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Prof. Ted Parson: Heating up the study of climate engineering

By John Masson

The good news: It's possible, technically, to change the Earth's climate cheaply, and in just a few months, using techniques of climate engineering.

The bad news: There's a pretty decent chance that doing so will trigger conflicts on a global scale—or something even worse. And there's no existing global governance structure well suited to cope with the possibility.

So it was with more than a little gallows humor that a recent International Law Workshop at the Law School by Professor Edward A. Parson went forward. Parson, the Joseph L. Sax Collegiate Professor of Law at Michigan Law, as well as a professor of public policy and of natural resources and environment, explained how world regulatory bodies are ill prepared to deal with the realities of climate engineering—through which global-scale processes are intentionally manipulated to, for example, shoot clouds of fine particles into the upper atmosphere to make the sky a little whiter and reduce, by a percent or two, the energy from sunlight reaching the Earth's surface.

The problem, of course, is that one country's climate relief is another country's climate catastrophe. And among other risks attendant on merely acknowledging the possibility of reversing global warming by deliberate tinkering is the possibility that humanity, never very good at looking far into the future, will decide to try to tweak the climate bit by bit instead of tackling the underlying causes of climate change.

"We could intervene to change very bad things…rapidly, even after we know that they're happening," Parson said.

And thereby take the sharp edge off some of the worst risks from climate change—unless, if we do it badly or carelessly, we actually end up worse off.

Another downside—apart from the temptation to lean on artificial manipulation of the environment, rather than disciplining ourselves to reduce emissions—is that not everyone capable of significantly altering the environment will have pure motives.

Or, as one of Parson's colleagues recently put it, "any one of the earth's 50 richest individuals can afford to buy us an ice age."

The basic problem from a global governance perspective, as Parson sees it, is ensuring an appropriate international structure is available when the time comes, without tacitly encouraging attempts at climate tinkering. In other words, he said, we need to "ensure that it's available if needed, but ensure that it's not needed."

Before any of that happens, he added, more research is necessary. Pursuing treaties at present wouldn't be helpful, he said, even though nothing currently on the books addresses the issue. And that's simply because we don't have enough information about what a potential treaty would need to cover.

The bottom line isn't pretty, he said.

"Nature won't create catastrophic climate change," Parson said. "But you could get there with climate change technology."


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