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)

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  1. Nervous alReAdy says:

    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.

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  2. Blake says:

    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.

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  3. PaulK says:

    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.

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  4. charles says:

    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.

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  5. AaronS says:

    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.

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  6. steve says:

    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.

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  7. Mike B says:

    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.

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  8. Craig says:

    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.

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