Arnold Kling  

How to Fight Global Warming

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I elaborate on the idea of using man-made climate change to fight climate change, whether man-made or not.


Climate engineering, or what I call Operation Sunscreen, would mean trying to alter the heat absorption properties of the atmosphere. The goal might be to reduce average temperatures by, say, 2 degrees centigrade.

I have no idea how to reduce heat absorption, but one can imagine a number of possible approaches to climate engineering: putting reflectors out into space; using some physical or chemical process to "wash" carbon out of the atmosphere; or coming up with a way to reduce concentrations of water vapor (the most abundant greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere.

... it would be rather a shame to toss away $400 billion dollars a year using the de-industrialization strategy and then discover "Oops, the cause of global warming wasn't carbon-dioxide emissions after all. It must have been something else, because temperatures are still rising, even though we reduced emissions to levels that we thought would stabilize global temperature." Instead, climate engineering could reduce global average temperature regardless of whether global warming is caused by carbon-dioxide emissions or not.

UPDATE: Astronomer Roger Angel thinks that the reflector idea could work.


"The concept builds on existing technologies," Angel said. "It seems feasible that it could be developed and deployed in about 25 years at a cost of a few trillion dollars. With care, the solar shade should last about 50 years. So the average cost is about $100 billion a year, or about two-tenths of one percent of the global domestic product."


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/592
The author at PurpleSlog in a related article titled Brainstorming Climate Engineering writes:
    Let me say, I am not convinced that there is global warming going on. I do believe having the ability to do positive planetary Climate Engineering or Geo-Engineering is an important survival skill for the human race especially since it looks like we wi... [Tracked on November 4, 2006 2:23 PM]
COMMENTS (14 to date)
Ronnie Horesh writes:

Thank you Arnold for seeing clearly that the problem is not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, but climate instability. With incentives to achieve society's real goal - climate stability - we'd channel human ingenuity far more effectively. Kyoto is about spending vast amounts of resources and political capital on what a group of bureaucrats using 1990s science once thought would be the best way of stopping climate change. Now even these guys admit it's not going to achieve anything. We need diverse, adaptive approaches that can respond to our rapidly expanding knowledge of all the scientific relationships.

Don Robertson writes:

No matter the problem, no matter the solution, if it's an exclusively empirical solution, the resulting biproducts of the processes of empirical reason will give rise to problems tenfold that of the original problem. (Robertson's law.)

Don Robertson, The American Philosopher
Limestone, Maine

An Illustrated Philosophy Primer for Young Readers
Precious Life - Empirical Knowledge
The Grand Unifying Theory & The Theory of Time
http://www.geocities.com/donaldwrobertson/index.html
Art Auctions:
http://www.artbyus.com/auctions.php?a=6&b=4807

Robert Speirs writes:

And of course none of the proposed "solutions" could have unwanted side effects. Nah. We know far too much about the mechanisms of climate change to fall for that!
But, say, why exactly is a "stable climate" desirable? What calculation exactly was it that established beyond dispute what the correct temperature of the earth is and why we have to maintain it at that level, within one degree, forever, or die miserably?

BT writes:

Science does not get better or worse over time. The theory of relativity is the same as it was in the 40's. The problem is not climate change but rather the speed of this change. Current data is only serving to strengthen the conclusion of the 1990's models. Climate change is happening rapidly and humans are the most likely cause of this accelerated change.

The cause of rapid global warming is not carbon dioxide emissions, it is the emissions of greenhouse gases. The CCX exchange offers varying rates for different gases. Methane for example (aka natural gas) has four times the impact of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere. Carbon Dioxide just happens to be the most abundant pollutant.

I disagree that reducing carbon emissions is a "de-industrialization." Compared to ten years ago, cars offer more horsepower, better efficiency and even lower emissions. And Adjusted for inflation, fuel economy and safety equipment they cost about the same.

dan writes:
I have no idea how to reduce heat absorption, but one can imagine a number of possible approaches to climate engineering: putting reflectors out into space; using some physical or chemical process to "wash" carbon out of the atmosphere; or coming up with a way to reduce concentrations of water vapor (the most abundant greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere.

Let's put the scientists right on this! Then they can cure the hunger problem, think about how much that will boost the global economy right? Then we'll just have them scientists cure aids! How did we never think about this?

Approaches to climate engineering the global warming problem away, as far as I've seen, are little more than infantile promising ideas. Depending primarily on solutions that don't exist yet and may not within a reasonable time frame seems wreckless. One must utilize tools available to fix a problem, rather than putting blind faith in those that could be developed.

mobile writes:

Many more suggestions are in this classic Gregory Benson piece in Reason magazine. The article is nearly 10 years old, but to me it seems like it could have been written yesterday.

Jim writes:

Shouldn't this post have been titled "I Have No Idea How to Fight Global Warming"? Because you're really just waving your hands in the air to no great effect. Yes, it's true that if we could fix the problem it wouldn't be a problem anymore, but this is not the brilliant insight you seem to think it is.

Ronnie Horesh writes:

Even the proponents of Kyoto admits it's going to be ineffectual. Incentives matter. Give people incentives to stabilise the climate, rather than cut back gas emissions. Robert: a stable climate can be broadly defined to include elements other than temperature, such as numbers of people killed by adverse climatic events.

Matt writes:

Those who have been studying this for a lot longer than you (think Nordhaus, Cline, Manne, etc) have a name for this. It's called the engineering solution. And it is given the attention it deserves - almost none. Useful only as an upper-bound estimate of the value of averting climate change (almost without cost), the "engineering solution" is a strange thing to advocate as an economist.

It is the equivalent of abandoning incentives and decentralization in return for a big project that solves the "problem" in a centrally directed way, with insensitivity to price mechanisms.

And the man-made versus natural warming comments will probably prevent anyone serious from even considering what you write regarding climate change. Just an FYI

back40 writes:

There has been quite a lot of serious thought about geo-engineering approaches to climate change management, including by some initially sceptical climate scientists who surprised themselves by finding that their models did in fact respond quite nicely to some of the ideas for insertion of reflective material into the upper atmosphere. (e.g. Caldiera)

Usually geo-engineering discussions end up puzzling about the implications, since several methods would work. What climate do we want? Who decides? How do we prevent a rogue from destructive alteration - say, plunging us into an ice age? Similarly, how do we remove reflective material if needed due to some reversal of climate forcings now active?

I worry about "we". Who is "we"? Since the planet as a whole is affected does this imply some sort of global controlling entity? Messy stuff!

Monte writes:

Predictions of catastrophic temperature increases produced by anthropogenic CO2 have been challenged by many scientists. For those who choose to disregard this fact and prepare for the worst, I’m certain rhere is an abundant supply of Y2K bunkers for rent.

AnotherMatt writes:

Arnold is caught in what he thinks is a Libertarian trap, how to deal with the natural transportation of large scale pollution.

The Libertarian solution to global warming is to first assign damages to the guilty party, in this case, manufacturers of the internal combustion machine and the oil refineries. If we do not indicate them them that damages will be assigned, then they will take no action.

This site, by the way, shows the glacial cycels as determined by CO2 and temperature for the last half million years.
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=new+ice+core+data

FB writes:

Mark Kleiman on exactly this topic.

Blogging has been light, and will remain so through Sunday; I'm at a conference on energy and terrorism sponsored by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment.

In today's discussion about energy policy and global warming, Tom Schelling made a logical point that was new to me -- though apparently it has been made in some of the technical literature -- and seemed tremendously important.

The global temperature depends on how much radiation gets to the Earth from the Sun, and how much the Earth radiates back into space. If in fact (1) human activities are reducing the rate at which energy leaves the planet -- which seems very likely -- and (2) the resulting temperature increase and associated changes in climate and weather patterns will be disastrous -- which seems plausible but is not certain -- it is not the case that our only options for dealing with that problem involve reducing our contribution to the greenhouse effect. The alternative would be to take more actions that decrease incoming energy.

It turns out that the aerosols and particulates we emit tend to increase the reflectance (albedo) of the planet; if in fact there was more warming early in the 20th century than later in the century, the reason may be that late in the century we put more sulfur oxides into the atmosphere. That was a bad idea in terms of acid rain, but perhaps it moderated the warming effect.

So, Schelling asked, how much would it cost to increase the Earth's albedo by enough to offset the damage from increased greenhouse-gas emissions? The necessary change involves a fraction of a percent of incident solar energy, not enough to be observable without precise instruments. Some apparently minor changes might do the trick: slightly degrading the performance of jet aircraft engines could put more carbon black into the statosphere. A higher-tech solution would be to put lots of reflective mylar in low-earth orbit; a lower-tech solution would be to scatter lots of ping-pong balls in tropical waters; an extremely cute solution, if practicable, would be to stimulate the formation of cirrus clouds over parts of the Pacific Ocean.

Of course any and all of these might turn out to have unwanted side effects. But any attempt to massively reduce greenhouse gas production would be certain to have big unwanted side effects. And, as Schelling pointed out, if we can find cheap means of increasing the albedo we avoid some horrendous diplomatic problems along with huge economic sacrifices.

It seems to me that, in political terms, those who want to resist calls for controls on GHG emissions would be better off pushing low-cost albedo-increasing measures than trying to deny that anthropogenic global warming is real or trying to pretend that letting the global temperature rise another couple of degrees Celsius represents a prudent risk.

BT writes:

Incredible! Arnold is not the only one intrigued by a solar shades.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/11/061104090409.htm

PS: Science Daily is a bit of a tabloid imho.

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