The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently hosted a discussion entitled “Governing Geoengineering.” Lee Lane, a resident fellow and director of the AEI Geoengineering Project, moderated the discussion, which focused on a working paper written by Dr. Scott Barrett, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
The concept of Geoengineering developed in Barrett’s paper turns the premise of human-caused climate change alarmism on its head, arguing that if humans can cause climate change by emitting carbon, then they can counteract this same phenomenon through a variety of tactics besides simply ceasing carbon emissions. Barrett outlined some of these, including the “simple option” of “painting roofs white,” “whiten[ing] clouds by throwing up spray” or “throwing particles up into the stratosphere.” Moreover, according to Barrett, the “costs are extremely low” and the “effect on clouds are very short-term,” meaning that geoengineering is potentially an almost costless solution both economically and environmentally. One particularly imaginative fashion by which such engineering could be effected, Barrett said, would be to employ “an armada of thousands of ships spinning around at sea throwing up spray.”
Yet despite the seemingly simple nature of this solution, Barrett did describe several obstacles and reasons for doubt. While he took a pro-geoengineering stance, calling the idea of banning its use altogether “implausible,” Barrett also criticized the idea of “us[ing] geoengineering as a first line response.” “It won’t resolve all the problems,” Barrett said. “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns involved.”
Some of these “problems” on the environmental side include the potential to “reduce precipitation,” or “amplify ozone depletion,” while one of the key political problems surrounding the after-effects of geo-engineering concerns is its capacity to be used unilaterally. “Who has their finger on the thermostat?” Barrett asked rhetorically, suggesting that the capacity to engineer the earth’s climate could lead to a serious geopolitical power imbalance and even potential military action.
Yet despite all this, Barrett saw hope for the political prospects of geoengineering, even going so far as to predict that wealthy developing countries who would be hit hard by cap and trade schemes, such as India, would explore the idea. “The benefits would outweigh the costs,” Barrett said of India’s potential, while adding that the U.S. would have “greater difficulty” implementing such a plan.
Once the two discussants on the panel had their say, the reason why this “greater difficulty” existed became abundantly clear. Dr. Thomas Schelling of the University of Maryland characterized the response of a member of Greenpeace with whom he’d discussed the issue as “We’re against it, no matter how good it is.” He warned that “objections like this will be like objections to stem cell research,” that is, religious objections.
Schelling paired this tacit comparison of environmentalism to a religion with a scathing indictment of the Kyoto protocol and cap and trade systems generally, arguing that their implementation would involve a “transfer [of] resources from the rich to the poor” and calling the Kyoto protocol “twelve wasted years.” “Nowhere in the Kyoto protocol was there any mention of [Research and Development],” Schelling said, characterizing the approach of Al Gore and other pro-Kyoto advocates to solving problems as “I don’t know, but I’ll be back in a couple of years with a plan.”
But by far the most pessimistic of the presenters was Dr. Bryan Caplan of George Mason University, who compared the appeal of environmentalism to the appeal of protectionism and accused the Obama administration of budgetary sleight-of-hand in its portrayal of the costs of cap and trade, which he said would be felt mostly in the reduction of potential economic growth.
“Growth over the 21st century will be one and a half percent instead of three percent,” Caplan said. “That’s the difference between the world of today and the world of Star Trek.”
Yet, Caplan said that despite this overwhelming loss of growth, people were unlikely to care because “people will never be in the street” unless their conditions actually get worse than the status quo. Caplan echoed Schelling’s pessimism about the “religious objection” to geoengineering, also mocking the idea that geoengineering was “the easy way out.” “The easy way out is also known as the smart way out,” Caplan said.
Yet despite this overriding sense of pessimism, when asked whether these moral and religious objections were universal, both Caplan and Schelling expressed cautious optimism about the political atmospheres of other countries. “It might actually be that we are saved by heterogeneity under rationality,” Caplan said. Schelling bluntly added, “The Chinese government doesn’t care what its people think. When it decides whether or not to do this, it’s not going to take an opinion poll.”