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May 7, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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C.R.E.A.M. – Geoengineering The Planet

Professor Marty Weitzman is freaking out. The Harvard economist, who visited New Zealand earlier in the year, is worried about pumping crap into our atmosphere. But this concern isn’t with climate change per se. He’s freaking out about what desperate nations might do to avoid it.

Geoengineering is the deliberate large- scale engineering of the planet, and in the context of catastrophic climate change, is no longer trapped within science fiction novels. The possibilities are endless, but all are endlessly problematic. Plans
to cover the atmosphere in mirrors are incomprehensibly expensive. Growing plant-matter and then tossing it into
the ocean, so as to ‘lock’ its carbon away permanently, will exacerbate global starvation. Cheap geoengineering is dangerous, and safe geoengineering is disastrously expensive.

So it is that only one likely geoengineering scheme exists: hydrogen balloons at the end of massive pipes, which pump sulfur into atmosphere. The idea seems fantastical, but by shrinking the size of water particles, it could reflect sunlight away. Unfortunately, true to form, that option’s efficacy is predicated on massive risks. One country pumping sulfur into the atmosphere could lead to drought in other countries, as imbalances in ocean temperatures causes equatorial monsoon rains to fail. It gets worse: such a plan could also damage our ozone layer, acidify our oceans and stunt plant growth. There’s reason to be worried.

The biggest issue though is how cheap it is. A key problem for economists is that some decisions have ‘externalities’—costs that affect someone other than the person making the decision. Normally, we think people are pretty good at making decisions about how to use resources. People tend to be quite selfish though, and so when their decisions affect others they make mistakes. Externalities lead people to do things that they shouldn’t have done, especially when the external costs are big compared to the up-front costs.

Geoengineering is complicated because it’s an externality that is responding to another externality. Climate change is, in many ways, the ultimate externality—when I drive to Newtown, drought is more likely in Senegal. An optimist might see geoengineering externalities counteracting climate change externalities, with emitters in the developed world now reckoning with the risks of desperate developing nations. Call me cynical, but I expect a different outcome.

With geoengineering developing considered viable, real action on climate change will continue to be avoided. Geoengineering will always be second- best, but by considering it we might stop real progress entirely.

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