I remain perpetually impressed at the degree of outrage and shock that Krugman and company can put out. I can only hope that one day, I can channel my own cranky impulses as productively.
Anyway, the latest controversy is over Levitt and Dubner's latest book, Superfreakonomics, which isn't out yet. Fortunately, I've managed to find a bootleg copy of the climate change chapter which is generating the outcry.
I have to say: it's actually pretty interesting. I've talked about geoengineering before, and it's a fascinating topic. Levitt and Dubner take the position that a carbon tax would be great, but faces many global coordination problems, so it's worth thinking about more radical solutions in case things get really bad. They outline some cheap and feasible solutions which could reverse the rise in temperature. For instance, coal plants put out a lot of sulphur. Volcanoes put out sulphur at a higher atmosphere, and that seems to lower temperature without any downsides. It seems reasonable to try redirecting the sulphur we already produce at a higher altitude and see what happens.
This has caused utter and complete outrage. Brad DeLong replies that all his friends at Berkeley disagree on geoengineering and global coordination on carbon taxes is totally possible. To which I can only reply: 1) I don't have access to Berkeley faculty, 2) Nothing is stopping you from putting in carbon taxes with a geoengineering backstop, and 3) Twenty years of failed global coordination on this issue should say something.
Tyler Cowen and Krugman suggest that global coordination on geoengineering will be hard. To put it mildly, this is insane. Suppose that the costs of cutting back on carbon went down to $20-50 million, the cost of some geoengineering proposals. Do you think this would make global coordination harder or easier? Coming to a global coordination may still be hard. But right now, it seems hard enough. I think most reputable IR specialists would agree.
I think it's hard to avoid the point that Levitt and Dubner raise--that geoengineering proposals never get anywhere because people think about the environment through a secular religious lens. We sinned and destroyed the environment, and now have to repent and sacrifice to make up for it. Geoengineering is like gastric bypass when you should be dieting.
That doesn't mean these proposals are a great idea either. It's pretty easy to imagine them turning out pretty badly. But that's why they're best seen as "in case of emergency" options. If you really believe serious global warming is a possibility, and you observe countries right now doing little about the problem; you should consider some radical solutions. Again, we can still try the global coordination route. But after hearing Jairam Ramesh--India's environmental envoy--talk; I have to say the odds for a global deal don't look good.
Frankly, the fact that geoengineering proposals are being pursued by cranks like Dyson and out-there Venture Capitalists, rather than environmental engineers, is a problem. The fact that widespread adoption of cheap and clean nuclear energy largely remains the preserve of Republicans rather than environmentalists is a problem. We need a rational environmentalism that acts according to a cost-benefit analysis to maximize impact, and doesn't give a hoot about "raising awareness."