My old friend Dave, a remarkable combination of short-haired engineering wonk and drug-crazed teenager hopped on 70s glam-rock, recently sent me a Blue Öyster Cult sampler that included the song “Godzilla.” The lyrics are not only a hoot but hard to argue with:
History shows again and again
That Nature points out the folly of men
Oh no Godzilla!
. . . Godzilla, of course, being a product of nuclear hubris gone awry. Surely, we have been warned. But here it comes anyway: geoengineering! And what is geoengineering? Well, the usual population of enterprising technology-worshippers is now proposing to solve global warming by diverting sunlight from the Earth using giant space mirrors, or adding tiny particles (aerosols) to the atmosphere to reflect sunlight, or dumping powdered iron in the oceans to encourage plankton to suck up carbon dioxide and then sink to the ocean floor with it, or any or all of these and a number of other schemes.
Now, the New York Times has never seen a big-budget, high-tech extravaganza that it didn’t like, from the peaceful atom to Mars colonization -- its “science” section runs at least one brief for the aerospace industry every week, disguised as journalism -- and its climate coverage is no exception. It prints two regular columns, one, TierneyLab, written by a greenhouse denier named John Tierney (who boasts of having “always wanted to be a scientist,” my emphasis) and the other, Dot Earth, written by a painfully non-militant, center-worshipping greenie named Andrew Revkin. In the March 7, 2008 Times online , Revkin ponders the possibilities of geoengineering and throws out the following challenge:
A question for climate campaigners opposed to geo-engineering (by any name): Why not at least explore (and test on reasonable scales) such options. If you take the threats of global warming as seriously as you say, why not at least pursue some work on this kind of backstop even as work on mitigating emissions continues?
Let’s take the first sentence first. A policy of “keep all options on the table,” as the jargon goes, would require us to give meaningfully lush grants not only to space mirrors and deliberate aerosol pollution but also to iron fertilization, fusion reactors, deep-ocean carbon sinking, microwave power satellites, and more. Most of these technologies cannot be developed -- in the case of anything space-based, cannot even be “test[ed] on reasonable scales” -- without spending many billions of dollars. But Federal energy budgeting is, to a good first approximation, a zero-sum game. Money spent on what might work (geoengineering) would be sucked from what will work (mitigating emissions). We’re shopping with food stamps, not gold bullion: buying all options is not an option. Opportunity costs are real.
The second sentence quoted above is therefore question-begging, because it lays down as a given that “work on mitigating emissions” would proceed along with geoengineering projects. But whether mitigation would continue on a scale that has any hope of being effective is precisely what is called into question by the logic of fund-all-options.
Two other points. (1) All our previous large-scale technical interferences with the environment have produced more secondary problems than they have solved primary problems. Our tippy global canoe is now freighted with the ever-growing burden of all the shifty, fecund secondary problems that our ingenious solutions to primary problems have bred -- and the waterfall ahead is getting louder. Jiggering the sky would almost certainly be dangerous in intractable ways that we do not foresee. The experts paid to do the jiggering would not be motivated to admit the possibility of intractable dangers, indeed of any dangers. “Climate control” is a marketer’s phrase, self-flattering and inherently phony; “climate experimentation” would be a more realistic tag.
(2) If we Fund All Options, every worker on every dubious mega-technical fix will inevitably make inflated claims for the benefits of their own technology. A chorus of reassurances will thus arise from laboratories across the land, publicly funded and desperate to renew their grants, and this chorus will inevitably create the impression that some easy way out -- some high-tech fix far nicer than the scutwork of reducing emissions -- must be perpetually right around ten different corners. This probably-false impression, purchased by funds diverted from mitigating emissions, would undermine our will to mitigate emissions. Indeed, it would be deliberately leveraged to do so by all those who want to preserve business-as-usual.
In sum, experimental megatechnic interferences with Earth’s energy budget would be cripplingly expensive to develop, would likely have unforeseen, intractable side effects, and would certainly be used to divert us from the ugly but sure-fire work of reducing emissions. Oh no, Godzilla!