The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Alan Robock on Geoengineering


Alan Robock, a leading climate scientist and a professor at Rutgers University, begins his RealClimate post on geoengineering on an unfortunate note:

Bjorn Lomborg’s Climate Consensus Center just released an un-refereed report on geoengineering, An Analysis of Climate Engineering as a Response to Global Warming, by J Eric Bickel and Lee Lane. The “consensus” in the title of Lomborg’s center is based on a meeting of 50 economists last year. The problem with allowing economists to decide the proper response of society to global warming is that they base their analysis only on their own quantifications of the costs and benefits of different strategies. In this report, discussed below, they simply omit the costs of many of the potential negative aspects of producing a stratospheric cloud to block out sunlight or cloud brightening, and come to the conclusion that these strategies have a 25-5000 to 1 benefit/cost ratio. That the second author works for the American Enterprise Institute, a lobbying group that has been a leading global warming denier, is not surprising, except that now they are in favor of a solution to a problem they have claimed for years does not exist.

Is Lee Lane a global warming denier? If not, why damn him by association? Moreover, is it fair to claim that AEI is a hotbed of global warmer deniers? AEI hosted an excellent address by Jim Manzi, who has forcefully argued that human-forced climate change is a real threat. That said, Robock goes on to make a number of excellent points, many of which I hadn’t considered.

My main areas of agreement with this report are that global warming is an important, serious problem, that SRM with stratospheric aerosols or cloud brightening would not be expensive, and that we indeed need more research into geoengineering. The authors provide a balanced introduction to the issues of global warming and the possible types of geoengineering.

But Bickel and Lane ignore the effects of ocean acidification from continued CO2 emissions, dismissing this as a lost cause. Even without global warming, reducing CO2 emissions is needed to do the best we can to save the ocean. The costs of this continuing damage to the planet, which geoengineering will do nothing to address, are ignored in the analysis in this report. And without mitigation, SRM would need to be continued for hundreds of years. If it were stopped, by the loss of interest or means by society, the resulting rapid warming would be much more dangerous than the gradual warming we are now experiencing.

Bickel and Lane do not even mention several potential negative effects of SRM, including getting rid of blue skies, huge reductions in solar power from systems using direct solar radiation, or ruining terrestrial optical astronomy. They imply that SRM technologies will work perfectly, and ignore unknown unknowns. Not one cloud has ever been artificially brightened by injection of sea salt aerosols, yet this report claims to be able to quantify the benefits and the costs to society of cloud brightening.

They also imply that stratospheric geoengineering can be tested at a small scale, but this is not true.

Overall, Robock offers a thoughtful take on the issue, one that ought to take wind out of the sails of geoengineering enthusiasts like myself. Cloud brightening has always struck me as an attractive, low-cost approach, yet Robock highlights some of the pitfalls.

With respect to cloud brightening, Bickel and Lane ignore the Jones et al. (2009) results that cloud brightening would mainly cool the oceans and not affect land temperature much, so that it is an imperfect method at best to counter global warming. Furthermore Jones et al. (2009) found that cloud brightening over the South Atlantic would produce severe drought over the Amazon, destroying the tropical forest.

This is an important thing to keep in mind about the climate debate: our models for understanding the climate are incredibly crude, and we have a very poor understanding of the feedback mechanisms at work.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review