The Conceit of Climate Control
Climate engineering is inherently a bad idea, and should not even be considered.
April 13, 2009
Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.
Economist

As climate change takes an increasing toll on human activity, there are proposals to engineer a slowdown or reversal in global warming. Climate engineering or geoengineering seeks to blot out the sun so that the greenhouse effect is reduced. One method of doing this is spray sulfur particles into the atmosphere to duplicate the effects of a big volcanic eruption.

Some environmentalists became alarmed when President Obama’s science adviser John Holdren in an interview with the Associated Press raised the possibility of climate engineering. He says the government will investigate it as a potential option. Unfortunately, if there is a very hot summer or large chunks of Greenland ice break off, the government could panic and attempt climate engineering, just as it panicked during the Crash of 2008.

The economist Friedrich Hayek wrote a book called The Fatal Conceit about the arrogance of central planners, government chiefs who think they can plan an economy. Hayek showed that it is impossible for central planners to gather the knowledge needed to make the economy work better than a free market.

Climate engineering is a conceit even more fatal than that of economic planning. An economy can recover from mismanagement, but the earth’s climate can be changed for the worse forever from foolish manipulations. The information needed to optimally control the global climate is not just unknown, but unknowable. The climate is complex and ever changing.

There is a saying, “don’t fool with mother nature.” However bad are natural disasters, human alterations can be much worse. We can see this with attempts to “improve” the plant and animal ecology. Introduced species sometimes take over an environment, as the natural predators are missing. When some predators are introduced, they too become a problem.

There is a natural balance in both ecology and climate, and the human attempts to improve on the balance often fail. The result of projects such as injecting aerosols into the atmosphere or spraying iron particles in the ocean could be a disaster. The outcome could be an even greater warming, more tornados and hurricanes, droughts, a turnaround towards another ice age, or the depletion of the earth’s ozone layer. Particles sprayed into the atmosphere would fall to the ocean, possibly turning it acidic, destroying the wildlife, and turning all the oceans into dead seas.

Climate engineering is inherently a bad idea, and should not even be considered. It is fine for scientists to create computer models of climate controls, but only to learn from it, not to seriously propose such a scheme.

The solution to climate change is to reduce pollution rather than counter its effects. A green tax shift would both reduce pollution and enhance prosperity as pollution charges bring in revenue that is used to reduce taxes on goods and wages. But the US and other governments are instead seeking to impose a huge tax increase on industry with “cap and trade.” This scheme requires companies to have permits to pollute. The cost of a permit is in effect a tax.

A green tax shift would require the same payment as a permit, but would provide ongoing revenue to the government. A revenue-neutral tax shift would reduce the deadweight loss of taxes on incomes, value added, sales, and buildings.

Industry prefers a permit system to a pollution tax, since the permits become an asset in the firm’s accounting, and a market for permit derivatives can arise just like the derivatives for mortgages. Speculators can then have fun with options, futures markets, using permits as collateral, unfunded permit insurance, and other creative ways to create speculative bubbles in pollution permits. The government would then step in to bail out the crash of the permit bubble.

There is a word for a disease caused by the doctor: iatrogenic. Climate engineering could create an iatrogenic global catastrophe. There is no way to even know the probabilities, but even a small probability of a catastrophe implies we should not do it or even think of doing it.

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Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.
Economist

FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.

Foldvary is the author of The Soul of LibertyPublic Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.

Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.