The Incredible Economics of Geoengineering

Barrett’s focus is the different incentives that states face with respect to adopting geoengineering programs unilaterally rather than incorporating it as part of an existing climate change policy. He takes as given that the conventional policies centered on reducing concentrations of greenhouse gases are both expensive and hindered by a free rider problem. Moreover the incentives for countries to reduce emissions are weaker than the incentives to develop and deploy geoengineering unilaterally. He calls geoengineering and emission reduction substitutes but calls for a policy framework that includes emission reduction, funding R&D into new energy technologies, and geoengineering with adaptation assistance to poorer countries. However, a lack of commitment from states who stand to benefit from climate change (in the short run) makes verification of such a three-pronged climate policy regime difficult. In general, the low costs of geoengineering make it difficult to garner commitment from states not to pursue it unilaterally. Additionally, since one country can offset more than its own greenhouse emissions through a unilateral policy verification of compliance or non-compliance becomes much more challenging.

The central question of Barrett’s article is how can we deter states from adopting unilateral geoengineering programs when the costs of doing so are so low. This is a question to which I don’t think he reaches a convincing answer. He mentions the possibility of temporary uses of geoengineering to “buy time,” effectively smoothing humps in concentrations until an international policy for stabilizing concentrations is agreed upon. However, even temporary uses of geoengineering erode the credibility of emission reduction policies. This question is further complicated by countries like China, who have benefited from climate change and whose continued growth necessitates at least current levels of greenhouse emissions. The countries most susceptible to climate change happen to be the ones least able to pursue and develop geoengineering programs. Barrett views the effective curbing of climate change as a global public good and, as such, there is a question of whether the same countries financing geoengineering projects should have the sole decision making power. This problem of governance is the greatest danger facing geoengineering policy decisions since acting unilaterally carries greater incentive than acting within an institutional framework.

Barrett’s proposed next steps call for two international institutions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, to further examine the possibility of geoengineering as a viable addition to the climate change regime. He suggests mandating how and when geoengineering may be used and how any costs of such an effort should be shared. A question he leaves unanswered, and one which I am particularly interested in, is how these institutions will prevent any country’s misuse of geoengineering programs especially when the incentives in place do not encourage compliance. In other words, defecting seems highly likely at the expense of countries who lack the means to develop geoengineering programs to offset the negative externalities of high-growth economies like China. — Tyler

16 thoughts on “The Incredible Economics of Geoengineering

  1. Barrett says, “geo-engineering
    amounts to putting something into the environment that wasn’t previously there;
    reducing emissions, by contrast, amounts to not adding something that wasn’t
    there.” He then characterizes the mitigation as “the more conservative” option
    and “the reason it is preferred by scientists” (48).

    I thought this distinction is
    actually symptomatic of the larger ethical concern at stake. As Barrett
    mentions, it is often considered an “easy-fix” or “Band-Aids” approach that
    seeks to merely ameliorate the
    adverse effects without addressing the root problem. This also raises the
    problem of “moral hazard” –progress in geo-engineering research might actually
    reduce incentives to pursue emissions reductions. This would be undesirable if
    we believe that reducing carbon emission level itself is an important goal. But,
    after reading this article, I came to re-visit that assumption. Is reducing
    carbon emission in itself an
    inherently desirable goal—even if we have a more economical alternative? If so,
    does that have to do with our self-righteous desire for retributive justice—those
    who incurred costs should pay for the consequences? Does this “moral hazard
    argument” provide sufficient grounds to oppose the development and use of

    After reading the article, I came
    to think that an ideal outcome is to have geo-engineering as an “open option”
    but guard against the danger of this technology turning into panacea. In modern
    era, there is a tendency to over-estimate the benefits of new technologies and underestimate
    their potential costs. In this case, geo-engineering might have a new set of side-effects
    on the environment. I think geo-engineering can be an effective supplement, or
    complement to “the conventional approach” of reducing carbon emissions, but
    should not totally replace it. To achieve this balance, restricting the scale
    and rate of geo-engineering research would be important. For that to happen, as
    Barrett urges, governments’ more serious attention to the salience of this
    option, and rigorous assessments of pros and cons of this option must be the
    first step. What do you all think?

  2. I agree with your recommendation for a conservative approach to geo-engineering. As with any new technology, it’s difficult to understand how much geo-engineering will help or harm the situation further in the future. Too often, we jump to conclusions about the root problem. As our understanding of environmental issues grows, I believe we must keep our options open.

    I also like your question, “does that have to do with our self-righteous desire for retributive justice—those who incurred costs should pay for the consequences?” This seems to hit at the heart of the issue in whether or not we can unselfishly bond globally to fix our environmental problems. The realism side of me has doubts and I fear that individuals may just seek to profit off of the situation.

  3. I agree with you and MicKenzie that we should be conservative with respect to geoengineering, but I would like to take a slightly different tack. First of all, not only do we not understand the risks, as with any new technology as MicKenzie points out, but those risks are much greater when what you’re attempting to change is the climate of the entire Earth. This leads to my main point, and a main point of the article we read, which is the question of who acts.

    Since we can’t easily “localize” our mistakes–if the U.S. releases an aerosol that has unforeseen toxic consequences, prevailing winds will scatter it all across the globe, so that citizens in a country that never would have engaged in geoengineering and had no say, are hugely affected. This puts us in the same predicament as Global Warming.

    Further, on Jean Lee’s point, to worry that geoengineering will become a band-aid means that you first have to accept that it works. We can’t assume that, necessarily, but if we do, we’re still left with the problem of action. As the article states, it is everybody’s Earth, and everybody will be affected by projects like geoengineering, possibly in totally unforeseen ways, but we cannot possibly all agree on what to do, or on who should do it. The scientists doing the research, the money funding it, and the politicians making decisions on whether or not to use geoengineering all have to come from somewhere, and those are questions we need to answer before we can even start using geoengineering as a band-aid.

  4. I agree that we could use geoengineering to complement the traditional approach of reducing carbon emissions, but that we should be wary. If we focus too much on this “quick fix,” it provides disincentives to actually reduce carbon emissions. Our problem now is convincing people/companies/governments to reduce emissions. If we offer an easy and relatively affordable alternative, there are no incentives to develop a “greener” economy then no progress will be made. It is unclear how long these geoengineering techniques last for and their possible consequences.

  5. It seems like there’s general agreement that geoengineering is useful and should be at least considered as a possible solution to the problem of climate change. The question is the level of commitment to this option over actual emissions reductions and who should have the authority to set that limit and enforce it. I believe that geoengineering capabilities should be developed separately from emissions reductions efforts, under the eye of international bodies such as the IPCC. However, it should be considered only a last resort, and instituted into the FCCC as a technical option that would not be used by any country unless climate conditions reach a certain threshold and a majority of the world’s countries agree to it. This, theoretically, would keep the focus on emissions reductions (dealing with the actual problem rather than the symptoms) unless a “quick fix” is urgently needed.

    Obviously this is a very far-fetched, idealistic way of dealing with the situation. First of all, what would be the climate threshold after which geoengineering is acceptable? Also, there’s no real, effective way to ban countries from acting as they please. At least including geoengineering as a focus of the IPCC and FCCC would mean the international community would be aware of it and all of its pros and cons. As for the majority vote, climate is a global problem, and I think every country should have some say. At a minimum, recognizing geoengineering on an international level is better than doing nothing and allowing individual countries to develop their own technologies with zero monitoring and discussion.

  6. Any attempts to coordinate action between numerous countries with differing incentives (say, China, Canada, the U.S. and the EU) is going to come up against problems inherent in the international system – namely the difficulty in establishing accountability for the parties involved. Regardless of the reasonable arguments put forward by developing countries, without any way to effectively influence China’s internal policies (i.e. anything they would do to reduce their environmental footprint) they will inevitably fall on deaf ears, much in the same way a country without a nuclear arsenal can do nothing to pressure the US or Russia into disarmament – that decision must come from within the country.

    With this in mind the problem of geo-engineering and emission reductions almost becomes more complicated. As long as some countries have incentives to pick geo-engineering over emissions reductions – take developing countries as an example – and lack credible pressure from developed countries, they will inevitably pick the easier bandaid fix. Because of this, perhaps the most effective approach would be an agreement, which would create and subsequently be backed by an international organization, in which developed countries would pursue a carbon ‘deficit’ (think cap-and-trade) in exchange for certain concessions from developing countries, including agreements to pursue more environmentally friendly practices over a longer period of time.

    Once again, it’s pretty likely that the developing countries won’t hold up their end and the costs will end up being borne by the developed countries, but in the future, when the developing country argument (that development necessitates periods of high emissions) no longer holds, such an agreement could be revisited, and new options for incentives and disincentives will become available. In the mean time, reducing our emissions where we can and allowing them to use geo-engineering and other short-term solutions (with supervision, ensuring they don’t do more harm than good) is better than a stalemate.

    I believe, then, that developed countries such as our own have an almost moral obligation to continue to find solutions everywhere possible, including geo-engineering, and should continue to fund research in every area to find the most effective and safe solutions possible.

  7. I think the methods that Barrett mentions in his article are much more plausible than some other geoengineering methods I have heard (such as shooting mirrors into the sky to deflect the sun’s rays). However, as Owen and a few others mentioned, I think the international system is simply unable to coordinate efforts and adjust to new technologies. It reminds me of a few arguments I’ve read for the US curbing their use of drones to eliminate foreign enemies. These writers argue that, as the US is the only nation that has this ability so far, we should take advantage of the situation and other nations’ disgust at this program to impose new rules that would apply to drones. That way, when other nations such as China or Russia arm drones, which they are close to doing, we don’t have to worry about them using the same policies in, say, Chechnya.
    My point is, I think it would be difficult enough for nations to coordinate efforts, before even discussing how such technology would be financed and regulated. I’m afraid that these conversations don’t really seem to happen until we’re on the brink of disaster. For example nuclear arms regulations during the cold war did not really happen until after the Cuban Missile Crisis, or well into the arms race if you’re looking at treaties such as START/II. I find Barrett’s observations that the economics of geoengineering make it a stronger incentive to nations convincing, but don’t see international systems being established unless, like the drone strikes, most nations push for reforms because they are afraid of the abilities of one nation acting on its own.

  8. I certainly agree with you and Tyler that geo-engineering can represent a dangerously tempting distraction from meaningful efforts to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet within our current situation of nearly unconstrained emissions, I believe that geo-engineering must be seriously considered.

    As Barrett mentions, capping global temperature increases at 2C°, a change which could cause a 10-30% decrease in crop yields, a 4 to 8 fold increase in areas burned by wildfires in the western US, and a 10-20% decrease in streamflow (among many other detrimental effects) [according to the US National Research Council], would require a 60-80% reduction in CO2 emissions, a goal which seems unbelievably optimistic when considering the lack of significant progress in emissions reductions.

    As such, there would appear to be a need for a different solution. Of course, geo-engineering cannot and should not preclude national and international attempts to curb emissions, but given the harsh realities of climate change and the international reluctance to make serious, very costly emissions cuts, the possibility of unilateral geo-engineering activity appears fairly benign. I do believe that the potential for international cooperation on geo-engineering exists, and that taking this approach is vastly preferable, but at this late stage, perhaps any attempt to stop the impending temperature increase is worthwhile.

  9. What I find most interesting about Barrett’s analysis, and about this conversation, is that we seem to take for granted that geoengineering projects are, or are about to be, underway. Are they? Is their prospect as inevitable as this discussion seems to assume? I ask this with genuine curiosity. Our conversation about the possible consequences of geoengineering and the inability of the international community to account for them is abstract — we haven’t discussed actual, on the ground, attempts to geoenginner or, at least, attempts to build such capabilities. Are real breakthroughs on that front looming on the horizon, or are they just as distance as international, enforceable accord on carbon reductions?

  10. The main issue I see with Geoengineering is the free rider problem. As is explained in the article and below, if any nation capable of geoengeering (lets for now assume it is safe) begins a program to clean up the earth’s atmosphere, all other countries will have the incentive to follow the China model of sacrificing air quality for economic GDP growth. That is clearly not a feasible solution. So how to ‘deter’ this from happening? It seems we have no international treaty like the NPT to help validate that countries are doing their job to stop polluting. Creating a formal international agreement may be the first step to a safer environment and implementing geoengineering on any scale. If climate change is such a serious global problem like Barret suggests it is, then its consequences ought to be put in the category of nuclear warfare- something that would perhaps garner the problem more immediate attention rather than a the title of future challenge.

  11. Given the clear free rider problems with reducing emissions in an effort to help slow global warming, I find it odd that Barrett seems so opposed to the use of geoengineering. Clearly, international efforts to reduce emissions have not had that much success, largely due to the divisive issue of who should bear the large cost of paying to do so. At the conclusion of the article, Barrett writes that he believes the greatest danger in the development in geoengineering is that countries will be unrestrained in their pursuit of this technology at the possible detriment of other countries. However, this seems like a significantly less desirable outcome then the current situation, as although this may give certain nations significant influence if some sort of governance framework is not developed, it will at least offer incentives to develop the the technology in the first place. Additionally, I believe that its potential role as a “band-aid” should not be underestimated or seen as undesirable. Eventually, more efficient fuel technologies (ie, efforts to reduce emissions) will have to be developed as resource constraints begin to bind, forcing the market to develop technologies that will adapt to this new situation. Using geoengineering can therefore help mitigate the negative effects of not reducing emissions before that technological change is brought about.

  12. I agree with Elliot that it is almost necessary for us to at least seriously consider the use of Geoengineering. The problem with most coalition climate initiatives is that it is almost always to the detriment of the coalition to actually cooperate. Powerful forces that benefit from continued fossil fuel use exist in the higher circles in both exporting and importing countries.

    If the danger from climate change is so drastic, then it almost seems foolish to ignore a solution present at hand. Another part of Barrett’s argument, that geoengineering can “buy time,” is actually valid, even to carbon-emission reduction purists. Solar and wind energy is becoming more efficient and cost-effective, and sooner or later, the technology will catch up to the benefits offered by cheap coal and oil. Buying time allows for these technological advances to occur, economically incentivizing countries to reduce CO2 emissions.

    I would go further to say that a country that can unilaterally geoengineer, probably should pursue that path. Not before reaching out to other countries to help, but international cooperation is always a shaky thing to base hopes on. Of course, this raises the ethical question of whether any single country has the right to make dramatic changes that affect the whole planet (as Barrett brings up in his conclusion). I don’t have an answer for this beyond the fact that superpowers make political and military decisions all the time that have ripple effects for all of the human race. While affecting the environment is of course different, it isn’t that far off of a comparison.

  13. I agree with many of Barrett’s reservations about geoengineering, as there is a lot of potentiality for it to not work out quite the way we idealize it would. Indeed, the incentive to participate in this “new” realm of science without much previous background is high, as there are such low costs in comparison to the high benefits. However, his comparison of the geoengineering situation to the small pox disease and the Large Hadron Collider situation seems not exactly appropriate and a little unfounded, as it seems excessive to worry about nations acting unilaterally to implement geoengineering. Indeed, this seems to me on par with worrying about countries engaging in major emission mitigation campaigns; as an act with positive spillover effects, our worry should not be placed with an over-eagerness of countries to engage in this activity, but rather a dearth of countries willing to step forward and make the first move.

  14. My understanding of Barrett’s opposition to geoengineering is that it serves as more of a “band-aid” fix, covering up the wound rather than letting it heal. That is to say, geoengineering seeks to provide a solution to enable nations to continue polluting without damaging the environment, rather than striking at the root cause of polluting the environment in the first place. In theory, if measures were taken to prevent pollution on a multilateral level, geoengineering would cease to be as large of an issue. However, at the moment, I believe that the rationale for geoenginnering as a solution is two-fold. Firstly, the nations most likely to undertake geoengineering projects are those most likely to benefit from polluting the environment, not for the sake of pollution, but for the sake of modernizing and producing on a mass scale; thus, they are likely to be averse to a more fundamental reorganization of how pollution is regulated on the world stage. Secondly, I do not believe that the general population of the world is aware of how severe the effects of pollution can be on the environment; the scientific issue of global warming has become folded into politics, and the polarization of political thought has caused a significant portion of the population to decry global warming as fantasy and act in opposition to any attempts to regulate it, believing it does not matter. Given both issues, it is more beneficial for industrial nations to take on a geoengineering approach rather than a restructuring of their production industries. Economically, it would be cheaper than having to start the industrializing process from scratch, and socially, people would be less apt to support a structural change they believed was having little to no real effect on their short-term lives. This dilemma would require international policy makers to sacrifice short-term benefits for long-term global welfare, which would result in a credible commitment problem similar to that we saw last week with nuclear weapons agreements. A multilateral agreement against geoengineering would endanger individual national politics, leading to a potential for motivation for cheating. This agreement would have to address compliance and enforcement; compliance should be fairly straightforward, since there is a stark difference between restructuring and geoengineering. However, enforcement is an entirely different issue, since the stakes are not as obviously high, nor as immediate, as with nuclear weapons. In order to create an effective multilateral agreement, nations will have to find a plausible deterrent that outweighs the benefits of using geoengineering to sustain industrialization, and at the moment, I am not convinced that there is a feasible enforcement plan.

  15. Reading through the conversation, it would appear the majority sees
    considerable potential in geoengineering technology and the main
    challenges rest in implementation (like the international order that would emerge around such technology). After seeing Barrett’s article, I would be inclined to agree that this approach holds tremendous promise.

    However, let me play Devil’s Advocate for a moment: geoengineering is not only infeasible to introduce in a controlled and safe way but it poses such high risks of abuse and misuse that the international community should ban the practice altogether.

    One factor worth considering is the inherent hubris required to use this procedure. As Barrett points out, the approach is counterintuitive since it attempts to improve the climate by introducing stuff that was not there to begin with. Of course, people have a long history of manipulating the natural world to suit humanity’s interests; this pattern led to everything from agriculture to modern-day levees. That being said, there have been cases where people’s attempts to regulate or change the natural world lead to undesired consequences and problems. One example that jumps to mind is how certain parts of the world have attempted to eliminate an infestation of certain pests by introducing a predator that is not native to the ecosystem; in an ironic twist, some of these efforts are too successful and the infestation of old pests is replaced with an infestation of the introduced species. A second example (more accurately a set of examples) is the evidence collected in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; humanity’s collective efforts to mold nature to its liking through pesticides like DDT created new health dangers in areas like the US. A third example comes from modern engineering in California’s earthquake country: following a sizable earthquake in the 1990s, engineers were surprised to discover severe damage in buildings that had been previously believed impervious to the earthquakes’ effects. I therefore suspect that the belief that we as a species can introduce new compounds into the atmosphere and expect it to work exactly as suspected is nothing short of Icarian in its level of unchecked arrogance. As Barrett points out, one might level a similar case against the Large Hadron Collider’s risk of creating a black hole or strangelet. Even if Barrett’s description of this risk were accurate (and the article’s language indicates Barrett has little experience studying black holes and particle physics), the risk of world-ending results was not simply “small” like Barrett describes but so miniscule as to be non-existent (here is CERN’s page on the matter: Even if real-life geoengineering followed the computer model’s recommendations to the milligram of compounds sent into the atmosphere, I would wager there would be some substantial unintended consequences of such action. To throw out a couple quick examples:
    – what if it turns out that many of the introduced particles come back to the earth’s surface of the earth as intended and lead to cancer following extended exposure? Along the same train of thought, what if these compounds interact with items already in nature in some unforeseen way to cause harmful chemical changes? Imagine if these compounds somehow killed off plankton in the Atlantic Ocean (for the purposes of this speculative example, why not?); the entire aquatic ecosystem would be thrown into chaos.
    – what if the compound is slightly more or less effective than anticipated? A simple miscalculation or gap in the existing set of knowledge may either (1) fail to address the climate change issue created by greenhouse gases and other man-made sources or (2) push the world into something akin to nuclear winter.
    While a perfectly rational gambler would bet his final dollar that the LHC would not end the world (let’s assume he would be able to survive armageddon if he accepted the bet), humanity’s track record with sweeping changes in the style of geoengineering would incline him to take that bet.

    A second factor is how the entire concept sounds. The idea “fix the problem caused by stuff in the air by adding different stuff to the air” sounds like the kind of crazy idea one might find in the imagination of a six-year-old, a sleep-deprived DARPA scientist, or a mediocre futurist. This is not to say the approach could not work toward the desired goal; I know far too little about the background science to claim Barrett is misrepresenting geoengineering’s potential. However, when an idea for saving the world sounds like a Hollywood plot device (to use Barrett’s comparison), it seems prudent to stop and reassess the spectrum of possible options before pursuing something that would fit the plot of the 1990s George Clooney Batman movie. Every so often, we all have come across stories of historical practices that must have made sense to their practitioners but seem downright silly in retrospect (e.g. “You feel sick, President Jackson? Why don’t you try cutting open the veins in your arm?”). This tactic of fighting fire (greenhouse gases) with a different kind of fire (additional compounds) sounds like something our great-grandchildren would look back upon and wonder we were thinking at the time.

    Third, there are substantial security implications of this technology. For a moment, let us ignore how (as Barrett describes) geoengineering will directly benefit some countries while depriving others of climate change’s benefits. As Hsiang et al. and Barnett describe, environmental change and related policies may easily bleed into security and military policy. If a country were to begin geoengineering like Barrett describes, what are the chances there would be efforts to explore the military application of the technology? Barrett describes how the introduction of geoengineering can cause changes on the scale of months and the resulting compounds can dissipate from the atmosphere in a relatively brief period of time. If a country (say, the US, Russia, China, etc.) were to develop geoengineering, could it threaten to change how it uses the technology to influence other international actors? For example, could the US threaten to increase their geoengineering efforts and therefore push the global thermostat unusually low if conflict with China appears imminent? In another scenario, could a Russia that possess a large geoengineering capacity threaten to turn off its system and cause worldwide warming? To build on my previous point that the world climate may be difficult to precisely finetune, what are the odds that any efforts to leverage geoengineering in geopolitics would result in unintended climatic consequences? The use of geoengineering as a political bargaining chip may sound weird, but is it any more far-fetched than Reagan’s SDI or existing research into weaponizing weather (example:

    Let me break my Devil’s Advocate argument there. While geoengineering sounds like one of the most plausible solutions to climate change I have ever heard, we shouldn’t jump into the “how should we do this” without pausing to reflect upon the “should we do this at all.”

  16. I agree with a number of your Devil’s Advocate “should we do this at all” points such as the hubris involved and the security implications if geoengineering takes off. However, we seem to all agree that at the moment, our expulsion of greenhouse gases and the increase in the global temperature that comes with it has a negative effect on our living conditions on Earth. Naturally, we all want a reduction of carbon emissions in order to let the world regulate its own environment once again, but Barrett also mentions how a sudden reduction of greenhouse gases would also cause negative effects. Barrett picks up on the lack of incentives to reduce emissions anyway, so the previous scenario is unlikely. Thus the ‘solution’ seems to me to change the incentives in order to prompt carbon emission reduction. This is overly simplified of course and gaining the cooperation of the world would take a large amount of time to do so. During that time, how would you plan to prevent all countries from moving towards geoengineering as a solution or even as a stopgap? If, as Barrett mentions, the economics and incentives to geoengineer are so positive, how would one stop countries that are more concerned about their growth and the carbon emissions that come with it from attempting to placate the international community with geoengineering? China shows a lack of care to its neighbors already due to its pollution causing acid rain downwind. Even the US has a lack of decorum to our Mexican neighbors when we are drinking the Colorado River completely dry due to the dams we have placed on it. In the end, we can suggest all we want in order to preserve the global environment, but so far it seems the nations in it seek the easiest and most self-profitable route.

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