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You have an opinion, but do you have what it takes to be heard?

Conor Williams
Washington, DC

Conor Williams

I’m working on a PhD in Government at Georgetown, so I’m full of ideals, but my optimism is tempered by experience.

Mythical science and fantastical solutions

Editor's note: To begin our week of blogging, we asked each of the ten finalists to file a post on what they're reading.

There is a wet, coffee-stained hole in my copy of yesterday's Post. It was the only possible reaction to Dana Milbank's defense of geoengineering solutions for the climate change crisis. Milbank begins by arguing that any chance at carbon reduction legislation faded with Democrats' mid-term electoral hopes. Sure, he admits, reducing carbon emissions is "the only sure way to prevent man-made climate change," but if Republicans are preventing progress on a real solution, why don't we explore a few technological fantasies? 

Milbank outlines a host of possible geoengineered responses to climate change, "ranging from simple to sci-fi," like burying carbon underground, or chemically adjusting the content of the Earth's soil and oceans, or ejecting trillions of mirrors into orbit. Still, he admits that geoengineering is at best a partial solution to the problem. In truth, this approach only serves to distract from the gravity of our common situation (Milbank's casual caveats aside).  Simply consider "who" is involved, "how" they'd do it, and "what" would be necessary for their success. 

Start with who we are. Americans and their leaders have long been reticent to cut back their carbon usage, even in the face of increasingly dire global consequences. If scientists develop a geoengineering approach that slows climate change for the time being (unlikely as this is), many would use this as evidence that carbon reductions are unnecessary. If this happens, and carbon emissions continue to increase, geoengineering solutions will need to become even more thorough. This cycle cannot possibly continue without tragic consequences. 

Next, consider how the world works (ecologically and environmentally). Would it really be cheaper and easier to technologically reconfigure the world's environment than to cut back on our energy use? It would take plenty of carbon emissions to make these global adjustments: They are unlikely to be an efficient use of our limited resources in any serious cost-benefit analysis. 

Finally, think about what we don't know. There is very little scientific consensus on most geoengineering possibilities.  The Union of Concerned Scientists dismisses most of these proposals as inadequate treatments of climate change's symptoms, since they ignore "the root cause of global warming." Simply removing carbon from the atmosphere is no more worthwhile than only addressing the rising global temperature. Serious solutions require addressing both emissions and heat, something few geoengineering responses can provide.  Perhaps worst of all, these proposals are almost wholly unproven. Consider humanity's environmental track record: is there any evidence that humans are capable of effective, error-free environmental engineering on this scale? Consider, for example, the wholesale failure to plan and manage water use in the American West. Consider human ineptitude in maintaining mine safety or on deepwater oil drilling. The global commons makes for tragic theater, and no amount of research will change that fact. 

The worst part of all this is that Milbank's argument suggests that the only real solution--using energy more efficiently and reducing our collective usage--can be exchanged for misleading fantasies. While it may be true that the political will to reduce our carbon usage is lacking, this doesn't mean that other approaches to the situation will magically become worth pursuing. Though technological development must be a part of the global response to climate change, we cannot escape our ever-more-desperate need for conservation.  

Read more entries from this round. And come back Friday to vote.

By Conor Williams  |  October 18, 2010; 9:15 AM ET  | Category:  Blogging Challenge
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Comments

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Best I've read today.

Could lose the doctoral dissertation attitude, but still readable and lucid.

Posted by: colonelpanic | October 19, 2010 12:04 AM
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Milbank's piece was interesting, but what you've said here is very insightful. For all their wonder, technological advances cannot solve the ecological crisis. It's sad that we have to resort to sci-fi fantasies because we lack an opposition that is serious about solving this problem (or even acknowledging its existence).

What you've done (impressively, I must say) is avoided another tired partisan attack while at the same time shining light on the issue at hand - how reasonably we can expect technical advances to get us out of this mess.

I also enjoyed the links you provided. Very nicely done.

Posted by: jlupfer | October 18, 2010 4:00 PM
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Well said. Right conclusion led to by the facts presented. Good understanding of subject matter presented on a very complex subject.

A bit dry and wordy as written, missing summary statements in paragraphs. Great last sentence however.

Posted by: chucky-el | October 18, 2010 3:34 PM
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Well said. Right conclusion led to by the facts presented. Good understanding of subject matter presented on a very complex subject.

A bit dry and wordy as written, missing summary statements in paragraphs. Great last sentence however.

Posted by: chucky-el | October 18, 2010 3:32 PM
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Well said. Right conclusion led to by the facts presented. Good understanding of subject matter presented on a very complex subject.

A bit dry and wordy as written, missing summary statements in paragraphs. Great last sentence however.

Posted by: chucky-el | October 18, 2010 3:31 PM
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The only tough part was the second sentence for someone like me who is less familiar with this issue but the rest, in which he clearly explained it, was great. I like the skepticism as well -- very Washington.

Posted by: Couvade | October 18, 2010 3:28 PM
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Besides, maybe I'm hopefully biased as an academic, but I actually found this piece a refreshing departure from the usual journo-blather found on these pages.

Yes, he uses sentences with multiple clauses. Yes he has a thoroughly-researched and referenced argument that has obviously been organized in advance (rather than just churned out in a stream-of-consciousness). Yes, he's put care into the construction of a logically (instead of merely rhetorically) consistent argument. Shocking.

Posted by: waltersobchak2 | October 18, 2010 1:32 PM
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MSJS,

I'm not seeing the assumption you saw. A close reading doesn't seem to indicate any position being taken on cap-and-trade in particular. I'd personally agree that cap-and-trade isn't the most sensible way to reduce carbon emissions (like most economists, I'd favor a transparent carbon tax). But that's not what's under discussion in this piece. Instead, the author is simply arguing (contra Millbank) that the failure of cap-and-trade legislation should not lead those concerned about global warming to abandon efforts to reduce carbon emissions in favor of fanciful geoengineering "solutions".

Posted by: waltersobchak2 | October 18, 2010 1:28 PM
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I wanted to be interested in this. Really.

Maybe it was all the long sentences. Maybe it could have been said more succinctly. Maybe it was the author's presumption that the cap-and-trade bill, if passed, would have reduced global carbon emissions. Whatever it was, the blog was a struggle to get through.

Sorry.

Posted by: MsJS | October 18, 2010 11:07 AM
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