Political Animal


December 17, 2012 12:00 PM The Other Climate Change Threat

By Ryan Cooper

People tend to talk about climate change only along one axis: how much greenhouse gas we’re dumping into the atmosphere, and how much heating is likely to happen as a result. Less discussed is the possibility of trying to deliberately lower the Earth’s temperature. The economist Martin Weitzman has a paper out on the economics of this geoengineering:

A second less-familiar externality shows up in the scary form of geoengineering the stratosphere with reflective particles to block incoming solar radiation. This geoengineering-type externality is so relatively cheap to enact that it might in principle effectively be undertaken unilaterally by one nation feeling itself under climate siege, to the detriment of other nations. The challenge with this second global externality also appears to be enormous, because here too so much is at stake and it also seems difficult to reach an international governing agreement. If the first externality founders on the “free rider” problem of underprovision, then the second externality founders on what might be called the “free driver” problem of overprovision. If the first externality is the “mother of all externalities,” then the second externality might be called the “father of all externalities.” These two powerful externalities appear to be almost polar opposites, between which the world is trapped.

As Weitzman mentions, probably the most salient fact here is just how cheap it would be to attempt geoengineering. Preliminary estimates based on seeding the atmosphere with reflective chemicals have found a per-year cost in the single billions. What this means is that a single desperate nation of even moderate wealth could afford it. (Imagine, for example, a nation of low-lying islands whose medium-term existence is threatened by sea level rise.)

It should be said this is a wretched solution to climate change, a Hail Mary effort if all else fails. Among other things, it wouldn’t stop ocean acidification, and would wreck local weather patterns. But the United States of all countries should realize that nations which feel they are in mortal peril—as indeed many are—are prone to reckless action.

Ryan Avent has more.


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • Rick B on December 17, 2012 12:51 PM:

    Sounds like a solution Bangladesh might consider. According to wikipedia, each year about 18% of the nation floods normally, killing about 5,000 people per year. That's in a normal year.

    If the sea level rises that will get worse.

  • Josef K on December 17, 2012 12:55 PM:

    It should be said this is a wretched solution to climate change, a Hail Mary effort if all else fails.

    Its not simply a "wretched" solution or even a "hail maria" pass (I decline to use capitals there, btw).

    Its a "lets deliberately screw up the climate" move. Geoengineering or terraforming or whatever you call it is little more than premeditated ecological vandalism.

    And the big problem with this isn't even the fact its a deliberate action; it the fact the its being contemplated as if the climate were a static bunch of actions/reactions that can be neatly categorized and predicted. You might as well ask all 10-to-the-ten-thousandths-power air molecules in the lower atmosphere to move in tightly-specific course for the next century.

  • Rabbler on December 17, 2012 1:04 PM:

    'Air molecules?'

  • Anonymous37 on December 17, 2012 1:08 PM:

    On the subject of geo-engineering, I think it’s a crock. We’ll never get there. They’re all techie fantasies, far-out sci-fi notions, Star Wars physics-style. The cheapest and most effective method of
    geo-engineering is to cut the world’s population in half.

    Just a tremendous massacre. That’s the genuinely effective geo-engineering: it’s fast, it commonly works, it’s been proven effective for centuries by lebensraum exponents everywhere, and if you chose the right tactics and weaponry it might even look like a big

    You don’t have to put on a fascist armband and start ranting for the public’s blood; an effort like that could be quite subtle and covert, the very opposite of showboat geo-engineering. “Mysterious deadly flu in the Congo? We’d better keep all our health workers right here, they’re badly needed in New York!”

    Nobody’s gonna sit around watching Copenhagen delegates debating giant phony orbital solar mirrors if the windmills in Copenhagen harbor are blowing over When and if it becomes obvious that we truly need massive, ultra-costly geo-engineering interventions, that we have no other choice, then somebody — likely some traumatized veterans of weather havoc who are full of Al Qaeda self-righteousness — they’re gonna cut emissions in half by cutting people in half. Mankind
    wouldn’t lack for means, motive, opportunity and eager volunteers.
    -- Bruce Sterling, State of the World 2010

  • emjayay on December 17, 2012 3:22 PM:

    Well, Mt. Pinatubo lowered the earth's temperature a degree or two. So a more natural kind of geoengineering would be to get some big volcano to go off. Probably a nuke in it would work. Ooops, nuclear fallout. Damn. Otherwise, not a bad idea.

    Meanwhile, like a lot of things, it's not like climate change is all that unsolvable. Or wasn't a decade or two ago. We might start with cutting fossil fueled energy use by half in oh say five years any way possible, which would include a whole lot of conservation. Then in half again in five more years. Stop using coal ASAP and make China do it too. I'm sure it would be less of an imposition on us than two wars in the Middle East for no reason. We had no problem doing that. And entirely on borrowed money besides.

    But of course we can't do anything about anything anymore, until it clouts the right wing over the head first. Like a whole bunch of kids and teachers get murdered and finally maybe we might possibly get some tiny incremental change in gun laws to put them back to where they were from 1994 to 2004. Like all coastal cities and the whole state of Florida being under ten feet of water in a few years, then they will discover human caused climate change. Aaaaarghh.