October 20th, 2009

Will Levitt and Dubner’s Superfreakonomics be the first book ever totally discredited before its publication? They were rash enough to post the contrarian chapter on climate change for a time on Amazon as a preview, and it won’t recover from the comprehensive shredding by Krugman, Romm (here and here), Lambert, and Connelley. Bad arguments are one thing, crude misrepresentation (of the genuine experts Weitzman and Caldeira) and very simple errors of fact (solar panels aren’t black) are quite another. Dubner’s a journalist; Levitt a Chicago professor, so he now has the more serious problem in refurbishing his Bates-medalist reputation.

One of Levitt and Dubner’s unfounded enthusiasms is for geoengineering solutions to CO2 forcing, specifically massive injection of sulphate aerosols ino the atmosphere to shield the earth from solar radiation by artificial smog. Not being an expert, I will, unlike them, follow the consensus of experts that

(a) this and all such schemes on the relevant scale are seriously dangerous, since we don’t understand the possible side-effects, including changes in regional weather patterns, and anyway leave untouched ocean acidification and other non-greenhouse effects of increased CO2,

(b) the geoengineering options must be studied in depth as an emergency Plan B in case humanity doesn’t cut emissions enough, or the climate turns out to be more sensitive than we thought to those already made.

See the British Royal Society; Hegerl and Solomon (excerpted by Romm here), Robock, etc. These strictures apply to solar radiation management techniques. Carbon recapture and similar methods count as emissions reduction, and so are  comparatively safe but slower.

It’s possible, however, that these climate experts don’t know much about global governance, and I know a little, having spent my working life in intergovernmental cooperation, so here goes on that side of the problem.

1. Because large-scale geoengineering is dangerous, it will only become a live option when emission control efforts have clearly failed and things have reached a crisis: hundreds of thousands dying every year in droughts, hurricanes, coastal floods and so on. The polar bears will already have gone. Whoever does it will need cast-iron political cover against the unforeseen consequences – including the risk of killing millions more.

2. For the same reasons, the measures cannot be national or regional in scale. They will be inherently global in their effects, even if carried out by or in a single country. The political cover accordingly has to be global.

3. There’s only a little room for experiment – primarily to test engineering feasibility and cost (say of Venetian blinds in space.) There’s so much noise in the climate system that the effects of small-scale pilot projects won’t be properly measurable. It will have to be live or nothing.

4. The knowledge required to manage an emergency global geoengineering scheme is very considerable, and very rapid and expensive action will be essential when things go wrong, as they probably will. Accordingly the scheme cannot be run democratically with any hope of success, only technocratically. Thought experiment: you have a project running on ocean fertilisation with iron in the Pacific. Evidence has come up that this is pumping up the El Niño cycle, with droughts and fires in Australia and the collapse of Peruvian fisheries. Do you suspend or not?

You can see where I’m heading here. Geoengineering fits exactly the Jean Monnet paradigm, which he developed for running transatlantic shipping in WWI. Negotiating agreements on every detail, in the traditional model of intergovernmental cooperation, wasn’t working: a potentially war-losing crisis. Monnet and a British colleague James Salter persuaded the French, British, Italian and American governments in 1917 into delegating executive authority over convoys to a small committee (in effect, themselves). This is the model Monnet used to set up the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950-51, and the source both of the EU’s successes and of its structural democratic deficit.

In theory the USA could run the geoengineering show alone as an imperial power: and it would provide the bulk of the expertise. But in that case it would assume all the political risks, including excess deaths on a possibly genocidal scale. The initial situation will ex hypothesi be terrible, with mass deaths anyway, and the geoengineers will likely be blamed for these even if they are not in fact responsible. The other problem is the unworkability of the US Constitution for emergencies. A plan like the Manhattan Project is conceivable on a a Presidential, executive basis, but not one that leaves the US Senate with a veto on stuff they and their constituents won’t understand. Would either  the US polity or the rest of the world accept the US President as global climate dictator?

I conclude that the only possible locus for the Monnet-style delegation is to an agency under the fig-leaf auspices of the United Nations. It could have an anodyne title: “The executive subcommittee of IPCC Working Group III on technological mitigation”. The crucial word is executive. It would decide stuff, and give orders to the relevant agencies of member countries like NASA. The budget would have to be unlimited. Only very brave and knowledgeable people would volunteer; and they would need the equivalent of a witness protection programme for their personal safety.

Opponents of  rapid and coordinated emissions cuts might think about this. These are clearly near the limit of what can be achieved by conventional intergovernmental cooperation, and maybe beyond it. But if emission control fails, the alternative is something completely different: in this one field, it means (on current knowledge) world government of an extreme and unaccountable type. Try to obstruct the Executive Subcommittee &c? Black helicopters will land on your lawn, disgorging stormtroopers in iridescent camo bearing the spaceship-and sun insignia of the Empire IPCC. You valiantly resist, but they draw their phasers….

Asimov's sun-and-spaceship, courtesy this site

Asimov's sun-and-spaceship, courtesy http://www.projectrho.com

IPCC fantasy logo by me

IPCC fantasy logo by me

My own fear is not that this will happen but that it won’t. The Romans were historically unusual in their willingness to do what was necessary to survive: create war dictators, abandon the republic for an autocracy. The general pattern, documented by Jared Diamond, is to prefer collective suicide to paradigm change.

Update 20 September Kevin Drum also tackles the politics, from a different angle.

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5 Responses to “Geoengineering from black helicopters”

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    Ah, no. The chief reason geo-engineering is superior to radical reductions in CO2 emissions, is that it doesn’t require massive, world-wide cooperation. This is exactly what makes it feasible. Throw away that advantage, and if you’re right about global warming, we roast.

  2. James Wimberley says:

    Brett: are you seriously suggesting that it’s morally OK or politically feasible for a single big country to engage in huge, untested schemes that will change everybody else’s climate in unknown ways? Mind you, that would be a good description of current US, Chinese and Brazilian policies…

    “If you’re right about global warming..” There’s no if, and my opinion doesn’t matter.

  3. john theibault says:

    Well, if massive geo-engineering projects will only be feasible after emission control efforts have obviously failed and the US continues to be viewed as the principal obstacle to emission control efforts, then it seems unlikely the world will turn to the US as technocratic dictator unless the US has already achieved something close to global imperial dominance — which would mean we already would own the catastrophe and probably be facing a massive global insurrection. By that time the niceties of the US Constitution would already be passe and the Collapse scenario well on its way to fulfillment.

  4. Michael Weissman says:

    Actually, some of the consequences are already known.
    1. Stratospheric sulfate is a very serious ozone depleter.
    2. Sulfate creates acid rain. That creates local problems and slightly worsens global ocean acidification.

    Also, if due to some political disturbance or unforeseen problem the atmosphere couldn’t get its ozone fix, the resulting warming would be about an order of magnitude faster than the current trend, with correspondingly more catastrophic results.

  5. pireader says:

    “the unworkability of the US Constitution for emergencies”

    Actually, it works pretty well in emergencies. Recent examples: After 9/11, the US government moved quickly to secure the homeland well enough that there have been no subsequent terrorist events. And last autumn, after Lehman Bros. imploded, the US government stabilized the financial sector very quickly, avoiding a replay of the 1930s.

    The real problem isn’t how well the system responds to emergencies, it’s the system’s tendency to let problems grow into outright emergencies before it responds. Recent examples: 9/11, Lehman Bros.’ implosion. It also has a bad record on unintended consequences. Of course, lots of other governments (including the UK) have the same tendency and record–as well as corporations, churches, universities, etc.