The Fix Is Spin

October 21, 2009

Boy, the blogosphere is all a twitter with discussion of geoengineering.  Gotta hand it to Levitt and Dubner for that, even if they’ve run the wrong way. I really enjoyed this post on geoengineering over at Real Climate, more or less following up on the Romm/Levitt&Dubner/Pielke/Caldeira flap from earlier in the week.

A lot of my scholarly work explores the ethical dimensions of various remediation technologies — including, but not limited to, geoengineering — so it is always illuminating for me to read other related commentaries on science, economics, governance, and public policy.  Gavin offers some nice answers to questions that I think rest at the surface of this incredibly complex question.  Is geoengineering really cheap? Is it a fix? Is there a moral hazard? and so on. I particularly appreciated this bit of wisdom:

It is precisely because climate modellers understand that climate models do not provide precise predictions that they have argued for a reduction in the forces driving climate change. The existence of a near-perfect climate model is therefore a sine qua non for responsible geo-engineering, but should such a model exist, it would likely alleviate the need for geo-engineering in the first place since we would know exactly what to prepare for and how to prevent it.

I think this is an underreported dimension of the debate. It’s not the certainty of climate change that has people worried, it’s the uncertainty.  That’s a nice way of looking at things.

(ADDENDUM: Roger takes issue with the last sentence of this quote, and I have to say, I agree with him.  It is not the case that simply having all the facts will be enough to tell us “what to prepare for and how to prevent it.”  Not only would we have to have a clear sense of our collective priorities, but we’d also have to have a sense of how these priorities shift in the face of shifting conditions, which will largely be determined by the decisions of humans.  It’s arguable whether these other considerations are “factor-outable,” since they apply in both scenarios, but I take Roger’s criticism seriously.  Indeed, it is closely related to the reason that I’m concerned with below, that geoengineering technologies, while imperfect now, hold out promise that they can be vastly improved in such a way so as to override risks.  To wit…)

At one point, however, Gavin cites Deltoid’s cynicism when he shrugs his shoulders and writes “What could possibly go wrong?,” presumably implying that a great deal could go wrong.  The implication, of course, is that we simply don’t have technical know-how to control the climate in the right way, and so the risks of undertaking any geoengineering strategy are too great.

I think this discussion misses the point.  Here’s the problem: focusing on what could go wrong doesn’t answer the question about how we might eventually get things right.  It is conceivable, albeit far from likely, that some engineering genius could design a technology that would work perfectly, that would model the world perfectly, that would anticipate every butterfly and raindrop.  Supposing that this were to come to pass, that the geoengineering technology could then perfectly and without question generate a better world (in general), would geoengineering then be permissible?  I can’t help but feel that it would still not be permissible, even if we got the technology to work perfectly well.

The problem is that we ought not to exert such control over our climate, even if we can do so with extreme precision.  Doing so introduces incredibly complex moral problems that we can hardly begin to fathom.

A more interesting quote from Deltoid is this one:

The point they are trying to make is that geoengineering is a more cost-effective solution than mitigation. Which is wrong. It might be cheaper, but you don’t get the same result.

This, of course, is absolutely right.  What you get with geoengineering is a dramatically different earth; an earth that has a climate for which we are now responsible.  In years past, we could say when a hurricane strikes a city that the hurricane was a force of nature.  If we undertake geoengineering, we won’t be able to say that with a straight face. We may even be liable for shifting the trajectory of hurricanes, for shifting the burden of drought and famine, among many other things.


  1. […] ethicist at the University of Colorado, in Boulder (and someone who I respect highly), tells us why we should forgo manipulating the climate to undo the damage we’ve done: The problem is […]

  2. The secret sauce is that any geoengineering scheme has to be global, and therefore requires fleets of black helicopters.


    OK, so Eli blog whores. So does everyone around here.

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