Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Geoengineering II - Notes on the Politics

It is likely that the very notion of geoengineering strikes most people as preposterous, a science fiction fantasy cure for global warming or another indication of the technological hubris of humankind. (It is possible it is both.) Such dismissals, however, become moot in a study of the politics of geoengineering. It does not matter if it is an effective antidote for climate change; nor does it matter if it is a smart idea or not. What matters, politically, are these two certainties:

  1. Solar radiation management (SRM) is technically viable and financially cheap for most nations.
  2. SRM, setting aside all other effects, is a fast-acting method to bring down global temperatures.
Those two realities require only the addition of human stupidity and arrogance to initiate global conflict on a catastrophic scale. And we should not doubt the capacity of individuals or states to take up geoengineering in a moment of panic or opportunity. Large-scale interventions in the climate are hardly anything new. Humans just tend not to notice them as they happen. America in the 1930s thought of little but "progress" when it proceeded to dam every river in the New Deal quest to electrify American households. Few international onlookers think China's obscene plan to divert the major rivers that water southern Asia is a wise idea, but  China itself is moving forward with Maoist confidence to bring water to the parched North.

It is also worth pointing out who we are dealing with in terms of global leadership. Do we imagine that this man would not consider a geoengineering experiment? Are we comforted by the state of our diplomatic relationship with him? Let's not leave the West out either. Megalomaniacal foreign dictators are worrisome; so too are the imbeciles that find public office in advanced democracies.

A less cynical, more historical observation would be this: human beings have almost never rejected the introduction of new and powerful technologies. A few examples come to mind, Tokugawa's Japan eschewing guns or the Amish Mennonites in the United States. Examples of short-lived reactions against technology are more numerous: Socrates's warning against the written word; the Luddite "Swing" rebellions in 1830 Britain, or the current movement against genetically modified foods to name a few. All these reactions and warnings may have been (or continue to be) wise, but the point is they went unheeded by human society. More compelling, from an historian's point of view, are the instances when humans introduced world-changing technology without necessarily thinking through all the implications. Consider the justification Henry Stimson, Secretary of War to FDR and Truman, made in Harper's Magazine in 1947 regarding the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
My chief purpose was to end the war in victory with the least possible cost in the lives of the men in the armies which I had helped to raise. In the light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us I believe that no man in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.
Reasoning along these lines—saving the lives of one's own people—could surely be employed by a head of state to justify the use of SRM in the not-so-distant future. If the Maldives hired a private company to disperse sulfate aerosols and prevent sea level rise that threatens the existence of their islands, could they not avail themselves of the same logic as Stimson?

Political scientists have begun to take note of geoengineering for precisely these reasons. And the scientists have begun to focus on the political side as well. One study noted that a small coalition of governments could agree among themselves to embark upon a program of SRM that benefits their nations while harming others. The coalition would be incentivized to act unilaterally. International governance of geoengineering, then, is crucial, and the sooner the better. Scientists and law professors have begun to demand this. Four years ago, a call was made for geoengineering research and open discourse in Foreign Affairs. (Apologies for the paywall.) The authors, David Victor et al., argued the following:
A broad and solid foundation of research would help on three fronts. First, it would transform the discussion about geoengineering from an abstract debate into one focused on real risk assessment. Second, a research program that was backed by the world s top scientific academies could secure funding and political cover for essential but controversial experiments. (Field trials of engineered aerosols, for example, could spark protests comparable to those that accompanied trials of genetically modified crops.) Such experiments will be seen as more acceptable if they are designed and overseen by the world’s leading scientists and evaluated in a fully transparent fashion. Third, and what is crucial, a better under standing of the dangers of geoengineering would help nations craft the norms that should govern the testing and possible deployment of newly developed technologies. Scientists could be influential in creating these norms, just as nuclear scientists framed the options on nuclear testing and influenced pivotal governments during the Cold War.
Fuller engagement in geoengineering research and diplomacy presents its own set of problems. One concern is the idea of a moral hazard regarding emissions. Reader JW made exactly this point in response to the last post:
Overall, I am a bit of a skeptic of geoengineering, chiefly because I feel it creates complacency among the average person and doesn't force them to become more personally responsible. Rather, it perpetuates the notion that we can simply solve our technology-created problems with more technology instead of lifestyle change. Mainly, I'm afraid that once geoengineering technology gets put in place, people would become set on it and not desire more change, even if the geoengineering was sold as a stop-gap measure before a long term solution.
Quite possible, although curiously a recent study found that introducing geoengineering might actually enhance CO2 abatement by a new environmentally aware generation. (One study using game theory deserves serious skepticism.) Nor, as JW also commented, does geoengineering offer any solution to the other terrible consequences of pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, like ocean acidification.

Nevertheless, policies with global consequences deserve global discourse and, almost certainly, international governance. We are immersed in climate problems and headed assuredly for a climate crisis. The Republican Party refuses to acknowledge the problem let alone address solutions. Mitt Romney admitted climate change was a problem, but refused to endorse any method of dealing with it because "China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases." (Talk about "leading from behind.") The current leading contenders for the Republican nomination in 2016 are worse. Marco Rubio said in his rebuttal to Obama's 2013 State of the Union Address that "our government can't control the weather." Rand Paul, like Rubio a climate-change denier, believes that the EPA is waging war on private property. They are not just anti-science. As I have argued before, the Republican political establishment is prone to paranoia, anti-internationalist, and deeply immersed in the mythology of American exceptionalism. All of these prejudices and pathologies represent threats to progress on climate change and reasonable work on geoengineering.

Yet when reality strikes in the form of a climate crisis, something tells me that the Republicans will be all too willing in that moment to turn to the technical quick-fix. They've already shown their hand. In 2001, after a campaign spent denying global warming and condemning Al Gore for his environmentalism, George W. Bush invited David Keith and other scientists to the White House for a discussion called "Response Options to Rapid or Severe Climate Change."

The question, then, is whether we want people in power to turn to such technology in secret, in haste, and in ignorance?

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