Arnold Kling  

Climate Engineering

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A number of readers have sent in links to articles suggesting that climate engineering may be feasible. For example, T.M.L. Wigley writes,

Future climate change may be reduced through mitigation (reductions in greenhouse gas emissions) or through geoengineering. Most geoengineering approaches, however, do not address the problem of increasing ocean acidity. A combined mitigation/geoengineering strategy could remove this deficiency. Here we consider the deliberate injection of sulfate aerosol precursors into the stratosphere. This action could substantially offset future warming and provide additional time to reduce human dependence on fossil fuels and stabilize CO2 concentrations cost-effectively at an acceptable level.

An article in National Geographic notes that Paul Crutzen proposed sulfate seeding as a solution. Prior to that, John Latham proposed "a plan to whisk up seawater to encourage cloud formation in the lower atmosphere, thereby reflecting radiation back into space."

I am not saying we should go full speed ahead with climate engineering. However, given the costs of achieving a significant reduction in atmospheric CO2 by altering fuel consumption, I think that the case for studying the climate engineering approach is pretty easy to make.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)

It's great to see some pro-modernization ideas on the global warming issue debate.

Even if global warming is 1. Real and 2. Caused by CO2, then this certainly does *not* mean that cutting back on CO2 is the best solution.

James Lovelock calls for 'planetary medicine', but in medicine the treatment usually works on a different system than the cause: pneumonia is not caused by Penicillin-deficiency.

My hunch is that engineering solutions are much more likely to be effective than anti-growth economics. Ideally, we should aim to be able to control the earth's temperature either upward or downwards.

Randy writes:

And what of the people who are looking forward to a bit of global warming? I'm thinking they might resist efforts to promote cooling.

Cyrus writes:

Aerosols may mean less heat, but they also mean less light. Policy designed to deprive us of the benefit of the sun's gratuitous gift of illumination is policy that seems to have missed the irony of Bastiat's "Petition from the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, &c."

aaron writes:

What if we paint everything white? And we can cut down all those solar energy absorbing trees.

dearieme writes:

cane toads.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Reduce light entering the atmosphere, and you reduce heating, but also reduce photosynthetic removal of CO2 and production of oxygen. You'd have to gamble about which effect (reduction of heating or enhancement of CO2) would be dominant.

Matt writes:

How do you determine the optimal climate? For instance, if I am living above the 45th parallel, maybe I want warming. If it is caused by the Sun, doesn't this mean you are essentially stealing from me? Since climate change involves winners and losers, one must assess three costs: the cost to implement, the benefits, and the losses. My guess is that stopping a mild warming is not worth it, but stopping a cooling is.

Max writes:

There are several problems I see with the attempt to geo-engineer terra. It is the same problem why reduction of CO2 wouldn't solve anything -> The Earth is a complex system and still only rudimentarily understood.

There have been a dozen attempts in geoengineering, from influencing cloud formation, over creating storms to rain-dropping. Most of those projects undrestimated the amount of randomness and complexity involved in the very processes they wanted to influence. While it is easy for an engineer to predict the outcome in a thermodynamic process as long as he has a limited system that is almost not influenced by unpredictable factors (like turbines, compressors, tubes etc.), the open system of earth is very hard to predict.

This is also the very problem that makes geoengineering nearly impossible at the moment. We could play around with the variables and look for the outcome, but there is no way we could aim for a goal beforehand. Mostly, it would be wild guesses about what "could" happen. A simple superposition is not possible, because the knowledge of the weight in the equation of every single factor is unknown to man.

We would need a much better understanding of the global variables in the earth climate system (especially the influence of solar radiation, cosmic rays, angle of the planet, the moon etc.) before we could even start thinking about meddling in the whole climate system. While local or regional periodical engineering might be a possibility in the near future, I don't think global geo-engineering is an option right now.

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