In This Episode
We have every reason in the world to try to stop climate change. But when it comes to geoengineering––lacing the atmosphere with particles to block the sun’s warming effect––experts are split on whether the intervention would create more problems than it would solve. At this rate of global warming, though, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which humans won’t eventually try it out. Inadvertently, we’ve already piloted the method through air pollution. Is the geoengineering genie already out of the bottle? Should we even want to stop it? Are there ways to deploy these efforts that will insure against scenarios where we wish we’d never tried? Host Brian Beutler is joined by Elizabeth Kolbert, a New Yorker staff writer and author of Under a White Sky, and Dr. David Keith, a professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago and an advocate for geoengineering research.
Brian Beutler: Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful. With me your host, Brian Beutler. There’s a kind of darkly funny subplot in American history. You may have seen it immortalized in the movie Oppenheimer, which is that the scientists who built the first atomic bomb couldn’t be completely certain that the chain reaction that produces the explosion in a fission device wouldn’t just continue forever and ignite the atmosphere ending life on Earth. They were, to be clear, pretty sure that wouldn’t happen, obviously, or they wouldn’t have detonated it. But they were playing for the very first time with powers that were hard even for them to fathom, and that frightened them. So spoiler alert, the atmosphere did not catch fire, but unleashing the nuclear genie carried other unintended consequences for humankind, starting with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, obviously, but also the radioactive fallout of nuclear weapons tests and the thermo nuclear arms race. Mutually assured destruction. On the other side of the coin, there’s the clean energy of nuclear power, the theoretical allure of fusion power. And those things, though, are offset by the very real harms of a few nuclear meltdowns. Someday we might be able to pencil out whether it was all worth it. But wherever we land on that question, it’s hard to imagine a version of history where scientists became theoretically aware that they could harness the power of the sun, but then agreed for all eternity not to try. Even absent the exigent circumstances of World War Two. Humans being humans, the nuclear age probably became inevitable once the theory became widely understood. This week we’re going to talk about something that’s at least loosely analogous, which is the debate over the wisdom and viability of geoengineering our way out of our own climate change debacle. It’s not perfectly analogous, obviously, because our impetus for experimenting with geoengineering climate solutions isn’t war. The goal isn’t to destroy, but to prevent destruction. But the urgency is similar. We have all the theoretical reasons in the world to think about how we might reverse global warming. And even if we didn’t, our new realities of mass wildfire destruction and spiking surface temperatures, catastrophic flooding, disease, migration and so on, all those things would make us wonder what more could we do? Also similar are fears among experts about what we might set loose in the world if we greenlit the geoengineering equivalent of the Trinity Test. Rapid cooling in a world that’s begun adapting to record heat might also be disruptive. It might also be deadly. And yet, knowing what we already know about climate change, the durability of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, and the relative simplicity of various plans to block solar radiation, it’s hard to imagine that we won’t eventually just give it a try. In fact, we’re already trying, just on a tiny scale, and we’ve already done things inadvertently that have had the effect of reflecting heat from the sun back out into space. So that raises our big picture questions for this week. Is the geoengineering genie already out of the bottle? Could it even be stopped if we wanted to stop it? Should we want to stop it? Are there ways to deploy these efforts that will insure against an area where we wish we’d never tried so that we don’t become death, the destroyer of worlds in our effort to save the planet? We’ve got a couple of great guests this week to puzzle over these questions with us. Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of several great books about the climate crisis, including most recently Under the White Sky, which is more or less about how our real world efforts to engineer our way out of our own ecological calamities have often created new ones. And Dr. David Keith, who is a professor of geophysical sciences at University of Chicago, the founding faculty director of its Climate Systems Engineering Initiative and an advocate for geoengineering research to cool the planet, at least as a stopgap while we ramp up decarbonization and adaptation efforts. So, David and Elizabeth, I’m so glad you guys could both do this.
David Keith: Thanks for being here.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Glad to be here.
Brian Beutler: Elizabeth, I want to start with you, since I’m still reading Under the White Sky, I don’t want to accidentally mischaracterize your views. So where do you fall on the question of whether geoengineering, a climate solution is wise and whether it’s even avoidable at this sort of late date in the climate crisis?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, I won’t be giving away anything to say that I don’t really fall anywhere. I, I think the book lays out this this pattern that we reach for solutions to previous problems with new technological solutions that seems to be sort of our go to at this moment, because that’s what we have. Our political systems don’t seem up to or simply can’t deal with these problems. That we’ve created. And, you know, in that chapter on geoengineering, I go talk to David and other people who have worked on this issue about, I guess you’d say, the promise and the perils. And I don’t think I really take a strong stand, except insofar as pointing out that this pattern has, you know, has had consequences of its own. Reaching for these new technologies often brings a new set of problems that we then have to deal with.
Brian Beutler: Were there any examples you came across in your research reporting where one of these sort of smaller scale geoengineering schemes that was meant to fix an unintended consequence of trade or industrialization, whatever, that it worked out exactly as intended, no regrets, no unforeseen consequences or or no big ones anyway.
Elizabeth Kolbert: I guess the question is, I mean, you know, and then now we’re getting into definitional because geoengineering is a word that’s sort of thrown around. But what we’re talking about is in this context is solar geoengineering.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Which is, you know, using some kind of reflective material to reflect sunlight back to space before it hits the earth to counteract some of the effects of climate change. And there really are no [laughs] you know, that’s that’s in its own category, I think. Now, certainly there are many ways in which we’ve interfered with natural systems, both consciously and unconsciously, and then tried to, you know, re interfere with them. You know, there are many gazillions of stories that we as humans would consider a successful, you know, damming something up to create a, you know, a reservoir. I mean, you know, we could go on and on. We our whole world, our human world is engineered for our own convenience. Now, are even those that we would consider, you know, remarkable success stories, the Hoover Dam or whatever are they are no [?] successes, not from the perspective of the other creatures who relied on those natural systems. But, you know, from a human perspective, there are, you know, doubtless many gazillions, as I say, of engineering projects that have been, you know, extremely successful and have not caused massive problems afterwards. But if you ask the other creatures, the other species, they might have a very different view of it.
Brian Beutler: David, how do you see things differently, if at all, from from the way Elizabeth just laid them out?
David Keith: Well, let me start with the analogy, so Elizabeth was just talking about engineering efforts like the Hoover Dam, but that seems like a somewhat imperfect analogy because that wasn’t intended for ecological restoration. It wasn’t intended to reduce humans footprint on nature, it wasn’t intended quite the opposite, to control nature for human benefit. And at least one of the reasons that people might undertake solar geoengineering human sharing is to reduce the human footprint on nature. And there are certainly examples of that that have had some level of success. I think none of these things have perfect access. All of them have unexpected side effects. That’s completely baked in. But, you know, to take a personal example that I was involved in as a kid at my parents helped to shape was breeding peregrine falcons in captivity and reintroducing them to try and make up for the way that falcons were killed by accumulated DDT. And so I think there are some interesting analogies there. And that, too, to help to to to restore the falcon population we both needed to actually solve the root problem, which was these long lived organochlorine pesticides, DDT, by banning it. And we did and was hugely successful. But that alone probably wasn’t enough. And then we also had this program of breeding them under captivity in Wainwright, Alberta, and then spreading them around different so-called hack sites in eastern U.S. and Canada to to reintroduce the populations successfully. And there are many examples like that. My my neighbor, just two blocks away here is involved in buffalo restoration in the park here. And there’s mixed successes. But I think there are plenty of examples where humans are attempting to reduce previous harms in the natural world with some success.
Brian Beutler: So, you know, I mentioned Oppenheimer at the outset. I’m a Jewish kid from California who studied physics at UC Berkeley. So A, I was primed to like that movie. And but B, I think also kind of primed to see things like the Manhattan Project or maybe a geo engineered solution like the climate crisis and sort of like exciting frontiers of human ingenuity. And I kind of feel like a part of me would really root for humans to just puzzle their way out of this crisis. Another part of me feels like it’s such a mass scale thing with such big question marks around it that maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong. David I think of it almost like the the sort of classic trolley car problem where like you pull the lever to avoid killing one person when you don’t know what’s happening on the other side is that we have all these detailed models of the consequences of inaction on climate or insufficient action on climate change, on how catastrophic those would be. But my sense is like less information about any of the tail risks of rapidly cooling the planet. And I’d love to hear you talk about the sort of philosophical implications of that.
David Keith: First of all, no one who’s sensible thinks that we’re going to geoengineer our way out of the climate process. I certainly don’t I don’t know anybody serious in this field who does. So that’s a kind of really extreme kind of straw dog. I think at best, some of these techniques might in combination with cutting emissions and local adaptation efforts and maybe taking CO2 in the atmosphere, reduce the overall risk. And to be clear, you introduced me as an advocate of cooling the planet. I don’t think that I am. I’m an advocate of knowing more about these technologies. And you keep mentioning rapid cooling, how I can have Trinity test that would do rapid cooling. I actually would strongly oppose that. I don’t think that many people would would advocate that. And I think there’s some other ways in which the analogy, to, to the Manhattan Project is weak, although I have some examples where I think it’s actually interesting. So I think it’s weak in the sense that we’re really trying something new. So if you’re talking about putting sulfur in the stratosphere, which is the thing we understand best for solar geoengineering, humans already put immense amounts of sulfur in the atmosphere. So at the peak we were putting 100 million tons a year of sulfur in the lower atmosphere killing maybe 10 million people a year from sulfur air pollution. And we have in different ways put a lot of sulfur in the stratosphere, and big volcanoes put say like 8 million tons was Pinatubo. So a realistic slow ramp deployment of solar geomachinery might be still under 1 million tons a year late this century when we’re shaving off a fraction of a degree with huge human benefits. And maybe [?] as well. So there’s a way in which the kind of will you ignite the atmosphere thing really doesn’t apply because we’ve already seen the atmosphere react to, say, 8 million tons. We I’m absolutely not claiming that there’s no risks or that we know everything for sure. There are risks and for sure we don’t know everything. And for sure there will be surprises and ways it goes wrong that we don’t expect all that as a given. But I think we can say in a way that’s really different from the Manhattan Project, that there can’t be any just gigantic unknown unknown for putting sulfur in the stratosphere that way because we watch sulfur in the stratosphere so much. We have a century literally, of science that’s looked at this. So and I also don’t actually see it as some big framework of innovation because this isn’t really innovative. These are quite old ideas. The question is the hard question about how to evaluate them and how to make the political tradeoffs. And finally, I think, you know, part of the earlier conversation was characterizing this is kind of do we have a technical solution versus a policy solution? I think all these big problems get solved with some mixture. It’s very hard to think of big problems like this that are only policy solutions. And it’s very hard or impossible to think of ones that are only technical solutions. They’re they’re always intertwined, the two deeply.
Brian Beutler: Elizabeth, do you have a response to. What would you say to to David to sort of maybe temper his enthusiasm for for these ideas? If you actually disagree with him about them?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, look, the reason that solar geoengineering is so controversial and has been very, very difficult for people, you know, including David, to get any even, you know, let alone a Trinity like test, the tiniest, teensy weensy scientific climate, logically meaningless test, just to test out equipment and to test out the monitoring equipment is because it raises hackles in an interesting way. And as David points out, look, we’ve been putting sulfur into the atmosphere for a quite a long time, just by, you know, flying around and things like that. And that hasn’t raised any of the same problems. But I think one of the things that people are reacting, I don’t know what you know, there are many things that people are reacting to is this idea that it’s somehow licenses. If you dangle in front of people, there’s possibility that we could counteract some. And I think that, as David is also saying, you know, serious researchers don’t ever say don’t ever dangle out the possibility that we could counteract all of the CO2 that we’ve put up there and continue to put up there at astonishing rates. But that idea is sort of out there that we’re going to counteract all this warming and that if you if you do that, if you even. Mention that possibility. Whatever sort of political pressure has has built up successfully to reduce emissions, we’ll just sort of take our foot off the gas pedal and just keep emitting like crazy. Now, I think one of the better, you know, what’s happened in recent years is is really we have not reduced our emissions globally emissions do continue to go up. I guess there’s a question of whether they’re sort of plateauing. If that’s the case, they’re plateauing at a very high level, at a very dangerous [laughs] level that’s building up immense amounts of CO2 every year. And we are now seeing this summer very vividly. You know, just some of the impacts. So the question of whether there really is any political will to do what’s necessary to really make a serious difference and whether raising mere possibility of geoengineering has any impact on that global conversation or that global these global systems in which carbon emissions are baked so deeply that we are finding it very, very difficult to turn the ship around? I don’t know. But people have a very powerful reaction to that. And I and I understand that. I do understand that.
David Keith: I agree with Elizabeth. This kind of moral hazard question is the central concern about solar geoengineering, for sure. A couple of comments. One is that I think we really are making enormous progress to cut emissions, and I think this conversation feels very different to me than it would have a decade ago. The world is now spending a little over a trillion dollars a year in clean energy. That’s over 1% of GDP. That’s really huge. I would rather it be three. But I used to give talks always starting saying, oh, it was just a phony war. Politicians talk about doing something about climate, but nothing observable is being done. That’s not true anymore. Things really are being done emissions in Europe as a whole, and the U.S. and North America as a whole are going down global emissions. I think it’s pretty clear they are plateaued, not certain. And I think there’s every reason to believe they will go down with that kind of immense flow of resources into decarbonization. To be clear, I don’t think it’s as fast as I’d like, but the world where we could say that nobody was doing anything is really a world of five or ten years ago, not today’s world. I think another important thing to say is that exactly the same arguments were made about adaptation and they were morally wrong. So people used to say prominent people like Al Gore, that we shouldn’t put any effort at all into adaptation because it would distract from efforts to cut emissions. That is, we shouldn’t help poor people protect themselves from harm because it would lessen somehow the moral and political weight to cut emissions. And it’s important to think hard about that, even if that was a true statement. It’s a morally, really dangerous statement because you are effectively saying you kind of rather the poor people suffer so the rich feel guiltier and are more likely to vote to cut emissions. And that is a repugnant idea in practice. That is really gone now and there’s very wide embrace of adaptation as part of climate policy, not as much as there should be and not as much as there should be for the world’s poorest. But it’s embraced and I think much the same. I mean in that sense solar geoengineering is very similar. It seems like it would be most effective at protecting the world’s poorest. And people oppose it because they fear it will take effort away from emissions cuts. I think it’s right to fear that, but I think the ethics of opposing it for that reason have some of the same deep ethical problems.
Elizabeth Kolbert: I do have a question, though, David. If we’re decarbonizing and decarbonizing on any schedule, you know, if you’re optimistic about decarbonization, then why should we have a conversation about geoengineering?
David Keith: Because the most important single fact about climate change, as you’ve written very clearly, is that if climate change is proportional to cumulative emissions, so that means that even if we eliminate emissions today, the climate change would still be there. So this isn’t a fight between geoengineering emissions cuts. The question is how we manage the risk of historical emissions. Unless you invite a time machine, you can’t go back and undo those emissions. So even if emissions were eliminated today, we would still have the climate change we have and we’d have some reason to think about ways to reduce the climate change in the future. And there are really only two ways. If you want the future at any given time, to be cooler than the past, there’s two options. You do solar geoengineering, or you do carbon removal. There’s literally no other way to do it.
Brian Beutler: I want to dive into the adaptation question in a minute, but before we do that, I want to talk a little bit about technical and political challenges to any sort of geo engineered intervention. David, you mentioned that the world, as it was a decade ago, being a much different one and the conversation around this being much different and it was a little bit before that when I first read about the sort of nascent ideas for for geo engineered solar radiation management, and as they were described at the time, at least in the popular press, they just kind of sounded a little bit reckless, you know, like fill the oceans with sulfur and, you know, maybe that’ll work. I guess the question I have is first, if either of you guys in your work on this, whether instead of encountering any like moral hazard concerns about what it will mean for for continued greenhouse gas pollutions, whether you’ve encountered like a political risk aversion insofar as you know, if you embrace a big step towards trying to cool the planet with geoengineering, the way we now understand our unwillingness to reduce emissions, that contributes to heatwaves and wildfires and all that, like if we take a big step to try to cool the planet, the people who agreed to do that are going to end up being on the receiving end of blame for any of the unintended consequences. And just in my experience covering politics, that kind of thinking tends to predominate. Policy decision makers and they try to avoid taking big steps that could blow back on them like that. And that seems like it would offset or cancel out [laughs] the the sort of moral hazard question you both addressed. But I haven’t read much about that kind of unease, at least among global leaders.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, the question of the governance with regards to solar engineering and I mean, there have been people who, you know, want basically to put into international law what counts as international law these days, you know, really to prevent any form of of work on this as as a kind of, you know, weather modification or whatever. But the you know, the question of how we’ve had a lot of trouble within international governance, we can see that all over, including in climate change. And the question of how you would, you know, get the world together, especially if there are differential impacts around the world and differential risks and unintended consequences that, as you say, no one will want to take responsibility for these are really hard questions I don’t think anyone has clear answers to at this point. But since we haven’t even gotten to the point of really even deciding whether it would be wise, even if we could govern [laughs] it, you know, maybe that’s the first step. But I think that’s what people like David would advocate. I won’t speak for David, but we should really actually figure out if we could do this and should do this, if it would be more good than harm overall. We haven’t gotten to that point yet. So the governance questions sort of haven’t loomed very large yet, I guess I would say.
Brian Beutler: So I guess you’re pointing to like one potential solution if we get to that point, is that you might overcome political reluctance by kind of spreading the political risk, doing something like the Paris climate accord but for—
Elizabeth Kolbert: No I don’t, I think it would be very, very difficult. I think global governments would be extremely difficult. But as I say, I don’t think we sort of haven’t even gotten to where that’s a very, very high level conversation at this point.
David Keith: I think I think broadly that’s true. And certainly the governance problems are really very hard and nobody has any clear way through. I totally agree with that. But actually a lot has changed even in the last year or so. You know, you were, first of all, characterizing it sort of as a harebrained scheme. And of course, people like to say that there’s ways in which that’s true and there are harebrained schemes out there. But it’s important to understand in some sense how mainstream this understanding is and climate models and climate science. And, you know, just in the last year, the European Union has formally come out with a mandate for doing research on this, which is a pretty big deal to get through the EU. The UN at the United Nations Environment Program came out with their one atmosphere report on this, which again was kind of unprecedented and said a bunch of pretty balanced things about benefits and risks. The US government has come out to OSTP with a research plan, so those are ways that felt very different from from from a year or so ago. And there are conversations at pretty high international levels about how it should be governed. So there’s a thing called the Overshoot Commission that has, I guess, four ex heads of government on it, which will produce a report in mid-September, and that at least engage this topic in a serious way and was, I think, by far the highest level group of kind of practical politicians, most of whom are from the developing world ever to talk about these topics. So I think I think on the one hand, we’re very far away from any clear idea about how to do how to govern it. But I think the conversations have started.
Brian Beutler: So to be clear, I don’t necessarily think any of these proposals are harebrained. I’m just talking about when I first read about them in the middle of the aughts, it was like the way they were presented was like, that seems like a little ill considered. Or maybe, maybe we should think about it a little bit harder first. But it was, you know, also the popular press. And I know that we don’t always like bat a thousand, but so, you know, if we get to the point where government solutions and and and like international agreements seem to be put in place to do this in some sort of measured way that gets buy in from more than just like the great powers or individually affluent people or whoever would end up doing it. David, are there solar radiation management concepts that aren’t? Were the steps you take are you can be modulated. They’re not like you disperse particles and then you can’t get those back. And so the consequences of what you do are forever baked in. Like you can kind of—
David Keith: Oh. All of them can be modulated. Nobody had any experience in environmental science or ethics would ever promote something that that was baked in forever that you couldn’t stop of. Of course not. They all are stoppable. So. So if you take stratospheric aerosols, they last for only two years. And in any I mean, to be clear, there’s crazy stuff you can read in the press, but I mean, any of the kind of mainstream discussion of how this would happen, you’d start very slowly and monitor your way up. And if you stop after two years, the the material’s gone from the stratosphere. So so I think I mean, let me just say this clearly. If there was a geoengineering method that once you started it, you could not stop it. I would absolutely oppose its use ever and say it’s not worth studying.
Brian Beutler: I don’t mean like permanent. I just mean two years is a short period of time on a geological time scale, but it’s, you know, a significant chunk of a human life. [laughs] And if you don’t know what is going to happen in those two years and then things start going a little sideways, you can’t get those two years back, right?
David Keith: Yes, that’s true. But if you’re putting sulfur in the stratosphere and again, if the Mount Pinatubo volcano put 8 million tons of sulfur in, and if you were doing something that was sort of the beginning of deployment or maybe you’d put a 10th of a million tonnes in so 80 times less than Pinatubo, I think it’s it’s really hard to imagine any physical pathway that produces some giant unknown. To be clear. It wouldn’t even be detectable on the ground by most methods. I must sound like I’m just kind of poo poo-ing away risks. I mean, if if you flip the question around, and ask me risks, I’ll give you a big long laundry list of actual risks. But I think the risk of that, you just start and there’s some kind of wild unintended effect. I think that’s one of the things I often say is that’s a risk that we’re used to thinking of from biological systems. So when people have introduced, for example, Elizabeth’s book has lots of examples where people have introduced one species to control another, or we’ve introduced different kinds of biological organisms. Biological organisms have sex, and so they self reproduce and there’s a way that even a very small experiment can go haywire and have large scale consequences. But sulfur doesn’t have sex [laughter] if you put sulfur in the stratosphere. If you put a hundred tons of sulfur in stratosphere, it’s just there. We’re doing it anyway. From aircraft, it falls out. It has consequences, to be clear. People die from air pollution. It has measurable consequences, but it doesn’t have kind of consequences that go on and expand after you stop.
Brian Beutler: I mean, forgive me if these questions seem simplistic, but I was thinking more like, you know, if you’re trying to reflect something, if the solar radiation back out into space. Are there are there methods under that are being researched that would give you more direct? You know, day by day control over how much of that you were doing. Does that make sense?
David Keith: So, sure, there’s a possibility of space based systems. It’s kind of science fiction. I think it’s really for the latter half of this century. I don’t totally dismiss it. We had a really cool workshop on that with a bunch of the kind of new space people. So you could, in principle build a space shield between the earth and the sun. I don’t think that’s ridiculous on a hundred year time scale, but it’s pretty far out. There are ideas for whitening a certain kind of marine clouds or for thinning cirrus clouds. And those things have tiny footprints of more like a week or less. So those are more inherently short term.
Brian Beutler: And living under a white sky. Does that make people sad?
David Keith: Would make me really sad. I mean, if the sky was going to be white I would absolutely oppose doing this.
Brian Beutler: Elizabeth, do you think that it’s reasonable to imagine that there’s an intervention out there that would have beneficial consequences but wouldn’t do anything as drastic as turn the sky white and and make people said. [laughter]
Elizabeth Kolbert: Oh, it wouldn’t turn the sky white. It would turn the sky whiter. How’s that? I think that, you know, and there may be ideas out there. I think, you know, David covered the sort of serious ones. And, you know, I think that you’re sort of looking for, well, you know, we’ll get something and we’ll, you know, ignite the atmosphere.
Brian Beutler: Oh.
Elizabeth Kolbert: And I think David has pretty compellingly argued that that is is not really the situation here. What what you could get that would be, you know, politically very difficult. And brings us back to sort of the point that you made before is you could get, you know, a cyclone somewhere. You’re going to get you know, we’re pretty much guaranteed to be getting more and more of these climate related disasters. Now, let’s say you began a program even slowly of geoengineering, and then something terrible happened. Then someone doubtless would say, well, that’s because [laughs] you know, you messed around with the stratosphere and those kinds of political tensions. And once again, you know, we’re in a we’re in a future world where, you know, people have decided or I don’t know what the hell has happened, but somehow this is being implemented. Right? And at that point, I don’t really know what the world looks like. But, you know, in today’s world, you can certainly imagine that even, you know, the great powers or the UN or whatever to decide, okay, we’re going to collectively launch this. There will always be this political problem of how are we going to deal with the fact that you can imagine I mean, you can imagine anything that you can imagine conflict arising over even something that had a net benefit but didn’t. But somewhere ahead it or you couldn’t even attribute it it would be very difficult to attribute are very difficult to tease out what the effects of climate change were, from what the effects of X amount of geoengineering would be. And then you would have, you know, the monsoon fails. Is that geoengineering, is that climate change? Is that you can see the possibility for a lot of conflict.
Brian Beutler: This tees up a question I’ve been wanting to ask because in my research for this, it’s, someone wrote that we could make a meaningful intervention spending less than Elon Musk paid to buy Twitter. And given that it’s so it like the costs involved are not enormous. Right. What’s to stand in the way of some rogue industrialist or or loose alliance of petro state nations just doing it?
Elizabeth Kolbert: The US Air Force presumably is in the way of that happening. I mean, you have to send up a lot of unless someone has a new plan that I haven’t heard of, you know, you require a lot of airplanes flying in the stratosphere. And, you know, unless countries with very powerful air forces want to let you do that, I don’t see how it gets done.
David Keith: I want to jump in on that last thing Elizabeth was saying about attribution, because I think on the one hand, she’s right. On the other hand, I think things are really different in the presence of all these climate lawsuits and a lot of really thinking about attribution. So, of course, we’re now living in a world where there are extreme events happening and people are attempting legally to attribute them to like Exxon. So, I mean, think of the lawsuit between the Bolivian, I guess, or Bolivian farmer, a guide, mountain guide and RWE, a German utility that now is making its way to the German courts. It’s very exciting. And that’s using these ideas of fractional attribution where you can say what fraction of the climate change risk in a given place like for wildfires or wherever is due to. In this case, it’s RWE, a big German coal based utilities historical emissions. And these things are actually now moving through the legal system. And there’s also a whole kind of a climate attribution science that attempts to say what is the fractional change in likelihood of a heat wave due to climate. And all that same kind of intellectual technology, legal technology. And these attribution studies apply exactly the same as the same models to solar geoengineering. So on the one hand, I think Elizabeth is certainly right that if there are some some group of countries were had a Jewish Europe program and then there’s some big cyclone, somebody will try and say, hey, the cyclone was completely caused by a geoengineering program. But at some level, we’ve already been around that block because people are trying to say that about Exxon and the same issues about fractional attribution would apply. And so I don’t mean that’s all soluble, but on some levels, the kind of legal and social machinery to adjudicate that is already beginning to be there. And that’s what the other question about could a real billionaire do it? So, yeah, it can be done for quite a bit less than the cost of Twitter. But I really think there’s a deep way in which this becomes a state matter. Billionaires don’t really act on their own for things like this. I mean, if some Polish billionaire decided to buy a few aircraft and invade the U.S., the aircraft can fly to the U.S. But then the U.S. will call up the Polish government and say, hey, what’s going on? You need to stop. And the Polish government might say, oh, it’s just this billionaire. It’s not a government action. It’s just the action of this billionaire. It’s not us. And the US government will say we consider this a state action stop, and then instantly it’s a state action. And so I think there’s a way in which billionaires influence things sometimes in ugly ways, by paying for public policy and persuasion and so on. But I think there’s a way in which actual action like this pretty quickly effectively becomes state action.
Brian Beutler: I mean, maybe the billionaire thing is a little bit fanciful, but there are you know, there are. Very powerful and wealthy countries that have for the same moral hazard reasons we were talking about before. They have an interest in wanting to reduce global temperatures. They definitely have a few billion dollars lying around. They definitely have airplanes. They wouldn’t necessarily have to fly over U.S. airspace. So, like, you know, that includes Russia and Saudi Arabia and maybe China. And are they obligated to cut us in on that if they decide, you know, for the for for the sake of the viability of our industries and the and the well-being of our people, we’re just going to do this. And the rest of the world is just along for the ride.
David Keith: The only real obligation is something called significant transboundary harm or risk of significant transboundary harm, which is part of customary law or general international law. And this dates back to like the case of the trail smelter, where a Canadian smelter was damaging U.S. from from a sulfur pollution, actually. And there are a bunch of other laws like that. So that’s really all there is. International law is a big thing. There’s no no easy answers. That’s back to just what Elizabeth said. She’s correct.
Brian Beutler: Let’s talk about adaptation now, because this is sort of where I feel like I can talk myself into being a bit more enthusiastic about just the general concept, because as you mentioned, the conversation around adaptation was more fraught a decade ago than it is now. And I think there’s more consensus. And also we have more tools for for helping populations adapt to a warming climate. To what extent are some of those same innovations that make us able to adapt to a warming climate? Could we repurpose them to adapt to any kind of unforeseen disruptions that might happen if we decided to go down a solar geoengineering route?
David Keith: There are certainly some ideas about that. One specific idea that a colleague and I, Josh Horton and I have played with and talked with quite a few people about is actually not a technical adaptation, but a kind of social adaptation, which is a new kind of insurance against crop failures or or weather disasters. That’s an insurance that isn’t tied directly to the harm, but tied to a specific effect. And those kinds of insurance or pay off much quicker and much simpler. So instead of writing how crop insurance it says I have to show my crops actually failed, you say if the weather if the hot summer was more than X, then you automatically get a payout. And this kind of takes some of the so-called moral hazard of insurance because it you as a farmer still incentive to do your best. But now you get a payout under some circumstances. And these ideas are being quite widely used now as a kind of insurance to to to manage climate related disasters for poorer countries. And I think that is something that could be applied to solar geo insuring in the sense that if there was a coalition of countries that were deploying, they could offer such insurance for some kinds of cases. And that would be essentially putting their their their financial money and risk behind a statement about confidence that there wouldn’t be very many problems because they’d actually be insuring against them. So there are versions of that that could work. And none of these things are magic. But but I think it comes back to the question whether solar geoengineering is totally new or not. And you can sort of argue both sides. I think there’s some ways in which it is a really new thing humanity’s never done on their hand. There are lots of things that some group of countries do that have some impact on other countries that are hard to manage and international law doesn’t resolve it, and there’s unexpected consequences. That’s kind of like the mainstay [laughs] of international relations, and there are ways to work through them.
Brian Beutler: What do you think about that, Elizabeth? My sense is that a lot of the ideas that we currently bandy about to make populations more resilient to climate change are about using, I think, like clean energy technologies to to insure against famines and and extreme weather. And they they seem like the kind of thing that we might want to do, even if there weren’t anthropogenic climate change, because the, you know, climate is a chaotic system even without the introduction of greenhouse gases in. And if we can leverage that kind of technology to help protect against heat waves, well then also cyclones and also whatever. Right. I mean, if we’re getting really good at adaptation for climate change or just for just the inherent unpredictability of climate in general, doesn’t that reduce the stakes of the geoengineering dilemma?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Well I mean. Are we getting really good at climate adaptation? I guess the question is, and it’s a pretty profound question, is what kind of a world are we heading into? And if we’re heading into a world where we all decide it’s in our best interest to cooperate and is in the best interests of wealthy countries to subsidize adaptation in poorer countries and on and on, down, down the list, then many things are possible. But there are also it’s also possible that, you know, if you actually look at what’s happening on the ground in many parts of the world, it doesn’t play out. Let’s just put it that way. It doesn’t always play out the way you might hope. And I, I fear, you know, just to offer my own personal fears that as the world becomes a hotter or more difficult place, it’s not going to be the best ideas out of the University of Chicago that are necessarily going to prevail. [laughs]
David Keith: I certainly agree with that. But let me you know, this is probably Elizabeth, I, with lots of similar experiences, are kind of showing you the glass half full and half empty. So Elizabeth is saying adaptation really isn’t doing much. And I have a specific example that really woke me up about how it’s done a lot that you don’t notice. So I was traveling in Bangladesh in some of the poorer delta regions just before COVID. Partly talking with some senior people about these topics and and talking with some local people through a interpretive guide about cyclone preparedness and what’s happened. And I was really struck by how dramatically effective adaptation has been. So that huge cyclone around 1970 that in some measures is the biggest natural disaster of all time. Roughly half a million people killed. There have been some cyclones recently, I think 2012, but I may have the number wrong that were about as big, but they killed a couple hundred people. Now, I don’t want to make light of that a couple hundred people’s a lot, but it’s much less than half a million. And the reason was a complicated set of things, cell phone based warning systems and the idea that people need to go to slightly higher ground buildings like schools where they can retreat into when they’re because the flooding is very widespread, but it’s not that very deep and it’s really pretty dramatic how many people are less are dying and there are many other examples like that. So I think subtly there are ways in which these climate adaptation measures really are doing something. I mean, the House I’m sitting here right now, you talked about smoke while we have a little smoke filter that didn’t cost very much, but it means that the indoor air quality here is often ten times less than outside. It’s not a magic fix, but it actually means that my health is better.
Brian Beutler: So final question for both of you as communicators, that doesn’t have anything to do per se with the geoengineering debate. But if speaking bluntly about the gravity of climate change tends to make at least some people feel like the situation is hopeless. But then speaking optimistically about the human capacity to to solve big problems like the climate crisis, tends to lull them into complacency. Just assume brilliant people out there will fix the problem. What’s the sweet spot for just keeping people informed about the state of affairs without nudging them into either despair or complacency?
David Keith: That’s just a great question. Right offhand, I the one that I’m most amazed that politicians don’t talk about is the amazing historical success of strong government policy to fix environmental problems. So I don’t think brilliant people matter that much. In the end, they just kind of follow government policy. I really am a believer in government action driving it, and the Clean Air Act has added about one and a half years or maybe a little bit more to the life of an average American. It is stunning and the cost of a Clean Air Act in terms of all the the regulatory costs imposed, you know, all your cars are more expensive because of all those things that cost the Clean Air Act were roughly ten times less then the benefits in terms of people being healthier, it’s just a stunning success. And I think this was not I don’t think this happened by capitalism innovating clean things out of nowhere. It happened because the government passed the rules saying you have to make stuff clean. And it’s the biggest single success like that. And I think if we’re going to clean up carbon pollution, which we have to do, it’s the most important thing to do about climate. I don’t think it has really much to do at all with magic innovators coming from Silicon Valley. I think when most people do that, they’re driven fundamentally by access to money that comes from policy, like the Biden infrastructure plan now. And so I really think instead of saying, oh, I’ve got this new infrastructure plan that’s going to work in the future, which is not so convincing, I think the convincing thing is to tell the story. This is what I do when I go into school kids and talk about environmental issues. How do we end up with relatively clean drinking water in the rich world? Why did the air get cleaner in now really almost all of the world? Why do not so many people die from from shit in their water as they used to? And those are all things of collective policy that drove technological change.
Brian Beutler: Elizabeth, what about you as the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yeah, as a journalist, I’ve been looking for that, right, for 20 years. I think, you know, David’s point is quite well taken about the significance of environmental policy. I think that one of the tragedies of our moment is that we are, you know, Inflation Reduction Act aside, that was an immense achievement in a in a in a moment of rolling back a lot of our environmental laws. Precisely those landmark environmental laws that that David alludes to, those are really, really under threat right now. There’s a big Supreme Court case coming up there’s a lot of but a big Supreme Court coming case coming up this fall. And we have legislative gridlock and we have a really very anti-regulatory Supreme Court in the US. So at this moment where we really, really need the best, most efficacious policies and regulations out there, unfortunately, we’re also at a moment when when that seems harder and harder to achieve. And that is a sad irony of our moment.
Brian Beutler: On that happy note [laughter] Elizabeth Kolbert, David Keith, thanks to you both for spending so much of your time with us this week. I really appreciate it.
David Keith: Thanks very much for having us.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yeah, thanks a lot. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our associate producer is Emma-Illick Frank. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.