Whose Hand Controls the Global Thermostat?

A good report here, from the Economist, on a recent geoengineering summit in Asilomar, Calif. (which, unsurprisingly, had its detractors before it was ever held). The article’s final paragraph gets at something we’ve touched on before, in SuperFreakonomics and on this blog: that if global warming gets bad enough to require a geoengineering intervention, the actual science may well not be the hardest part:

Producing plausible policies and ways for the public to have a say on them will be hard — harder, perhaps, than the practical problem of coming up with ways to suck up a bit of carbon or reduce incoming sunshine. As Andrew Mathews, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, puts it, it is not just a matter of constructing a switch, it is a matter of constructing a hand you trust to flip it.


More geoengineering? Look, instead of endless attempts to be iconoclastic, why don't you guys spend a little more time discussing real solutions? I read your polymath-squared solar article, which was as error-ridden as your original chapter - how about talking to someone who actually knows something about solar? (For example, modern solar cells are way more efficient than 9-12%.)

Geoengineering is, frankly, as likely as not to cause more problems - our massive "geoengineering experiment" of carbon emissions is what created the problem in the first place. The environmental advocacy community - for all it's flaws - gets that, which is why nobody serious is talking about geoengineering. Sometimes ideas aren't popular for good reason.

Wonks Anonymous

Yet another problem with this proposal to terraform the earth.

Wouldn't it be simpler to start a gradually increasing carbon tax right now, something that adds a few pennies to the cost of gasoline today, a few more pennies in six months and so on.

This would give us a gradual, predictable increase in the cost of carbon intensive activities which, as any reasonable price theorist will tell you, will lead to gradual adaptations that conserve carbon and lower the CO2 burden in the atmosphere.

No central planning or weird government agencies required and the science and engineering will be created by thousands of self-interested individuals.

What is not to like?


Working in corporate offices for the past decade has taught me that people will always complain about the thermostat. Some people want it cooler, some people want it warmer, and a manager can be inundated with the whining about people changing the settings.

For corporate offices, the best answer will always be "leave the thermostat alone". I have to think that's the best thing for the global thermostat as well.

Maybe once mankind can agree on an easily controlled climate like an office building, then maybe we can consider trying to exert control over a climate that is infinitely more complex, more expensive to (attempt to) modify, and more difficult to reverse if mistakes are made.

Been There

And then there is the story about the corporation that put non-working thermostats in each employee's office -- even though the employees could not actually change the temperature, they felt better because they had the illusion of having control over their environment...

doug garr

Men who pay utility bills turn the lights off when the room is not in use. Children and soccer moms do not. This is the human engineering that needs change, and if complete households could make this change, it will save billions of dollars in kilowatt hours not used, not to mention the tons of carbon not released into the atmosphere.

Michael Dennis Mooney, Albany, NY

Off-Shore Drilling

We need to drill huge holes
In which to bury carbon waste
Then cap them with plantings

Live where you work
Make it a liveable nabe
Shop where you live
Walk to work
Ride your bike
Travel by kayak
Like an Inuit ~ MDM



What about getting rid of the military and all their weapons, bombs that blow up the earth and destroy the environment. Forget a few lights on , Why not go after the real beast itself , WAR!


Seriously, price carbon, that's it. If you generate it, you pay, if you sequester it, you get a tax credit. It's not a tough call, actually we should probably replace our whole current tax system with just that, it's not like the tax system we use now is amazingly good for anything, it's terrible. The practical problem for dealing with carbon emissions is that there is no money in it at all, not that the technology isn't there.


The devil is in the details. How is "room is not in use" supposed to be defined? If you're watching TV in your living room, and you get up to go to the bathroom or to get something from the kitchen, is the "room not in use" while you are gone? Do you turn off the lights? Do you turn off the TV?

I'm not sure I would trust someone who believes that only "men" pay utility bills and that "soccer moms" are equivalent to "children" to make decisions about how I live my life in the privacy of my own home - not to mention that in real life a lot of "men who pay utility bills" don't bother to turn off the lights when they leave the room.

Jeffrey Roseman

Who would set the appropriate global temperature? Some countries would do better if the temperature got warmer; some, if it got colder. When the next ice age comes should we increase the CO2 to keep the temperature at its current level? Obviously the Canadians would love it, but those who live in the Sahara would rather it get cooler.

Paul '52

Let's assume, for a minute, that your conclusion is correct;
if climate change is real the science is the easy part.

So the hard part will be getting people like tea baggers to realize that their 4 by 4s are drowning people in Bangladesh, and that it's fair for those people to expect some contribution from Sarah Palin's followers.

Frankly, I think you are 100% correct.



How does your snarky, smug approach impact on this?


I don't oppose discussion of geoengineering, but let's be realistic here. There are two major problems with it.

(i) Science and engineering aren't even close to "real" solutions. Everything is very hypothetical and in a state of theoretical infancy. Even if we were at a point where our knowledge enabled us to even start construction, the technical problems that would arise would be numerous (not to mention the enormous cost). Plausible engineering solutions for global climate change are not realistic anytime within the next 25 years (or even the next 50). Just because someone has an idea, doesn't mean we are ready to build it. Da vinci had many brilliant ideas, but it took centuries before we could begin to build them.

(ii) Let's express a bit of humility as people. Though science has made enormous achievements and we've learned so much - there is still a great deal we do not yet understand. This whole pouring massive greenhouse gases into the air experiment clearly didn't work out so well, so we should be very skeptical of any solution that is based on massive intervention into the natural system - which is what invariable geoengineering is( and the ones that don't involve tampering with nature seem widely implausible anytime soon, like solar mirrors in space, for example). Are we really sure that pouring massive amounts of sulfur aerosols doesn't have any negative side effects we don't anticipate? Are we really sure that disrupting weather patterns with cloud seeding doesn't have massive negative side effects? Are we really sure that iron fertilization in our oceans has no negative side effects? The only plausible geoengineering solution that would seem to have little unanticipated effects is carbon re-capture, but we know that it dramatically increases air pollutants so that's not a good deal either (and massive increase in those could also have effects we don't understand).

The point is that solutions that we are likely to understand the effects of (solar mirrors, for example) are not going to happen anytime soon. And the even somewhat plausible geoengineering solutions may have horrible unintended consequences we don't understand and I don't think using the earth as our giant laboratory to figure those consequences out is particularly intelligent.


Paavo Ojala

So 3rd world people are going to suffer from climate chance. Most of the suffering will happen after 20 years. So why don't we have policies that limit reproduction in the areas that are going to suffer from climate change and that way minimize the human suffering.

If we ever want to have a just world where everyone is entitled to all good things like no suffering, health care and respect, we can not allow unlimited sexual reproduction. You cannot have a right to have as many children as you want, if you want to have right to certain costly "human rights" for everyone human who is born.

I don't see how limiting fertility is any more controversial than limiting possible warming or economic activity.


I agree with Michael on this subject. Why are we not talking about solutions to the last 30 years of non-energy policies, of the economy. Getting the old gas guzzlers off the roads, efficient low cost mass transits within populations(monorails), and all products made with 100% recyclable materials. These are all doable, without increased burdens on our financially crushed capitalist systems.


All great comments Paavo, Doug & Kyle. The solution has many moving parts. Not the least of which is limiting population. I've read The Earth can really only support 1.5 Billion humans; we're now approaching 7 Billion.

George Vogt

Geoengineering visions are supremely egotistical. Climate change is already due to social geoengineering. What are a hundred thousand smokestacks if not engineered devices? Geoengineers want solutions that THEY control, and that they can impose regardless of whether you or I agree. That's because they know that if they ask our permission, our answer will be based on politics, and you just have to look at Copenhagen to see where that will get us.


#9 Grumpy: While Doug Garr#5 is engaging in a bit of stereotyping, it is very true that we as a society waste a lot of energy, which is bad for both the economy and the environment. And I can attest that as the one who pays the bills in my house, I am far, far more about our energy consumption (and expense) than my wife and kids. And yes, I turn off the lights when I leave the room.

Gordon Wood

Somewhere, when contrasting geoengineering with carbon reduction, a comparison of costs would be appropriate. If geoengineering is really 100x (or more) cheaper, then people around the world (poor included) could enjoy hugely better quality of life with that approach.

At the very least, it should be studied as aggressively as the alternatives.


Geoengineering is a possibility, but as this article asks: who controls it? How can we be sure that it won't be used offensively, or to bring hold-out countries into alignment?

Carbon taxes and credits are not the answer. That would hit the countries that adopt it, but what about China and India? And it would be a massive hit to the countries that DO adopt them. And for what? A fraction of a fraction of a fraction reduction in carbon dioxide? Will that be enough? Can anyone really tell us that it will be? Can the experts even tell us what percentage of global warming is attributed to carbon dioxide?

Carbon dioxide represents just 3.6% of all greenhouse gasses, and 96.8% of carbon dioxide is natural, not man-made. (Numbers from U.S. Department of Energy). That means that 0.117% of greenhouse gases can be theoretically controlled. Now China and India together account for 25% of greenhouse gases, and they (supposedly) will not agree to any reduction. So assuming you can regulate ALL of the remaining 75%, that's 0.08775% of greenhouse gases. Assume you are able to cut it by 25% (an outstanding, and unrealistic number). That is a 0.02193% reduction in greenhouse gases. That's a little more than 2/100ths of a single percent. And at what cost? Considering, as economists should, the cost-benefit analysis, the costs are astronomical while the benefits are minuscule, at best. Furthermore, this assumes that China and India do not increase their gross output of carbon dioxide, which most likely would happen when the resources become to expensive elsewhere in the world, due to inflated costs through taxes. Those taxes would not apply in China and India. So there may be no benefit, at all, with a massive cost.

There has to be a better way.