Atmospheric Governance’ Taking on environmental issues, rogue style
BACK in July a California businessman dumped 100 tonnes of an iron-containing chemical into the Pacific Ocean as an experiment in geoengineering. The aim of the project, which seems to have succeeded, was to generate a massive algae bloom. Algae sucks carbon dioxide out of the air as it grows, and may then sequester it away for centuries as it dies and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. The experiment was widely condemned by scientists and environmentalists who pointed out that the perpetrator violated international law. It seems probable, however, that the rogue bit of atmospheric tinkering is just the first of many unilateral geoengineering gambits.
In a new paper, economist Martin Weitzman outlines the nature of the problem:
This paper begins with the realization that there are really two diﬀerent externalities involved in the climate change problem, that they have near-opposite properties, that they interact, and that it seems diﬃcult to say oﬀhand which one is more threatening than the other. The ﬁrst externality, described by the above quotes, comes in the usual familiar form of a public goods problem whose challenge is enormous because so much is at stake and it is so diﬃcult to reach an international governing agreement that divides up the relatively expensive sacriﬁces that would be required by each nation to really make much of a dent in greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations. The classic governance problem here is to limit the underprovision of a public good from free riding.A second less-familiar externality shows up in the scary form of geoengineering the stratosphere with reﬂective particles to block incoming solar radiation. This geoengineeringtype externality is so relatively cheap to enact that it might in principle eﬀectively be undertaken unilaterally by one nation feeling itself under climate siege, to the detriment of other nations. The challenge with this second global externality also appears to be enormous, because here too so much is at stake and it also seems diﬃcult to reach an international governing agreement. If the ﬁrst externality founders on the “free rider” problem of underprovision, then the second externality founders on what might be called the “free driver” problem of overprovision. If the ﬁrst externality is the “mother of all externalities,” then the second externality might be called the “father of all externalities.” These two powerful externalities appear to be almost polar opposites, between which the world is trapped