Geo-Engineering the Climate Would Encourage Small, Exclusive Coalitions, A New Game Theory Model Shows [VIDEO]

Published on February 24th, 2013 | by

February 24th, 2013 by

fists_shutterstock_104176289The 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.

Top Photo: (‘Group of hand and fist’) KROMKRATHOG  via    .

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  • Brad Arnold

    The main problem people complain about with geo-engineering is that it enables the further desecration of our plant with fossil fuels. Yet, LENR is going to emerge soon to make energy “too cheap to meter” (

    “A volume about the size of a #2 pencil eraser of water provides as much energy as two 48-gallon drums of gasoline. That is 355,000 times the amount of energy per volume – five orders of magnitude.” ( ).

    This phenomenon (LENR) has been confirmed in hundreds of published scientific papers:

    “Over 2 decades with over 100 experiments worldwide indicate LENR is real, much greater than chemical…” –Dennis M. Bushnell, Chief Scientist, NASA Langley Research Center

    “Total replacement of fossil fuels for everything but synthetic organic chemistry.” –Dr. Joseph M. Zawodny, NASA

    By the way, here is a survey of some of the companies that are bringing LENR to commercialization:

    For those who still aren’t convinced, here is a paper I wrote that contains some pretty convincing evidence:

  • EcoReading

    Interesting research, but horrendously sloppy science writing. The first sentence is especially bad. It implies that geo-engineering is the most economical solution and should replace emission reduction. No-one of any repute is claiming that. The most starry-eyed technocrats argue one or another geo-engineering technique could *supplement* emission reduction, *if* shown to be reasonably effective and safe.

    1. It is impossible to estimate the cost of geo-engineering, especially if you take into account long-term costs (the need to constantly keep spraying coolants into the atmosphere for the rest of humanity’s existence in the case of solar radiation management) and unintended consequences (e.g. toxic algae blooms and additional ocean acidification in ocean enrichment). Of course, anything is cheap if you pocket the profit and pass the cost
    on to society (that is the origin of the climate change problem in
    the first place).

    2. Emission reduction is actually not very expensive, and it has no notable negative side-effects if done with a minimum of sense. E.g. the Stern report estimated it at 2% of the GDP but many economists point to the positive effects on differnent parts of the economy.

    3. Geo-engeneering is still in its infancy. At this point we have no technologies with known long-term efficency, let alone safe ones.

    4. Doing something late or nothing (e.g. because we banked on our ability to engineer our way out if this and it did not pan out) is obviously the most expensive option.

    Geo-engeneering comprises a wide range of technologies, some of which are of the ‘mad scientists’ and ‘greedy businessmen’ type, many clearly too impractical, and a few, with some limited, if yet unproven, future potential for supporting mitigation efforts (even by their promoter’s lights).

    As for the research reported on: Goodness lets hope we don’t end up having to beg science and policy coalitions of rich countries to be equitable and accessible to all stakeholders! I’ve done research on multi-stakeholder participation (albeit in another policy area)– the results from the past are not encouraging.

    The good news is: We already have plenty of proven emission-reducing technologies to avert worst case scenarios. Leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong and switch to green economy ASAP. An international treaty would be good, but sitting on your hands waiting for one is not. Cut fossil fuel subsidies, carbon tax (if you hate big government, hand the money to the citizens), build Passivhaeuser, ride bike and train, reduce meat. But if you really need to have a lab coat involved somewhere, you can wear one while cooking your asparagus souffle. 😉

  • Hsaive

    Climate mitigation has always been considered “geoengineering”. Your presentation fails to make the distinction between mitigation with Alumina aerosols and geoengineering with Alumina Aerosols.

  • Hsaive

    Climate mitigation has always been considered “geoengineering”. Your presentation fails to make the distinction between mitigation with Alumina aerosols and geoengineering with Alumina Aerosols.