Assume that human greenhouse-gas emissions are causing dangerous changes in the Earth’s climate. What should we do about it? Public debate on climate change has focused almost solely on requiring large reductions in fossil-fuel energy consumption. Enter the journal Nature with a new feature article on another potential means of dealing with climate change.
Dubbed geoengineering, it involves purposely “engineering” the planet’s climate in ways intended to offset warming from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Although Nature’s discussion of the various possibilities is fascinating on its own, the article is more interesting for its implicit insights into climate scientists’ blinkered view of how to deal with greenhouse risks.
One geoengineering possibility involves injecting sunlight-reflecting sulfate particles into the stratosphere, intended to mimic what large volcanic eruptions already do every once in a while. In a more science-fiction-like vain, another proposal would place numerous small “sunshades” in orbit to prevent a small amount of sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface. For many climate scientists, however, the goal of studying geoengineering isn’t to determine whether any particular proposal is practical or safe, but “to show, with authority, that all such paths are dead-end streets,” and that the focus needs to be on requiring large reductions in people’s fossil-fuel energy consumption.
Much of the climate community still views [geoengineering] with deep suspicion or outright hostility. Geoengineering, many say, is a way to feed society’s addiction to fossil fuels. ‘It’s like a junkie figuring out new ways of stealing from his children,’ says Meinrat Andreae, an atmospheric scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.
In fact, as Nature reports, Andreae urged Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen not to publish a recent article on climate geoengineering, fearing it would distract policymakers from what Andreae sees as the urgent need to cut fossil fuel use. Every scientist who expressed an opinion in the article thinks reducing fossil fuel use is the policy of choice for mitigating human-caused greenhouse warming.
What is so striking is how these scientists, who rightly highlight the need for careful scientific analysis in characterizing the climate effects of GHG emissions, unwittingly forsake science when thinking about how to mitigate climate change. Instead, they jump right from “burning fossil fuels causes dangerous climate change” to “therefore the best way to stop climate change is reducing fossil fuel use.”
The question of what the world’s people will have to give up if they drastically reduce their use of fossil-fuel energy remains unasked. Indeed, none of the scientists profiled in the Nature article show any awareness that the relatively inexpensive and abundant energy from fossil fuels could be anything but harmful to humankind. This myopia appears again and again:
no one thinks that, in the short term, a world cooled by engineering would be preferable to one cooled by a reduction in carbon dioxide levels. And no one thinks that, as yet, we know enough to embark on any sort of large-scale engineering. Models of geoengineering’s benefits need to be a lot more accurate than models of the harm that will be done in its absence. As [climate scientist Ken] Caldeira puts it, if you can be no more precise about the chances of harm under the status quo than to give them as 50%, that’s still something to worry about. But if a proposed intervention has a 50-50 chance of doing good or harm, that’s something to avoid.
In other words, we should worry about the risks of climate change; we should worry about the risks of geoengineering; and we should apply our most meticulous and careful scientific thought to characterizing these risks. But we should not consider — indeed we should remain utterly unaware of — the risks of forcing wealthier people to stop using, and preventing poorer people from starting to use, the fossil-fuel energy that played a leading and essential role in the vast improvements in human health, prosperity, and life expectancy during the last hundred years.
When it comes to thinking about mitigating climate change, scientists such as Andreae, Caldeira, and many others are checking their scientific faculties at the door and unwittingly smuggling in their ideological policy preferences under the guise of dispassionate scientific analysis and authority.
To the extent that human greenhouse-gas emissions are causing dangerous changes in the Earth’s climate, the best ways to mitigate those changes can only be determined by the same relentless application of science as we demand for the understanding of climate change itself. That means transparently defining measures of human welfare — the values side of the policy equation — and then carefully assessing not only the risks to human welfare of burning fossil fuels but also the benefits — as well the risks and benefits of geoengineering and of restricting people’s access to fossil-fuel energy.
Even taking it as given that greenhouse-gas emissions are altering the climate in potentially dangerous ways, still, we must ask whether there are negative health and mortality effects from higher energy prices; whether restrictions on fossil-fuel energy would make us poorer; and whether a poorer-but-cooler world is better for humankind than a richer-but-warmer world. Likewise, could some geoengineering technique mitigate human-caused climate change without the need to give up the benefits of fossil-fuel energy; or buy us a few more decades to find new ways to produce abundant energy as or more cheaply, but without undesirable climate changes? Most climate scientists jump over these questions or assume the answer without any apparent awareness that they’ve failed to subject their preferences to scientific scrutiny.
This blind spot for the human-welfare effects of climate-mitigation policies also shows up in assessing the risks of geoengineering. Scientists rightly note that geoengineering could itself have unintended and undesirable spinoff effects. For example, the Nature article highlights work by Alan Robock of Rutgers, which concluded that sulfate from the 1783 Laki volcanic eruption in Iceland weakened the Indian monsoon and also reduced rainfall in Africa’s Sahel. Nature goes on to note,
it is easily argued that betting the monsoon on the ability of [climate] models to accurately capture such subtleties [i.e., geoengineering’s potential for unintended consequences] would require a foolhardy level of trust, a remarkable lack of concern for hundreds of millions of livelihoods or a startling desperation in the face of the alternative.
What is astonishing is climate scientists’ obliviousness that the exact same concerns apply to policies to ration, tax or otherwise restrict access to fossil-fuel energy.
What accounts for scientists’ policy blinkers? It’s hard to know for sure, since we’re talking about what goes on inside people’s heads. I suspect part of the answer lies in an implicit assumption, even by many scientists, that alternatives to fossil-fuel energy are just as cheap and convenient, but that dark corporate and government forces have prevented them from being disseminated. Never mind the countervailing evidence such as the fact that decades of $5 and $6 per gallon gasoline in Europe has failed to create economically viable alternatives to gasoline- or diesel-powered automobiles.
Another potential contributor is a wooly-minded romantic environmentalism that seems to have infected scientists as much as anyone else. This also comes through in Nature’s profile:
Hans Feichter, a climate modeller at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, speaks for the vast majority of his colleagues when he says ‘the role of a geoscientist is to understand nature, not to change it.’ Climate scientists have proved themselves happy to advocate massive changes aimed at shifting the climate. But they are massive changes in technology, in geopolitics, in social norms…Not changes in the workings of the stratosphere. Not changes in the natural.
Where does one start in unwinding all the fallacious assumptions implicit in this confused line of thinking? Why should the goal of climate policy be to make the world more “natural”? And why should anyone think “natural” is better than “artificial”? Why is it okay to force “massive changes” in how people live their lives without even a nod to the possibility that this could cause “massive” harm of its own?
In fact, it is exactly because we have made our environment less “natural” that we have improved the lot of humankind. “Natural” means horrifying percentages of our children dying of infectious diseases and mothers dying in childbirth; lifespans of only 30 or 40 years for those who survive these earlier tribulations — years lived in backbreaking toil merely to avoid starvation; and constant nagging pain from injuries and infections.
Climate scientists’ ignorance of the factors that contribute to long, safe, healthy, and prosperous lives for the world’s people is what makes them so dangerous in the debate over what to do about climate change. Their scientific credentials give them great authority on the world policy stage. Yet like the boyfriend who is in fact “high maintenance” while unwittingly believing himself to be “low maintenance,” climate scientists believe their policy recommendations to be based on science, rather than on unexamined prejudices that are yet to be subjected to scientific scrutiny. Only at our peril do we continue to dance to their tune.