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Who Controls the Switch on a Geoengineering Machine?

(Photo: Lyn ingodsgarden)

Most discussions about geoengineering start out with the tricky scientific issues but eventually get to the even trickier issue of governance. As we wrote in SuperFreakonomics:

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. (If there were, many of the world’s nearly eight thousand coal-burning electricity units would be in a lot of trouble.) Still, [Nathan] Myhrvold admits that “it would freak people out” if someone unilaterally built the thing.

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 Chávez, he’d probably get a prompt visit from some U.S. fighter jets.

One can also imagine the wars that might break out over who controls the dials on Budyko’s Blanket. A government that depends on high oil prices might like to crank up the sulfur to keep things extra cool; others, meanwhile, might be happier with longer growing seasons.

Martin Weitzman addresses this issue in a new working paper (abstract; PDF) called “A Voting Architecture for the Governance of Free-Driver Externalities, with Application to Geoengineering.” As he writes:

The idea of geoengineering is not about to go away any time soon. If anything, interest in solar radiation management is likely to grow over time. Geoengineering is simply too cheap and too tempting for it to recede politely from public view. My basic premise is that we must do some serious thinking about the architecture of a geoengineering governance structure — sooner, rather than later.


I propose a social-choice decision architecture based on the solution concept of a supermajority voting rule and derive its basic properties. In the model this supermajority voting rule attains the socially optimal cooperative solution, which is a new theoretical result around which the paper is built.

Weitzman’s bibliography is also valuable for anyone wanting to read further on the topic. Among the entries: