‘Geoengineering’ the Warming Response?

By Kennedy Maize

I’ve been reading a lot lately about “geoengineering,” aka “climate engineering,” as a way to deal with global warming, instead of a cumbersome, bureaucratic international command-and-control regime, or a cap-and-trade mechanism. This is intriguing.

I suspect this engineering approach is another policy dead end, but it is worth contemplating and discussing. Ultimately, it looks like geoengineering is pie-in-the-sky in terms of what it can accomplish and what it will cost. But there will be major R&D expenditures, mostly from the U.S. Department of Energy, to examine the technologies.

John Tierney, the estimable science writer and blogger at the New York Times, has looked at the issue recently. My colleague Robert Marritz recent connected with an engineer, who provided a very thorough primer on geoengineeringing. My view is that Tierney is the best science writer in the US, and he’s the gold standard for subjecting various claims to hard-nosed scrutiny.

Is “geoengineering” or “climate engineering” the solution to global warming? Who knows? There are plenty of reasons to prefer hard science – engineering – to the known flaws of international political regulation. Al Gore’s Kyoto Protocol was, by any definition, a failure. There are good reasons to believe that any kind of regulatory follow-on, when the world convenes in Denmark in December, will be a fallacy of regulatory fantasy-land.

But is hard engineering – spraying the atmosphere with sulfates, inoculating the oceans with iron, and so forth – a viable alternative? Several national and international groups are looking at the issue, and I suspect they will come up with inconclusive results.

Should the U.S. or international bodies decide to seriously examine engineering approaches to climate change, I suspect they will confront the need to conduct environmental impact statements such as have never been seen before. Recent analyses of engineered approaches to climate change have simply ignored the costs – in time and money – of required environmental impact analyses.

All this reminds me of Edward Teller’s ambitious attempts in the 1960s to use H-bombs to rearrange the landscape to meet the needs of mankind. Teller posited the ability to dig new harbors in Alaska, create gas storage in Pennsylvania, and dig a new, sea-level Atlantic-to-Pacific canal in Panama. He believed he could control the radiation from the blasts. It was the “Plowshares” project, turning nuclear swords into civilian plowshares.

Teller was wrong at every incidence, and managed to violate some international treaties along the way. In the end, he accomplished nothing. He then went on to advocate his “Starwars” space-based missile defense plan, another technical dead end. The Reagan administration bought it, but it ultimately failed to meet the tests of practicality.

Engineers and scientists are noted for technological hubris. Maybe geoengineers can tweak the climate through various large-scale chemical and physical projects. Maybe not. I’d bet on not.

For me, a global warming skeptic, I oppose any big measures – physical or governmental – to try to regulate the climate. I advocate adaptation, the least-cost approach to climate mitigation.

There is no question that the climate is changing. It always has and always will. The contribution of mankind to the change is trivial. So the policy choice is, to my mind, pretty simple: adapt or spend. There is plenty of time for adaptation, and mankind (and biokind) has demonstrated for thousands and thousands of years, that it can adapt to climate change.

So let’s adapt, rather than spend and bend our economies and twist our foreign relations to a non-problem that allegedly faces the world. Let’s get real.