Double catastrophe: intermittent stratospheric geoengineering induced by societal collapse

Abstract

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.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. 1.

    Intermittency without societal collapse is plausible, for example if a group opposed to SAI on moral grounds gains control of the SAI.

  2. 2.

    Some major recent publications on global catastrophic risk and related concepts include Bostrom and Ćirković (2008); Martin (2007); Matheny (2007); Posner (2004); Rees (2003); Rockström et al. (2009); Smil (2008); Sunstein (2007); Tonn and MacGregor (2009a). An extensive global catastrophic risks bibliography can be found at http://sethbaum.com/research/gcr/bibliography.pdf.

  3. 3.

    See Ackerman et al. (2010), Costello et al. (2010), Dietz (2011), Nordhaus (2011), Pindyck (2011).

  4. 4.

    For example, molecular nanotechnology has been hypothesized to be able to make it profitable to mine CO-2 from the atmosphere (Toth-Fejel 2009).

  5. 5.

    Millard-Ball (2011) notes that opposition to SAI implemented by a country like Tuvalu may be diminished by international sympathy towards Tuvalu’s dire predicament.

  6. 6.

    As noted above, intermittency without initial catastrophe is possible despite the incentives, such as if a group opposed to SAI on moral grounds gains control of the SAI. Superficially, such scenarios appear substantially less likely than initial catastrophe scenarios, though dedicated research on these scenarios could clarify this.

  7. 7.

    An example of the type of probability estimate we have in mind here is Hellman M. (2008) estimate of 1% for the annual probability of U.S.–Russia nuclear war.

  8. 8.

    Ulysses (of Homer’s epic) ordered his crew to bind him to his ship so he could then hear the Siren’s song without killing himself. The story is of a present decision to constrain one’s future options out of expectation that the future self would make the wrong choice.

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Acknowledgments

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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Correspondence to Seth D. Baum.

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Baum, S.D., Maher, T.M. & Haqq-Misra, J. Double catastrophe: intermittent stratospheric geoengineering induced by societal collapse. Environ Syst Decis 33, 168–180 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10669-012-9429-y

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Keywords

  • Geoengineering
  • Societal collapse
  • Global catastrophic risk
  • Scenario analysis
  • Climate change