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What Role for Geoengineering?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Any effective climate strategy will have to rely upon a combination of emissions reductions, adaptation, and, if circumstances warrant (as appears likely), some degree of geoengineering.

When Nobel Prize laureate and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen published an article in 2006 calling for research on geoengineering, the response from many quarters was ferocious. Why such an indignant response to a carefully considered call for research into a technique that could potentially provide an invaluable measure of protection against the worst effects of global warming? Fear that Crutzen’s idea would work—and appear a reason to continue unconstrained emissions of greenhouse gases.

For example, a colleague of Crutzen’s at the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry, Meinrat Andreae, reportedly argued against publication of Crutzen’s paper, claiming that geoengineering would be an excuse for continued emissions, leaving the problem to future generations “like a junkie figuring out new ways of stealing from his children.”

The specter of emissions reductions unavoided has hung over the idea of geoengineering for more than a decade.

The specter of emissions reductions unavoided has hung over the idea of geoengineering for more than a decade, going back to its earliest consideration by policy makers. In 2001, the Department of Energy prepared a white paper proposing a five-year research program on geoengineering; the Bush administration balked, fearing how such a proposal would be perceived. A conservative president who opposed emissions limits could not afford to call for geoengineering research.

When the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) embarked on its own program of research into geoengineering in 2008, some skeptics leaped to similar suspicions. Graeme Wood, writing in The Atlantic last year, complained that “the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank historically inimical to emission-reduction measures, has sponsored panels on the sulfur-aerosol plan.” Setting aside Wood’s misrepresentation of AEI’s record of research in this field (a large body of work predominantly devoted to understanding how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions most effectively and efficiently), the fear that geoengineering might be seen by some as a solution to climate change that obviates the need for emissions reductions is widespread and must be taken seriously.

What geoengineering can do is provide a quick, effective, and affordable way of cooling the planet if the consequences of warming prove severe or even catastrophic. No other climate policy can make that claim.

A recent conference at AEI may have inadvertently contributed to these concerns when it asked whether geoengineering could be a “better alternative” to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation of greenhouse gases. Regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act is probably the single most inefficient and ineffective way imaginable to build the zero-emissions global economy necessary to halt the rise in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, so that approach to the issue should be rejected on its merits—but the idea that geoengineering may offer an alternative to any emissions reduction proposal, including EPA regulation, is false and counterproductive. It is simply the wrong way to think about geoengineering.

This is true for both practical and tactical reasons. Geoengineering has a potentially crucial role in forming effective climate policy—but it will never have that opportunity if it is seen as an alternative to emissions reductions. Moreover, due to inherent limitations of the proposed techniques, it is impractical to rely on geoengineering alone to address the risks of climate change. Any effective climate strategy will have to rely upon a combination of emissions reductions, adaptation, and, if circumstances warrant (as appears likely), some degree of geoengineering. Rather than setting these techniques opposite each other, we should seek to craft climate policies that pursue all three in a complementary fashion.

It is virtually certain that global emissions will continue to rise substantially for many decades to come, which is why a growing number of scientists and policy makers believe that more research on geoengineering is warranted.

Solar radiation management (SRM, the most plausible form of geoengineering at this point) entails significant unavoidable risks, which may be reduced with further study but will probably never be eliminated, given the complexity of the climate system and the limits of our knowledge. There is little doubt that this technique could cool the planet substantially, if necessary—but it would do so imperfectly, and would almost certainly have some undesirable effects, including possibly significant disruptions to global precipitation patterns (see figure below). SRM is a relatively crude way of counteracting the warming effects of elevated greenhouse gases, blocking incoming shortwave radiation (visible light) to balance the effects of elevated greenhouse gases, which trap outgoing long-wave radiation (infrared radiation). (In fact, it is surprising that SRM is so effective at balancing the warming effects of CO2, given that difference; in part, the explanation is the crucial role of feedback loops in climate. For example, if SRM allows the preservation or growth of sea ice, that would have a cooling effect on the climate.)

Thernstrom3.1.10 graph

These side effects of SRM, and other limitations, may well prove far better than doing nothing, and could be tolerable if we use a relatively modest amount of geoengineering for a finite period of time. But a policy of unconstrained, never-ending future emissions checked only by ever-increasing reliance on SRM techniques is almost certainly a recipe for disaster. The fear that geoengineering will be used in that way is potentially a substantial obstacle to progress in the field.

Furthermore, one significant effect of a high-CO2 atmosphere, ocean acidification, cannot be addressed through known geoengineering techniques. Absent a solution to CO2 emissions, the long-term effects of ocean acidity on calcifying marine organisms such as corals, crustaceans, and mollusks, may be significant.

What geoengineering can do, however, is provide a quick, effective, and affordable way of cooling the planet if the consequences of warming prove severe or even catastrophic. No other climate policy can make that claim.

Today, even leading skeptics of the idea such as Rutgers University’s Alan Robock advocate research on geoengineering.

Because carbon dioxide is extraordinarily persistent in the atmosphere—lasting for centuries—a program of emissions reductions, even an exceptionally ambitious one, offers virtually no hope whatsoever of reducing global temperatures in this century; by the time the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide peaks, whatever amount of warming it will cause will be locked in, and it will take centuries for the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to decline significantly through natural processes.

As a result, absent the use of large-scale systems to remove carbon dioxide from the air or SRM methods, there is literally no way to cool the planet this century. That is why geoengineering may be necessary; we have no other way of stopping the warming that current (and already inevitable) emissions are expected to produce. Far from being an alternative to emissions reductions, geoengineering is simply a different tool for a different task, the only feasible way of addressing the greatest dangers that climate change may pose in the 21st century.

Given the unprecedented nature of the challenge involved in transforming the global energy system, and the spectacular record of policy failures in this area, it is virtually certain that global emissions will continue to rise substantially for many decades to come, which is why a growing number of scientists and policy makers believe that more research on geoengineering is warranted. But the prospect of a palliative measure should not be seen as a reason to ignore the root causes of concern.

Loose Lips Sink Ships: The Moral Hazard Threat to Geoengineering

Thernstrom3.1.10Geoengineering is the most revolutionary and potentially valuable new idea in climate policy today, and it seems likely that the federal government will soon give serious consideration to funding an initial research and development program. Over the course of the last two years, geoengineering has come out of the closet; once-secret seminars have given way to open discussions sponsored by the nation’s leading scientific institutions. Even skeptics such as Rutgers University’s Alan Robock advocate research on geoengineering, recognizing that such an important idea cannot go unexamined.

Geoengineering is shedding its taboo and starting to take its place in the larger climate policy conversation, at a time when enormous winds of creative destruction are blowing through the climate policy community. It is a delicate moment, intellectually, and one meriting caution.

The nascent consensus around the need for research could still easily collapse. The one argument that could still derail research proposals is a misplaced fear of the moral hazard—the idea that greater consideration of geoengineering’s feasibility might lead people to conclude that it is a viable alternative to emissions reductions.

Seen in the proper light, geoengineering is potentially the key to unlock the mitigation puzzle—a way of controlling climate risks during the many decades that it will take to transform the global energy system. Asking nations to spend trillions to avoid damages (mostly many) decades in the future while doing little to address warming’s more immediate effects is a difficult task. But if geoengineering can stave off short- and medium-term harms while giving time for a long-term solution to take effect, the result is a coherent policy proposal that may enjoy broader public support.

The United States should seek to enter into voluntary governance arrangements as soon as possible that will facilitate responsible field testing of geoengineering experiments that may have transboundary effects.

As long as geoengineering is seen as a novel approach advocated by scientists as a way to curtail severe climate damages if necessary, it will be politically acceptable to the environmental community. If it is seen as a conservative alternative to emissions reductions, opposition to research in the field would be strident. As Andreae has remarked, “I refuse to go down that road. You’re papering over the problem so people can keep inflicting damage on the climate system without having to give up fossil fuels.”

The record of mistrust and acrimony in both domestic and international climate politics is rich—and counterproductive. Adaptation measures, for example, which could do a great deal to reduce the harmful effects of warming while improving the living conditions for millions, have long been neglected by policy makers for just this reason—an unreasoning fear that they would look like an excuse for continued emissions. Adaptation is only now slowly emerging from that cloud of suspicion; geoengineering’s status in the policy world is still far more tenuous.

With the collapse of the Kyoto framework, we are potentially poised to begin a new and far more constructive conversation about climate policy, one that sheds many of the misconceptions and naïve assumptions that impede a realistic understanding of the nature of the problem. Geoengineering could potentially inform that conversation on many levels—or it can become yet another opportunity for mistrust between north and south, east and west, rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats.

There are, however, encouraging signs that fears of the moral hazard threat are misplaced. It has always seemed implausible that any national leader would argue that geoengineering offers a safe alternative to emissions reductions—or that the American people would go along with the idea. Such a claim would require an extraordinary—indeed, arguably unobtainable—level of confidence in an unproven and manifestly imperfect technology.

With the collapse of the Kyoto framework, we are potentially poised to begin a new and far more constructive conversation about climate policy.

In fact, intuitively, it seems more likely that most people, when told about geoengineering, would be more inclined to support greater mitigation, not less, thinking: If such extreme measures are really being contemplated, surely we ought to more aggressively pursue other solutions.

Imagine, for instance, you were unable to control a potentially serious medical condition through diet and exercise—you want to, but lack the will power or the workout equipment you need—so after a while, your physician prescribes a medication that carries the risk of serious side effects while only treating some of your underlying condition. Wouldn’t you redouble your commitment to diet and exercise?

In fact, focus groups held in England as part of a study conducted by the Royal Society seem to confirm that hypothesis, with participants—particularly self-identified climate skeptics—reporting that consideration of geoengineering would be a galvanizing factor, not a cause for complacency, on their part.

The real intellectual hazard in the field is not the risk that geoengineering excuses indefinite emissions; rather, it is the danger that irrational fears of the concept derail proposals to research the most realistic method of significantly reducing global temperatures in the 21st century, should that be necessary. Witness the pointless conflagration that erupted around Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, which offered a reasonably good discussion of geoengineering’s potential, only to clumsily stumble into this minefield when Levitt remarked, “We could end this debate and be done with it, and move on to problems that are harder to solve.” With that single remark (and a few similar stumbles), Levitt and Dubner turned a potentially valuable contribution to the discussion into a mindless mudslinging match with activist climate bloggers such as Joe Romm.

‘The climate is complicated. Why should we try to control it using just one knob?’

Similarly, it is counterproductive for conservatives to suggest that there is an American national interest in geoengineering that needs more careful evaluation before agreeing to governance arrangements for research. Even the hint that America might use geoengineering for its own advantage might be enough to poison the waters of international dialogue on this crucial subject just when the conversation is about to commence. At a time when the United States and the United Kingdom are poised to embark upon geoengineering research projects, the issue of governance arrangements for this work has suddenly become urgent.

Our national interest in this matter is clear: the United States should seek to enter into voluntary governance arrangements as soon as possible that will facilitate responsible field testing of geoengineering experiments that may have transboundary effects. Without such an agreement, research will almost certainly be inhibited, and there is some danger that ungoverned field experiments may have, or be perceived to have, deleterious effects. In negotiating governance arrangements, some countries may seek terms that might restrict this research; such sentiments will only be exacerbated by suggestions that America’s perspective on this issue may be unduly nationalistic.

America’s goal should be to establish governance agreements that promote transparency, trust, and international dialogue as a means of addressing legitimate national concerns about geoengineering’s potential hazards. Facilitating responsible and effective national and international geoengineering research programs is clearly in the interest of all nations; misperceptions and misconceptions are the greatest threat to sensible governance arrangements for this important field

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It is natural for conservatives to seek a conservative perspective on geoengineering. In fact, perhaps conservatives’ greatest gift to geoengineering policy would be to deflect ideological misconceptions on both the Right and Left. Critics accuse proponents of geoengineering research of seeking a “quick fix” for the climate problem. Nothing should be further from the truth. Geoengineering is not a solution, and climate is not a problem that can be solved (at least not within our lifetimes). Climate change is a condition to be managed, and geoengineering offers the prospect of a group of new tools to help manage it, adding to a sparse and so-far spectacularly ineffective policy toolbox.

That is the true intellectual significance of this idea: Geoengineering, in all its forms, challenges us to take the climate seriously enough to seek to understand all of its components, how they interact with each other, and all the ways in which we can influence their interactions. As climate scientist Tim Lenton has remarked, “The climate is complicated. Why should we try to control it using just one knob?” More broadly, geoengineering provides a range of important, unique insights into the working of the climate system. This is a more comprehensive, science-based perspective on the climate challenge, rather than a purely regulatory pathway, one that is more likely to produce the right results in the end.

Samuel Thernstrom is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and codirector of AEI’s Geoengineering Project.

FURTHER READING: Thernstrom also discusses “The Quiet Death of the Kyoto Protocol” and ‘soft’ geoengineering proposals in “White Makes Right? Steven Chu’s Helpful Idea.” He explained the importance of “Engineering Our Attitudes” on geoengineering, and how the “Climate Change Email Scandal Underscores Myth of Pure Science.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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