What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

CNN has a story about one potential solution to global warming: chemically altering the atmosphere by injecting aerosol sulfates into the upper strata. One thing these particles do is help reflect into space the light and heat of the sun, which greenhouse gasses absorb and thus trap into the atmosphere.

The obvious worry is not the temperature differential, but the slew of unobvious consequences this might have.

I used to play a game in my head as a kid: take any two random, hypothetical events, and construct a plausible story about how one event led to another. I think I probably got the idea from a scene in Jurassic Park, where Jeff Goldblum’s character offers his clumsy explanation of chaos theory to Laura Linney’s character. A butterfly flaps its wings, a year later a hurricane develops off the coast of India, and somehow the first event was responsible for the second. I still don’t know how to plausibly connect those two. Here, on the other hand, is a hypothetical, but totally plausible sequence of events:

  1. A growing district incorporates, and in its charter establishes all the normal official city services like a fire department, police, animal control, etc.
  2. Animal control begins doing what all animal control departments do to tackle the feral animal population: trap, spay/neuter, tag, release.
  3. The feral cat population almost vanishes.
  4. The field mouse population explodes.
  5. The local clover—a field mouse’s favorite food—begins to disappear.
  6. The bee population, which depended almost exclusively on  clover, declines, and their honey production comes to a halt.
  7. Some bee farmers relocate.
  8. Due to decreased production and fewer producers, the price of local honey skyrockets.

No one would have guessed from the outset that a village’s decision to incorporate would affect the price of local honey. Or that the feral cat population would have an effect. In retrospect, the causal connections are pretty clear. And this is only a tiny section of a much larger chain that stretches in both directions, and branches into a web of chains that tangle and knot and pull each other in unexpected, chaotic, unforeseeable ways. What they could have reasonably expected, though, is that there would be a lot of consequences down the line, and that some of these would be surprising and impossible to foresee. How significant might those consequences be? I don’t know if chaos theory (or any other theory in sociology or economics or any other discipline) gives an answer, or would endorse the one I’m about to give, but absent any of those better, more predictive theories, I think it’s reasonable to assume a few things:

  • The scale of an effect will be at least in the neighborhood of the scale of its cause.
  • There will be unanticipated consequences at least at the scale of the cause.
  • Reality does not try to balance out the positive and negative consequences, or shield us from negative consequences because we had good intentions.
  • The breadth and number of significant consequences increases along with the number of variables involved.

If what I’ve said so far makes any sense, then I think you’ll probably agree with me that the potential for unseen consequences of spraying a bunch of complex chemicals into the atmosphere is huge, that the breadth and scale of those effects would probably be extreme given the extraordinarily complex nature of the system we’d be fiddling with, and that these are really good reasons not to try to quickly, drastically cool the temperature of the planet by altering the chemical composition of our entire atmosphere.

Art by Regina Verani. 

Published by

Michael Glawson

Ethics, policy, & ideas geek. Alt-Ac Ph.D. Épater la bourgeoisie. ⛎

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