Geoengineering as part of global change costbenefit analysis

However, 20 years ago, with the significant increase in publicity attached to the problem of global warming, and in the wake of the intense heat waves, drought, fires and large hurricanes in North America in 1988 and 1989, concerns reached the halls of the US Congress and many parliaments around the world. Legislators began examining serious proposals for energy taxes, fuel switching, demand-side management, lifestyle changes and other policies that directly affect some economic interests (e.g. Lashof & Tirpak 1990; Gaskins & Weyant 1993; IPCC 1995a). Then, as foreshadowed some decades earlier calls for geo-engineering inevitably resurfaced after a relatively quiescent two decades.

The most ambitious attempt to justify and classify a range of geo-engineering options was associated with a US National Research Council panel on the policy implications of global warming (NAS 1992). In particular, Robert Frosch, amember of that panel, worked assiduously to try to gather information on many proposed schemes, and then did a careful job of engineering analysis. Not only did he write down a range of geo-engineering schemes and try to calculate their potential effectiveness for climate control, but also he did order of magnitude calculations of the relative costs of changing the Earth's temperature by geo-engineering versus conventional means such as energy taxes (estimating how many dollars per ton carbon dioxide reduction the climate control scheme might be equivalent to). As a member of that panel, I can report that the very idea of including a chapter on geo-engineering led to serious internal and external debates. Many participants (including myself) were worried that even the very thought that we could offset some aspects of inadvertent climate modification by deliberate climate modification schemes could be used as an excuse to maintain the status quo by those who would be negatively affected by controls on the human appetite to continue polluting and using the atmosphere as an unpriced sewer. Their view was that geo-engineering as a possibility would create a moral hazard. Those who worried about climatic impacts often favoured market incentives to reduce emissions or regulations for cleaner alternative technologies. However, Frosch effectively countered that argument. Supposing, it was said, a currently envisioned low probability but high consequence outcome really started to unfold in the decades ahead (e.g. 5 °C warming in the next century - which had already been characterised as having potential catastrophic implications for ecosystems; see Peters & Lovejoy 1992; Root & Schneider 1993). Let us also assume, it was argued, that by the second decade of the twenty-first century the next generation of scientific assessments such as IPCC (1995b, 2007a) converged on confidently forecasting that the Earth had become committed to climate change (and its consequences - IPCC 2007b) serious enough either to require a dramatic retrenchment from our fossil fuel-based economy (which would be politically difficult to accept in a world increasingly dependent on carbon fuels, especially coal) or to endure potentially catastrophic climatic changes. Under such a scenario, we would simply have to practice geo-engineering as the 'least evil', it was argued.

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