The Straight Dope’s Cecil Adams replies to a reader about geoengineering. It’s a great read, quiet concise and easy to understand. Geoengineering, basically, is a way to control the earth’s climate. The most popular, and cheapest way, would be to release sulfur dioxide particles into the atmosphere to block the sun, thereby cooling the earth and - viola! - climate change solved!
But, not so fast.
Cecil has a good list of reasons why it’s a bad idea, including sulfur dioxide’s effects on ozone depletion and potentially less sun for solar power. I’d add two objections to the list.
- First, we’d use more oil, gas, and coal. The thinking is that when energy becomes more efficient and cheap the rate of consumption increases. Fossil fuels will get used more, depleting the resource faster. One way of thinking about this is lightbulbs. It’s been found that when people change their lightbulbs to more energy efficient ones, they use the lights more. Ironically, they effectively cancel any savings. This is called the Jevons Paradox, which is well worth looking into. So, by extension, markets would be less incentivized to become more energy efficient when there’s no threat of climate change or other environmental impact. (Click here for the economics of geoengineering).
- The second objection I’d bring to the table is the question of governance. As in, who’d manage the Earth’s climate? Who’d be in charge of the geoengineering projects? Who would decide how cool or hot the planet should be? Should China manage the Earth’s climate? What about Germany, they have a lot of engineers, right?
This gets even more complicated when one factors in the fact that some countries will benefit from slowed climate change. Canada and Russia for example have incentives to slow climate change from the environmental, forestry, and agricultural perspectives.
There’s even the question of war. What happens when one of these countries just goes ahead and starts a geoengineering project on their own? Worse, what if that country goes rogue and moves to create a mass cooling in order to control global agriculture (or some other nefarious purpose)?
In any case, I’m against geonengineering, no matter how cheap and well intentioned.
In your recent column on conspiracy theories about the government injecting chemicals into the atmosphere, you disparaged the idea of geoengineering, or at least using sulfur dioxide to counter global warning. But you don’t defend your position. Is it a good or bad idea, and why?”
“One problem at a time, muchacho. First I had to explain why it was unlikely that aliens had absconded with Earth’s gold using genetically engineered man-monkey slaves. Having dispatched that issue, we now turn to the advisability of shooting crap into the atmosphere to solve the problem of crap in the atmosphere. Call me crazy, but I don’t think this is the world’s best plan.
The basic idea is simple. Our problem is global warming, right? We know when volcanic eruptions blast vast quantities of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, the pollution blocks sunlight and the earth noticeably cools off. Therefore, if we create artificial volcanoes to pump sulfur dioxide or other substances into the air on purpose, the resultant global cooling will cancel out global warming and we can go on happily burning fossil fuels and generally making a mess of the environment just like before….”