Tuesday, December 8, 2009


The Benefits of Procrastination: The Economics of Geo-Engineering

I don't think this EconLib article will get me on Joe Romm's Christmas card list. An excerpt:
Many critics of geo-engineering overlook an important fact: there is a gain from procrastination. In some of their expositions, they argue, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that because humans will eventually have to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions anyway, we might as well do the adult thing and start the painful adjustment today. But this ignores the principle that a "quick fix" can allow the deferment of solving a particular problem, lowering the total cost of the long-run solution.

Although procrastination is often a sign of immaturity, in the context of climate change it may not be. In the typical debate over geo-engineering, proponents argue that it is "the" solution to global warming, while the critics worry about all the things that could go wrong. Yet this "geo-engineering: yes or no?" debate overlooks the important possibility that the most economically efficient outcome involves the postponement of carbon-abatement strategies, along with the simultaneous research and development of varied geo-engineering techniques to be deployed if they should become necessary. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that this strategy could leave our descendants many trillions of dollars richer than the alternative of implementing immediate and large cuts in emissions.

Having grown up in the southeastern U.S., I can't help but think of kudzu and killer bees every time someone advocates geoengineering. Both kudzu and killer bees were "scientific" experiments meant to make the world a better place; kudzu to stop erosion and that strain of bees to toughen up native honey bees.

Kudzu, after many decades, remains a plague in the deep south, no one knows how to stop its spread. The killer bees seem to be losing some of their aggression due to interbreeding over time, not because of any solution developed by scientists. These are rather small regional problems. Just wait till someone actually goes through with trying to get control over global climate.

If the knowledge base undergirding climate science is so iffy, as evidenced by recent revelations, then does it not seem the apex of hubris to think we can "fix" the climate with any tools developed out of that science? How would one know, for instance, if it's our impact on the global climate that has actually prevented an ice age?
At least one proponent of geoengineering overlooks several important facts:

- It's still a government solution.

- It simply rearranges the basic form of the problem, which is widely scattered emitters and victims, who must undertake coordinated action to cancel the damage.

- It's still based on equating "market solutions" with "telling assault victims to see a doctor" -- totally missing what the actual problem is.

(Anyone want to guess which proponent that is?)
I don't think it's a government solution, Silas. I'm certainly not advocating that the federal government be in charge of mirrors in space.

If it really turned out that there would be significant damages from climate change, but could be averted by spending $500 million to develop and plant carbon-eating trees, then the Bill Gates foundation would do it. (Well maybe not, since it's possible he wants global gov't. But private donors would do it.)

Governments would have to sign off on something and allow people to do it privately, but by that standard my consulting business is a government solution.
Yay! The numbers came out just right to avoid libertarianism being unable to handle a basic problem! Lucky us!

Hope our luck keeps up forever...

And that victims keep finding sugar daddies...
Some of the following opinions go beyond my area of professional expertise, and are therefore my off-duty opinions: Reader Beware!

To Robert Murphy and others who might think global geoengineering might be a viable solution for climate change:

Geoengineering the climate on a global scale will be a fruitless effort and a complete waste of time and money. Our past experimentation with weather modification is a story all interested people should research, as the lessons learned have large carryover into the arena of global climate engineering. People holding out hope for these types of grand geoengineering proposals have a fundamental ignorance of the dynamical and non-linear nature of the climate system. Most of the ideas I have seen circulating around are more closely akin to collecting clouds with a butterfly net than to reality.

The current solutions being discussed at Copenhagen are surprisingly related to global engineering efforts. The current accords being pursued attempt to geoengineer the climate on a global scale by regulatory fiat. Many of these very stupid proposals purport to deliver to the world some sort of "optimal" egalitarian climate though the backdoor regulation of energy usage. Science tells us these proposals, even if fully enacted, will be totally ineffective in controlling the climate where you or anyone else actually lives. If these proposals were by chance enacted, it would not be long before it will become painfully obvious to all that they were an exercise in complete futility and waste, and it would take even less time before they are toppled like the Berlin Wall.

My wife is telling me to give the baby a bath. More to say later.

Someone challenge me on this!
K Sralla,

Rather than challenge you I want to encourage you. Go on. And I would appreciate any links or research you can direct me to, always trying to improve my knowledge base.
Reader Beware! These opinions are informed by my scientific understanding, but the following is interspersed with opinions outside my area of scientific expertise.

Rick C,

My view is that top down regulatory schemes are just like any other command and control apparatus. They are ineffective in regulating climate, the rationale being similar to why a central bank is ineffective in regulating the money supply.

Local and regional climate (where we all live) is very sensitive to Human influence, but this involves a broad spectrum of human climate forcings, not just CO2. Natural landscape change, land management changes, animal and insect dynamics, industrial and vehicular emissions, as well as historical natural weather variability of a particular region should all be accounted for (Pielke, 2009). If we are really concerned about climate, instead of a top-down global regulatory scheme, we instead need a bottoms-up view which focuses mainly on the local ecology and resource vulnerability. Simultaneously, we should also look for ways to reduce our emissions of CO2 (mainly because of the biogeochemical effect), but in my view, the most efficient way to do this is to use less carbon-intensive substitutes for coal and oil where they are found to be more economical. Natural gas for instance, which was thought to be relatively scarce only three to five years ago, is now known to be present in amazing new abundance. It will naturally be used as a substitute for oil as these supplies are brought to market, despite any campaigning by T. Boone Pickens. Wind power will not become important anytime soon, because there are several less thermodynamically-challenged energy substitutes standing in line in front of it. The new supplies of natural gas were not brought about through government funding or taxation schemes, but through the spontaneous scientific and technological advances of entrepreneurial companies and individuals in search of profit. As more carbon intensive energy supplies such as oil become more expensive, substitutes will be used instead (if all hydrocarbons were outlawed, people would burn wood). This is why I think other supposed crises such as “peak oil” are also overblown. That is for another time however.


Pielke R.A. Sr., 2009, Considering the Human Influence of Climate, transcript of oral talk at George C. Marshall Institute
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