple minded computer simulations looking forward.

    The global electorate knows that CO2 has increased a lot over the past 100 yrs, and that temperatures have risen a little, and that the planet is still in one piece. The global electorate is intelligent enough to know that there are both winners and losers in any modest warming scenario. And the global electorate is intelligent enough to watch the actual temperature going forward to see if there is a real problem. If there is – it will act, probably in the most cost efficient manner possible.

  13. mulp says:


    Which law of physics says growth will be 3% a year for the next half century? General Relativity? Quantum mechanics? Boyles Law?

    Economists seem to be immune to having their “theory” tested, which makes it dogma. We have the lowest taxes and least reulation in six decades and instead of the fantastic growth the economists promised, we have the worse economy since taxes were hiked and regulation imposed, plus a lot of claims the government is the blame, when the only thing preventing a Greater Depression is big government.

    Ok, I’m from the science world and I know in nature that you put in 10 and are overjoyed to get back 9, because most of the time getting back 6 is really good, and often 3 or 4 is the best return from 10 for houses and cars.

    I too love the idea of free lunch, but find the economists to be promising not only free lunches, but promise getting paid more the more free lunches you consume to be the stuff of fairy tales.

    Sorry, but economics is ultimately limited by nature; thus economics is not exempt from Clausius’s second law of thermodynamics.

    What I find amusing is how firmly the free lunch economists promising growth without limits, grasp hold of Heinlein’s phrase scifi fans know as TANSTAAFL to condemn the proposals of scientists who are calling for a response to the limits to growth of the economy.

  14. doctorpat says:


    Couldn’t you have put that line about “least regulation in six decades” in the first paragraph? Then we would have known you were joking.

  15. Sammler says:

    “Europe is reducing emissions”? No, Europe is setting targets promising to reduce emissions, while emissions in fact continue to grow except when the economy itself shrinks.

  16. Tracy W says:

    Mulp: Economists seem to be immune to having their “theory” tested, which makes it dogma.

    If so, then how do you explain the disproof of the Philips curve, or the post-WWII interpretation of Keynesian economics? How about the abandonment of the rational expectations model for decision-making under uncertainty in response to its failure to explain people’s choices?

    We have the lowest taxes and least regulation in six decades

    What are you talking about? In 2008, taxes plus social security collections were 26% of GDP, in 1948 they were 21% of GDP. In 2008, taxes alone were 19.1% of GDP, compared with 19.1% in 1948, but social security collections are only legally different, not economically different (they have the same impact on behaviour). In 2003, meanwhile, taxes (excluding social security), were 18.4% of GDP, in 1949 they were 17.9% of GDP.

    See the Bureau of Economic Analysis: National Economic Accounts. (You have to put together the GDP accounts with the government receipts and spending ones).

    And how are you measuring the regulation time series? I don’t know of any that go back 60 years. This one does sound a bit more plausible than your taxes hypothesis, given that 60 years ago was the end of WWII with all those controls, then we had developmental economics and Keynesian economics, then the deregulation movement of the last 20/30 years, but I would like to hear your data.

    when the only thing preventing a Greater Depression is big government.

    Interesting hypothesis. How have you tested it? What’s your counter-factual? The typical problem with macroeconomics is that it is impossible to do controlled experiments, so I thought that it’s impossible to show causality for one event. How have you gotten around this problem?

    I too love the idea of free lunch, but find the economists to be promising not only free lunches,

    What economists are promising free lunches? Economists are famous for saying “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. Milton Friedman wrote this in the title of one of his books “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch”.

    Ok, I’m from the science world

    Are you sure about that? When did the science world think that making stuff up was okay? You have made at least 3 statements that are wrong: “We have the lowest taxes … in six decades”, “economists seem to be immune to having their “theory” tested,” economists are “promising … only free lunches…” What’s scientific about this approach?

    And what’s scientific about making a bold claim that “the only thing preventing a Greater Depression is big government” without providing any of the data you used to arrive at this conclusion, or explaining your methods? You do know that replication is an important part of scientific endeavour?

    Sorry, but economics is ultimately limited by nature; thus economics is not exempt from Clausius’s second law of thermodynamics.

    I think you meant to write “economies are ultimately limited by nature, thus economies are not exempt …”. I don’t know what it means to apply the second law of thermodyanmics to an area of mental human endeavour. SF writers imagine things that violate the laws of physics all the time, from experience as an engineering student it’s relatively easy to do a calculation with an error in it which leads to a result that would violate the laws of thermodynamics. Physics furthermore makes use of some theories that violate the laws of thermodyamics (eg Kirchoff’s laws for electricity flow ignore losses), but use them sometimes because they give a good enough answer for many practical purposes. If physics, as a field of knowledge about the real world, is not limited by the second law of thermodynamics, why should economics be?

    As for how long and how much economies can grow, the future path of an economy is dependent on the discovery of future knowledge, which is not perfectly predictable ahead of time (because the only way to perfectly predict what new knowledge will be discovered in the future is to have already discovered it, in which case it won’t be new knowledge). The laws of thermodynamics apply to an economy’s use of energy, but it is hard to see a way in which the laws of thermodynamics limit say the development of new forms of entertainment, new medical discoveries, new uses of the Internet, etc (of course the laws of thermodynamics may, as I said, new knowledge is not predictable, it’s just not intuitively obvious to me that the laws of thermodynamics will apply).

    What I find amusing is how firmly the free lunch economists promising growth without limits…

    Well that’s nice. I find your claim to be from the science world amusing, so we’re both amused.

  17. mobile says:

    It always makes my day when a progressive discovers public choice theory. Bless you, Ryan.

  18. Patrick C says:

    I suppose the appeal of geoengineering is that we could do it unilaterally. If we were in a hypothetical world where we weren’t complete hypocrites and actually reduced our carbon emissions, but some other country would not, then we could respond by blotting out the sun with sulfuric gas. We would offset their emissions, and quite possibly impose all sorts of awful side effects. It gives us a carrot and a stick.

    They can reduce their pollution or we can continue our offsetting pollution.

    Of course my scenario assumes we take the moral high ground(relatively) by actually not polluting. If we were instead pumping out tons of emissions and polluting with sulfuric gas thereby causing droughts and famine in developing nations it would be…well…awful. But then again that sounds a lot more like business as usual…

  19. The political problem you identify — particular parties, be they companies or countries, disagreeing and lobbying to tweak the solution to their benefit — will take place whether we are taxing carbon, capping and trading, or building volcanoes in the sky. So in addition to the science, we need to come up with a way keep the politics from stalling any initiative.