Environment Systems & Decisions

, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 168–180 | Cite as

Double catastrophe: intermittent stratospheric geoengineering induced by societal collapse

  • Seth D. BaumEmail author
  • Timothy M. MaherJr.
  • Jacob Haqq-Misra


Perceived failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has prompted interest in avoiding the harms of climate change via geoengineering, that is, the intentional manipulation of Earth system processes. Perhaps the most promising geoengineering technique is stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), which reflects incoming solar radiation, thereby lowering surface temperatures. This paper analyzes a scenario in which SAI brings great harm on its own. The scenario is based on the issue of SAI intermittency, in which aerosol injection is halted, sending temperatures rapidly back toward where they would have been without SAI. The rapid temperature increase could be quite damaging, which in turn creates a strong incentive to avoid intermittency. In the scenario, a catastrophic societal collapse eliminates society’s ability to continue SAI, despite the incentive. The collapse could be caused by a pandemic, nuclear war, or other global catastrophe. The ensuing intermittency hits a population that is already vulnerable from the initial collapse, making for a double catastrophe. While the outcomes of the double catastrophe are difficult to predict, plausible worst-case scenarios include human extinction. The decision to implement SAI is found to depend on whether global catastrophe is more likely from double catastrophe or from climate change alone. The SAI double catastrophe scenario also strengthens arguments for greenhouse gas emissions reductions and against SAI, as well as for building communities that could be self-sufficient during global catastrophes. Finally, the paper demonstrates the value of integrative, systems-based global catastrophic risk analysis.


Geoengineering Societal collapse Global catastrophic risk Scenario analysis Climate change 



Valuable feedback on the ideas in this paper was received from an audience at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto. Helpful assistance was received from Vanessa Schweizer on greenhouse gas emissions trajectories and Anthony Barrett on nuclear war scenarios. We also thank three anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback on an earlier draft. Any shortcomings remaining in this paper are entirely the responsibility of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Seth D. Baum
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
    Email author
  • Timothy M. MaherJr.
    • 1
    • 5
  • Jacob Haqq-Misra
    • 1
    • 4
  1. 1.Global Catastrophic Risk InstituteSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Department of GeographyPennsylvania State UniversityState CollegeUSA
  3. 3.Center for Research on Environmental DecisionsColumbia UniversityNewYorkUSA
  4. 4.Blue Marble Space Institute of ScienceSeattleUSA
  5. 5.Center for Environmental Policy, Bard CollegeAnnandaleUSA

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