Setting the Global Thermostat

Drudge points out Time's "Special Report" on global warming. It's unusually hysterical, even for Time. And it has drawn the usual debunkers; for example, see Red State.

There are plenty of risks on all sides. One possible near-term outcome is draconian regulation that will wreck the global economy, increasing international resentment, and have minuscule effect on greenhouse gas levels. The folks that (for example) criticize the Kyoto treaty in this regard are pretty convincing. (For example: Pete Du Pont in today's WSJ.) But they're getting drowned out by doomcriers on all sides.

However, I think nearly everyone is arguing about the wrong stuff: whether global warming is happening, how much is caused by human action, how much regulation could help, whether Al Gore is insane by official clinical standards or just in an eccentric-aunt kind of way, etc.

Here's something that totally changed my thinking on the issue: read this 1997 Reason article by Gregory Benford. Go ahead, I'll wait here. Here's the thesis:

Forty years ago, the noted atmospheric scientist Roger Revelle declared that "human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment" by pumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air. The question before us should not simply be how best to stop the experiment--and, by extension, the prosperity and progress allowed by cheap, abundant energy.

Rather, the question should be how best to design that experiment, so that we maximize benefits and minimize costs. As the citizens of the advanced nations become convinced that global warming is an immediate threat worthy of response, they will legitimately ask for solutions that demand the least sacrifice.

Benford goes on to propose a host of relatively cheap technical "geoengineering" fixes to sop up carbon from the atmosphere, raise planetary albedo, and the like.

This goes against the environmentalists who see "mankind as the problem", of course; their quasi-religious vision is an Earth on which humans have at best minimal environmental impact. Let's ignore that for now. (And hopefully forever.)

It seems this argument is hard to refute:

  • We have the ability to mitigate global warming right now; we even had it back in 1997, when Benford wrote his article.

  • We're only going to get better at it; on the decades-to-centuries time scale envisioned by global warming proponents, advances in technology and climate modelling will easily outstrip the problem.

  • Hence, Real Soon Now we'll be able to dink the global climate to pretty much whatever temperature we want, without driving the global economy into a regulatory ditch.

So what's the problem again? Well …

There's a sense in which technological solutions to global warming are even scarier than global warming itself. You think you have conflicts setting the thermostat in your house, with Pa wanting to save energy and Ma wanting it warmer, and the kids complaining no matter what? Multiply that kerfuffle by a few billion, erase the familial love, and give everyone armed forces. Uh oh.

But if geoengineering our way out of global warming seems difficult, it's even less likely that we'll do it via legislation and the heavy hand of regulation. I know where I'd be putting my money.