With Geoengineering Outlawed, Will Only Outlaws Have Geoengineering?

For the second time this month, the Chinese government has reportedly induced a snowstorm in Beijing by seeding clouds with silver iodide. This form of geoengineering has been around for quite a while. In SuperFreakonomics, we write about a cloud-seeding effort carried out in the 1940’s by General Electric scientists including Bernard Vonnegut; his younger brother Kurt was the project’s p.r. man.

“So while environmentalists may find the very notion of geoengineering repugnant, the fact is that geoengineering is already with us, and will likely be put to use whether we like it or not.”

The second storm in Beijing was the heaviest snowfall the city had seen in 54 years. The government’s apparent motivation for forcing precipitation was to relieve a long-standing drought. Beyond creating the various kinds of havoc that such big storms create, there are unintended consequences as well: for instance, the chloride used to rid the streets of snow after the storm is thought to lead to environmental and perhaps even structural damage.

What is the appropriate response to this news?

It probably depends on your view of the world — of politics, the environment, and human nature. Should one ignore the snowstorms and chalk them up to the Chinese simply being Chinese? Or should one think about these small-scale geoengineering exercises as a potential threat to the world’s geopolitical balance? It isn’t hard to imagine the trouble that might result if governmental snow- and rain-making became commonplace: one drought-ridden country declares war on its neighbor after the neighbor “steals” its rainfall.

In SuperFreakonomics, we write about some geoengineering schemes that scientists are considering to cool the earth if global warming becomes dangerous. One involves increasing the reflectivity of oceanic clouds; another suggests mimicking the effect of large volcanoes by spraying sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to diminish solar radiation. These ideas are extremely unpopular in environmentalist circles.

Many environmentalists who argue that intensive carbon mitigation is the sole route to address global warming seem to feel that too many of the world’s citizens (including some political leaders) have their heads stuck in the sand, denying the reality of global warming.

But the point we make in SuperFreakonomics is that those who argue for carbon mitigation as the sole route to address global warming may have their heads stuck in a different pile of sand, and these Chinese snowstorms show why. Here’s what we write in the book:

As of this writing, there is no regulatory framework to prohibit anyone — a government, a private institution, even an individual — from putting sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere. … But of course this depends on the individual. If it were Al Gore, he might snag a second Nobel Peace Prize. If it were Hugo ChAvez, he’d probably get a prompt visit from some U.S. fighter jets.

So while environmentalists may find the very notion of geoengineering repugnant, the fact is that geoengineering is already with us, and will likely be put to use whether we like it or not.

This leads to the very important matter of governance. While some environmental activists might like to hope that geoengineering is just science fiction that neither will nor should ever come into play (much as one might have liked to hope the same of atomic weapons), the facts on the ground (and in the Chinese clouds) do not support this view. Government leaders are getting together in Copenhagen next month to discuss collective carbon mitigation. It is becoming increasingly clear that they should be discussing the rules going forward for collective geoengineering as well, whether it is small-scale schemes like the Beijing snowstorms or large-scale ideas that address global warming.

For a good recent summary of the upsides, downsides, and governance challenges posed by geoengineering, see this report from The Daily Climate.

And for a great illustration of just how repugnant some environmentalists find the very thought of geoengineering, consider this scathing review of our book in The New Yorker. The author, Elizabeth Kolbert, seems to disdain everything we’ve ever written on any topic, and claims we utterly fail to understand climate science (unless of course we don’t). She is a feeling and passionate environmentalist who, seemingly so disturbed by geongineering, is compelled to cast our own horse-dung story right back at us with a splat. Here is my favorite line from the review: “Neither Levitt, an economist, nor Dubner, a journalist, has any training in climate science — or, for that matter, in science of any kind.”

The time has probably come to admit that neither of us were Ku Klux Klan members either, or sumo wrestlers or Realtors or abortion providers or schoolteachers or even pimps. And yet somehow we managed to write about all that without any horse dung (well, not much at least) flying our way. Kolbert, meanwhile, has written widely about the perils of global warming, both in The New Yorker and in book form (see Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change), and seems to be extremely well-regarded in the field of environmental journalism. And yet, if her Wikipedia page is correct, she somehow accomplished all this with a degree from Yale in … literature.

(Hat tip: Daniel Lippman)

Nervous alReAdy

Get the NRA (the National Righteousness Association, not the other one) on your side, and then everyone will have the right to carry silver iodode.


Also, Stephen, last I checked, Economics was a social science. As an individual with a degree in Economics I somewhat take offense to her assertion that it isn't. It's funny that her degree is in literature. I hated that review.


The problem here is that many environmentalists (as opposed to environmental scientists) are so passionate about imposing their way vs. any other way that they rise in anger at any proposed alternative. Most are not even capable of comparative analysis of the efficacy of different solutions to the problem or symptoms, so they stick to their one-way as if it were a religion.
For most environmentalists, this is more about anti-consumerism, anti-technology, and truthfully, anti-science. That has always been the environmental movement, whether they had global warming or not.
The truth is that humans are more likely to find technology solutions than lifestyle change solutions. The message has finally gotten out that Global Warming is a real issue, but now the messengers are mad that the 2nd half of their message (their solution) is not the one most are picking up. That is how it has always been and will be: we are much more able to focus our money and collective energy on a set of technical solutions, and so we will.



I wonder if she's aware of the problem with Doctors not understanding statistics and how it impacts patients. My point being that scientists (or any other "experts") don't have exclusive rights to data interpretation and in some cases they might actually be bad at it. This is one reason we have experimental and theoretical splits in the same disciplines. As I've said a billion times as well, in climate science there is the "expert" problem. We have experts forecasting, using their expertly constructed models, only trouble is this is a domain in which there can be no experts, no matter how hard they work or how good their models become. Even a minute error will be magnified over the time and geographic scales they are working in.


The truth of the matter is that there are consequences to doing nothing...and to doing anything. Do too little, and you wind up with about the same...do too much, and who knows?

It seems mankinds only rule in such situations is to "proceed in faith." We can't be sure of what we will wind up with, but if we go with good intentions, and not contrary to any obvious and serious consequences, well, you could do a lot worse than that.

I would add that if we could cause it to rain on the Sahara desert for a few years, we could likely generate a continent-sized farm that could impact the world for good. There would be millions of jobs created, I imagine. Not just farmers, but other services that support farming. Even doing migrant work might be a huge improvement for many of the inhabitants of Africa.

THAT would be proceeding in faith. But any time we are seeking to do better things, I cannot help but believe that God is pleased...even if the outcome is not exactly what we expected. We then simply pick up and try to fix the problems that we caused...which is what mankind is already engaged in.



I thought the review was spot on, the fact is you guys blew the lid off the coffin on climate change.

However, I did read your chapter on pimps and found your conclusion regarding Chicago police officers 30% more likely to hire a prostitute than prosecute one quite hilarious (I may be off on the %).

Then again you probably did not need statistics to point that out, still amusing to see hypocrites exposed in print!

I will mention though that I read your book in Target and did not purchase it....a little to pricey for me, I will wait for a good deal on Amazon for a used copy.

Are people really spending 20 + dollars on the book? As far as I am concerned we still in a recession, sell the book for 10 bucks ya commies.

Mike B

The reason Environmentalism fails to gain any traction is because all of the movement's leaders want humanity to move back into mud huts and replace our current lifestyle with one centered around drum circles and hemp.

The result is that that nothing, even effective environmental measures, are accomplished and those that seek to externalize the true environmental costs win every time.


Let's face it, the true hardcore environmentalists out there long ago left true science behind to embrace what they know to be true (people are bad, the earth is good). It has become a secular religion and if you question one of their tenants or heaven forbid one of their high priests (Al Gore anyone) be prepared for the firestorm of over-the-top theatrical rants.


"with a degree from Yale in … literature." Zing!!


Economics (as the authors know, but not Elizabeth Kolbert) is a highly quantitative field; much of modern economic and financial theory is based on rigorous quant cribbed from physics and engineering.

The Black-Scholes option pricing model, for example, is essentially the heat transfer/thermodynamics equation.

That Kolbert disdains economics as "not a science of any kind," makes one wonder about the validity of ANY of her conclusions.

Perhaps as a lit major she's going with her finely fickle, warm and fuzzy feelings?

A true scientist would go with data, testing, and rigorous analytics, particularly in a field such as climate change, where enormous amounts of data & well-honed analytical techniques are so widely available; this does, however, assume Kolbert can do intermediate math, and assumptions can give us all the wrong end of the horse.


It's the view of the radical environmentalists that geoengineering, albeit unintended, got us into this mess. There is also a view that there is somehow some pristine world out there and we are interlopers in it, destructive tool users scarring the face of Gaia. This is not environmentalism, this is religion, its practitioners are as blinded by their faith and as pushy in their views as followers of any other fundamentalism. I believe that human-emitted carbon is causing global warming but I also believe that reducing emissions is one and only one way of addressing the issue. Does that make me a less than true believer? Probably but ask me and my car if we care.


Many of Chinese leaders hold engineering degrees, Hu Jintao holds civil engineering degree, the Prime Minister Wen Jiabao holds master degree in geological engineering. There are too many law graduates in US government.

Mr. Rational

Economics isn't a science?!?!?!?! I'm incalculably grateful that she pointed this out to me, because I work at the National Science Foundation and we've given millions of dollars in the form of grants to economic research for years now. I guess we can stop doing that and save the tax payers millions!

In response to post #6. I hope your statement was made purely in jest. "Are people really spending 20 + dollars on the book? As far as I am concerned we still in a recession, sell the book for 10 bucks ya commies." If dubner and levitt were "commies" as you claim, they would not be charging the higher price, they would be charging the lower price. The basis of capitalism is that you charge the maximum price possible to meet the demand for your product, and thus maximize profit. But what do I know...I guess since "we still in a recession" the laws of supply and demand no longer hold.

[insert sarcasm here]



I always struggled with the rigourous math required to complete my literature finals in college... oh, wait...

Seriously? Literature? Come on!


To be fair, the law of unintended consequences says that geoengineering will likely create some potentially serious consequences, just as cloud seeding does (which is why it is rarely used). I think the environmental movement tends towards the known and safe. But, even by their own admission, the methods they advocate are too little too late to really do much.
Geoengineering is more about mitigating the problem and not solving it. On the other hand, buying time is what we do best. So, if some geoengineering schemes slow the effects, we will use the extra time to come up with better longer term solutions such as more use of solar and wind power, hydrogen fuel (powered by solar and wind most likely), etc. And/or the climate will sort itself out - climate modeling is only slight less error prone than stock market predictions.
I think of it the same as disease control progress during the rise of large cities. Although sanitation was a factor, use of drugs (equivalent to geoengineering) were a much larger factor. Yes, drugs created problems from super-bugs to side effects, we still muddle along in a more or less steady state. I expect the same will happen. We will increase cloud reflectivity and there will be some unintended side effect; so, we will do some other things instead or as well to mitigate that side effect, etc. But, we will lessen the threat from climate change and that will be that.
Environmentalists need to realize that humans will tend to use every weapon in their arsenal if the lowest ones do not work quickly enough.


El Pablo

There's nothing radical about the idea that geoengineering should be an absolute last resort. This is for the same reason global warming is happening in the first place - Human actions on a global scale can have unintended consequences.

I'm not saying we shouldn't research these options. It may come to that. However, it's dangerous to suggest that geoengineering is any substitute for emission reductions and rainforest preservation.


I have the feeling that the science behind global warming is systematically misread. The trend on the effects of greenhouse gases means: it is warming. The corresponding errors bars prevent us to accurately answer to Where? How? and When? this is going to happen. It calls for caution.

Now, you want to geoengineer? Engineer as much as you want but what's for sure is that those errors bars will still be there. The uncertainty will still be there.

However, we KNOW that if we reduce greenhouse gases, we reduce the heat forcing in our climate models. There is NO uncertainty there.

Why bother?


@ Paul K writes "I think of it the same as disease control progress during the rise of large cities. Although sanitation was a factor, use of drugs (equivalent to geoengineering) were a much larger factor." This is simply wrong as a matter of fact. Drugs that controlled diseases were not developed until the 20th century; sanitation was enormously improved 100 years before.


The response to the news that a nation is taking it's environment into it's own hands should be congruent with the response to both the Netherlands walling off the Zuider Zee forming a freshwater IJsselmeer, and the USSR diverting the Oxus to irrigate cottonland in Kazahkstan, forming a dead Aral basin.


Geoengineering shouldn't be the solution to climate pollution because it treats the symptoms instead of the disease.

Sure, it would be cool if we could just dose the atmosphere with chill pills every few months and continue as usual.

What happens when there are unintended consequences in our atmospheres chemistry or if the parties responsible for dosing run out of money and resources?

The precautionary principle would tell us to alleviate the root causes of the climate disease (over-consumption of fossil fuel, land use issues, etc.) and not bet the future on complicated, poorly understood, ongoing therapeutic non-cures.