As you may have guessed by the infrequent posts recently, for a number of reasons I have not had the time to read/write like I usually would (and won’t for a while). Catching-up on the New Yorker from two weeks ago, I just read this article by Michael Specter on geoengineering.
I was going to provide excerpts and commentary, like I usually would, but that really wouldn’t do this article justice. Specter manages to succinctly cover almost every relevant piece of information about climate change: the history of the science, the current state of knowledge, the different options available, the possible economic costs, the political will etc.
The article shows that there is potential for catastrophe and there are a lot of horrible-sounding predictions, but these are all unreliable and we have historically been very inaccurate when trying to predict weather patterns. Similarly, the most coveted option (of cutting carbon emissions entirely) is completely unrealistic and probably more insane than the geoengineering options described in the article, all of which are a insane to some extent.
The one point that I want to concentrate on came close to the end, it concerns the lack of an international legal system to deal with activity that alters the climate. I have not finished processing the repercussions of this, but I will probably write a post once I have thought it all through.
In the meantime, I strongly recommend clicking through and reading the full article. It makes Mark Latham’s attempt look like a primary school science project (if it didn’t look like that already, that is).
The most environmentally sound approach to geoengineering is the least palatable politically. “If it becomes necessary to ring the planet with sulfates, why would you do that all at once?’’ Ken Caldeira asked. “If the total amount of climate change that occurs could be neutralized by one Mt. Pinatubo, then doesn’t it make sense to add one per cent this year, two per cent next year, and three per cent the year after that?’’ he said. “Ramp it up slowly, throughout the century, and that way we can monitor what is happening. If we see something at one per cent that seems dangerous, we can easily dial it back. But who is going to do that when we don’t have a visible crisis? Which politician in which country?’’
Unfortunately, the least risky approach politically is also the most dangerous: do nothing until the world is faced with a cataclysm and then slip into a frenzied crisis mode. The political implications of any such action would be impossible to overstate. What would happen, for example, if one country decided to embark on such a program without the agreement of other countries? Or if industrialized nations agreed to inject sulfur particles into the stratosphere and accidentally set off a climate emergency that caused drought in China, India, or Africa?
“Let’s say the Chinese government decides their monsoon strength, upon which hundreds of millions of people rely for sustenance, is weakening,” Caldeira said. “They have reason to believe that making clouds right near the ocean might help, and they started to do that, and the Indians found out and believed—justifiably or not—that it would make their monsoon worse. What happens then? Where do we go to discuss that? We have no mechanism to settle that dispute.”