Taking Charge of Our Climate

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I don't know enough about climate change debate to weigh in on the cage match between Levitt/Dubner, the environmental blogs, and, it seems, most of the liberal environmental blogosphere.  I know enough about journalism to know that asking your sources to feed you a quote you have written is a fairly major no-no, and doesn't make me inclined to trust the rest of the critique that kicked this brouhaha off.  It's bad enough when journalists pull the "would you say" trick, because human cognitive evolution being what it is, too many people will allow you to put words in their mouth.  But no one I know would even consider announcing to their sources what they would like to hear.



That aside, what about geoengineering, for those of us who are convinced that climate change is real and urgent?  I share the general queasiness with the idea of massive attempts to control the climate--it seems to me that a backfired attempt could be awfully bad.  On the other hand, I also share the dismay that, outside of major economic recessions, we don't seem to have a good plan for cutting emissions.  Most of Europe's reductions have been achieved via the collapse of the East German and other post-Soviet industrial economies, Britain's 'dash for gas" after the energy sector was privatised, and purchases of questionable offsets--not from actual reductions as a result of greenhouse policy.

Ryan Avent makes the sensible point that geoengineering would fall hostage to politics, too, if we were actually trying to implement it.  But I'm not sure he makes a compelling case that it would be as hard to do a geoengineering project as it is turning out to be to enact a serious regime to prevent climate change.  It might be, for the same reason that I'm queasy about these sorts of projects.  But carbon reduction is turning out to be really, really hard.

Ryan optimistically says that we may well get a climate change bill. But most people I know think that climate change is dead, for exactly the reasons I've been predicting for some time--no one is willing to amp up their constituents' energy bills, especially during a recession.  (This does not make me happy, so please hold the righteous anger.  The universe is not here to please me, or you.)

The scale of the carbon reductions that will be required in  developed nations are massive.  The political will to achieve them is very weak, even in Europe.  Even if we somehow developed the political will, unless we also make some radical advances in cheap renewable energy technology, China is going to burn all of her coal, plus all of the oil we don't buy from the Saudis, rendering most of our efforts moot.  Yes, yes, I know--China's government is making noises about environmental sustainability.  Let's just say I'd like to see a lot more examples of actual efforts to cut their greenhouse emissions before I base any policy around their committment to carbon reduction.

If it turns out not to be possible to coordinate carbon reduction within an acceptable timeframe, shouldn't we have a plan B?

Update:  Smart point from Kevin Drum

It's also worth noting that even if we eventually resort to geoengineering, our job will be a lot easier if we've already made some progress on reducing greenhouse gases.  Trying to solve a 7°C temperature rise entirely with atmospheric sulfates would require a lot of sulfates and produce a lot of side effects.  But if we manage to solve half the problem with greenhouse gas reductions, we're still way ahead of the game even if we can't manage the other half.  It means that we only have to address a 3°C problem with sulfates, and while this might still be dangerous and unpredictable, it's a lot less dangerous and unpredictable.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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