Who eats the risk?

From the Asilomar geoengineering conference, via WorldChanging:

Lesson two: Nobody has any clear idea how to resolve the inequalities inherent in geoengineering. One of the most quoted remarks at the conference came from Pablo Suarez, the associate director of programs with the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, who asked during one plenary session, “Who eats the risk?” In Suarez’s view, geoengineering is all about shifting the risk of global warming from rich nations — i.e., those who can afford the technologies to manipulate the climate — to poor nations. Suarez admitted that one way to resolve this might be for rich nations to pay poor nations for the damage caused by, say, shifting precipitation patterns. But that conjured up visions of Bangladeshi farmers suing Chinese geoengineers for ruining their rice crop — a legalistic can of worms that nobody was willing to openly explore.

If geoengineering is a for-profit operation, it presumably also involves the public bearing the risk of private acts, because investors aren’t likely to have an appetite for the essentially unlimited liability.

Climate Panic?

Grist muses over the possibility that abrupt climate change in the not-too-distant future might trigger a chaotic response.

One morning in the not too distant future, you might wake up and walk to your mailbox. The newspaper is in there and it’s covered with shocking headlines: Coal Plants Shut Down! Airline Travel Down 50 Percent! New Federal Carbon Restrictions in Place! Governor Kicked Out of Office for Climate Indolence!

It is exactly these economic impacts that the Glenn Becks and the Rush Limbaughs fear we’ll impose on ourselves through restrictive government regulation of energy and carbon emissions. Ironically, a “no action” approach today actually makes a climate panic much more likely over time. What we’re describing would be popularly driven, not fueled by governments or policy wonks. It would be the direct result of free will, democracy, autonomy and the information superhighway. All these forces would accelerate, not mitigate, the greatest “Aha!” moment in the history of the human species. Imagine the sub-prime mortgage bubble pop multiplied a hundred fold.

I hesitate to argue for rationality (certainly our current climate and energy policies aren’t), but I think the physics of climate and human nature do not favor this outcome. The pain of economic dislocation is immediate. At the point of abrupt climate change, on the other hand, it would be evident that we’re stuck with it for decades, because there’s no quick way to reverse the accumulation of GHGs in the atmosphere. Even lowering emissions to zero overnight would have only a gradual climatic effect. Since that would be evident to everyone, especially those with GHG-intensive assets, it seems unlikely that rapid controls would emerge, and likely that they would be reversed when their pain was felt too keenly. I suppose macroeconomic feedbacks might make the damage irreversible, or countries might start launching cruise missiles at each others’ coal-fired power plants, but those seem like long odds.

More likely, I suspect, is that panic would yield enormous pressure to pursue geoengineering options – the only real prospect for a quick reversal of radiative imbalance. If, at that point, we’ve triggered abrupt climate changes without warning, it seems likely that our understanding of geoengineering side-effects would still be half-baked. The nasty side effects that might emerge from efforts under such circumstances strikes me as the greater threat of climate panic.

Setting climate aside, another panic scenario that should concern fossil-fired asset owners is a major oil supply disruption. That could de facto shut down emissions and use through high prices, no political will power required.