Framing the Social, Political, and Environmental Risks and Benefits of Geoengineering: Balancing the Hard-to-Imagine Against the Hard-to-Measure
22 Pages Posted: 12 Sep 2011 Last revised: 13 Dec 2013
Date Written: May 26, 2011
In recent decades a number of scientists and writers have suggested techniques which could be used to lower the temperature of the earth and thereby counteract man-made global warming. Such techniques are commonly called geoengineering: engineering the earth.
The proposals have attracted a range of reactions. Environmental groups have generally been hostile, seeing geoengineering as a dangerous distraction from the only real solution — reducing emissions. Scientific and academic writers have been less definite, with the most common standpoint, almost a consensus, being that geoengineering may be necessary as a last resort if dangerous climate tipping points approach, but that, because of its risks, everything should be done to avoid this situation. Emissions reduction, almost all writers agree, is far preferable. Insofar as there is any enthusiasm for geoengineering, it is largely based on pessimism that such reduction will actually occur and a perception that geoengineering is a lesser evil than unfettered warming.
This paper challenges that “lesser evil” consensus. It may be that geoengineering is undesirable, and only desirable as a last resort. But it may also be that it could make a useful contribution to an optimal welfare outcome for humanity. One cannot take a firm position on the basis of the current limited research. Thus it is not yet possible to argue that geoengineering is part of the solution to climate change, but the widespread assumption that it is relatively undesirable is without basis too.
This paper analyses and critiques that assumption, using the idea of risk-benefit analysis. It suggests that as well as scientific and environmental issues, established ways of thinking about nature, sustainability and social progress are implicated in attitudes to geoengineering, often implicitly. Until these attitudes are more openly examined and unpacked it will not be possible to reach a rational or sustainable consensus over the most preferable policy options.
Keywords: geoengineering, climate engineering, global warming, climate change, nature
JEL Classification: Z00, Z10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation