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.