PLAYING GOD WITH WEATHER
GERNOT WAGNER & MARTIN L. WEITZMAN
Wagner is an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund and
author of But Will the Planet Notice. Martin L. Weitzman
is Professor of Economics at Harvard University.
serious is the threat of global warming? One way to figure out
is to take your cues from some leading climate scientists: They
have moved on. That doesn't mean they've abandoned the issue,
but they are looking beyond what all agree is the most obvious
solution -- decreasing the amount of carbon we spew into the
atmosphere in the first place.
These scientists are beginning to look for a Plan B. There are
two distinct approaches under consideration -- sucking carbon
out of the atmosphere, or creating an artificial sun shield
for the planet. The former, which involves reversing some of
the very processes that are leading to the climate problem,
is expensive. The latter just sounds scary. David Keith, a leading
thinker on geoengineering, calls it "chemotherapy"
for the planet. "You are repulsed?" he says. "Good.
No one should like it. It's a terrible option."
or not, with the globe failing to develop other ways to halt
climate change, geoengineering is increasingly becoming an option.
The science and engineering are relentlessly marching on: Most
research so far has focused on computer modeling, but some has
started to move beyond -- trying to test, for example, how to
deliver particles into the upper reaches of the atmosphere.
This summer, an entrepreneur conducted a rogue experiment, dumping
100 tons of iron into the Pacific in an attempt to "seed"
the ocean and spur the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
This episode represents a particularly apt example of science
-- in this case, self-experimentation -- speeding far ahead
of public opinion and oversight.
HIGH COST OF DOING NOTHING
the world can't get its act together to limit carbon emissions,
geoengineering may be the only option we have. Distill the climate
problem down to the essentials, and it becomes obvious that
global warming is fundamentally a market failure: All seven
billion of us human beings are free riders on a planet that
is heating up. We put billions of tons of carbon dioxide into
the atmosphere every year, and largely aren't required to pay
for the privilege. There's too little incentive to stop polluting.
are some of the world's worst offenders. Every U.S. citizen,
on average, emits around 20 tons of carbon dioxide a year --
twice that of the average European. All kinds of things contribute
to that number. Driving the average U.S. vehicle in an average
year accounts for more than 5 tons. The full carbon footprint
of the average thrice-weekly cheeseburger: half a ton a year.
One roundtrip cross-country flight: one ton.
of these tons of carbon dioxide causes at least $20 worth of
damage in adverse health effects, flooded coastlines and other
effects of climate change. By mid-century, that figure will
rise to at least $50. And a truly catastrophic event caused
by a warmer climate, like Antarctic ice sheets collapsing long
ahead of schedule or Arctic methane bubbling up at precipitous
rates, resulting in runaway global warming, could increase those
costs by a factor of 10 or more. How do you put a price tag
on even a 1 percent risk of altering the climate so much that
it could destroy civilization as we know it?
of us are paying our fair share for the damage that we're doing
to the planet. For example, airlines don't add $20 to ticket
prices in order to pay for the damage caused per passenger by
flying back and forth across the country. That decreases costs
up front, but it also comes at enormous cost to society down
the road. The world's population -- led by the one billion or
so global high emitters -- are doing many hundreds of billions
of dollars of damage to the planet, and in the near future the
costs will skyrocket into the trillions.
riding also plagues relations between countries. Some, like
the European Union, have a cap or tax on carbon pollution. Most
are still waiting on the sidelines. Why should any single country
cut its carbon emissions when it knows that its reductions will
only be a drop in the bucket toward solving climate change --
and other nations aren't asking their citizens to pay their
fair share? Blame it on short election cycles, partisanship,
or fossil energy interests, the political will often doesn't
exist -- whether in Washington or the latest global environment
gathering in Rio de Janeiro.
IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT
riders are only half the problem. Free drivers may be as important.
The allure of geoengineering derives from the simple fact that
- given what little we know about it at the moment - it appears
to be a comparatively cheap way to combat climate change. And
it doesn't take a global agreement to act. It takes one actor
-- one country -- in the driver's seat.
for example, the very existence of an island, nation, city,
or agricultural region is threatened by global warming, the
question among its leaders will no longer be whether geoengineering
is an option, but what the effects, positive and negative, might
be and how it could be carried out. That's also where the science
stands today, and the economics points in the same direction.
option that will inevitably come under consideration is the
possibility of shooting reflecting particles into the upper
atmosphere to create an artificial sun shield for the planet.
Blocking some of the sun's rays from hitting the planet may
sound like science fiction or hubris, or both. But geoengineers
are already looking at which particles would work best, and
how to deliver them: Planes, balloons or multiple mile-long
hoses are all contenders.
these options have one thing in common: They are cheap -- at
least from the narrow perspective of those doing the geoengineering.
Hence the ‘free’ in free driver.
fact, the price tag of these geoengineering strategies is likely
to be negligible relative to the purported benefits: Columbia
University's Scott Barrett, among others, has calculated that
it would cost pennies to offset a ton of carbon dioxide from
the atmosphere. By comparison, it costs dollars per ton to reduce
carbon dioxide emissions in the first place.
higher cost of attacking the problem head-on, by reducing carbon
emissions, would still be a bargain compared to the financial,
ecological and human costs of unchecked global warming. But
free riding is so much easier, politically and financially.
what makes the free driver effect so powerful. Geoengineering
is seductively cheap, and it doesn't take the collective will
of billions of people -- or policies guiding those billions
-- to have a major effect. Anyone capable of flying a fleet
of planes at high altitudes could conceivably have a go at altering
the planet's atmosphere, and do so at a fraction of the cost
of decreasing carbon dioxide pollution. But here's the catch:
Nobody knows the costs of potential unknown and sometimes unknowable
side effects, and there could be grave political and legal repercussions
when someone starts playing God with the climate.
makes scientists believe geoengineering could work? It's been
tried before -- by nature, not by humanity.
Mount Pinatubo erupted in June 1991, it forced the evacuation
of 200,000 Filipinos and shot 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide
into the stratosphere. The added sulfur counteracted the effect
of 1,100 billion tons of carbon dioxide that had been accumulating
in the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
In 1992 and 1993, it decreased global temperatures by a bit
less than 1 degree Fahrenheit by reducing the amount of sunlight
that hit the earth's surface. That was about the same amount
temperatures had risen at that point from carbon added to the
atmosphere by human activity. In other words, Mount Pinatubo
alone offset all temperature increases from the beginning of
the Industrial Revolution.
aftermath of Mount Pinatubo's eruption suggests the limitations
of this kind of geoengineering. The excess carbon dioxide in
the air isn't being removed -- geoengineering would simply add
millions of tons of sulfur dioxide (or some custom designed
material) to the atmosphere. That might lower temperatures --
but it would not address other problems caused by global warming.
For example, it wouldn't stop the ongoing acidification of the
oceans, which may kill much of the life they hold.
there will probably be a host of unknown, unexpected consequences.
For example, some climatologists blame the Mount Pinatubo eruption
for flooding along the Mississippi River in 1993 and for droughts
in sub-Saharan African. That still pales in comparison to the
1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in present-day Indonesia, which
caused the year without a summer linked to some 200,000 deaths
across Europe in 1816. Incidentally, the eruption also had some
unexpected cultural repercussions: All those overcast days also
forced Mary Shelley and John William Polidori to spend much
of their Swiss summer holidays indoors, jumpstarting the creation
of both Frankenstein and The Vampyre (an inspiration
doesn't take much imagination to see that pumping one pollutant
into the atmosphere in an attempt to offset the effects of another
could backfire. It may also be impossible to demonstrate which
adverse climate events were caused by which single geoengineering
intervention. That throws a wrench into the traditional research
model: It's one thing to study the effects of a past volcanic
eruption or to fiddle in a lab with self-contained experiments.
It's quite another to devise an experiment that could be conducted
in the real world. It would be all too easy to blur the line
between experiment and deployment. That and many other questions
need to be answered, lest we enter wholly unchartered territory
when it comes to playing with the atmosphere of our shared home.
BELTS ARE GOOD, BUT THERE’S NO AVOIDING SPEED LIMITS
of geoengineering inevitably leads to the question of moral
hazard. Will the exploration of these technologies lull humanity
into thinking that it need not act responsibly and cut carbon
emissions? Perhaps. Seat belt laws may make some drivers feel
so safe that they drive more recklessly. Still, that is hardly
an argument against those laws.
the international community should not abandon efforts to limit
carbon emissions, scientists must also be prepared to take geoengineering
seriously. Humanity may already have passed so many global warming
tipping points that -- even with radical action to cut emissions
-- it may be important to have some form of geoengineering in
worst we can do is fall into the trap of thinking geoengineering
is a panacea to our climate change problem. While its initial
costs may be seductively low, no one knows the unintended consequences
of trying to alter the planet's atmosphere. Just as it seems
to cost almost nothing to emit carbon -- leading all of us to
emit more than we ought to -- geoengineering may appear cheap
at first, only to leave humanity and nature to foot a much larger
bill later on. Free riding turns out not to be cheap after all.
Free driving may face the same conclusion.
is it likely that everyone will face the same costs. Climate
change does not affect all areas of the globe evenly. Neither
will geoengineering. What if it leads to a further drying out
of the southwestern United States or of sub-Saharan Africa,
or to flooding elsewhere?
the risks cannot be ignored, not even considering geoengineering
research is clearly not an option. Desertification and flooding
are also among the many consequences of unchecked global warming.
The benefit-cost calculation of geoengineering must take these
effects into account.
fact that climate change's effects are distributed unevenly
around the globe may also lead some nations to experiment with
geoengineering on their own. India's national security advisor
wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't at least consider countering
the monsoon effects of carbon with relatively small amounts
of extra sulfur. And Bangladesh's finance minister would be
remiss if he didn't weigh the all-too-real costs of moving tens
of millions of people against the benefits of cloud-brightening
(another possible way to deflect more sunlight back into space).
short, it will not just be up to U.S. scientists or a handful
of technologically advanced countries to weigh the pros and
cons of geoengineering. These technologies will be available
to many countries -- and as we see today, world leaders don't
always succeed in working together to combat the threat of climate
it takes is a single actor willing to focus on the purported
benefits to his country or her region to pull the geoengineering
trigger. The task with geoengineering is to coordinate international
inaction while the international community considers what steps
should be taken. The fate of the planet cannot be left in the
hands of one leader, one nation, one billionaire.
we are still many years off from the full free driver effect
taking hold. There's some time to engage in a serious global
governance debate and careful research; building coalitions,
guiding countries and perhaps even individuals lest they take
global matters into their own hands. In fact, that is where
the discussion stands at the moment, with a governance initiative
convened by the British Royal Society, the Academy of Sciences
for the Developing World, and the Environmental Defense Fund,
among other deliberations guiding how geoengineering research
should be pursued.
TIME COME THE FREE DRIVERS
clock, however, is ticking. A single dramatic climate-related
event anywhere in the world -- think Hurricane Katrina on steroids
-- could trigger the free driver effect. That event need not
be global and it need not even be conclusively linked to global
warming. A nervous leader of a frightened nation might well
race past the point of debate to deployment. The free driver
effect will all but guarantee that we will face this choice
at some point.
riding and free driving occupy opposite poles of the spectrum
of climate action: One ensures that individuals won't supply
enough of a public good. The other creates an incentive to engage
in potentially reckless geoengineering and supply a global bad.
It's tough to say which one is more dangerous. Together, these
powerful forces could push the globe to the brink.