Bryan Caplan

Will Obama Consider Geoengineering?

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EconLog readers will already be familiar with geoengineering.  Now Obama's science advisor says the idea on the table:
John Holdren told The Associated Press in his first interview since being confirmed last month that the idea of geoengineering the climate is being discussed. One such extreme option includes shooting pollution particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays. Holdren said such an experimental measure would only be used as a last resort.
My suspicion is that this is classic Obama rhetoric: Say you're open-minded, try not to impugn your critics' motives, and then move forward with the standard demagogic approach.  I hope I'm wrong.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
George writes:

One such extreme option includes shooting pollution particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays.

Um, isn't that like planting weeds? If you want the particles to be there, they're not pollution.

There's no reason to think Obama will ever seriously consider geoengineering; the environmental groups are probably already calling for Holdren's head.

On the other hand, if Patri Friedman starts up a nation floating on plastic soda bottles, he may want to dump a bunch of iron filings into the waters around it to increase biological productivity. That would suck a bunch of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and it's not clear who could stop him (Captain Amazing, maybe?).

Ben W writes:

This reminds me of the import of invasive species of plantlife for the purpose of hill stabilization. Problem solved, but you've created another, often equally difficult, problem.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

What is the equivalent to geoengineering in economics?

To put it the other way - why do so many climate change skeptics like geoengineering more than other solutions? We do not know about the science and the costs. We might be closer to clean coal - but not really. Why do they assume that "environmentalist" groups would not consider it if we would know how, if it worked safely and if indeed it were cheaper than alternatives? Why is it that so many people who consider geoengineering despite all the open issues and question marks - do not consider other solutions?

No - me thinks there is a deeper psychological reason at play here. Again - what do you think is the policy equivalent to geoengineering in economics? Is it lowering/raising interest rates? Is it a tax or subsidy? Or is it that start of government micromanagement? What do you think?

Gamut writes:

Hugo, it's simple, while we might be very certain that geoengineering would have the desired effect (at the very least), we have absolutely no idea whether other policies will -- political processes make even the intent irrelevant to the outcome. Worse, we know the other policies will also have negative effects -- some of them working directly against the goal, i.e. foregone technologies as a result of bureaucratic selection processes, etc..

So we have two options: 1) one that is fairly certain to reduce the temperature with potential negative side effects and, 2) one that is certain to become corrupted, isn't certain to do much of anything, with certain negative side effects.

The funny thing about option 1 is that it isn't damaged as much by corruption either. Even if, in this case, the contractor hired to shoot those particles up into the atmosphere, is some massive campaign donor, those particles still get up there. In the second case, corruption leads to distortion of policy, which has wildly varying effects.

ws1835 writes:

As a professional who actually works in the air pollution field, I can tell you directly that the global warming crusade has never been about climate. The science is ambiguous at best, and based on satellite data there hasn't been any statistically significant global warming since 1995. So why the fireworks?

Hugo is right, you are observing a consistent psychology behind these policy proposals. It has always been about command and control over the lives of the average person. A continuing and pervasive attempt by political factions to expand/consolidate their power over public life. The same command and control impulse was present during the 70's with the ice age scare. So the cause du jour may change, but the solution always seems to be the same. More regulation, more taxes, more limitation of inidividual freedom, more collectivism. Obama is just another salesman fronting for the next turn of the great socialist machine.

BTW, if solar activity and ocean cycles continue on their current cooling trends, we actually could be headed for an ice age. Ironic to say the least, but a story for a different day...

Barkley Rosser writes:

What Obama and Holdren have said is a view widely held among the more sophisticated of climate scientists and observers. Geoengineering might be viable as a last resort if the more pessimistic of the possible IPCC scenarios come to pass.

Why might there be a problem with doing it as something short of that? First of all, the effects are very uncertain. Second, there are some very serious potential international problems, not unlinked to the first point. So, one country pumps the stuff up, but it goes over their neighbors, who may not want the effects. This is a much messier proposal than some of its advocates are aware of.

Floccina writes:

Ben W wrote:
This reminds me of the import of invasive species of plantlife for the purpose of hill stabilization. Problem solved, but you've created another, often equally difficult, problem.

When I hear that argument I think, you need to look at both sides of the equation. Would humanity be better off if kudzu was not introduced into the Americas but neither was broccoli, cabage better varieties of wheat and rice and also corn, tomatoes, potatoes, squash etc. were never introduced outside of the Americas?

Agriculture, cutting down so may trees and planting crops was a pretty significant case of geo-engineering, much bigger that the case you site would humanity have been better off without agriculture? I think not.

So far the huge amount of geo-engineering that we have done has had a large net benefit to humanity.

Mike Rulle writes:

It is difficult to imagine something more absurd than this geo-engineering concept. Some make believe undemonstrable climate problem "solved" by some grotesque odd ball experimentation with risk of unintended consequences.

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