[Re]Considering Our Options

In “Climate Engineering Reconsidered”, Barrett et al. discuss the effectiveness and the political feasibility of geoengineering as either an emergency measure or a stop-gap. After considering various hypothetical applications, such as staving off an altered monsoon, the authors conclude: “when the use of geoengineering is politically feasible, the intervention may not be effective; and that, when the use of geoengineering might be effective, its deployment may not be politically feasible,” (527). In other words, it’s time to find Plan B.

What’s interesting about this article, though, is that the authors are quick to emphasize that geoengineering – which, used in this context, consists of injecting sun-scattering sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere (Solar Radiation Management, or SRM) – is Plan B, and that our best course of action is still Plan A: good old-fashioned adaptation. While not as technologically impressive as geoengineering, adaptation avoids many of the challenges posed by the more advanced option, namely dependency/addiction and the introduction of unknown side effects. Barrett et al. also mention the risk of politicization of geoengineering, in which countries could threaten economic or military action, or even the use of “counter-geoengineering”, in order to control how other nations employ the technology. In lieu of working together to fix a shared problem, we would be introducing a new source of conflict.

Not to trivialize the matter, but in my opinion, remedying climate change need not become this complicated. Although it is a complex issue, we have a fairly good understanding of what we’ve been doing wrong and what can be done to make it right – or, at least, better. Barrett et al. believe that “contemplation of geoengineering does little to diminish the need to address the root causes of climate change”, and that, if anything, it should strengthen our resolve to make less technologically-involved changes. Perhaps our insistence on finding “easier” ways to fix the problem of climate change is indicative of our inability to do the hard, day-to-day work of cutting energy consumption and reducing emissions. Usually we resort to Plan B when Plan A has failed us, but, in this case, it’s not clear that we’ve given Plan A its fair shot.

Do you think Plan A (adaptation) is simply a lost cause? Even though geoengineering does not present a feasible long-term solution, are the possible short-term benefits (specifically, in the stop-gap scenario) enough to continuing exploring the option? Finally, given what we know about today’s political climate, is either option politically feasible on an international level? — Tomi

18 thoughts on “[Re]Considering Our Options

  1. I agree that we have done little to address the root causes of climate change, which means it’s not quite time to move on to Plan B. The lack of rigorous international efforts may be one reason why Robock et al. raise the question of moral authority in Stratospheric Geoengineering: “Do we have the right to do this?” – particularly if we haven’t seriously tried the mitigation alternative? (2). Geoengineering may be beneficial in the short term, but its implementation would raise a host of unanswerable questions. Indeed, Barrett et al. list 15 incredibly complicated political scenarios – everything from who is allowed to geoengineer to how the ‘losers’ (who would have benefitted from climate change) should be compensated (51). I think these political conundrums are a strong argument against geoengineering. Yet it is also true that climate change, following its current path, will cause serious political issues. That’s why it’s so important to look more carefully at Plan A (working together to reduce emissions and enforce responsible environmental protections). International negotiations for Plan A have not (and will never) be easy, but they’ll only get harder if we do not act.

  2. Realistically, I cannot see climate change being effectively addressed until it has a major political effect on the country – probably economic. Unless by some miracle marketing campaign, the special interests groups pushing climate change will remain at their current level of effectiveness until some catastrophic event spurs politicians to make a change. At that point, it is up to the special interest groups’ lobbyists to make a push for their specific changes. That may be dependent upon years of hard work pushing for Plan A or Plan B, or it may be dependent upon one memorable speech which turns Congress a certain direction. Because of this firefighting approach to issues like climate change, I agree with the authors’ assessment that geoengineering is not an effective solution to climate change. At the only politically feasible time when geoengineering could be instituted as a policy it would be too late to have very noticeable effects on the problem. Thus, I believe that adaptation must be the solution on a national level. Internationally, there is no hope of having a successful geoengineering campaign. If nationally the campaign would be stumped by political processes, there is no way to institute a worldwide policy which aligns with all states’ political interests. We will not be able to institute a version of Plan A until there is a strong enough impetus for it (a climate-induced catastrophe), but after that there is a possibility that politics will be able to come up with an effective long-term solution.

  3. According to the article, adaptation is more politically feasible than a global, geoengineering initiative. Countries may or may not cooperate with geoengineering initiatives. The political argument against geoengineering states that countries will want a “free-ride” and let other nations face the challenges of geoengineering projects: “However, the assumption that countries will overcome free-rider incentives when geoengineering is used, despite having failed to do so when geoengineering was not used, seems implausible (Barret et. all 529).” Even countries that do cooperate with a global, geoengineering initiative would have to continue that initiative for decades to come. If they decided to stop geoengineering, global warming might “return.”

    Alternate energy (wind, hydro, solar, electric, etc) is a more “practical” solution, although it is not a panacea for all global-warming-related problems. The infrastructure of most developed nations is heavily dependent on energy sources that produce CO2. If this infrastructure became based on alternate energy sources, CO2 emissions would be drastically reduced. The two main barriers to implementing alternate energy infrastructure are economic and political. Reshaping an entire nation’s infrastructure could be a decades-long process and would require corporate, governmental, and civilian cooperation. Infrastructure reform would also face fierce opposition from most energy, gas, and oil companies who would lobby to their respective governments.

  4. I agree with your assessment that the article presents geoengineering as a Plan B, and, even then, not something that would necessarily work. The article makes a compelling case for why geoengineering is not something that we should seriously look into as a way to solve climate change. So many reasons why geoengineering would not work properly or cause political problems incline me to believe that it is not worth continuing to explore this option.

    However, I am not sure I agree with you when you write “remedying climate change need not be this complicated.” Climate change is a particularly complicated international problem because it falls into the category of collective action problems. These types of problems are almost impossible to solve through international consensus because there is such a high incentive to be a “free-rider.” Countries are not willing to reduce emissions and cut energy consumption when other countries can derive the climate change benefits from the first country’s actions without having to lose economically. This is the main problem why past climate change international regimes have failed, not because people don’t recognize the problem but that there is too much of an incentive to cheat. While I think adaptation is the best option to fix climate change, this will only happen on a global level once adaptation becomes profitable. At this point in time, it simply is not.

  5. [Hi again!] I completely agree that collective action/the free-rider problem is what makes climate change initiatives hard to execute on an international level. There are myriad competing interests and, as a nation, you have no reason to change your behavior when your neighbor won’t change hers, or if you can benefit or avoid additionally effort/suffering on your part when she does change her behavior. It’s the same reason collective action is hard to achieve on a national level — People tend to think, “If I have an eco-conscious neighbor who drives an electric car and recycles, s/he’s doing more than enough for both of us,” or worse, “My neighbor still drives a Hummer and always leaves his lights on; why should I bother recycling?”

    Perhaps I should have clarified that by “complicated”, I meant “technologically-advanced or -involved”. For lack of better terminology, there’s “a layman’s way” to improve climate change, one that doesn’t involve injecting particles into the sky to scatter sunlight. My thoughts are that we should maybe ease up on (but not stop) looking for bandaid-like solutions and quick fixes. It seems like we tend to look for ways to get around the hard work, but this is problem seemingly without a shortcut.

    I wonder, though, do people feel like we should keep searching for advanced technologies to remedy climate change (Plans C-Z)? Maybe it is in fact the best we can do until, like Lily and Zach said, there’s an economic impetus to embrace Plan A.

  6. Tomi, you bring up some very interesting points.

    First and foremost, I think Zach is on the right path. There is no incentive to politically address climate change unless there is 1) an economical benefit or cost saving opportunity, i.e. green energy, that will drastically alter a country’s budget or national debt. 2) a climate-related catastrophe that calls for immediate attention and action.

    Unfortunately, I think politicians have other, more important, priorities that are being addressed. Given that climate change is not a globally pressing issue, countries will continue to use “band-aid” like remedies to the issue, that is to say, if any attention at all is given to it. I think the media is starting to draw an increasing amount of attention to the issue that may give climate change enough support to make a difference in politics around the globe. Individual efforts like recycling, reusing resources, and other “green” habits are great, but they do not make a substantial enough difference to control climate change.

  7. The above discussion is very interesting, and illuminates much of the frustration that underlies global inaction over global warming. I do tend to agree that not enough attention has been paid to “Plan A” and that comprehensive implementation of existing technologies (renewables, more energy-efficient systems, etc) is theoretically the simplest path to tackling global climate change. Indeed, while the costs of doing this are nontrivial, neither would they be overwhelming: the Stern Review, conducted by the UK treasury, estimated that implementing emissions reduction to an extent sufficient to mitigate global warming would cost around 1% of global GDP. On a global scale, this number is significant, but hardly so serious as to be unimplementable–indeed, mortgaging our planet’s future by continuing a course of unmitigated global warming seems likely to wreak far greater economic consequences (along with humanitarian, ecological, security, etc.) than implementing Plan A is.

    But I am unfortunately skeptical that humanity will be able to implement such a solution in the present, given the collective action problems at stake. Professor Robert Keohane, an IR theorist at Princeton, points to an array of specific issues (conflicts of interest, problem diversity, pervasive uncertainty and long time lags, weak feedback signals, possible competitive pressures) that render this problem so malign. In short, because the environment is a public good and there is high conflict over who would bear the costs of implementing necessary measures, there is no comprehensive regime that covers climate change, only a loosely arranged array (“regime complex”) of organizations working to tackle bits and pieces of the issue.

    Perhaps in the future, as the consequences of unchecked global climate change grow more visible and social consciousness about the issue rises, there will be a convergence of opinion and international cooperation will increase, rendering Plan A more feasible. But I fear that may come too late, and in the meantime perhaps it’s logical that scientists are focusing on unconventional ways to approach climate change (i.e. geoengineering) even though the risks are uncertain and coordination problems may again rear their ugly head.

  8. In my opinion, adaptation actually does not avoid many of the challenges associated with geoengineering.

    Barrett et al. argue that geoengineering might not be politically feasible since certain countries would feel a disproportionate share of the negative effects and would therefore work to veto any attempt to implement it (Barrett, 527). However, the effects of adaptation would also be disproportionately borne by certain nations. For example, island countries (like Japan) are more at risk from rising sea levels than landlocked nations.

    Once the technology is realized, what is stopping these countries from taking the initiative themselves to engage in geoengineering? After all, Barrett et al. point out that “the temptation to use geoengineering to address a regional emergency… might be harder to resist” (Barrett, 528). Robock et al. allude to a moral dilemma with regards to geoengineering: “do we have the right to do this?” (Robock, 2). However, arguably, we would have no moral standing to condemn island nations from doing everything in their power to preserve their existence.

    Finally, both Barrett et al. and Robock et al. argue that using geoengineering (as opposed to adaptation) would allow countries to remain comfortable pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (Barrett, 258; Robock, 2). However, once countries “adapt” to the consequences of climate change, the same outcome could feasibly occur.

    I was most impressed by the suggestion in the Robock piece that “rather than cooling the entire planet… we only try to modify the Arctic to prevent a sea ice-free Arctic summer and to preserve the ice sheets in Greenland while mitigation is implemented (Robock, 4). This seems like a good way to address the source of sea-level rise while minimizing the impact felt by nations around the globe.

  9. The pros and cons of climate change efforts seem to come down to weighing what is scientifically “possible” and what is politically “feasible”. While geoengineering may offer significantly fewer economic externalities than greenhouse gas emission abatement, its question of “who should decide” poses a potentially insurmountable obstacle. I agree with Tomi that we should continue to explore “Plan A” type methods, but would require an unprecedented level of international cooperation in order to address the free-riding problems that Zach points out. To date, most efforts have not been global enough in scale or lack the aggressive goals needed to make a large enough impact (European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme and the US Acid Rain program). A new system would have to encompass all nations while demanding high levels of commitment.

    While still a long shot politically, economics may offer the least infeasible option for lack of better phrase. If traditional economics create incentives not to abate emissions, environmental economics can be used to reshape incentives on a global scale to make green living the more attractive choice. This can be implemented through a taxation or cap and trade scheme. The former would require payment on per unit emissions while the later would require polluters to pre-purchase emissions credits risk a hefty fine for all additional pollution. Both methods would require total participation in order to prevent pollution havens as well as a strict of monitoring system for enforcement. In theory, the most environmentally friendly companies will begin to take over the market. However, many political problems still remain such as gaining international commitment and questions of fairness for developing/developed nations.

    My attempt at a proposed “Plan A” does not solve many critical problems, but I still believe that it or alternative abatement efforts are worth a shot before beginning much more serious talks about Geoengineering. Despite its cost advantage as Barrett points out, it seems more feasible to generate a high level of commitment to pollution reduction than it does to gain complete approval of a solar radiation deterrence plan. With more and more publixhed research (such as the Turn Down the Heat) and increased government recognition of climate threats (the Department of Defense report), I wouldn’t write off cooperation entirely.

  10. When I think of climate change, the first thing that comes to my mind is the fact that while we as a society have developed a strong awareness of this phenomenon, our knowledge of its intricacies are simply not as deep as they need to be. This, I believe, is evident in this week’s materials in that we are faced with a predicament of how we must deal with climate change: Plan A- sticking with adaptation, or Plan B- moving on to geoengineering.

    Personally, I do not think Plan A is a lost cause. I think it would be premature for us to make this claim that adaptation simply does not work because despite the indisputable fact that climate change is a part of our world and has had effects on our environment, I believe that these effects have not been drastic enough at this time to lead us to believe that adaptation cannot benefit us.

    With regards to geoengineering, I do believe that its short term benefits are enough to lead us to continue exploring it as an option, however with you making the point about dependency and addiction posing a legitimate threat, I believe it would be something that we would need to fully commit to as a society.

    However, all this being said, you make a very good point about the trouble of having either option as feasible due to today’s political climate. Personally, I think that in order to have something work on an international and global level, we would need to introduce further treaties similar to the ones we discussed with nuclear weapons to ensure commitment from countries all over the world to be on the same page with regards to climate change.

  11. I agree with many of the commenters that the most realistic way to try and tackle this problem is to do as much as we possibly can in the short term, the sort of “Plan A”. To me, Plan B seems a little too farfetched, and would require near unanimous agreement across country lines to come to fruition.

    The Plan A option therefore seems the more realistic and promising one, though it is not without its faults. Even though the evidence seems to be fairly overwhelming, there is still a lack of real action towards using renewables and decreasing our emissions. Unfortunately, I think it will take real economic hardship and overall drops in quality of life before we see huge changes in what we do as a country and world towards climate change. However, some progress is being made now, though not as much as ideally should be done.

    Plan B just seems like a political and bureaucratic nightmare, the likes of which would probably never happen until it is much too late to change anything. I doubt we would see the type of cooperation necessary until the problem stared us altogether too closely in the face. Perhaps it will end up differently, but I doubt such an ambitious project would be undertaken lightly.

  12. Thank you for such a great post, Tomi. I think you make two very important points in your argument.

    First of all, it is so important to analyze the effects of politicization of geoengineering from a policy perspective. I think many people who are concerned about climate change forget to think about all of the other consequences of taking action against it. In a class on sustainable methods I took last semester, we learned about how the air pollution and/or smog other countries often transfers globally because of its height in the stratosphere. This in itself is a global issue for both environmental reasons and political reasons. Therefore, I think of the possibilities that could occur from injecting sun-scattering sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere. Is there a chance that they would collect and concentrate in particular areas? What affect would this have for the countries both close and far from the concentrated area?

    Because there are too many unknown consequences of “Plan B,” this leads to my second point: there are other ways to fix some of the issues, and a lot of it points back to human accountability and change. You make a great point when you argue, “Perhaps our insistence on finding “easier” ways to fix the problem of climate change is indicative of our inability to do the hard, day-to-day work of cutting energy consumption and reducing emissions.” Just as there is an economic or military threat as you mentioned (and even the possibility of “counter-geoenginerring”), if we failed to work together as countries to be accountable in our actions that affect, or hurt, the environment, then how are we expected to work together with the implementation of geoengineering? By changing our habits that affect the environment, we cut down the risk that scientifically comes with using Plan B, but also all the potential political outcomes. I think as policymakers this is a huge problem that we must recognize.

  13. As most of the other commenters have already mentioned, adaptation is the only way to solve the long-term problems of climate change and prevent the national security threats mentioned by the readings (severe weather events, etc). Because of that, our first approach should always be to find adaptive approaches like decreasing emissions of the greenhouse gases contributing to this phenomenon. Everyone has also recognized the difficulties with this adaptive solution, specifically that it is nearly impossible to get an international agreement (as international solutions are the only ways to fix international problems) that advocates an adaptive approach and even if it did occur, many countries would have the incentive to free-ride off of the efforts of their neighbors. Even though certain technology like geoengineering can only have a limited impact and may actually encourage countries to avoid addressing the long-term issues of climate change with adaptive solutions, other technologies involving green energy sources might have the solution to this potential security threat. The technology already exists for many types of green energy sources (solar, wind, nuclear, etc), but often these types of energy production are more expensive when compared to the typical non-renewable energy sources. New technology, particularly when it comes to storing the energy harnessed from renewable sources, could make green energy more economically appealing. Without this economic incentive to switch to greener energy sources, I think our best bet is to use short-term solutions like geoengineering.

  14. Like many have alluded to previously, geospatial engineering seems to be an extremely risky, unadvisable, but most of all extremely temporary solution to dealing with climate change. As stated in Robock, geospatial engineering does not address many of the issues of global warming–it doesn’t necessarily mean that all local issues will be addressed. More importantly, we do not know all of the possible effects that may arise from use of geospatial engineering. As many experiments we can conduct in environments designed to mimic what would happen in the world, there is no way to truly test what it would be to enact geospatial engineering. We do not know what the aftereffects will be, and some may be permanent and irreversible. Most importantly, a point that Barrett alluded to, would this temporary solution remove any incentive for states to actually lower their emissions, and to actually solve the issue of climate change? Furthermore, is it even moral for us to make the decision to alter the world in the absence of the agreement of every individual that lives and will live in this world?

  15. Geoengineering is only a temporary solution to a long-term and serious problem. By turning to geoengineering as an answer to our climate change crisis, we are essentially putting a band-aid on a wound that will only continue to fester. Rather than change our surroundings to temporarily prevent ocean temperatures from rising, we must address the foundational reasons for climate change.

    I make this claim with great ease, yet getting to the core of these issues is not so easy. Our economy is mired in oil; approximately 8% of global GDP is attributed to energy expenditures. Whether we like it or not, oil is essential to many of our daily needs and the industry surrounding supplies numerous jobs. Reducing emissions of GHGs means that everyone must bear the brunt of a changing industry. In an era of instant gratification and low cost expectations, this is a painful burden. While it is certainly for the better, most people are likely to free ride off of others or simply choose not to think about the future.

    Thus, while focusing our energies on perfecting and mass-delivering alternative forms of energy, we must recognize that realistically, the changes will take time and, in the meantime, it might be worthwhile to investigate other forms of climate control, such as geoengineering. Though geoengineering is fraught with its own difficulties, such as increased dependence on short-term fixes and undesirable side effects, it seems worthwhile to be able to use such technology to stave off climate change until we can finally separate ourselves from fossil fuels. Policy makers must ensure that these fixes are only temporary and that the overarching goal is to eliminate the practices that threaten the health of our climate.

  16. Hi Tomi,

    Great post! I also agree that we have not given Plan A a fair shot. It seems that we know a great deal about climate change and actions that can be taken to mitigate the problem. I think these steps should be taken before anyone choses to implement Plan B. I also think Plan A is also a more sustainable solution to an important issue in contrast to Plan B which I view as a short term fix with many unknown consequences.

    I am not sure it is currently politically feasible to implement the injection of s sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere. Additionally, I don’t think this plan could ever be politically feasible if the world continues to recognize the state sovereignty. For one, various governments seem to have a problem agreeing to a plan to curtail the effects of climate change. If we already know this is an issue and are doing very little to really tackle the issue I find it hard to believe that governments would come together to fund and implement the proposed geoengineering plan. Additionally, as was stated in the text, this plan could have detrimental effects in many areas including parts of Africa and Asia.

  17. I both agree with the general sentiment among commentators, that quick fixes should not be the focus of the struggle against climactic change lest we adapt to them, and specifically with Evan when he brings up the Robock piece as a potential solution, concentrated on local Arctic protection rather than a potentially invasive global phenomenon. And yet, I worry about the implementation of even such a small and seemingly benign maneuver.
    Choosing a country to manipulate the Earth’s atmospheric composition – even with promises of utmost transparency – could be tricky, and the idea of other countries giving one nation such a green flag seems optimistic. Alternatively, the plan could be executed by an international organization of some kind. The U.N. comes to mind, but differing political views make its use controversial. So though the solution itself is simple enough, the impetus to implement it could be much more challenging. One country, or one imperfect international body, would be undertaking a costly and potentially dangerous endeavor while the rest of the world stood by, renouncing a solution that could benefit it as well.
    Conflicts of oversight are not limited to climate engineering. Several scenarios we have studied in class – nuclear disaster, biowarfare – pose similarly international questions of who takes action and when and who gets the final word. But climate change is a unique problem in that we know it is happening. It is not a potential problem but an occurring one, whose effects will continue to be felt until the above discussed problem can be solved.

  18. Naomi brings up a great point – while responsibility of undertaking a plan like geoengineering can potentially be taken unilaterally by a nation (i.e. the United States), political, economic and social implications suggest that this is not ideal. Furthermore, given the already divided world (ex. Syria), moving such a plan through the UN is not feasible nor ideal. Furthermore as Barrett et al. mention, it is very difficult for geoengineering to simply affect the areas where it takes place due to the interconnectedness and weather patterns that make it very hard for geoengineering to take place.

    Given that we no so little – its hard to advocate for more geoengineering, without taking these things into account.

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