Why Geo-Engineering Is Like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
By FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY | February 9, 2012
A February 6 report in the Guardian describes budding efforts to displace decarbonizing with geo-engineering as the goal for reducing the predicted catastrophic effects of global warming. At present, these efforts are being funded by mega-wealthy private citizens like Bill Gates, but some traditional environmentalists as well as some decarbonizers are becoming worried that climate theory is setting off in a new direction. Perhaps that is why the story appeared in the Guardian of all places. Instead of its usual uncritical climate gushiness, the Guardian delves into the smarmier side of climate science — its dependence on money.
Their dependence on money is a subject proponents of anthropogenic global warming avoid like the plague, even though they are wont to accuse anyone who disagrees with them as being in the pay of the fossil fuel companies. The Guardian report is important, because it inadvertently shines a light on how the intersection of money and groupthink among insular cohesive groups sharing a common interest is discrediting climate science in particular, but also science in general. (I am not introducing groupthink as a casual buzz word but in the context the distinguished psychologist Irving Janis used in his classic book Groupthink. Anyone who believes groupthink is not a problem in the insular self-righteous climate science community, should read the Hockey Stick Illusion or wade through just a few of the infamous emails hacked from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.)
Obviously, geo-engineering the earth’s climate would be a big deal, culturally as well as scientifically. It would make the pyramids, the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Program look puny and intellectually trivial in comparison. By necessity, indeed by definition, geo-engineering would be forever dependent on analyses of the outputs of computerized global climate models (GCMs), because we can not put anything as complex as the world’s atmosphere on a lab bench or in a wind tunnel for testing. Computer models, like all scientific theories, are mental constructs of reality — really analogies — to represent and cope with that reality. The first point to note is that no model can be perfect or exact in its representation of reality. All models are imperfect and therefore mutable, as the historian Thomas Kuhn, among others, explained in his classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. All scientific models must be continually tested to ensure their predictions match up to external conditions, and as the precision of observations increases, sooner of later, all scientific models become creaky and eventually need to be replaced with a newer construction to better explain a reality that is always receding as one seems to get closer to it by making more precise observations.
The second point to note is that GCMs are complex mathematical constructs made by like-minded or group-thinking minds. They are not the products of individuals. This requires a consensus-based mentality and the intense communal effort required to build these models reinforces that mentality. The need to raise money to pay for these models further intensifies the communal outlook. Consensus building, and especially the invocation of consensual authority, shapes the mentality of contemporary climate scientists in a very different way from the conceptions of physics that shaped the individual mental outlooks during the experiments that produced the models of the atom that competed for acceptance during the first half of the twentieth century. The great physicist who invented the first model of the atom, Niels Bohr, for example, used to introduce his lectures by saying everything he was about to say was wrong. By that he meant no theory is eternal.
You will not hear Bohr’s kind of humility, tolerance, or encouragement of dissent and debate from dogmatic proponents of global warming like Michael Mann or James Hansen, ironically, both physicists, even though the GCMs they are basing their sense of authority on have not been validated with empirical data (or in the case of Mann’s infamous Hockey Stick, have been shown to be statistically flawed). The dogmatic sense of certainty exhibited by goupthinking climate scientists exists despite the fact that the comprehensive data needed to test the GCM models for matchups to the environment simply do not exist. Yet, this uncertainty is not at all unlike that which created the far more open-minded debate among the advocates of different atomic models, like Bohr, Schrödinger, or Heisenberg in the early Twentieth Century. So, the authority of the GCMs needed to justify geo-engineering must be based on unvalidated assumptions about reality — really conjectures which are now stated as dogma, like, for example, the crucial quantification of the sensitivity of the warming response to changes in CO2 levels.
But there is more to the speculative analytical pathway leading climate science into the geo-engineering cul de sac, which brings me to my third point. To justify the huge public expenditures and diversion of resources needed to geo-engineer the world, it will be necessary to perform cost-effectiveness analyses of the predicted benefits in a political context to convince policy makers of the need to undertake such a drastic and costly course of action. Although the Guardian does not mention it, I have met some global warming alarmists (all card-carrying decarbonizers) who are already advocating that we combine the output of the GCMs with econometric models of the global economy to predict the global relationship between the monetary inputs to the economic benefits of global temperature reduction via solutions like carbon sequestration, etc. If you want to know how accurate econometric models are, just ask Alan Greenspan. This kind of operation, clearly, would be like piling a house of cards on top of a house of cards.
Yet, the econometric-GCM mansion of cards is probably inevitable. It is a tiny logical step for advocates of geo-engineering to link their theoretical GCMs to econometric models, and given the money needed (and the sacrifices that would be made elsewhere), cost-benefit analyses will eventually become necessary. A policy decision to launch a “Manhattan Plus” project to geo-engineer the earth’s climate based on analyses of the output of such poorly understood computer models (GCMs and econometric) would go beyond madness and descend into megalomania. The Guardian report inadvertently makes the madness quite clear: some climate scientists are calling for a political consensus to geo-engineer the globe, because the world cannot reach a political agreement on the vastly simpler problem of simply reducing carbon emissions. Such an argument is at once illogical and bizarre. Perhaps this yawning disconnect is why this report appeared in the Guardian, usually the most rabid pro global-warming mainstream newspaper in the world.
But of course, the megalomania implicit in geo-engineering has nothing to do with madness; it is about a group of like-minded intelligent people trying to feather their nest by creating a cash cow to do what they think is right and good. This is something I saw every day in the Pentagon.
Indeed, creating cash cows in the name of the greater good is the essence of the Pentagon’s game. My 28 years experience in the Pentagon made me quite familiar with the steps needed to create the financial equivalent of a self-licking ice cream cone: (1) Inflate a threat to scare the bejeezus out of the people and induce politicians to unleash a torrent of publicly-funded money; (2) then, front-load a solution to neutralize that threat by overstating its benefits, understating its costs, and downplaying the uncertainties surrounding what is at best a poorly understood course of action; and then, (3) politically engineer a social safety net by spreading the money (grants and contracts) around the polity to lock in the constituent dependencies needed to keep the money flowing after the inevitable problems begin to surface.
Incidentally, the geo-engineering game, if publicly funded, will be manna from heaven for the US hi-tech weapons industry, which cannot compete commercially, but is in need of diversification, because of marginal cutbacks in the rate of future growth in the Pentagon’s budget. You can bet what little is left of your IRA that defense mega-giants like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrup Grumman will be attracted to the cash flow potential of geo-engineering like flies to honey, should a serious geo-engineering effort begin to materialize.
Speaking of the similarities between the advocates of geo-engineering to the inhabitants of the Pentagon and the defense industry — consider, as an example, the resemblance of using computer simulations to cope with the uncertainties of geo-engineering to the use of computer simulations in the now deeply troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Bear in mind, the Pentagon wrote the script for basing high-cost decisions with long term consequences on highly complex, poorly-understood computer driven simulations, while short-shrifting testing. It has more experience in modeling than just about any organization in the world. It began cost-effectiveness modeling on computers in the mid 1960s and has continued with increasing intensity ever since. Nevertheless, the unfolding debacle of the F-35 has taken these kinds of simulations to a new level of disaster: No less an authority that Frank Kendall, the acting Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition said recently that the F-35 program was started with the idea of putting it into production before it was fully tested under ”the optimistic prediction that we were good enough at modeling and simulation that we would not find problems in flight test.” … He characterized this decision as “acquisition malpractice” … that … “was wrong, and now we are paying for that.” Of course, Kendall’s use of “we” is a wee bit disingenuous, because it is the taxpayer not the Pentagon who is footing the malpractice bill.
It goes without saying that the uncertainties limiting our understanding of our ability to model the future consequences of a decision to design and produce the F-35 are trivial compared to those of geo-engineering the entire climate system. But humility is not in order, because geo-engineers, like milcrats and defense contractors, will be spending other people’s money.
FRANKLIN “CHUCK” SPINNEY is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org