February 24th, 2013 by Michael Ricciardi
The cost of geoengineering the climate is considerable, but it’s considerably less than the cost of climate mitigation (and not to forget the time it takes to get everyone to agree on, say, target reductions in CO2, by a certain date). But there are legitimate concerns and criticisms of this “anthropogenic interference” too — not least of which is that it could actually accelerate climate change.
Despite these concerns, many experts feel that we may soon have no choice. And so, various forms of geoengineering are looking more and more like viable options to stabilize the climate — should that be necessary.
Already we have seen a “rogue” attempt (i.e., one not sanctioned by a scientific institute or government research program) to use iron fertilization for this purpose (and ostensibly to restore the local salmon population off the west coast of Canada.
But to have big impact, serious geoengineering projects will require the involvement of national governments — and coalitions of said governments. This shares cost and responsibility. But, it also brings with it uncertainties such as who will be in control of the effort, who decides what the goals are and when they have been achieved?
The Psychology / Sociology of Coalitions
Many assume that a coalition formed to mitigate GHG emission would involve as many nations as possible since many nations, if not all, will be potentially impacted. But there is a peculiar “psychology” at work when attempting to form a coalition to fight climate change.
Katherine Ricke, a Carnegie Institute researcher, offers a synopsis of this “coalition psychology”:
“Attempts to form coalitions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have repeatedly hit the wall, because it’s difficult to get everybody to participate in a substantive and meaningful way. Members of coalitions to reduce emissions have incentives to include more countries, but countries have incentives not to participate, so as to avoid costs associated with emission reduction while benefiting from reductions made elsewhere.”
Game Theory Meets (Geoengineering) Coalition Psychology
Now comes new research that, in the case of geoengineering, describes an inversion of this behavior.
According to new modeling work by Katharine Ricke and Ken Caldeira at the Carnegie Institution for Science, and Juan Moreno-Cruz from the Georgia Institute of Technology, when it comes to globally-impacting strategies, like solar geoengineering*, the opposite (of the above behavior) is true. If such a coalition formed with the purpose of implementing a geoengineering strategy, it would have an incentive not to include other countries, that is, the coalition would be motivated to exclude other nations from the decision-making process.
The researchers’ modeling of such coalitions involved integrating key concepts (of group non-cooperation) from Game Theory. Their modeling showed that, in fact, smaller coalitions would be more desirable to the (original) participants because these members could set the goals (e.g., a target temperature) to their liking without having to confer with, and please, many other participant nations (as would be so in a larger coalition).
This tendency would in turn be counterpoised by countries that are not included in the coalition; non-members would actually want to join the coalition so that they could influence the goals (of the geoengineering project) to suit their interests.
As noted earlier, since the cost of geoengineering is estimated to be much lower than mitigation efforts, there is less urgency to spread the cost of these strategies over a wider group of participant nations. According to this game-theoretic model, Once a coalition has formed and successfully implemented a geoengineering strategy, it will have an incentive to permanently exclude other (willing) participants.
Watch this Video animation of the Game Theory Modeling results (article continues below):
The Potential for Conflict
As always in human affairs, a solution to a problem often brings with it new problems; it seems that large-scale geoengineering projects may open the door to new conflict — at least according to this one research model.
But this potential conflict would seem to be determined by the geopolitical power of the geoengineering coalition; according to the published paper’s abstract:
“It is unlikely that a single small actor could implement and sustain global-scale geoengineering that harms much of the world without intervention from harmed world powers. However, a sufficiently powerful international coalition might be able to deploy solar geoengineering.”
Presumably, this means deployment of the strategy with impunity (should the strategy not work, or only partially so).
Reflecting on the results of their modeling research, Ken Caldeira commented:
“My view, aside from any technical result, is that it should remain a central goal to maintain openness and inclusiveness in geoengineering coalitions, so that all people who want a voice in the decision-making process are able to have that voice.”
The work was published on-line by the journal Environmental Research Letters under the title: ‘Strategic incentives for climate geoengineering coalitions to exclude broad participation’
* Volcanic ash tends to have a cooling effect of the atmosphere due to the aerosols’ tendency to reflect in-coming solar radiation back into space. But the effect is short-lived. The idea behind one form of solar geoengineering (aka ‘solar radiation management’) is to constantly replenish a layer of small particles in the stratosphere, mimicking the effects of volcanic ash in the aftermath of an eruption, and thus scattering sunlight back to space.
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