Blogs: Paul Pillar

Moving Ahead with the Climate Change Agreement

Playground Dares and the Labeling of Terrorism

The Military Impulse and Hysteria Over ISIS

What Trump Uncovers

It's Time to Discuss Geoengineering

Paul Pillar

Properly framed, serious discussion of geoengineering might even serve as a spur to the damage-limiting environmental efforts by underscoring the gravity of the situation and clarifying some of the trade-offs involved. If you want to continue using badly polluting forms of energy, then you get that much closer to having to make more of those uncomfortable God-like decisions. Besides, a partially engineered atmosphere in which increased clouds and sulfur particles counteract the effects on temperature of the methane and carbon dioxide is certainly a much less desirable atmosphere to live in and breathe in than an atmosphere that had not been badly damaged in the first place. Another consideration is that some geoengineering measures may be more politically feasible, because of the nature of their economic implications, than some of the principal damage-limiting environmental measures. Even if coal industry interests continue to make the U.S. Congress an impediment to progress, seeding of clouds over the oceans does not have the obvious effect on those interests that rules about power plant emissions do.

There is much to discuss and investigate regarding the technology and financing of geoengineering. At least as important, however, is the political and decision-making side of the subject. Whole new international structures may need to be created before any decisions about particular geoengineering initiatives are made. A fundamental problem is that global warming is a planet-wide disaster in the making with no political authority with sufficient scope and powers to deal with the whole thing. That is why the entire problem of climate change has always had a tragedy-of-the-commons aspect.

Another problem is that different interests get affected differently by climate change, even without getting into geoengineering at all. There are some winners (e.g., increased agricultural opportunities in some cold-climate countries) along with losers, even though humankind as a whole is a big loser. When the objective is limited to minimizing the departure from nature as it was before humans started damaging it, then nature itself provides a standard. The political problem working with such an objective, while hard enough, is not made even harder as it would be by requiring agreement on objectives that are more the artifice of humans than just limiting destruction of nature by humans. With geoengineering, however, although the intention would be to mimic nature with regard to a particular dimension such as average global temperature, the rest really is manmade stuff. Points of convergence on which to reach an international consensus on what ought to be done would be all the harder to find. The local effects of some possible geoengineering efforts also might engage different local interests differently. For example, cloud-seeding in parts of the ocean that would be best suited for use of that technique might have some undesirable weather effects on nearby land areas.

Difficult problems indeed—all the more reason to start talking about them seriously sooner rather than later.