Why people disagree about geoengineering
October 26, 2009, 11:08 am
Filed under: Geoengineering, Media, Uncategorized

Steven Levitt, at the end of a long post on his freakonomics blog about Superfreakonomics and geoengineering:

For all the blogosphere shouting against our chapter, I have to be honest and say that I just don’t get it. I can’t understand why any environmentalist who really cares about the Earth’s future could say with a straight face that geoengineering doesn’t deserve a seat at the table as the global-warming debate heats up.

This mischaracterises the debate/furore/ritual clubbing/whatever (see previous posts). Quite a lot of the people attacking superfreakonomics — eg Brad Delong — *do* want geoengineering to have a seat at the table. It’s just that they don’t like the superfreaks’ treatment of the subject — and may, as I do, think such treatment is going to make it harder to get that seat, not easier. They, and I, are criticising the chapter not because geoengineering shouldn’t be taken seriously, but because Levitt and Dubner don’t seem to be trying to take it seriously: their handling of the issue  is partial and unsatisfactory. It mixes a poorly tempered enthusiasm for geoengineering with some tired tropes of global warming denialism (which serve no clear purpose in the argument), and it frames the idea specifically as an alternative to emissions reductions (“Mt Pinatubo versus Al Gore”, “solve the whole global warming problem”) rather than as an additional strategy should there be a need for prompt cooling.

From the evidence of his post Levitt sort-of-gets some of this: that is why he says that the chapter in question is really about “how could we most efficiently cool the earth fast”, rather than other questions such as “how can we most equitably manage the risk of climate change”. But: a) while it may well be that a close reading provides textual support for the idea that the superfreaks acknowledge the narrow focus of their question, the chapter sure gives the impression that it is about climate change in general; b) asking “how can we most efficiently cool the earth fast” without asking broader questions about climate change is intellectually shallow; c) even in the narrow frame, surely “how could we most efficiently cool the earth fast and keep it cool” is a better question, with a more complex answer.

Generosity dictates, though, that we should also look more generally at the real phenomenon that Levitt points to: people who don’t want geoengineering discussed at all, or only under the strictest of limits. I disagree with these people. But I don’t find it very hard to understand where they are coming from. Here are five components to their arguments, as I see them.

  1. Geongineering adds to the climate risks unconscionably. Volcanoes, and by implication other stratospheric-veil schemes, screw with hydrology; cloud brightening can change ocean currents; ocean fertilization radically rearranges ecosystems: we don’t know how to do any of these things well, and if we sanction the general idea that geoengineering is plausible we are prohibitively unlikely to retire all these risks before going ahead with a scheme. As applied to geoengineering research this is partly an epistemological argument (the impossibility of getting knowledge of a high enough quality) and partly a slippery slope argument. I think in general slippery slope arguments are overblown, but I can see where this line of reasoning is coming from. (There is also a linked concern about crowding out research money for other aspects of climate, but I think that’s a sceond tier argument)
  2. It is reasonable to distrust a priori the motives of anyone who tries to argue for any approach to global warming other than emissions reduction. People feel this because they know, from experience and analysis, that that there are extremely powerful lobbies which want to slow or derail emissions reduction, and assume that pretty much anyone saying anything along those lines is doing so as either a dupe or a tool of those lobbies. There is an element of cognitive miserliness in this; but where one person says cognitive miser another might say cognitively prudent, and ask why he or she should bother wasting cognition on a subject when past experience has given them a pretty damn good inductive basis for thinking such an investment of thought will be wasted.
  3. I think its clearly true that many environmentalists have a pre-existing desire for people to live low-impact, low-consumption lives, often because they sincerely believe that this will make everyone happier. To some extent, and with various levels of awareness that they are behaving in this way, some of these people see concern about global warming as an instrumental way to bring a low-consumption low-impact work of some sort about. This is not to say they are insincere in their concern about global warming: merely that it is overdetermined. I personally would rather people separated out these two strands of their thought, but I can see as a matter of fact that they frequently don’t, and I’m sure if Steve Levitt was really trying to “get” things he could see that to.
  4. The first moral argument. At an everything-I-need-to-know-I-learned-in-kindergarten level people think that when you make a mess you should clean it up, not paint over it, even if painting over it is much easier. This is not a particularly good argument, and will have little if any traction with people who see the world in terms of costs and benefits — but it is an argument that people can feel easily and clearly, and feelings about the morality of pollution run deep.
  5. The second moral argument: the purpose of environmental action is to restore nature. This means getting back to a preindustrial sort of a climate, with lower greenhouse gases and no permanent high-altitude smogs. For me, this is a flawed argument, a planet-wide application of the naturalistic fallacy; I think correct environmental action is much more complex, and that increasing the possibilities for human happiness matters more than an idealised concern for nature. But I understand that other people don’t feel this way.

There is doubtless more to geoengineering opposition than this, but these five points seem to me to cover a great deal of it. The important thing is to grasp that geoengineering is at some level just another form of climate change, that there are a great many of ways in which people disagree about climate change, and that it helps to understand them. If Steven Levitt wants to understand all this better, then he ought to buy a copy of  Mike Hulme’s “Why we disagree about global warming” (Amazon US|UK), as discussed in the Copenhagen reading list post.

PS: Recent useful contributions to the superfreakonomics debate: an interview with Ken Caldeira by Jeff Goodell, whose book on all this is going to be way better than Superfreakonomics, and Daniel Davies on what contrarians should expect.

3 Comments so far
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Hi Oliver

Cheers for your list. It reads a like a fairly grudging presentation of why opponents of geo-engineering are as alarmed as we are at the rising prominence of the field. Allow me to add a few comments as one of those true non-believers:

1. “Geoengineering adds to climate risks unconscionably”. Well – not just climate risks…. The missing point is that there are also other environmental and social risks. We are facing multiple planetary crises with similar systemic roots. Any real ‘solution’ has to not only stabilize the climate and other planetary cycles (water, nitrogen etc) and make energetic sense but it must at the very least take into account other related crises: loss of biodiversity, the growing inequality between rich and poor, the erosion of cultures, sovereignty and human rights, declining access to clean water and health care , the expansion of landlessness, rising food insecurity just for starters. Climate change is serious but only the latest in a line of serious problems that can’t be dealt with one at a time. Two thirds of the global population was already living in a state of everyday crisis before atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases reached today’s alarming levels and if a ‘geo-engineering solution’ worsens their lives to protect the comfortable lives of the better-off, than that is also unconscionable.

And yes, I know that a worsening climate situation also worsens these other problems but there is no rational basis for allowing climate change to trump all of these other co-existing problems.

2. “It is reasonable to distrust a priori the motives of anyone who tries to argue for any approach to global warming other than emissions reduction”. The key here is naivete. I don’t — always — distrust the motives of those who want a research programme on geoengineering, but I sometimes do distrust their political judgment. It seems to me the pro-geoengineering camp is becoming an unholy alliance (marriage of convenience?) between honestly concerned climate scientists experiencing understandable levels of panic and industrial, financial and political interests spotting another useful diversionary strategy to further derail global agreements and a way to keep what they consider to be their fair share of the pie. I tend to find the latter camp more politically astute (and yes I do distrust their motives and ideological biases) and the former camp sincere but naive about power and politics in climbing into bed with these sorts of agendas. It is astonishingly naïve to think that politicians who have failed to deliver on mitigation targets will not jump at the opportunity for a “techno-fix”, however sketchy, that appears to let them off the hook until the next election. The problem is not mainly what peoples motives are, but what the effects of their actions are.

Arguments 3 and 4 – I think you are right here and I appreciate the recognition of sincerity but the tone is a tad patronizing given that the arguments have not been refuted. Argument 4 is particularly relevant with regards to SRM technologies, which essentially mask rather than reduce high concentrations of GHGs.

5. “The second moral argument: the purpose of environmental action is to restore nature.” There is a corollary to this which is a historically-derived distrust of techno-science and scientific hubris. After generations of technological panaceas that turned into environmental and social disasters (think DDT, thalidomide, Chernobyl, dioxin poisoning, hormone disruption, the Green Revolution, antibiotic overuse, CFC’s) people are understandably skeptical of new planet-altering schemes. Why let techno-science move on to even riskier “solutions” when we know that underlying scientific knowledge, especially related to climate, is hugely incomplete? “Nature knows best” therefore is not so much romantic folklore of a pre-industrial Golden Age as choosing historically tested circumstances for guidance on what is safe. Its roughly the same reason James Hanson chooses 350 ppm as an appropriate threshold for atmospheric carbon – we’ve been there before and we know what it looks like. There are also good scientific reasons for prioritising the protection of intact ecosystems for their resilience and ability to adapt as well as effective carbon sinks.

“One could be opposed to any technology that centralized power as much as some geoengineering technologies might do”. This is key, — not an afterthought. By definition, geoengineering has to put a large amount of technological power in the hands of whoever is deploying the technology (the “who has their hands on the thermostat’ question). Global decision-making processes overwhelmingly favour the already powerful (OECD and industrial interests) and they will control the technology and its deployment. While timid noises are being made about the need for an international discussion on governance of geoengineering, that discussion is moving far slower than the technology itself. Global discussions should, logically, proceed it. ,Geoengineering will further remove power from those who have historically contributed little to the problem and who are already suffering the most impacts. It’s also why militarization of geoengineering (or at least its geopolitical ramifications) looms large as a concern.

A further source of opposition is that geoengineering is being advanced as part of a package of market-based responses to climate change that have so far proved socially and ecologically damaging, inequitable and completely ineffective at limiting greenhouse gas concentrations (offsets, biofuels, carbon trade). The widespread opposition to recent ocean fertilization schemes has in large part been fuelled by the presence of for-profit companies such as Climos and Planktos looking to get rich quick out of the climate change crisis. Both new technologies and crises situations alike (war, poverty, environmental degradation) always attract profiteers who misrepresent and oversell for their own financial ends. Its a good way to make a quick buck and a terrible way to save the world.

So to summarize, reasons to oppose geoengineering include:

-Geoengineering falsely isolates the climate problem from other related crisis and is therefore an inadequate response with potentially devastating social and ecological consequences.

-Geoengineers largely appear either politically naïve or tied to interests with a strong stake in maintaining the economic status quo (which we would regard as highly inequitable).

-Geoengineering leads us into a high-risk engineered world with unpredictable consequences and vulnerabilities rather than building resilience of existing ecosystems.

– Countless previous risky technologies overpromised as panaceas have been unleashed onto society and the biosphere without adequate risk assessment and incomplete scientific knowledge and proved damaging to the common good. Geoengineering seems firmly in that inglorious tradition.

-Geoengineering is seen as a centralized technology facilitating greater concentration of economic and technological power in the hands of those who already unfairly wield power – eg strengthening OECD states and further disempowering developing countries.

– Geoengineering can be developed and deployed absent of multilateral agreement and potentially for military or geopolitical advantage. An international discussion regarding governance and regulation of geoengineering should precede further research and development and should be an absolute pre-condition to developing the technologies.

-Geoengineering is seen as another market-based mechanism, driven by short term profiteers, that will deliver inequitable outcomes and no real results.

Comment by Jim Thomas

“generations of technological panaceas that turned into environmental and social disasters (think DDT, thalidomide, Chernobyl, dioxin poisoning, hormone disruption, the Green Revolution, antibiotic overuse, CFC’s)”

quite an impressive list… also a tad selective, methinks

Gosh, if I believed in the anti-science movement (and I really don’t), this might make me suspect that the arguments against geo-engineering of any kind were often weighted more toward premise than conclusion.

Comment by Jon Turney

of course its a selective list but its these histories that instill caution -thats not to say every technological promise is overblown or a disaster waiting to happen but some will be.

which anti-science movement?

Comment by Jim Thomas

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