Friday, 22 October 2010

Never trust an economist....(even if he does have a Nobel prize)

Yesterday evening, like about 100 other individuals, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Nobel Prize winning economist Tom Schelling, at the Midland Hotel in Manchester.

Schelling is an economist who cut his teeth in tough and austere times, working for the US government on the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s and early 50s. Therefore I was under no disillusions that his default barometer would be the economists friend....cost.

My contact with Schelling's work however, was not through his early work in the US government or through his Nobel Prize winning additions to Game Theory.

Rather Schelling to me is someone who was appointed by President Carter in 1980 to chair a committee on what was then dubbed, "the carbon dioxide problem," (1) subsequently penning a chapter; policy and welfare implications of climate change, in a National Academy of Sciences Report on the topic. He is someone who has helped move the debate on climate change and it's abatement from woolly notion to economic truth.

So a lecture hosted by the Sustainable Consumption Institute with the title, "Climate Change: the Missing Institutions," (2) indeed grabbed my attention.

So ably flanked by my friend from the business school to provide a good solid monetary based balance to my reactionary environmental mind - I attended.

Expectant of talk of and extensions on his ideas about how international co-operation and policy needs to progress to control carbon emissions. Ideas presented in an essay What Makes Greenhouse Sense? in his 2007 collection - Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays.

Instead his lecture focused on the next essay in this collection - The Economic Diplomacy of Geo-engineering, and clearly his thoughts on this matter have come a long way since 2007!

Geo-engineering is basically the conception of global, large scale engineering projects thats ultimate aims are to alter the planet's climate to benefit humans. They range from the not too crazy, such as encouraging phytoplankton blooms in the ocean to capture carbon dioxide, to the straight off Star Trek, such as putting millions of reflectors into orbit around the earth to deflect sunlight! (Wikipedia can give you a fairly quick intro)

Schelling decided to focus on one area of geo-engineering, Solar Radiation Management (SRM), and further on one area of this idea - atmospheric aerosols. In English, this basically boils down to the concept that if we put lots of stuff like sulphur into the upper atmosphere it will reflect sunlight and thus cool the globe. Its what is known to have happened after major volcanic eruptions such as Pinatubo in 1991 and to a greater extent, Krakatoa in 1883.

Schelling glossed over several key issues in his discussion of SRM, as he, "wasn't an expert." Flippant phrases such as, but I'm not an atmospheric chemist, and but I'm not an expert on diplomatic policy immediately set some alarm bells ringing in my head.

He emphasised the imperative need to move to field tests of the ideas surrounding pumping lots of sulphur into the upper atmosphere to cool us down. As far as I'm aware several atmospheric scientists already do this kind of research both modelling and testing in the field.

While this research goes on as continual fundamental scientific study, trying to increase our knowledge of the upper atmosphere and how it works - to parcel it up and begin conducting it purely for the means of Solar Radiation Management, is a big shift to call for.

Just as my hackles were rising, and as I think several in the room were getting annoyed with the gaps in his talk, all became clear...

Schelling up held SRM as much cheaper than trying to change the behavioural patterns of billions worldwide who burn fossil fuels in their daily lives!

OK - if SRM works, if it can be made into a workable solution within the next 50 years, if it doesn't have horrible side effects like changing rain patterns, if all nations can agree on its deployment then maybe just maybe it may present a cheaper option.

But, as I asked in the question session after - we still only have a finite amount of fossil fuels, so by not attempting to change the practice of those billions of people are we not just delaying the inevitable?

The if all nations can agree on its deployment point above, is about the only part of a 45 minute lecture I agreed with. Schelling spoke of the need to create protocol and norms around SRM and other geo-engineering technologies to ensure its safe development, testing and subsequent deployment.

Much like nuclear arms developments in the twentieth century this dialogue definitely is imperative.

Just to ice my infuriated state, Schelling batted away a question I posed about exploring carbon sequestration, through trees or technological fixes with an almost direct quote from his book, about children planting trees on Arbor Day not being enough to combat climate change!

All in all I left the room, angry at an ageing academic, who has notable influence speaking on a subject he himself had stated he wasn't an expert on, presenting in a cajoling manner. That's dangerous stuff I thought on the cycle home.

Yet awakening this morning having digested Schelling's seminar I thought, maybe Schelling's argument is much more intelligent than last night's anger allowed me to fathom.

Maybe, just maybe his exact purpose was to provoke; to begin dialogue and to say look people want to (and will) explore these technological fixes - so let's do it out in the open so the world can debate it rather than forcing it underground. Let's research these options under international agreement, with co-operation and transparency.

If this is the case Professor Schelling, well done.

However, personally I am much more sceptical, I think sulphur insertion and similar SRM projects are a danger to humans, they will only add uncertainty to our changing climate and accentuate disparities between the rich and the rest.

Thank you Professor Schelling for provoking my thoughts and for reminding me to question people, even if they do have a Nobel Prize.


(1) "Thomas C. Schelling - Autobiography". 22 Oct 2010
(2) The University of Manchester - Sustainable Consumption Institute
Schelling, T. C. (2007): Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays, Havard University Press

1 comment:

  1. You can now see footage of Professor Schelling's lecture online, so you can judge for yourselves....