Problems are precious in politics. If you can just convince everybody that your pet idea is the solution to a widely recognized crisis, you’re in like Flynn. As Lyndon Johnson once said of Hubert Humphrey: “Poor Hubert! He’s got solutions no one else has problems for.”
But there’s always a threat that someone will come up with a different solution to your problem, one that leaves your pet idea out. That creates a pretty overwhelming temptation to ignore the alternative, laugh at it, or gin up a “think tank” report proving it won’t work.
Take AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, for example. To those with fanatical religious commitments to (especially female) sexual purity, AIDS was — if you’ll pardon the expression — a godsend. As C.S. Lewis acknowledged a long time ago, once the invention of effective contraception separated nonmarital sex from most of its practical consequences, unchastity, unconnected with imprudence and injustice, didn’t seem like much of a sin to non-theologians. (That’s the unacknowledged fact behind much of the fury about abortion.)
But AIDS gives sex back some of its terror, and thus chastity some of its potency. And of course AIDS does double duty by making male homosexual activity especially risky, thus supporting an otherwise pretty obviously pointless taboo.
So sex-only-within-heterosexual-marriage has found its problem, and the Federal government is spending millions in the name of public health to spread the — pardon me again — gospel of abstinence.
Of course, barrier contraception, practiced carefully, is an alternative solution to the STD problem. Thus it becomes essential to laugh at condoms, to emphasize their failure rate, and when possible to ban their distribution.
Most of my readers, I suspect, will find this example uncontroversial, even banal. (The remaining few will be outraged by it and accuse me of insulting their religion.)
But here’s another one, which will seem less banal but which seems to me equally clear:
To those who dislike a social system based on high and growing consumption and the economic activity that supports high and growing consumption and maintains high and growing demand (a dislike with which I have considerable sympathy), to those who think that the market needs more regulation by the state, to those who think that international institutions ought to be strengthened in order to limit the scope for national selfishness, and to those (an overlapping but not identical group) that thinks current attitudes toward maintaining the planet we inhabit are much too casual and insufficiently reverent, global warming is a Gaia-send. It means that the current pattern of activity is unsustainable, and it requires fairly drastic public action on a worldwide scale. Their eagerness to believe the worst (cf. An Inconvenient Truth) is just as evident as the right wing’s denialism. That’s not to say the two sides are equally wrong, just that neither side starts from an impartial position in examining the science.
To those dreaming happily of all the new taxes and regulations that will be necessary to contain energy consumption, chortling at the consequent discomfiture of Humvee owners and ExxonMobil’s tame politicians, and hoping for a new era of environmental consciousness, a solution to global warming that didn’t involve reining in consumption and imposing new taxes and regulations would be as welcome as rain at a picnic.
Take geoengineering, for example. It would take only a very small reduction in incident solar radiation (i.e., an increase in the Earth’s albedo) to completely offset all the anthropogenic warming now on the horizon. And it turns out that there are several plausible approaches to achieving such a reduction: funny-sounding high-tech ones such as putting a bunch of aluminum-coated Mylar in low earth orbit, lower-tech and possibly scary approaches such as detuning aircraft engines to put a little bit more sulfate into the stratosphere (with the disadvantage that some of it would come back down as acid rain), and the astonishingly low-tech and safe-sounding move of spraying seawater into the clouds over the oceans, making them somewhat shinier. Seawater-on-clouds is especially attractive because the effect doesn’t last long (and is therefore easily reversible by simply stopping the spraying) and because it’s hard to get upset about making the rain that falls back into the oceans a little bit salty.
I don’t claim that any of these is now known to be feasible, affordable, or adequate, or that there may not turn out to be insuperable objections to each of them, and to any other albedo-increasing plans. I do claim that the public discourse that has largely ignored this approach is, to that extent, defective.
Given how expensive it would be to fix global warming by reducing emissions, we ought to be looking for alternatives. A couple of billion dollars a year is probably more than the field of geoengineering could now profitably absorb, but it would be absolutely trivial compared to the costs we might avoid if we could make it work.
So why is this still a fringe topic? Partly, of course, because of the stupidity of the anti-environmentalist right and its corporate sponsors, for whom denying the existence of any environmental problem is by now strongly conditioned reflex. (As liberals discovered about crime in the late 60s and early 70s, once you’re identified with denying that a problem exists you don’t have much cred when you insist that you have a better, less costly solution to it.) But largely, I submit, because the people who think Earth in the Balance was one of Al Gore’s accomplishments rather than one of the strongest reasons to doubt his fitness to be President really don’t want a non-Gaian, non-regulatory solution to their most precious problem.
Now as it happens I like some of the most important proposed steps toward controlling global warming, on other grounds. We need to burn less oil to stop funding terrorists, and less coal to stop breathing particulate, and creating urban areas where mass transit is an attractive alternative to driving sounds like heaven to me. So I’m all for a heavy carbon tax, or a gasoline tax, or anything else that makes fossil-fuel use more expensive. Anyway, we need the revenue to do lots of other things I’d like to see the government do. And I’m convinced that shrinking material consumption among the prosperous could make all of us prosperous folks better off, though of course any individual who consumes less risks falling behind in the status race.
Still and all, it seems to me that denying (or ignoring) the potential of albedo-increasing approaches to control global warming isn’t much more sensible than denying global warming itself, or denying that increasing condom use would decrease HIV transmission.
Al, I’d like you to meet my friend Benedict. Benedict, this is Al. You guys have a lot in common.
Update: Reason’s Cathy Young comments.