Joseph Aldy and Richard Zeckhauser - Decision Theory and Anomalies on Solar Geoengineering

Recent scholarship on the potential for solar radiation management (SRM) to reduce climate change risks at low costs (e.g., Heutel et al. 2018) illustrates the potential “incredible economics” of this approach (Barrett 2008). In practice, however, policymakers and most environmental stakeholders continue to embrace a one-prong approach to reducing climate change damages – emission abatement. They give little attention to adaptation, and much less to amelioration (Zeckhauser and Aldy 2020). This study considers decision processes addressed to amelioration with particular attention to SRM. The research project envisions building a richer understanding of SRM by employing economics, decision science, political economy, and behavioral decision theory to characterize the drivers and impediments to SRM development and deployment. We will address the following research questions:

  1. Moral Hazard: How should we consider the risk-risk trade-offs associated with the SRM moral hazard reservation held by some stakeholders? To what extent would SRM deployment diminish the incentive for emission mitigation, especially when accounting for cheap-riding and domestic political economy considerations that already weaken incentives for mitigating emissions? How could one characterize the dynamics of climate change risk mitigation – retrospectively in evaluating the past 30 years and prospectively when exploring ways to prevent catastrophic climate impacts – in terms of the moral hazard and deleterious deterrence consequences of the mitigation/SRM decision process? What are the tradeoffs between errors of omission and errors of commission? How would public and stakeholder reaction to errors of commission reinforce status quo bias among decision-makers? How would the challenges in attributing the efficacy of SRM within decision-makers’ political lifetimes influence their interest in undertaking SRM?
  2. Tipping Points in Attitudes: How could new information about climate change risks and risk mitigation approaches affect public support for combating climate change, including through SRM? Would attitudes toward SRM change if a major, climate-related loss were to occur? Would public discussion of SRM as a tool for mitigating risk serve as an “awful action alert” that could galvanize public support for more ambitious emission mitigation policies? If a few key stakeholders change their public positions on SRM, would that facilitate a rapid switch to a new equilibrium in support of SRM? Given the often-excessive fear of the unknown, how could new information about climate change as well as SRM influence public support?
This project will contribute to the nascent social sciences literature on solar radiation management. By integrating insights and tools from economics, decision science, behavioral decision theory, and political economy, and developing new tools, we can improve our understanding of the incentives for developing and deploying SRM as a part of a climate change, risk-reduction strategy. This research can stimulate future social science scholarship and provide key insights for the policy community, stakeholders, and the public. Publishable papers are expected from both the first and second years of the project.