The game theory of geoengineering

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Imagine a world in which one consortium of governments proceeds with a climate plan — spraying sulfate aerosols into the air, brightening cloud cover over the oceans, maybe even dumping iron fillings into the ocean. Assume those policies are at least partially effective. Some other set of nations will respond by slowing down their costly transitions from dirty energy.

It’s not that these nations don’t care about the future of the planet. But successful geoengineering will induce them to lag in their more constructive efforts. Why go through a costly transition if the problem is being addressed? These nations might also conclude that the more they slow down, the more geoengineering the virtuous nations will undertake.

Our climate future is thus one of game theory. A nation such as Russia might go further yet and sabotage geoengineering efforts, perhaps with its own environmental tinkering. Even if such actions were seen as acts of war — well, these days that hardly seems beyond the pale.

In any case, such drastic responses are hardly needed for game-theory problems to come to the fore. It is easy enough for less conscientious nations simply to do less, once they observe that some successful geoengineering is in progress. Even within nations, states, regions and political parties are unlikely to agree how much geoengineering is appropriate, which could lead to inconsistent national policies over time.

And this:

None of this is an argument for banning geoengineering. In fact, humankind has been engaged in geoengineering for centuries — by pumping huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. And even if the world’s No. 1 scientific power (that’s the US, to be clear) rejects all intentional geoengineering, it is unlikely that all other nations will follow suit. Does the world really want to leave geoengineering in the hands of the Chinese? There is no choice but to try to make this messy situation better.

All worth a further ponder.

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