Monday, July 11, 2011

Geo-engineering Critique from Herman Daly

Geo-engineering or Cosmic Protectionism?
by Herman Daly

“We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars  because they do not pay a dividend.” — John Maynard  Keynes, 1933

Frederic Bastiat’s  classic satire, “Petition of the Candlemakers Against the Sun“,  has been given new relevance. Written in 1845 in defense of free trade and against national protectionism in France, it can now  be applied quite literally to the cosmic protectionists who want  to protect the global fossil fuel-based growth economy against  “unfair” competition from sunlight — a free good. The free flow  of solar radiation that powers life on earth should be  diminished, suggest some, including American Enterprise Institute’s S. Thernstrom (Washington Post 6/13/09, p.  A15), because it threatens the growth of our candle-making economy that requires filling the atmosphere with heat-trapping gasses. The protectionist “solution” of partially turning off  the sun (by albedo-increasing particulate pollution of the  atmosphere) will indeed make thermal room for more  carbon-burning candles. Although this will likely increase GDP  and employment, it is attended by the inconvenient fact that all  life is pre-adapted by millions of years of evolution to the  existing flow of solar energy. Reducing that flow cancels these  adaptations wholesale — just as global warming cancels myriad existing adaptations to temperature. Artificially reducing our most basic and abundant source of low entropy (the solar flux)  in order to more rapidly burn up our scarcer terrestrial source  (fossil fuels), is contrary to the interests both of our species  and of life in general. Add to that the fact that “candles”, and  many other components of GDP, are at the margin increasingly  unneeded and expensive, requiring aggressive advertising and  Ponzi-style debt financing in order to be sold, and one must  conclude that “geo-engineering” the world for more candles and  less sunlight is an even worse idea than credit default swaps.

Why then do some important and intelligent people advocate geo-engineering? As the lesser evil compared to absolutely catastrophic and imminent climate disaster, they say. If the  American Enterprise Institute has now stopped offering  scientists money to write papers disputing global warming, and  in fact has come around to the view that climate change is bad,  then why have they not advocated carbon taxes or  cap-auction-trade limits? Because they think the technical  geo-fix is cheap and will allow us to buy time and growth to  better solve the problem in the future. One more double whiskey to help us get our courage up enough to really face our growth addiction! Probably we are irrevocably committed to serious  climate change and will have to bear the costs, adapt, and  hasten our transition to a steady state economy at a sustainable  (smaller) scale. Panicky protectionist interventions by arrogant  geo-engineers to save growth for one more round will just make  things worse.

At the earthly level I am no free trader, and neither was  Keynes, but “shutting off the sun and the stars” to protect the  fossil fuel economy is carrying protectionism to cosmic  extremes. Reality has overtaken satire.

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