Geoengineering a Solution to Climate Change – Lehrer Sets the Record Straight

By Guest Contributor:  Eli Lehrer, R Street Institute

A new article in The Yale Forum by freelance writer, David Appell, titled Strange Bedfellows? Climate Change Denial and Support for Geoengineering, discusses the way that climate change “deniers” also tend to favor geo-engineering.  Although I’m quoted (correctly) in the article and found it interesting to read, I do have a few quibbles.   

First, referring to climate change skeptics as “deniers” is simply an exercise in name-calling. (In fairness to Appell, the word is found only in a headline that he probably didn’t write himself.)  The term “denier” is typically used to describe people who deny the Holocaust.  Denying the systematic mass murder of over 6 million innocent people is obviously a lot different practically and morally than trying to poke holes in complex scientific models. Even if one believes that climate skeptics have terrible motives (and I don’t believe they do), it’s hugely unfair to associate them with holocaust deniers.  People who want reasoned debate should banish the word from their vocabulary.

Second, and more importantly, the climate skeptics that Appell cites as being enthusiastic about geo-engineering and dismissive of climate change actually form a variety of different points of view that the article glosses over. Some, like the Heartland Institute, aren’t actually enthusiastic about geo-engineering at all.  HLI (as Appell reports himself) has no position on geoengineering.  I wasn’t heavily involved with Heartland’s climate change project while I worked there, myself, but I don’t ever remember anyone even mentioning geoengineering.  Not even once.  On the other hand, Bjorn Lomborg, whose picture illustrates the article, isn’t dismissive of  climate change at all.  He has called it (shades of Al Gore) a “planetary emergency.”  Still other organizations described as “contrarians” don’t even have real positions of any sort.  AEI, which he Appell cites, has historically not taken “house” positions on any issues at all:  some of its scholars have contrarian points of view on climate change and others, like Kevin Hassett, have worked to develop the idea of a carbon tax.  To my knowledge, nobody on AEI’s (large) staff has actually published anything on geo-engineering.  (The paper the article cites was from an outside scholar who works for the Hudson institution.)  AEI’s scholars themselves debate all sorts of issues and have all sorts of different, mostly right-of-center, points of view.  In short, people who are enthusiastic about geo-engineering don’t have any consistent point of view on climate change or what should be done about it.   

Meanwhile, nobody I know of is proposing that we actually do geo-engineering.  Tree-planting, the one large-scale ongoing effort that is, in the broadest sense, an act of geo-engineering, is also probably the least controversial response to climate change possible.  All other efforts related to geo-engineering are simply a matter of calling for more research on that front.  Since the very worst plausible projections of the harms from climate change seem almost impossible to overcome, researching a solution like geo-engineering makes sense.  Even if one doubts the usefulness of geo-engineering, it strikes me as awfully odd to suggest that we should ban people from researching it.  And I don’t believe that anybody has done so. 

In the very long term, regardless of what one thinks about climate change, the ability to do geo-engineering is an imperative: both preventing another ice age and spreading humanity beyond earth are going to require that we research it in some fashion.  And that, alone, is a good enough reason to start thinking about it.