Are Geoengineers Basically Immoral?

Had to reference Paul Heyne’s famous essay, “Are Economists Basically Immoral?” Your tl;dr to both questions is no, they are not, but like any group some members can get a bit silly. Once you forgive me for abusively clickbaiting you, I hope you’ll feel fairly compensated if I lay out how the moral hazard argument works in climate change discussions in light of three main intellectual currents: mitigation, adaptation, and geoengineering.

Don’t cross The Colonel.

In February, we brought Sean Hernandez, an energy economist at a utility in southern California to the Reversing Climate Change podcast. He had written a paper about moral hazard and geoengineering, which is a topic we love to discuss every chance we get.

Had to crop my head out because no one needs to see the face for radio I’m making. Sean is next to Christophe.

Before we get into moral hazard let’s start with the big picture approaches to climate change. You’ll need these concepts.

Mitigation

Most plans for addressing climate change deal with mitigation, such as energy efficiency, reducing emissions, renewabable and/or clean energy replacing fossil fuels, et al. The simplest way to think of mitigation is getting humanity to stop releasing so much carbon. Nori can be a bit critical of mitigation-only approaches because it’s too late to only focus on reducing or preventing greenhouse gases from getting to the atmosphere. Of course, we’d rather not have to be the cleanup crew, but we are stuck with a fossil fuel infrastructure (very few people are getting rid of their cars with internal combustion engines or power plants until they have run their course). Even if we cut all emissions today, we would still experience the effects of climate change. Stopping climate change requires returning the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to preindustrial levels — which requires taking out over 1 trillion tonnes. We need mitigation of course, but it’s just one piece.

Adaptation

This concept has a whiff of taint about it. It has a way of feeling pejorative in the same way that “appeasement” always reminds me of Chamberlain with Hitler in the 1930s. Adaptation is the paradigm that humans collectively lack the will, resources, or technology to halt or reverse climate change and we need to invest in solutions that allow us to survive if not thrive in a climate changed-world. The climate is warming, sea level rising, droughts killing crops? Fear not! Turn up your AC, build houses on stilts, and grow food indoors.

Sean hosted Dr. Matthew E. Kahn at the University of Southern California on his panel at N3xtCon, and introduced me to his very enjoyable book, Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future. The text takes a very microeconomic approach regarding how prices and incentives will encourage people to create products and services to help us adapt, and discourage unwise action (like buying land that may go underwater), so long as the government doesn’t artificially shield bad behavior from the discipline of accurate pricing.

The tl;dr here: prices work.

Geoengineering

This word has ambition seemingly built right into it, and has long had a bad reputation. Geoengineering refers to attempts to intentionally change systems at the planetary scale. Geoengineering for climate change can include Solar Radiation Management (SRM) which increases the albedo (reflectivity) of the planet through injecting more water vapor into the atmosphere, spraying sulfates into the stratosphere (what everyone thinks of due to Snowpiercer), putting mirrors in space to reflect sunlight, or causing microfauna blooms through dumping iron in the ocean and hoping their bodies get buried under sediment, and many more.

Carbon removal is considered by some to be a type of geoengineering. Under the simple definition of geongineering as a willful attempt to influence a system at planetary scale, carbon removal counts. This isn’t always a popular taxonomy though; some of the geoengineering approaches are half-baked Hail Marys you’d never want to have to rely on.

This attitude has been changing from what I’ve observed. I attribute it at least partially to David Grinspoon’s outstanding book Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future. His Saganesque sagacity gives me hope for the Holocene, and helped transition my head into understanding myself as a citizen of the Anthropocene. I’ll write more about him in the future, but for my purposes here all you need to know is that if humans do not try to manage the carbon cycle now, it would be a calamitous abdication of responsibility. Humans need to evolve to being able to think at planetary scale on the issues which require it such as climate change. If that is a geoengineering perspective, then so be it. There’s essentially no other way for humanity to go at this point. To twist Milton Friedman’s famous line about Nixon, “We are all geoengineers now.”

One of the best books I’ve read recently.

Okay, so now to unbury my lede: are geoengineers/adaptationists basically immoral? Sometimes this charge is levied against them. If people think that sulfates will be sprayed in the atmosphere to treat the symptoms of climate change and prevent them from having to decarbonize, or if they know that humans will adapt to a climate changed-world, they might stop mitigating now. By reducing some of the risk of climate change through these strategies, are we actually increasing it because people don’t think it’s a big deal any more?

In the podcast Sean lays out this classical argument from moral hazard: how decreasing risk increases risk. He wrote a paper on this phenomenon referencing data from the Royal Society which found that by presenting people with geoengineering or adaptation approaches to climate change, they actually became more willing to mitigate. The twist here is, if you’re presenting people with some far out sci-fi solutions, climate change must be getting truly serious and they should increase their mitigation. This is at least one counterpoint to typical moral hazard arguments, but your milage may vary and other datasets may work in the opposite direction.

I welcome all three broad approaches to the conversation: mitigation, adaptation, and geoengineering. They all serve a purpose in dealing with climate change. Without mitigation, we’ll stop adding to the problem but may not ever pay down the dangerous carbon debt already in the atmosphere and oceans. Without adaptation, if this situation gets away from us, we have no backup plan, and being without a lifeboat doesn’t guarantee the safety of the ship. Geoengineering is humanity’s future, if we’re lucky, and are able to control climate change and then terraform lifeless planets. We may have to deploy SRM solutions in a pinch to prevent something worse from happening, but I can imagine several prospective Tom Clancy-esque political thrillers based around the geopolitics of geoengineering, so best to tread carefully.

I find this conceptual partitioning quite useful for understanding the climate change intellectual landscape. I hope you do as well, also recognizing that there are cases where they overlap with one another. If you’d like to hear more discussion of these issues, Sean Hernandez’s podcast is a great start, as is Hadi Dowlatabadi’s episode, and our episode with Jane Flegal and Andrew Maynard.

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