Risking Research on Real Risk

Last week in his blog for the New York Times, science writer John Tierney posed an intriguing and scary question: "Should the United States and other governments start supporting climate engineering research?" 
What climate engineering refers to is modifying the climate to offset the adverse effects of climate change.  Some of the research involved would examine the feasibility of solutions worthy of treatment in serious sci-fi: spraying aerosol particles into the stratosphere to mimic the cooling effect of volcano eruptions, wind-powered robot vessels that would launch a mist of sea water droplets skyward and cause the clouds over the ocean to brighten and reflect more sunlight away from the earth. 
Tierney’s question is not if these methods would work, but if we should fund research into their feasibility. It’s essentially a cost-benefit question, a puzzle in risk assessment and decision evaluation involving hundreds of billions of dollars.
But–this was something of a surprise to me–none of the blog entries responding to this return-on-research-investment proposition addressed the economic question.  Although a number of reader’s objections were based on the observations that predictive modeling is still based on curve-fitting probabilities and that the predictive value of models focused on natural phenomena was limited, nobody wanted to go there, either to the economic question or to the idea of climate engineering.  

Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who found the prospect of climate engineering–or even research on its methods–scary.  The value-at-risk is just too real.  

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