Let’s just re-engineer the climate
Mark Buchanan

Geo-Engineering Doesn’t Reduce Long-Term Risk

If it fails, we can’t just do another startup

Mark Buchanan — who is actually a physicist, after all — makes a compelling argument against relying on geo-engineering to deal with our climate change problem. For one thing, some of the proposed technologies simply won’t work, because they do nothing about the fact that the poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet. For another, the geo-engineering fairy is being used to lobby against other approaches — conservation and renewable energy sources — that would deal with climate change at its source.

Another reason to be skeptical of geo-engineering is the effect it has on the risk profile of humanity’s future. Technology has produced some amazing things in the past century. But, with zero exceptions that I can think of, they weren’t things that our species needed to survive, or to prevent widespread natural and societal devastation. If we’re talking about technologies that can make our lives better in all sorts of ways, like the Internet or DNA sequencing or quantum computing, then risk is good: we want to place lots of bets that have a high chance of failure but high potential returns.

But that’s not true when it comes to our climate. Even if we stipulate that geo-engineering has a, say, 90 percent chance of solving all the significant problems of climate change — an estimate that is almost certainly way too high — who wants to take that risk?

When it comes to the Earth’s climate one hundred years from now, we want to be reducing the range of uncertainty as much as possible.

This is something that any promise of future technological innovation simply does not do. Yes, technology has produced wondrous things that no one could have imagined. But when dedicated to a specific problem, sometimes it just fails. For example, after decades of research by battalions of researchers, mortality rates from cancer have improved only modestly, leading some to question whether the “war on cancer” is a failure. For another, we seem to be unable to secure important computer systems against hackers or cyber-terrorists.

The claim that technology can solve any problem is the high point of Act One of a Greek tragedy — and we know how Greek tragedies end.

I have no problem with people doing research into geo-engineering, preferably with their own money. If they figure out a real solution to climate change, they will probably become gazillionaires. But our planet is not a Silicon Valley startup: if we succeed we’ll be millionaires, and if we fail, we’ll just start another company! With so much at stake, we need to focus on the one thing that can reliably shrink down the fat tail of catastrophic outcomes: reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

James Kwak is an associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, a co-author of 13 Bankers and White House Burning, and a founder of Guidewire Software. Find more at Twitter, Medium, The Baseline Scenario, The Atlantic, or jameskwak.net.