Should we pump a load of sulphur into the upper atmosphere so as to bounce solar radiation back into space before it hits the Earth? That’s probably not the question you’d expect to be posed at a lecture entitled “Climate Change: The Missing Institutions”. But the Tesco-funded Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) provided just this question – with a resounding “yes” from the speaker if not anyone else – last Thursday in Manchester.
For those of you who came in late, the Sustainable Consumption Institute was set up at the University of Manchester with a big wodge of Tesco money. In case anyone had forgotten this, Tesco and its retiring boss Terry Leahy got a shout out during introduction to the lecture. This intro came from one Robert Hahn, who heads up the SCI, now that his job as a senior staff economist on George Dubya Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers has come to an end.
The mercifully brief intro was followed by a mercilessly rambling and profoundly vacuous speech by one Thomas Schelling. Who he? Yeah, well, good question. I’ve been knocking around climate change policy, economics, science for five solid years, and I’d not heard the name. Obviously I move in the wrong circles. But here’s his biog. For those who can decipher these things (RAND, Nuclear War…) he seems like the consummate Cold Warrior – one part Herman Kahn, one part Henry Kissinger, a little John Nash and the left over bits of Dr Strangelove. These are technocrats, who never met a problem that a computer, a pretty algorithm – and, if it came to it, the threat of a few loosed-off ICBMs – couldn’t solve. This is classic ‘rational thinking’ disconnected from the Law of Unintended Consequences, and the book The Rise of Systems Theory by Robert Lilienfeld tells you exactly how all that ended up and why…
But gosh, I’ve digressed. The talk, Prof Schelling told us, was going to be about the norms, conventions and innovations needed around “Solar Radiation Management” and with a chaser on the implications of the surge in Chinese emissions and the serious needs to decrease these.
Before we could get into either of these, he gave a brief and at best semi-accurate precis of efforts to deal with climate change, starting with the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio. Prof Schelling labours under the illusion that the last year’s farce at Copenhagen was an “ad hoc conference” of the UNFCCC, when any schoolboy knows it was simply a regular scheduled COP. Bizarre. Look, it’s quite alright not to know this stuff – oftentimes I wish I didn’t, but it’s not alright if you’ve set yourself up as an expert. At several other points he admitted not to know the details of, for example, the World Bank. That’s fine, but maybe not if you’re purporting to give an expert lecture? Why not just call your lecture “Pumping Sulphur for Fun and Profit”? Does Tesco not care about accuracy in labelling?
The basic point of “Solar Radiation Management” is that it’s another technofix. Prof Schelling admits that it won’t drive behaviour change and will lock us (further) into a high carbon emitting path, and might be more beneficial to some than others (!). It was only in the Q and A that he conceded that chucking bucket loads of sulphur into the atmosphere would do nothing about ocean acidification.
He also conceded that it would take at least ten years to find out if this “worked” in any meaningful way. And that the “field testing” might set a precedent, but as long as that was done by responsible, democratic and transparent nations like … the US and the UK [I am not making this up], then it might be a Good Thing.
MCFly had mostly lost the will to live by this stage, and looking around the room there seemed to be a lot of jaws on the floor and eyelids sagging heavy, in about equal measure. But there was no little boy willing to say what a lot of people (I checked after) were thinking – The. Emperor. Is. Very. Very… Naked.
Some of the questioners tried to point out the dangers and limitations in the sulphur plans, and wrung a few more admissions out of the advocate; that for example, SRM would be a “stop gap” to “slow down climate change while we sort out our emissions.” It’s surely like asking for an incredibly dangerous and untested kind of lung surgery instead of, you know, stopping smoking?
And one method of ‘scrubbing’ carbon out of the atmosphere that might – just might – work, the basalt method propounded by Wally Broecker et al – did not get a mention.
If you want to know more about the ins and outs of sulphur fired into t’atmosphere, start with George Monbiot’s take on it. A far far smarter big player in climate science and policy – Paul Crutzen – has advocated it, a fact Prof Schelling is either unaware of or chose not to cite.
The tragedy is that these are real questions – especially around technology transfer, finance and democratic transparency – and that many smart people have been working on them. Everyone came out of the lecture none the wiser about these.
There are several questions that MCFly came away asking;
- What the hell does SCI think it is achieving by holding a public lecture entitled “the Missing Institutions”, stacking the people like cordwood and encouraging precisely no interaction (pre talk coffee doesn’t count – people cluster in the groups they know)
- What sort of reputational damage has SCI done to itself by staging a lecture of such misguided and misinformed ramblings?
- Does SCI care?
- Beyond a little fig-leafing, what is SCI for?
Answers on a postcard to the usual address…