Climatic Engineering

By Ikle, Fred C.; Wood, Lowell | The National Interest, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Climatic Engineering

Ikle, Fred C., Wood, Lowell, The National Interest

THE POLITICS of global warming is heating up. Activists are often taking sharply opposing sides on nearly every one of the warming issues. Trite and ad boc political arguments intrude unapologetically upon the science of climatology. But thoughtful people prefer to have science to show the way. After all, climate change is not a political fashion. It is about observable alterations in the natural environment of our planet regarding which scientists seek to understand the causes and thus forecast future trends and eventual outcomes.

Unfortunately, among all the issues governments have to deal with, none is as scientifically complex as climate change. Disparate causes, natural and man-made, alter the climate through innately complicated and incompletely understood mechanisms and quite insufficiently measured networks of interaction. And they do so over timescales which are generally quite long compared to those on which we humans have made precise measurements--or on which we make decisions. Climate, after all, is simply weather averaged over decades to millennia. This intricacy of climate change makes forecasts about global warming seem unreliable. And the seeming unreliability offers a wide berth for endless political disagreements. It makes it easy to disparage as "alarmist" those who warn us of rising sea levels and other compelling consequences of warming.

Yet, the climate change skeptics cannot offer convincing proof as to why we should accept their assertion that global warming is harmless. Their core concern may not be the idea that warming won't hurt us, but rather the growing clamor for costly laws and burdensome regulations meant to curtail greenhouse gas emissions sharply. That such measures are likely to impair economic growth and suppress freedom of action is what troubles the skeptics. China and India adamantly assert that they must expand the use of fossil fuels so that their countries can benefit from economic growth. And in the wealthier democracies, parliamentarians refuse to vote for effective curbs on emissions of greenhouse gases lest they antagonize powerful business lobbies or are blamed for raising the price of gasoline and other transport fuels. As Paul J. Saunders and Vaughan C. Turekian observe, multilateral cooperation to impose negotiated limits on greenhouse gas emissions is unattractive: "Absent new technologies, it cannot but limit economic growth." (1)

To reduce these concerns about damaging economic growth, "carbon (emissions) trading" has been invented. In theory, it would authorize businesses that can rather inexpensively reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to sell allowances that license expanding businesses to increase their emissions. In practice, carbon trading involves the creation of the equivalent of "fiat money", new scrip to pay for carbon emissions permits which can easily offer opportunities for fraud and corruption. Moreover, "carbon offsets" can be created that purportedly do something equivalent to reduce greenhouse warming but don't actually reduce carbon emissions. In any event, unless the rules of such trading are uniform and universal, such practices will merely drive carbon-emissions-rich activities to de facto less burdensome jurisdictions.

The European system for carbon trading provides a lesson. Washington Post columnist and author Sebastian Mallaby reports that the European system was captured by lobbies:

   Permits were given away rather than auctioned,
   which was a windfall for incumbent
   polluters.... Equally, the Clean Development
   Mechanism, set up to allow the purchase
   of pollution credits from poor countries,
   has turned out to be farcical. Chinese
   factories are being engineered to maximize
   greenhouse emissions, and then reengineered
   to generate pollution credits by reducing
   the emissions. (2)

When considering all of this, keep in mind some economic fundamentals: Carbon emissions trading will have to become an international, hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars-per-year business in order for it to make a significant contribution to the slowing of emissions-based global warming. …

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