So What if China Builds Coal Plants?

by: Ryan Avent

Scott Sumner begins a post by quoting this from Paul Krugman:

The chapter opens with the “global cooling” story — the claim that 30 years ago there was a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling, comparable to the current consensus that it’s warming.

And he says:

Why does Krugman keep doing this? Why does he continually misrepresent what others say? My theory is that he assumes those he disagrees with are either fools or knaves. Instead of doing a sympathetic reading, trying to discern what others are really trying to say, he looks for the “gotcha.” I just read the chapter, and it bears little resemblance to his description. And I have read a lot of scientific papers on geoengineering, on both sides of the issue, so I know a bit about the field.

The chapter indisputably opens with the global cooling story. There’s just no getting around it. Go here (PDF) and see for yourself. I don’t know what else there is to say about that.

Sumner then disagrees with my view of the political difficulty of using geoengineering:

How is it easier to get international agreement to slow the rise in global warming through policy changes that will cost $100s of billions, if not trillions, as compared to policy changes that will cost less than $1 billion (the big tube)? Both strategies require international agreement to slow the rise in global temperatures. But one costs 3 orders of magnitude less. Can someone explain Krugman’s reasoning to me? And WWIII? China is building hundreds of coal plants that will emit lots of carbon and warm the climate, and I don’t see anyone calling for a military attack on China. So are we to believe that countries will sit back and let others heat up the planet, but attack other countries if they merely slow down the rate at which the earth is warming? I just don’t get this argument. As far as I know the geoengineering people are talking about slowing the rise in temps, not cooling the planet below its current level.

I think it takes a distinct lack of imagination and a childlike faith in both the government and the citizenry to believe that pursuing a major geoengineering project would be easy simply because it would “cost” less. Forget international agreement, I strongly suspect that it would be impossible to get a domestic majority in favor of the pump-sulfur-into-the-atmosphere approach. The public doesn’t really trust climate scientists or the government. There was a huge public debate recently concerning “death panels” in the health care legislation, which don’t actually exist. Much of the Republican base believes that the president was born in Kenya. Does this seem like a healthy time to begin discussions about how best to block out the sun?

And imagine if China were unilaterally considering whether to build a sulfur gas pipe. The international community would have major reservations about this, and would probably go to great lengths to prevent its deployment. We went to war over fake weapons in Iraq; you don’t think one nation’s attempt to alter the globe’s weather would generate at least a slight chilling in international relations? Particularly given that this isn’t merely about “slowing the rise in temps.” There could be serious side-effects to such a plan. Even if everyone were on board, it wouldn’t be something to undertake lightly.

Sure, China is already altering climate by building coal plants, but economies have been building coal plants to generate power for over a century, whereas efforts to intentionally alter the climate by pumping tons of sulfur gas into the atmosphere are unprecedented. The two actions are qualitatively different.

It seems obvious to me that a plan like this would be extremely controversial, and would require extensive discussion and dealmaking domestically and internationally, as costs would not be evenly distributed. On top of that it might not work, and it might generate unpredictable and costly side effects. If you’re going to be having a major public debate and extensive international negotiations over a potential climate solution, you may as well cover emission reduction strategies while you’re at it, since it would be utterly irresponsible not to attempt to address climate change both ways.