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Geoengineering: A climate change Manhattan project

By Jay Michaelson


Why are we fiddling while the Earth burns?

Though the vast majority of the world's scientific and political communities now agree that some warming of the Earth's climate is occurring as anthropogenic changes take place in the atmosphere, there is equally widespread agreement that our recently renewed efforts to mitigate its consequences are woefully inadequate. Notwithstanding the many proposals, and limited progress toward a binding climate change treaty at the recent Third Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP3) in Kyoto, Japan (hereinafter "Kyoto Conference"), creating effective climate change policy remains "the most difficult negotiation anyone has tried to do." Why?

This Article argues that the lack of success in climate change policy stems from the exclusive focus of policymakers on various forms of preventive regulation. Because climate change regulation requires an extraordinary amount of will and coordination, and because uncertainty, cost, equity, and other factors threaten the effective implementation of a Kyoto-style program, a regulation-only approach is dangerously myopic.

Not even the most austere post-Kyoto regulatory regime can avert a probable temperature rise of 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit during the next century, and most observers estimate that more politically feasible plans will yield a rise of between 3 and 8 degrees. Yet other than simply doing nothing and adapting to climate change when it happens--a potentially catastrophic strategy--what alternatives do we have?

In the wake of Kyoto, the time has now come to expand our policy horizons to include geoengineering, the direct manipulation of the Earth's climatic feedback system, as a serious alternative to ineffective and contentious regulation. Once derided as science fiction, geoengineering has lately begun to merit serious debate in academic, scientific, and econometric literature, and has gained the tentative support of such diverse figures as Edward Teller, Wallace Broecker, William Nordhaus, and Stephen Schneider.

First, the science of geoengineering--though not the primary focus of this Article--is no longer the arrogant climatologist's Tower of Babel. In particular, two proposals have yielded encouraging scientific data: the oft- maligned "Geritol cure" --sowing iron filings in the ocean to stimulate the growth of carbon-consuming phytoplankton; and the "sunscreen" proposal, which calls for the controlled emission of dust particles to reflect solar radiation and incrementally cool the Earth, simulating the counter-greenhouse "Pinatubo Effect" measured in the wake of Mount Pinatubo's eruption in 1991.

From a policy perspective--which is the primary focus of this Article-- geoengineering, though perhaps counterintuitive, should be very attractive to both greenhouse "True Believers" and the most ardent of skeptics.

To the skeptic, and the policymaker, geoengineering offers a relatively painless, relatively cheap alternative to costly and unpopular regulation. Allowing airplanes to fly dirtier (the "sunscreen proposal") may involve some implementation and secondary costs, but compared with the economic upheavals associated with even modest reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, it is a bargain, especially if implementation may be delayed while our uncertainty about climate change lessens.

To the greenhouse True Believer, geoengineering offers both hope and despair: hope for a solution to climate change, despair at retreating from prevention as that solution. To any thoughtful environmentalist, a Big Fix is woefully counterintuitive--it treats symptoms, not causes, and allows the rapacious consumerism of the West to progress unchecked. Indeed, that is what makes it popular with skeptics.

But a geoengineering policy can work. True, it does not make the polluter pay, or halt the destruction of ancient forests. And, as discussed below, there are serious ecological concerns associated with any tampering with the Earth's climatic systems. But because, as argued in this Article, geoengineering avoids the pitfalls of a traditional, regulation-based climate change strategy, the True Believer should still be convinced.

Climate Change "Marshall Plans," designed to curtail greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, tend to fail before they begin. Developing technology to affect the climate directly--a Climate Change Manhattan Project-- can work.

Part II of this Article discusses in detail why the international community lacks the will to prevent climate change

First, I argue climate change is a uniquely absent problem: the harms from climate change may not be present for decades, and there is real uncertainty as to the problem's scope and magnitude. Second, climate change is institutionally and economically difficult to address: reduction in fossil fuel use and deforestation, the linchpins of a successful climate change prevention strategy, could radically alter the economic and social fabric of "Northern" industrialized countries and stunt the growth of "Southern" developing ones.

Climate change regulation is extremely expensive and complex, requiring implementation, coordination, and monitoring by international institutions ill- equipped for such tasks. Third, climate change is a tragedy of the commons: it rewards nations that cheat on agreed-upon limits, particularly more developed nations who face a "cooperator's loss" even if everyone cooperated fairly. Of course, it looks like we should all benefit from stopping climate change.

But a little insight shows that the negotiation problems evident at the Kyoto Conference, and the inadequacy of Kyoto's proposed cuts relative to our present scientific data, are the natural results of the perverse incentives inherent in climate change regulation. And Kyoto is just the beginning: those same incentives point toward serious implementation problems yet to come.

Enter the Climate Change Manhattan Project

Part III argues that in every place where regulation stumbles, geoengineering succeeds. It avoids the problem of absence by offering a potentially remedial solution that may be adjusted in accord with the effects of climate change, and with a shorter lag time than preventive regulation.

With secondary and social costs properly counted, geoengineering costs less than regulation while avoiding its webs of political and institutional malaise. And geoengineering minimizes the impact of the cooperator's loss/tragedy of the commons by not requiring international behavior modification. Part III thus proposes that existing national and international bodies shift their emphases from seeking to implement a climate change regulatory regime to developing a Climate Change Manhattan Project, by means of research, funding, and eventual implementation of geoengineering proposals.

Geoengineering is often considered a highly immodest proposal, and part IV of this Article is devoted to defending the idea against several arguments typically made against it

First, the response to the claim that geoengineering "just won't work" is to argue that such a claim is premature in practice and foolish in principle. Of course, the case for any new technology is "uneasy," and uncertainty will remain up until a geoengineering project is put into place, but such uncertainty is not sufficient reason to fail to initiate research now. Nor can we be daunted by the prospect of vast, unforeseen secondary consequences of tampering with the Earth's climate; again, it is too early to tell. Caution is wisdom--but inordinate skepticism flies in the face of a century of technological achievement.

There are deeper concerns regarding a geoengineering policy, however: that it is unnatural, that it destroys the very nature we seek to create. Yet taking these objections seriously, a Big Fix may, in ultimate ecological impact, actually help more than it hurts: with careful and controlled implementation, it can offset already existing anthropogenic interference with the Earth's systems.

Finally, however, it must be conceded that geoengineering runs afoul of almost every major trend in contemporary environmentalism

Beyond their brute ugliness, "Geritol cures" and "Earth sunscreens" treat shallow symptoms, not deep causes, and thus fail to "kill two birds with one stone" as would a serious program of combating deforestation or cutting GHG emissions. In part V of this Article, I offer some deeper reflections on this issue.

Part V insists that it is time for environmentalists to reclaim the Big Fix, that holists and deep ecologists must, in a Rawlsian vein, learn to speak the pragmatic language of political discourse. If for no other reason, they must do this because geoengineering offers hope for solving climate change beyond the too-little, too-lates of Kyoto--essentially if you are one of the people who care about climate change, you should support geoengineering, because most people still do not care enough.

But on a deeper level, geoengineering asks environmentalists how much they value their private philosophies, and how much they value the estuaries, islands, and trees that are threatened by climate change.

In the post-Kyoto world, we need more than promises of emissions cuts and tradeable permits. We need a Climate Change Manhattan Project.

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