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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)