How far are we in the science of geo-engineering?

Suppose you believed the world was getting warmer due to humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions and you worried about it but you cant get yourself to believe that the 200-odd countries in the world are ever going to agree to drastically reduce their emissions via some joint scheme, partially because it is too hard to measure many emissions, partially because it might take a world dictatorship to actually enforce such a deal, and partially because some countries are most likely going to be much better off if the world warms up and hence are going to sabotage any joint plan. You would find yourself backed up in this opinion by a lot of auxiliary data on the difficulties of letting go of the growth fetish, ranging from the known miniscule effect that the ETS schemes currently on the table would have even if they were agreed upon, to the factoid that China is building two coal powered stations a week, to the factoid that in nearly every election politicians promise their electorate more economic growth (read: bigger cars, more holidays to far-away places, more gadgets running on energy, etc.), to the factoid that even the European countries who have been calling for reductions in emissions for over 2 decades have themselves been happily burning the midnight oil.
For people like this, which includes me, geo-engineering seems the only realistic way forward, i.e. some kind of technological fix that can be implemented by a single worried country or a sub-set of countries desperate enough to try unproven technology to cool the planet down. No world dictatorship or elusive coalition needed, hence much less of a free-rider problem. How serious are good scientists thinking about such technological fixes, what are the front runners, and are the front runners indeed things a sub-set of countries could implement?
It turns out that the possibility of geo-engineering is taken much more seriously in the academic community than youd ever think from reading the newspapers. English scientists in particular seem to have adopted the idea that they should look for technical fixes, just in case the world coalition on CO2 emission reduction doesnt quite live up to the dreams of its adherents. The Royal Society for instance advocated research in geo-engineering quite openly (see here) making it clear sensible people are thinking about this option seriously. Find over the fold a basic breakdown in basic options and their characteristics.


The geo-engineering options fall in two categories: trying to get the CO2 out of the air or reflecting more sunlight before it is absorbed (SRM: Solar Radiation Management).
On the first, the UK Institute for Mechanical Engineering put out a paper (here) where they look at several options. One of their favoured absorption plans is artificial trees, where the trapped CO2 has to be buried underground. The tough thing about this option is partially the cost of these artificial trees (reportedly 20,000 pounds per unit of which youd need 100,000 to only cover the UK transportation sector, meaning youd be talking about hundreds to thousands of billions of dollars for the world as a whole) but also the problem of how to actually store the huge volume of CO2 (abandoned oil fields are touted, but this is not as easy as it sounds). Nevertheless, it can be done by a subgroup of countries if it has to be done, though we might end up digging an awful lot of big bunkers deep into the ground to get rid of all this CO2.
Another favoured solution by these mechanics is to capture CO2 in algae, either directly in coal-fired plants or as algae strips on the sides of buildings. The obvious problem is again that one would have to bury an awful lot of algae somewhere, but in principle it is a solution that can be implemented unilaterally at great cost. The suggestion to use the algae as fodder for animals is probably more cost-effective but has the obvious disadvantage that this doesnt get the CO2 out of the whole system.
The last of the favoured absorption solutions is to try to get the oceans to absorb more CO2 via all manners of Ocean fertilisation, with the saturated algae drifting to the bottom of the ocean with all their CO2 trapped in them for a long time. So far this option has proven harder than hoped, with the well-known failed attempt to get sustained massive algae blooms via pouring some iron into the water. Apparently, some Australian scientists are involved in seeing whether nitrogen and phosphates would be a better idea to put into the water than iron, but the technology looks quite dicey at present. In particular, unlike the other ones so far talked about, there is much more risk of doing unintentional harm by adding massive amounts of chemical substances into the ocean as opposed to burying some CO2 captured in one way or another.

If we then look at the SRM solutions, a couple of interesting ones have popped up in the UK reports. One of the mentioned solutions by the Mechanics is to paint all the buildings white so that they reflect more sunlight. This is clearly the kind of thing that might well capture the public imagination (save the planet: paint your roof white), but it is much harder and expensive than it sounds. For one, I understand wed have to reflect something like the whole area of Australia back into space to reduce the temperature, which is far more than merely the surface of all the buildings in the world. Also, white roofs tend to get dirty over time and the paint may not itself be all that environmentally friendly either. Hence, were talking a high cost, high maintenance solution that might well be more useful as a symbolic DIY policy rather than as a serious option. Yet, the potential downsides of this method seem smallish in the sense that no-one sensible is going to insist on the impossible pre-requisite of knowing with certainty that we wont be doing unintentional harm by reflecting some more sunlight via white buildings.
The Royal Society also reviewed a whole set of possible SRMs (see here). One of their most recommended options is to put sulphate aerosols in the stratosphere above natural levels, causing an increase in planetary albedo and thereby reducing the incoming solar radiation. The obvious problem with putting massive amounts of a chemical (SO4 and the like) into a particular region of our air is that there is the potential danger of unintended consequences. Yet, it is the kind of thing with which an individual country can experiment and something of which the consequences can be learned about by trial and error before implementing it on a massive scale.
A more outlandish option is to put reflectors in space so that less sunlight hits the earth. An L1 point shield would be best placed at a particular point between the earth and the sun so that it is kept there by the combined gravitational pull of both bodies. An interesting sideline of this whole area (which has really generated the enthusiasm of a whole horde of engineers who have each come up with their own variant) is that they have figured out you only need to deflect sunlight by a tiny amount such that it misses the earth. My problem with this option is that it would seem fantastically expensive to put enough mirrors into space to reflect the equivalent of the total radiation hitting Australia without anything going wrong. These mirrors have to be in exactly the right spot, themselves deflected easily by the smallest of gravitational pulls from comets or what-have-you (and if you’re deflecting the equivalent of the total amount of sun-energy hitting Australia, you can imagine the destructive force hitting those mirrors if they are not in exactly the right angle). It basically does not sound plausible at this point that we will be able to do this now or in the coming century or so.
Another interesting idea is to get the clouds to be whiter in order to reflect more sunlight. The way to get whiter clouds appears to be to generate better mini water droplets and a whole host of options exist to attempt to do this, including ocean sprays and particular forms of coal dust that form the nucleus of these droplets. The potential disadvantages of trying it appear smallish of this option (whatever we put into the air will be quickly going back in the form of rain so it is hard to imagine permanent damage from putting something into the air of which there is already quite substantial amounts in the air), but whether it might work or not appears completely unknown.
Summarising, there are respectable scientists spending their time on geo-engineering solutions, with the above merely being the front-runners of dozens of proposed schemes. None of the proposed solutions talked about above appear to be thought of as proven and implementable at acceptable costs with minimal risks at this point, but as someone who basically views the whole global ETS carnaval with bemused incredulity I am heartened to see serious thought is put into what we might actually end up doing as a subset of desperate countries and that there appears to be some hopeful candidates on the table.
Of course, having said all this, my front-runner for what will actually happen is that the world as a whole will simply adapt to whatever climate change our energy-guzzling way of life condemns us to. Should geo-engineering really be implemented by a subset of desperate countries then the problem will be that the optimal climate for one country may not be the optimal one for another, i.e. those countries currently secretly happy with climate change may well move in the opposite direction with their own geo-engineering if the promised warming of the planet is thwarted by someone else. We may thus end up with climate wars where, say, Russia does its best to pump as much CO2 into the air as it can and Canada paints all its buildings black whilst, say, Australia puts SO4 into the stratosphere and Japan fills the oceans around it with phosphate. Perhaps such climate wars in turn will lead to a geo-engineering dis-armament UN body. You can just imagine the UN inspectors checking that the buildings in Vancouver are not all black! All such humour aside, the possible political dynamics of geo-engineering are scary.

43 thoughts on “How far are we in the science of geo-engineering?

  1. Co2 is already beautifully sequestrated in the form of coal.

    Solar Radiation Management is really scary concept, like keeping a lid on a boiling pot, sure it could work – until it doesn’t.

    And we could capture CO2 from the air directly for sure, its a standard industrial process. But why? To make it feasible you would have to build a giant solar, wind, tidal and geothermal system to power it.

    Which would be better used in replacing coal and fossil fuels directly.

  2. Personally I like the idea of capturing the CO2 using fast growing plantation timbers, turning the trees into wood pulp and then pumping the pulp back down into exhausted coal mines.

  3. Exploration of geoengineering in their latest book is what got Levitt and Dubner so badly scorched recently – although admittedly they did not do a particularly good job of researching it.

    my front-runner for what will actually happen is that the world as a whole will simply adapt to whatever climate change our energy-guzzling way of life condemns us to

    Sydney will surely find a way to function somehow if rising sea level limits aircraft movements at Mascot airport to when the tide is out. The Dutch have managed for several centuries to protect dry land that is already below sea level. However according to a World Bank estimate three years ago:

    The impact of sea level rise from global warming could be catastrophic for many developing countries the World Bank estimates that even a one meter rise would turn at least 56 million people in the developing world into environmental refugees.

    This is the finding of a new World Bank working paper, The impact of sea level rise on developing countries : a comparative analysis. [...]

    The research uses satellite maps of the world overlaid with comparable data for 84 coastal developing countries to calculate the toll of such changes on people, gross domestic product (GDP), urban areas, and agriculture in five developing regions. [...]

    Add these to the estimated 40 million existing refugees. Now the problem is not just rising sea level and changing weather, but close to 100 million people looking for somewhere else to live.

    The only rapid way to solve this would be a global pandemic of similar lethality to the medieval Black Death, which killed a third of the population of Europe and presumably a similar proportion in the Middle East and Asia. Sudden reduction of the world’s population by two billion would leave plenty of room to adapt to whatever climate change was doing.

    Failing that, I don’t see that it’s going to be easy.

  4. Paul, I seem to recall you were in favour of burning up all the remaining fossil as quickly as possible and living with the consequences (which was a bit of a conversation stopper, I must say). Have you changed your mind because a solution engineering solution is now conceivable?

  5. I thought the most interesting part of this post was the what-if question.

    If geo-engineering turns out to be feasible and governments fail to agree on collective action to limit emissions, then what?

    It’d be good tv to get a bunch of experts together and do a Geoffrey Robertson Hypothetical-type thing with this.

  6. “Suppose you believed the world was getting warmer due to humanitys greenhouse gas emissions and….” And what Paul? As a man of science firstly you’d want to make damn sure you’re not falling for junk and pop science like much of the world has with global warming horse shit with a twist of lemon, probably put best and most succinctly here- http://ace.mu.nu/archives/295373.php
    It took real men of science at Watts Up With That and Climate Audit to see the wood for the tree ring circus.

    Now here’s another scientist with an important message from the grave for all seekers of truth and the scientific method- http://www.michaelcrichton.net/speech-alienscauseglobalwarming.html
    Compulsory reading for all the gatekeepers of truth in our sandstones I’d suggest, given the pop science on AGW theory many of them fell under the spell of so eagerly and given the date Michael Crichton gave them fair warning about doing just that.

  7. “Itd be good tv to get a bunch of experts together and do a Geoffrey Robertson Hypothetical-type thing with this.”
    Consensus science….?? Bwahahahahahahahah!

  8. When someone or some body comes to me with an amazing new theory and I ask them for the data and methodology to replicate it and they say they can’t provide it, I say it WAS just another amazing theory. What do you say sir?

  9. James,

    you confuse what I think will happen with what i want to see happen. I indeed have thought and still think we will burn fossil fuel like there’s no tomorrow until its gone, and I did see some benefits of that as well (i.e. more plant fertiliser) but that’s not the same as advocating it. I did express the opinion that CO2 use was one of the least of our environmental worries in my very first clubtroppo, which is something I still think is true but am less certain on that one given the new information on the acidification of the oceans that also is related to CO2.

    Observa,

    As I have said in several previous posts, I still think the global warming story is probably right and would not see myself as a climate change sceptic. Apart from having done my best to read the underlying science (and I do find the temperature increase in the last 2 centuries too steep for coincidence), another main reason i dont believe in the grand AGW conspiracy is that science is intensely competitive. If there was a good alternative theory going around for the observed climate changes in the last few centuries, some ambitious good young scientist would have successfully run with it and become famous as the one who debunked the greenhouse gass story. Since this has not happened I find I have to trust the outcome of competition and think that the dominant theory that emerged from that competition is indeed the front-runner. Climategate doesnt change that.

  10. MikeM,

    if i think about adaptation I am much less pessimistic than the reports of the world organisations are. If you were told that in a century time the place you live now would be underwater, what do you think you would do (even if you are poor)? You move somewhere else. At historical migration rates (0.5% per year) huge slabs of the world population can move within a century.

  11. The CO2 is a fertilizer(so what is the problem?) thinking, is emblematic of what is wrong with peoples thinking on warming climate outcomes.

    If subsoil moisture decreases then the extra CO2 is irrelevant.

    Above certain temperatures forests can be net emitters of CO2. If rainfall and temperature patterns are hostile to agriculture – then it is also irrelevant, think of Australia’s gulf country.

    We have a surplus of CO2 not a deficit. The fact is that extra CO2 in an artificial, controlled and closed environment can promote growth in plants is true, but to make an analogy from this for the wider planet is simply wrongheaded.

    Ther are two problems central to the outcomes caused by a high greenhouse gas level in the atmosphere.

    1. The rate of change and adaption of the natural environment including humans will be overwhelmed before a stable point is reached.

    2 Above a certain point in CO2 concentration there is a point that cannot be retrieved that will have dire consequences.

    No one knows where that point is – but no rational person would want to find out.

  12. Paul,
    “science is intensely competitive” So is religion or haven’t you noticed?

    “I do find the temperature increase in the last 2 centuries too steep for coincidence” And the continuous, modern, verifiable temperature record for that is where? At the EAU’s CRU unit? Then you jump to “If there was a good alternative theory going around for the observed climate changes in the last few centuries…” Huh? Try Plimer’s conclusion that climate is extremely variable as far as we can tell from our feeble attempts to comprehend it all so far and it’s in the rocks. Just like it is in the rocks at Hallet Cove, a near southern suburb of Adelaide. When the Govt sponsored sign board there tells me that at the end of the Late Pleistocene(around 7000 yrs ago) the glacial warming and subsequent sea level rise meant the aboriginal inhabitants could no longer walk on land across the gulf to Edithburgh and south of Kangaroo Island because the sea rose 130 feet, I don’t suddenly read that and go- Wow! Damn those aboriginals and their cooking fires and run around telling everyone to stop what they’re doing. At what stage did we decide that sort of thinking and behaviour wasn’t certifiable?

    Again I ask- What do you do sir? Apparently that’s what Professor Jones is pondering right now with his sabbatical for how best to spin and plead the old ‘dog ate the homework’ defense. At WUWT who are asking why the deafening silence from the ‘establishment’ on this one Bruce Cobb proffers them the complexities and nuances of the post-modern contextual approach-

    “Simple. The dog ate the homework, but he didnt know the dog ate it until recently. Dogs are sneaky that way. Even though he refused requests to provide the homework, which he didnt have, but didnt know he didnt have, he cant really be faulted for not providing something he didnt have, even if he thought he did. Thats clear, isnt it?”

    Sweet Jesus! Do you people really comprehend the firestorm of ridicule coming your way from an outraged public that were getting green fatigue from all the moralising and lecturing of their superiors, only to discover from ‘their’ media they’ve been had? The silence from the establishment media is deafening and when it does hit they’ll go and blame Alan Jones for it all. There is something in this ivory tower stuff.

  13. If I were stuck in a blizzard of ice-cold indifference to my uninformed rantings, I guess I’d be praying for the gods to visit a firestorm of ridicule on my enemies too.

  14. How else could I put it Gummo? They might like to imagine themselves as honest financial advisors, dispensing solid financial and investment advice to their trusting clients. They rely on all the establishment around them, the solid banks and brokerage houses, those respected ratings agencies, the Govt Fannies and Freddies overseen by the Fed and then all hell breaks loose and they realise they’ve even been caught out recommending Madoff securities to their clients. It happens with the usual fallout and then people go looking for all the signs of what went wrong. A bit like the Michael Crichtons forewarning them about the Madoffs.

  15. observa,

    the data manipulations of climategate wouldnt raise an eyebrow amongst many economists at all. Economists have to deal with uncomplete data all the time themselves, or did you for instance think that all this nice historical GDP data on the many government websites all derived from continuous and verifiable sources? Not at all. Much of it is the result of ‘interpolation’, ‘imputation’, ‘taking a small part to be representative’, etc.. Data on complicated issues is simply nearly always messy and whipping them into shape requires reasonable judgment on a 100 and one tricky things. To bag the climate data simply because it is not pristine says more about the ignorance of the commentators on how science actually operates than that it is a reflection on the validity of what was done. I found the emails in climategate quite positive in the sense that you did get the notion that the programmer (‘Harry’) was trying to do an honest job of this. However, the main point to make here is that the same basic data was also used and recoded by other institutes who, almost immediately after cimategate spread, re-stated their own position as independently coming to the same conclusions as the CRU unit.

    Having said this, of course scientists make mistakes, are prone to group fallacies, and all the rest of it. Its a question of whether there’s a better alternative available.

  16. Paul, Whilst I take your points about incomplete and fuzzy data and its anlysis and interpretaion, that was always going to be a problem proving AGW once some bright spark came up with the notion and the idea took off that it was worth investigation and resources being allocated for that purpose. I’m an agnostic on AGW and even I can see the obvious safer road of say Plimer’s stance. Not hard to see the huge variability in climate over time and appreciate our limited and somewhat feeble attempts to explain it all. With a decent temperature record of only 150 yrs or so and given the time scales of the earth this was always going to be a tough nut to crack and we all need to acknowledge that.

    Therein lay a great temptation to see things in the record and data if you came to the problem with preconceived notions that this was important green work you were embarking upon. Basically it attracted a certain type of scientist with a feeling that mankind was being a bit unkind to Gaia and if AGW could be proven, there for all to see would be the defining proof of that. IMO that temptation proved fatal as the inner circle tightened and outsiders were increasingly excluded and eventually frozen out. Then when they ran into the inevitable data problems and the overarching difficulty of the task facing them, they began unwittingly at first to see things that weren’t there and inexorably to drink their own bathwater more and more as they faced the obvious and easier skeptic questioning. You can see it clearly when they collectively began to believe it was their precious data and noone elses despite the obvious.(its our preciousses eh Smeagol)

    But there was worse to come as they increasingly engaged in the political process and science turned to advocacy. Oh it starts out as this is important green work on behalf of all mankind with more resources needed and slowly but surely degenerates into advocacy. They attached themselves to the UN and became shills for global ETS and right there was the danger Crichton warned so poignantly about in 2003. To actively connive to conflate critics of a global ETS with AGW deniers was to commit them fully to the political hack road. Well if you become a political hack you can’t complain when you’re hacked down by the political process.

    The emails between the inner circle show how corrupted they’d all become and after talking about lunching the raw data if an FOI was successful, that’s what they either did or else were deliberately lying in response to reasonable and mandated FOI requests. Indefensible by any stretch of the scientific imagination and they’ll rightly reap the whirlwind for it. However their greater crime will ultimately be to smear all AGW science and dry up any research resources for it in the forseeable future. When this scandal has finally run its course, you’ll have buckleys of getting AGW research grants out of the pollies for a long time, mark my words.

  17. Do yourselves a favour and pop over to Andrew Bolt’s place to catch up with the firestorm coming your way. Rex Murphy at CBC gets exactly what Michael Crichton foretold as the growing conflagration breaks out of Fox News and the funny man and leaps the establishment’s containment lines.

  18. When we burn coal we make lots of money, Only problem is CO2 is released. Now we have to recapture the co2 and put it back in the ground at a cost of lots of money.
    Seems to me it would be more logical to leave the co2 (coal) in the ground in the first place and just build more safe, modern nuclear power stations.

  19. Simple. The dog ate the homework, but he didnt know the dog ate it until recently. Dogs are sneaky that way. Even though he refused requests to provide the homework, which he didnt have, but didnt know he didnt have, he cant really be faulted for not providing something he didnt have, even if he thought he did. Thats clear, isnt it?

    Sadly, back in high school I was too stupid to deliver such humdinger excuses and was consequently forced to learn mathematics, physics, etc.

    Second prize is better than nothing I guess… *SIGH*

  20. To bag the climate data simply because it is not pristine says more about the ignorance of the commentators on how science actually operates than that it is a reflection on the validity of what was done.

    I hate to be the one to break this but there are people who don’t see Economics as the archetypal standard in how science operates.

    To be fair though, Economists and Climate Scientists have similar track records on the predictive capabilities of their theories, so Paul, maybe you have unearthed a deeper theme running through both disciplines that deserves closer attention.

  21. observa,

    the link to the Washington times you post brought me to a hyperbolic editorial. In between stories of cocaine in chicken and the obligatory ridiculing of Abama’s health plan, I saw nothing but tendentious reporting. Forgive me for not taking this outlet as the decider as to what is official and what is not.

    _Tel,

    I fear that if you demand pristine data to deserve the accolade of ‘science’ that you wont be left with many fields. Do you for instance think the data coming out of supercolliders needs no ‘cleaning’? Dont get me started on medical data.

  22. Siruke says:


    When we burn coal we make lots of money, Only problem is CO2 is released. Now we have to recapture the co2 and put it back in the ground at a cost of lots of money.
    Seems to me it would be more logical to leave the co2 (coal) in the ground in the first place and just build more safe, modern nuclear power stations.

    Note by Paul: For some reason this comment was sent to me as a subscriber to this thread, but did not survive some other unknown process (perhaps a crass in the night, or something like that), hence I am reposting it.

  23. Observa says:

    “Paul, Whilst I take your points about incomplete and fuzzy data and its anlysis and interpretaion, that was always going to be a problem proving AGW once some bright spark came up with the notion and the idea took off that it was worth investigation and resources being allocated for that purpose. I’m an agnostic on AGW and even I can see the obvious safer road of say Plimer’s stance. Not hard to see the huge variability in climate over time and appreciate our limited and somewhat feeble attempts to explain it all. With a decent temperature record of only 150 yrs or so and given the time scales of the earth this was always going to be a tough nut to crack and we all need to acknowledge that.

    Therein lay a great temptation to see things in the record and data if you came to the problem with preconceived notions that this was important green work you were embarking upon. Basically it attracted a certain type of scientist with a feeling that mankind was being a bit unkind to Gaia and if AGW could be proven, there for all to see would be the defining proof of that. IMO that temptation proved fatal as the inner circle tightened and outsiders were increasingly excluded and eventually frozen out. Then when they ran into the inevitable data problems and the overarching difficulty of the task facing them, they began unwittingly at first to see things that weren’t there and inexorably to drink their own bathwater more and more as they faced the obvious and easier skeptic questioning. You can see it clearly when they collectively began to believe it was their precious data and noone elses despite the obvious.(its our preciousses eh Smeagol)

    But there was worse to come as they increasingly engaged in the political process and science turned to advocacy. Oh it starts out as this is important green work on behalf of all mankind with more resources needed and slowly but surely degenerates into advocacy. They attached themselves to the UN and became shills for global ETS and right there was the danger Crichton warned so poignantly about in 2003. To actively connive to conflate critics of a global ETS with AGW deniers was to commit them fully to the political hack road. Well if you become a political hack you can’t complain when you’re hacked down by the political process.

    The emails between the inner circle show how corrupted they’d all become and after talking about lunching the raw data if an FOI was successful, that’s what they either did or else were deliberately lying in response to reasonable and mandated FOI requests. Indefensible by any stretch of the scientific imagination and they’ll rightly reap the whirlwind for it. However their greater crime will ultimately be to smear all AGW science and dry up any research resources for it in the forseeable future. When this scandal has finally run its course, you’ll have buckleys of getting AGW research grants out of the pollies for a long time, mark my words.

    Note by Paul: For some reason this comment was sent to me as a subscriber to this thread, but did not survive some other unknown process (perhaps a crass in the night, or something like that), hence I am reposting it.

  24. observa:

    I agree that the temptation you sketch is certainly there. The more power and influence that is on offer for the ‘winner’ of a peer review process, the more the peer review system will be actively corrupted. The same forces are at work in economics too, and it will only get worse as the outcomes of the peer review process are more and more used as indicators by governments and universities to determine rewards.

    As to these particular emails, I did not see true falsification discussed. What was discussed was selective representation, a bit of politically motivated reluctance to truly explain the data, and active networking to smear other scientists. Its the last thing that worried me most, but nothing in the exchange really put the basic data in doubt.

    As to why we should still put any trust in what most climate scientists seem to think, i refer to my answer under #10: if there is anything i do trust, it is the outcome of competition between ambitious young scientists. if there was a serious known alternative contender, we would have heard about it. It is still possible that the current dominant story is puffed up and wrong, but the longer it takes for the hidden alternative to emerge, the less likely the alternative exists.
    As to temperature variability, the climate scientists themselves are very aware of this and seem to be able to discount the most obvious sources of ‘natural’ variation (such as solar flares). The failure of the temperature data to show an increasing trend in the last 10 years is of course not good for the AGW story, but dont forget that this still means the last 10 years is a lot warmer than previous periods, i.e. the lack of continuing trend does not mean we are back where we were in 1800. the possibility that some as yet un-understood process is keeping temperatures increases down is of course quite possible and may well be the source of the next big climate story. We can only speculate at this point.

  25. Paul. I found it bemusing that an economist would write a post like this, interesting though it is. There are no incentives (that I can see).

    For peoplewho think that an effective ETS will not happen., geo-engineering seems the only realistic way forward, i.e. some kind of technological fix that can be implemented by a single worried country or a sub-set of countries desperate enough to try unproven technology to cool the planet down.

    Which worried country would do this and why? A rapidly submerging Fiji? Not likely. A rich country or bunch of countries that stand to lose by climate change, like the US? Do you really think that the US would come up with the money to put reflectors at L1 for such a huge price, let alone be allowed to tinker with our planet unilaterally by the rest of the world.

    Surely, the whole point of an ETS is to make solutions become economic, perhaps grand expensive schemes like the ones you describe but, more likely, hundreds of smaller technological improvements.

  26. Chris,

    fair question. When I think about the likely candidates, I would think about the countries most likely to fear submergence under a rising sea. The small Island nations, together with Bangladesh, the Netherlands, perhas even with some individual states of larger countries, could form a separate coalition. Several of the schemes would indeed seem far out of reach of that type of coalition, but chucking large amounts of sulphure oxide into the atmosphere is not an impossibility for such a sub-set, nor is experimentation of chucking certain chemicals into the oceans.
    The point of an ETS depends on whether you believe it will work. if you believe it will work, it sounds like an economic solution. If not, the point is to pretend to be doing something whilst you keep exporting coal.

  27. I fear that if you demand pristine data to deserve the accolade of science that you wont be left with many fields. Do you for instance think the data coming out of supercolliders needs no cleaning? Dont get me started on medical data.

    All measured data has errors, but never the less some is better, some is worse. My question is whether those in various disciplines have been realistic regarding the analysis of those errors. Have they even done any error analysis?

    When it comes to cleaning, it also comes down to reasonable justification for the cleaning and careful documentation of the process involved. Not a matter of black and white, but deeply a matter of opinion. Why does the data need cleaning? Does this process make more accurate data or merely more consistent?

    The particle smashers have the luxury of a great many repeated tests, allowing them to build up a statistical profile. Economists and climate scientists don’t live long enough to be able to rerun their theories thousands of times over.

    Medical data is suffering partly from the problem of lack of repeatability (although not so much), partly from the problem of vested interests getting involved (likewise Economics and Climate science both, but the Economists at least understand a few guiding principles explaining how vested interests operate, generally choosing to ignore those principles for the obvious reasons). The medical industry also operates to a much tighter budget than either Economics or Climate Science (after all, the doctors are encouraged to produce real results for their money, and then do research in whatever time is left over).

    One of the biggest problems in the medical industry right now is lack of actually looking. For example, a great many “Swine Flu” confirmed cases don’t go through rigorous DNA testing, they just seem like similar symptoms. I’ve heard there are cases of pneumonia and TB getting grouped in the same bucket as swine flu which makes you wonder why they bother to keep stats at all. I could also point out the conflict of interests that if I discovered that doing some simple thing would make everyone healthy, getting a profit out of that discovery would be impossible — so naturally I always discover something that is expensive, difficult to obtain and makes people feel healthy for a short time only.

    However, when it comes to genuine deliverable outcomes, let’s be honest… Medicine (imperfect though it is) has delivered more than Economics, Climate science and the various particle smashers (no doubt some government paper-shuffler is still hoping that the Large Hadron Collider is going to pop out a recipe for a bigger and better bomb, and no doubt the researchers don’t feel inclined to explain otherwise).

    But you know, when was the last time you tried to phone America and ended up talking to Mongolia instead? Pretty reliable system isn’t it? Hugely complex, but yet predictable. To make that happen required a lot of people to check things very closely, again and again. Turn your lights on, and they come on. Open your fridge, and it is indeed cold. Nothing natural about that, these thing are hard work in crystallised form.

    How much software goes into an Airbus? Admittedly they do crash now and then (because of tin whiskers — blame the Greenies, not the Engineers) but if that software was delivering the haphazard results that Economists get away with then we would not need airport security, because we would not have any airports. Fair scope for comparison in my opinion. I still hold that there are some solidly established sciences that may not deliver pristine data, but they do deliver a substantially higher standard.

  28. Hi _Tel,

    I’d be the last one to argue that the success of economis is based on its data, but I would stand up to say that economics has been very succesful and should not be depicted as the lame brother of ‘more succesful’ sciences. Many of our institutions, like the ACCC, the Reserve Bank, the various regulators, auction mechanisms, trade agreements, tax systems, etc., reflect mainstream economic thinking. At least part of the reason why the last recession was so mild was because the government almost blindly followed the advice of the economists in the Treasury and the RBA, who quickly instigated a stimulus package (go early, go hard, go consumption) and, together with the other governments who were given the same advise by their economists, resisted the temptation to go protectionist. Economics is a very inexact science, yes, and we learn more from institutional experimentation and basic theory than our supposed ‘data’, but we learn nevertheless and our societal structures reflect the learning from economists.

    Now, as to the data of other, I think you underestimate the degree of fudge and carpet sweeping that goes on in things like medical laboratories. It has been rumoured that more deaths occur due to medical mistakes than on the road, but more to the point: an awful lot of ‘abberant human and animal subjects’ get weeded out of the data before publishing. The notion that you truly get to see all that goes on in labs and that all that is verifiable and can be blindly trusted is a myth.

  29. … I would stand up to say that economics has been very succesful and should not be depicted as the lame brother of more succesful sciences.

    Is economics a science?

    And what is economics anyway? It starts with a set of assumptions — people maximise utility, their behaviour takes place within markets (actual or metaphorical), their behaviour is rational (completeness, transitivity etc)and they have stable preferences.

    If you deviate from these assumptions (eg behavioural economics) then you stop doing economics and start doing some other kind of social science.

    The assumptions seem to exist in order to make problems tractable for the math. And that’s what most economists seem to want to talk about. Not whether the assumptions represent the bones of a testable theory, not whether the assumptions are realistic or refer to entities that actually exist, not whether the assumptions lead to predictions which are demonstrably false (eg gift giving at Christmas).

    Take ‘utility’ for example. Most economists refuse to say anything about it — they’ll tell you it’s whatever people maximise. A few will say that it’s ‘happiness’ or ‘pleasure’ minus ‘pain’ (as we’d learned nothing in psychology or philosophy since Bentham). So the answers are either vacuous or demonstrably false.

    Many of the arguments for economics’ status as a science appeal to ideas about what physics is that were current in the 1930s (eg operationalism, instrumentalism). Did we mention the physics envy?

  30. I’m not statistician — but wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that taking unadjusted data for all sites would take advantage of the law of averages?

    I’d also be interested to see the average & standard deviation of the adjustments being made. By the same law, if I understand it correctly, those adjustments should average to somewhere in the vicinity of zero.

  31. Sorry, Paul, I know this is going increasingly off topic, but…

    Don, as long as you accept that (1) there’s a set of inter-related phenomena that that can be usefully characterised as economic, (2) no other science tries to explain these systematically, and (3) the phenomena are amenable to rational inquiry — if you accept these, I can’t see the point of making an issue of whether economics is a science.

    I don’t think many economists, even neoclassicals, would agree that economics as a science ‘starts with the assumption of utility maximisation’. They would, on the other hand, go along with the general thrust of Mill’s essay on the scope and method of economics, which tries to locate the boundaries, and to didtinguish between an art and a science. If you’ve read it, you’ll know there’s nothing about utility maximisation in there, nor any concern with ‘making problems tractable to the math’ (don’t we say ‘maths’ in this country, by the way?).

  32. James – I’m puzzled by economics. I don’t know how it could be limited only to human behaviour that involves money.

    On your points:

    (1)As I understand it, the set of phenomena characterised as economic means all human behaviour that is (i) goal directed and (ii) requires scarce means with alternative uses.

    Lionel Robbins writes:

    Economics is the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses (pdf).

    Gary Becker takes a similarly broad approach. He writes:

    I believe that what most distinguishes economics as a discipline from other disciplines in the social sciences is not its subject matter but its approach.

    (2)There’s a great deal of overlap between economics and other social sciences. For example, recent debates about asset price bubbles are as much part of the domain of psychology as of economics. And of course public choice theory, the economics of the family and other excursions have taken economics into many areas occupied by other social sciences.

    On the issue of utility maximisation, Becker writes:

    Everyone recognizes that the economic approach assumes maximizing behavior more explicitly and extensively than other approaches do …”

    On Mill – I’m inclined to treat Mill’s political economy as an ancestor of modern economics — related but not the same thing.

    I understand that there’s an English tradition where the philosophy of utilitarianism (more Benthamite than Millian) and economics were combined. FY Edgeworth is a good example.

    But the attack on cardinal notions of utility broke the link between the two and economics headed in a different direction.

  33. Of course there’s overlap, Don. Just as biology uses lots of physics and chemistry, economics can take on board insights from psychology, sociology, politics and so on. But there’s still a subject area and a core body of analytical tools and stylised facts that’s sufficiently separate from those disciplines to merit recognition as a distinct science.

    I assume that by ‘involves money’ you are speaking very loosely, and mean relating to the production, distribution and consumption of wealth; if so, why shouldn’t there be a branch of social science devoted to that spahere of activity?

    You’ve written a couple of posts about house prices, separating supply and demand factors and noting the role of prices in balancuing these. What were you doing then if not economics?

    I think that what really bothers you is not economics per se but the Chicago Scool’s narrow conception of behaviour, and in particular its attempts to extend the atomistic, maximising, choice model to social phenomena like marriage and religion that fall outside the scope of traditional economics. But plenty of economists dislike this approach too — you might enjoy Geoff Harcourt’s essay ‘The social science imperialists’ if you haven’t come across it.

    It makes more sense to reject Becker’s reductionist dogmas and defend a rich and eclectic approach to economics, than to take his definition at face value and make it a basis for rejecting economics’ claim to scientific status.

  34. James

    You’re right, I have appealed to economic reasoning. And I can’t see how we could dispense with it.

    But I’m puzzled and disturbed by economics. I’m persuaded by Becker’s argument that economics is defined by its approach rather than its subject matter. And if it applies to market production it also should apply to household production.

    So it seems to me that if the economic approach fails to explain human behaviour in areas like marriage and religion then it fails full stop.

    I worry that a “rich and eclectic approach to economics” is just an excuse for ad hoc explanations and a crude and ignorant kind of instrumentalism (ie “We know the assumptions are wrong and the theory’s predictive power is fragile and context dependent, but we’re just not interested in finding out what actually explains human behaviour.”)

  35. Let’s see if I have this this straight: the principles you drew on to explain changes in house prices ought, if they have any validity at all, to also provide an explanation why people get married and why they practice this or that religion (because Gary Becker says so); the principles in question can’t explain those things (indeed they’re exposed as arid tautologies in the very attempt); therefore your argument about house prices must have been so much humbug; yet you don’t really feel in your heart of hearts that it was total humbug; therefore you’re disturbed.

  36. Regarding James #33 above.

    On point (1), you have made a commitment to take real-world measurements and all measurements have errors. To do the job properly requires some analysis and understanding of those errors, in order to judge what is theoretically achievable. It would be astounding to be able to get consistently accurate outputs from error prone input data.

    On point (3) it is not a matter of “acceptance”, we have a well understood way of testing predictions and using those tests to evaluate the theory.

    From Don:

    So it seems to me that if the economic approach fails to explain human behaviour in areas like marriage and religion then it fails full stop.

    Not true at all. If economics can clearly explain the situations where it will work and the situations where it won’t work (for whatever reason) then it can still be very useful (albeit not the ultimate tool for all jobs). The key is being able to establish a boundary (and nice to be able to establish a theoretical basis for that boundary, but an empirical construct would be adequate).

    At the moment though, economists don’t seem to have any idea of where the boundaries are, let alone why.

    For example, economists don’t seem to deliver a clear definition of what is trade. Let’s look at the ETS… on what basis is trading emission certificates any different in fundamental terms to just paying a carbon tax and trading regular dollars like we always do? In practical terms, emission certificates are much more difficult to audit (need to keep a chain of custody through the entire system to catch the cheats) and much more expensive to implement (need to build an entire new handling system in parallel with our existing financial system). In theoretical terms since a certificate is always exchangeable for dollars anyway, trading dollars should be theoretically equivalent.

    You would think there would be some basic principle to fall back on in order to evaluate such a situation.

  37. James – I’d be less puzzled if I had an explanation about why the economic approach works in some circumstances but not others.

    And if we do find circumstances where the approach doesn’t work, then perhaps these can teach us something about market behaviour too. It’s hard to image that people’s behaviour is completely ‘economic’ in some domains and ‘non-economic’ in others.

    As for Becker. I do find his arguments for household production persuasive. I find it difficult to accept that people derive satisfaction from washing machines in the same way they derive satisfaction from chocolate.

    When it comes to improving the theory, I much prefer his strategy of applying the economic approach unflinchingly to all human behaviour than to that of an economist who relies on some vague sense that the approach isn’t appropriate in this or that circumstance but never explains why.

  38. If economics can clearly explain the situations where it will work and the situations where it wont work (for whatever reason) then it can still be very useful

    Tel (38) – I posted my comment before I read yours. I agree.

  39. Hi Don, James, _Tel,

    anyone looking for a definition of economics is going to be disappointed because economics is not united enough to agree on one. i have heard professional Economists define economics as the Inada assumptions of the productoin function, I have heard it described as a tribe by historical economists, and I have heard it confused with a non-science like mathematics (which is not a science because it deals with absolute truths that arise from form. Some of economics is a science, i.e. the bit that tries to formulate and refine theories to fit observations as good as possible). Where economics is a fuzzy science is that none of our theories holds all of the time (to great frustration of economists, I might add) and hence we’re in a world of provisional and conditional ‘reasonable fit’.
    The line that economics is an approach and does not have a core ‘empirical territory’ always struck me as false. There might be an imperialist element to economics, much like any group that is successful tries to grab a bit more territory, but for me, at core we primarily deal with materialistic aspects of life: that is where our own bread gets buttered. Having said this, I share Don’s implicit wish for a theory of everything and feel that social scientists should indeed try to formulate more general theories and stories that put these core territories in their perspective.

    My own answer to what utility is was posted as a comment to Don’s blog about it.

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