Playing God

With efforts to halt climate change on life support, scientists are looking at some radical options to save our planet. But could the cure be worse than the disease?

How serious is the threat of global warming? One way to figure out is to take your cues from some leading climate scientists: They have moved on. That doesn't mean they've abandoned the issue, but they are looking beyond what all agree is the most obvious solution -- decreasing the amount of carbon we spew into the atmosphere in the first place.

These scientists are beginning to look for a Plan B. There are two distinct approaches under consideration -- sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, or creating an artificial sun shield for the planet. The former, which involves reversing some of the very processes that are leading to the climate problem, is expensive. The latter just sounds scary. David Keith, a leading thinker on geoengineering, calls it "chemotherapy" for the planet. "You are repulsed?" he says. "Good. No one should like it. It's a terrible option."

Repugnant or not, with the globe failing to develop other ways to halt climate change, geoengineering is increasingly becoming an option. The science and engineering are relentlessly marching on: Most research so far has focused on computer modeling, but some has started to move beyond -- trying to test, for example, how to deliver particles into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. This summer, an entrepreneur conducted a rogue experiment, dumping 100 tons of iron into the Pacific in an attempt to "seed" the ocean and spur the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This episode represents a particularly apt example of science -- in this case, self-experimentation -- speeding far ahead of public opinion and oversight.

The high costs of doing nothing

If the world can't get its act together to limit carbon emissions, geoengineering may be the only option we have. Distill the climate problem down to the essentials, and it becomes obvious that global warming is fundamentally a market failure: All seven billion of us human beings are "free riders" on a planet that is heating up. We put billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, and largely aren't required to pay for the privilege. There's too little incentive to stop polluting.

Americans are some of the world's worst offenders. Every U.S. citizen, on average, emits around 20 tons of carbon dioxide a year -- twice that of the average European. All kinds of things contribute to that number. Driving the average U.S. vehicle in an average year accounts for more than 5 tons. The full carbon footprint of the average thrice-weekly cheeseburger: half a ton a year. One roundtrip cross-country flight: one ton.

Each of these tons of carbon dioxide causes at least $20 worth of damage in adverse health effects, flooded coastlines, and other effects of climate change. By mid-century, that figure will rise to at least $50. And a truly catastrophic event caused by a warmer climate, like Antarctic ice sheets collapsing long ahead of schedule or Arctic methane bubbling up at precipitous rates, resulting in runaway global warming, could increase those costs by a factor of 10 or more. How do you put a price tag on even a 1 percent risk of altering the climate so much that it could destroy civilization as we know it?

Few of us are paying our fair share for the damage that we're doing to the planet. For example, airlines don't add $20 to ticket prices in order to pay for the damage caused per passenger by flying back and forth across the country. That decreases costs up front, but it also comes at enormous cost to society down the road. The world's population -- led by the one billion or so global high emitters -- are doing many hundreds of billions of dollars of damage to the planet, and in the near future the costs will skyrocket into the trillions.

"Free riding" also plagues relations between countries. Some, like the European Union have a cap or tax on carbon pollution. Most are still waiting on the sidelines. Why should any single country cut its carbon emissions when it knows that its reductions will only be a drop in the bucket toward solving climate change -- and other nations aren't asking their citizens to pay their fair share? Blame it on short election cycles, partisanship, or fossil energy interests, the political will often doesn't exist -- whether in Washington or the latest global environment gathering in Rio de Janeiro.

Sitting in the driver's seat

"Free riders" are only half the problem. "Free drivers" may be as important. The allure of geoengineering derives from the simple fact that - given what little we know about it at the moment - it appears to be a comparatively cheap way to combat climate change. And it doesn't take a global agreement to act. It takes one actor - one country - in the driver's seat.

If, for example, the very existence of an island, nation, city, or agricultural region is threatened by global warming, the question among its leaders will no longer be whether geoengineering is an option, but what the effects, positive and negative, might be and how it could be carried out. That's also where the science stands today, and the economics points in the same direction.

One option that will inevitably come under consideration is the possibility of shooting reflecting particles into the upper atmosphere to create an artificial sun shield for the planet. Blocking some of the sun's rays from hitting the planet may sound like science fiction or hubris, or both. But geoengineers are already looking at which particles would work best, and how to deliver them: Planes, balloons or multiple mile-long hoses are all contenders.

All these options have one thing in common: They are cheap - at least from the narrow perspective of those doing the geoengineering. Hence the "free" in "free driver."

In fact, the price tag of these geoengineering strategies is likely to be negligible relative to the purported benefits: Columbia University's Scott Barrett, among others, has calculated that it would cost pennies to offset a ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By comparison, it costs dollars per ton to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the first place.

The higher cost of attacking the problem head-on, by reducing carbon emissions, would still be a bargain compared to the financial, ecological and human costs of unchecked global warming. But "free riding" is so much easier, politically and financially.

That's what makes the "free driver" effect so powerful. Geoengineering is seductively cheap, and it doesn't take the collective will of billions of people - or policies guiding those billions - to have a major effect. Anyone capable of flying a fleet of planes at high altitudes could conceivably have a go at altering the planet's atmosphere, and do so at a fraction of the cost of decreasing carbon dioxide pollution. But here's the catch: Nobody knows the costs of potential unknown and sometimes unknowable side effects, and there could be grave political and legal repercussions when someone starts playing God with the climate.

Proof by volcano

What makes scientists believe geoengineering could work? It's been tried before - by nature, not by humanity.

When Mount Pinatubo erupted in June 1991, it forced the evacuation of 200,000 Filipinos and shot 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. The added sulfur counteracted the effect of 1,100 billion tons of carbon dioxide that had been accumulating in the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial revolution. In 1992 and 1993, it decreased global temperatures by a bit less than 1 degree Fahrenheit by reducing the amount of sunlight that hit the earth's surface. That was about the same amount temperatures had risen at that point from carbon added to the atmosphere by human activity. In other words, Mount Pinatubo alone offset all temperature increases from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

The aftermath of Mount Pinatubo's eruption suggests the limitations of this kind of geoengineering. The excess carbon dioxide in the air isn't being removed - geoengineering would simply add millions of tons of sulfur dioxide (or some custom designed material) to the atmosphere. That might lower temperatures -- but it would not address other problems caused by global warming. For example, it wouldn't stop the ongoing acidification of the oceans, which may kill much of the life they hold.

And there will probably be a host of unknown, unexpected consequences. For example, some climatologists blame the Mount Pinatubo eruption for flooding along the Mississippi River in 1993 and for droughts in sub-Saharan African. That still pales in comparison to the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in present-day Indonesia, which caused the "year without a summer" linked to some 200,000 deaths across Europe in 1816. Incidentally, the eruption also had some unexpected cultural repercussions: All those overcast days also forced Mary Shelley and John William Polidori to spend much of their Swiss summer holidays indoors, jumpstarting the creation of both Frankenstein and The Vampyre (an inspiration for Dracula).

It doesn't take much imagination to see that pumping one pollutant into the atmosphere in an attempt to offset the effects of another could backfire. It may also be impossible to demonstrate which adverse climate events were caused by which single geoengineering intervention. That throws a wrench into the traditional research model: It's one thing to study the effects of a past volcanic eruption or to fiddle in a lab with self-contained experiments. It's quite another to devise an experiment that could be conducted in the real world. It would be all too easy to blur the line between experiment and deployment. That and many other questions need to be answered, lest we enter wholly unchartered territory when it comes to playing with the atmosphere of our shared home.

Seat belts are good, but there's no avoiding speed limits

Talk of geoengineering inevitably leads to the question of "moral hazard." Will the exploration of these technologies lull humanity into thinking that it need not act responsibly and cut carbon emissions? Perhaps. Seat belt laws may make some drivers feel so safe that they drive more recklessly. Still, that is hardly an argument against those laws.

While the international community should not abandon efforts to limit carbon emissions, scientists must also be prepared to take geoengineering seriously. Humanity may already have passed so many global warming tipping points that - even with radical action to cut emissions - it may be important to have some form of geoengineering in our toolkit.

The worst we can do is fall into the trap of thinking geoengineering is a panacea to our climate change problem. While its initial costs may be seductively low, no one knows the unintended consequences of trying to alter the planet's atmosphere. Just as it seems to cost almost nothing to emit carbon - leading all of us to emit more than we ought to - geoengineering may appear cheap at first, only to leave humanity and nature to foot a much larger bill later on. "Free riding" turns out not to be cheap after all. "Free driving" may face the same conclusion.

Nor is it likely that everyone will face the same costs. Climate change does not affect all areas of the globe evenly. Neither will geoengineering. What if it leads to a further drying out of the southwestern United States or of sub-Saharan Africa, or to flooding elsewhere?

While the risks cannot be ignored, not even considering geoengineering research is clearly not an option. Desertification and flooding are also among the many consequences of unchecked global warming. The benefit-cost calculation of geoengineering must take these effects into account.

The fact that climate change's effects are distributed unevenly around the globe may also lead some nations to experiment with geoengineering on their own. India's national security advisor wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't at least consider countering the monsoon effects of carbon with relatively small amounts of extra sulfur. And Bangladesh's finance minister would be remiss if he didn't weigh the all-too-real costs of moving tens of millions of people against the benefits of cloud-brightening (another possible way to deflect more sunlight back into space).

In short, it will not just be up to U.S. scientists or a handful of technologically advanced countries to weigh the pros and cons of geoengineering. These technologies will be available to many countries - and as we see today, world leaders don't always succeed in working together to combat the threat of climate change.

All it takes is a single actor willing to focus on the purported benefits to his country or her region to pull the geoengineering trigger. The task with geoengineering is to coordinate international inaction while the international community considers what steps should be taken. The fate of the planet cannot be left in the hands of one leader, one nation, one billionaire.

Fortunately, we are still many years off from the full "free driver" effect taking hold. There's some time to engage in a serious global governance debate and careful research: building coalitions, guiding countries and perhaps even individuals lest they take global matters into their own hands. In fact, that is where the discussion stands at the moment, with a governance initiative convened by the British Royal Society, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, and the Environmental Defense Fund, among other deliberations guiding how geoengineering research should be pursued.

With time come the "free drivers"

The clock, however, is ticking. A single dramatic climate-related event anywhere in the world - think Hurricane Katrina on steroids - could trigger the "free driver" effect. That event need not be global and it need not even be conclusively linked to global warming. A nervous leader of a frightened nation might well race past the point of debate to deployment. The "free driver" effect will all but guarantee that we will face this choice at some point.

"Free riding" and "free driving" occupy opposite poles of the spectrum of climate action: One ensures that individuals won't supply enough of a public good. The other creates an incentive to engage in potentially reckless geoengineering and supply a global bad. It's tough to say which one is more dangerous. Together, these powerful forces could push the globe to the brink.

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Tell Us the One About the Robots, Mr. President

Want to lead the free world? You'd better figure out what to do about the rise of the machines.

Call me a geek, but Monday's foreign-policy debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney was exciting not only for the new attention it brought to "horses and bayonets," but also as a sort of coming-out party for the world of robotics. Four years ago, this field that was once the province of science-fiction writers but now covers everything from self-driving vacuum cleaners to military drones did not merit any mention on the campaign trail. Neither Obama nor Sen. John McCain was asked about it in their debates. But in Boca Raton this week, robotics finally made the list, joining such primetime issues as China, Iran, and the economy.

But while the candidates were asked what they thought about drones, unfortunately Americans still don't know much about their answers. Obama literally didn't have to respond to Bob Schieffer's question because, as the moderator put it, "we know President Obama's position on this" -- a very odd way for a moderator to pose a question, especially on a topic on which government policy has been far from transparent. Romney, meanwhile, provided the deep insight that "drones are being used in drone strikes" before swinging far to Obama's left with a call to counter extremism, channeling the new UNDP wing of the Republican Party.

This is a shame because, like it or not, robotics -- and not just the ubiquitous drone -- has become a signature part of the 21st century presidency and its use of power. The U.S. military now has more than 8,000 unmanned systems in the air and another 12,000 or so on the ground in its inventory, and they are used every day to protect soldiers in places like Afghanistan. More controversially, a growing civilian intelligence agency fleet is also used not-so-covertly in places like Pakistan and Yemen, where the United States has reportedly carried out more than 375 air strikes, despite the fact that there has been no specific congressional vote on the matter. The technology's use in the last few years has arguably set a weighty precedent for the presidency, blurring civilian and military roles in war and potentially even circumventing the original intent of the Constitution's division of powers.

But the story is even bigger. Robotics is akin to gunpowder, the steam engine, or the computer. It's a game-changing technology not merely because of its power, but because of its impact both on and off the battlefield. While modern unmanned systems are still in the first generation of use -- the Model T Ford stage, so to speak -- operators for these systems are already the fastest-growing group in the U.S. Air Force, potentially reshaping its long-term identity as more and more pilots never leave the ground

And the push forward is only going to continue. A few weeks ago, the Defense Science Board unveiled plans to widen the range of tasks taken on by robots in the U.S. military and to enhance their automation so that these robots can do more of these tasks on their own. Whether it's Obama or Romney, the next American president is going to be wrestling with a series of questions that will determine the future contours of this robotics revolution.

Take, for example, the areas of military purchasing and research. In a time of tight Pentagon budgets, should we continue the current planned trillion-dollar purchase of F-35 manned fighter jets, or invest some portion in the next generation of unmanned jets -- like the X-47 UCAS that the Navy is testing out on Maryland's western shore? Similarly, the next commander in chief will preside over the purchase of the Air Force's next generation of strategic nuclear bombers. It would be fascinating to know whether Obama and Romney thinks that planes carrying nuclear weapons should be manned, unmanned, or, as presently planned, convertible?

Of equal importance are questions about where and how we should use the new weapons we have bought. In his first term, Obama ended up not just authorizing counterterrorism drone strikes, but also drone strikes in a Libyan civil war that no one had planned for, as well as the first quasi-offensive use of cyber weapons, using a piece of malware publicly known as Stuxnet to disrupt Iran's nuclear program -- an amazing capability the president had not even heard of when he launched his presidential run. So too will the winner of this election have to decide whether to authorize the use of real weapons they never imagined in unanticipated operations taking place in locations not currently on their radar screen.

And these technologies won't stay only in U.S. hands -- more than 50 nations have military robotics programs, and groups that range from jewel thieves to terrorists have also used drones. So the next president will have to weigh the consequences of everything from the global proliferation of robotic weapons to the long-term legal precedents he is willing to set for future presidents.

The dilemmas posed by advances in robotics won't be limited to drone warfare. The candidates didn't face a question on it in the debates, but in the next four years, what was once exclusively a weapon of war will become a regular part of American life and commerce. (Estimates put the future American drone market value at more than $45 billion.)

With the Federal Aviation Administration set to open up U.S. airspace to civilian drone use by 2015, President Obama or Romney will have to navigate a similar set of ripple effects on the domestic side. What kind of licensing controls should determine who can operate these civilian drones and where? What protections should be in place for privacy?

Robots also play an important role in the economic growth and jobs issue that is supposedly central to this election, but in a way few want to discuss. If the candidates really want to deal with where our jobs are going, they have to face the fact that the long-term disconnect between growth and unemployment patterns is not about outsourcing or tax rates. As a recent MIT study found, automation is "destroying jobs and creating prosperity," explaining both the gains in efficiency and the loss of as many as 6 million jobs over the last decade. Robots are a large part of the reason the automobile companies of Detroit are back, but so many automobile workers are not back to work. (Already, 1 in 10 has been replaced by a factory line robot, with many companies across a wide array of industries planning to fully automate their assembly lines.)

Technology is never an issue that directly sways voters in presidential elections. But it is a crucial force that shapes the opportunities and challenges the winners of these elections ultimately have to face. Put another way, the only robots likely to matter on Nov. 6th will be robo-callers annoying voters. But when the next president closes that Oval Office door for the last time, how he answers these many questions of policy related to robotics will be a key legacy he leaves behind.

Unfortunately, it looks like we'll just have to wait to find out what he thinks about the matter.

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