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We are living on a planet where governments are constantly trying to reduce the amount of pollution and emissions in a bid to slow down (or reverse) global warming. But imagine a world where the Earth is cooling down at exactly the same rate our Earth is heating up, and the cooling down is caused by natural factors outside of human control.

Would the Kyoto Protocol be focused on increasing emissions? Would the American President remind the nation to spend more energy? Would we see a movement to increase greenhouse gases?

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    $\begingroup$ Why wouldn't we want a colder Earth? More snow days, more polar bears, less CPUs overheating, everyone gets to wear coats all the time, it'd be great. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jul 31 '15 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ Yellowstone finally blew up and blackened the sky for months, are you seriously thinking of adding fuel to the flame? $\endgroup$ – user6760 Aug 1 '15 at 1:15
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In the 1970's scientists were becoming convinced that the Earth was indeed cooling and we were headed of another ice age. Various schemes were proposed, such as spreading carbon soot or ash on the polar ice caps to decrease albedo and increase the amount of solar energy absorbed buy the Earth. Now that it has been confirmed that solar activity is sliding downward towards a Maunder Minimum in the 2030's and the possibility of a "Little Ice Age" is looming, I'm sure that some of these sorts of schemes will surface again.

There are two issues to address here.

Firstly, climactic change is a natural cycle and part of the long term evolution of the Earth. Vikings were croft farming in Greenland in the 1100's (we know this because some of their farms are being exposed by retreating glaciers), and George Washington could take advantage of the last Little Ice Age and pull artillery across frozen rivers to surprise the British during the Revolutionary War. (Union and Rebel commanders fighting over the same ground a century later had no such advantage in the Civil War). So this is natural, and people were able to adapt with far lower technology and fewer resources than we have.

Second, the "cure" is worse than the disease. Climate is a non-linear, adaptive system where inputs do not have linear outputs. We simply have no way of knowing or predicting the outcomes of geoengineering projects on the scales proposed (either now or in your scenario), it is quite possible that trends that we consider negative would be amplified rather than dampened, or the timescales would be wrong and the inputs of today could show up centuries down the line as oceanic currents changed (for example).

Perhaps strangely, the ideal solution in either case would be to reduce the interdependence of human systems, since they are also nonlinear and adaptive, and individuals changing behaviours in response to increasing/decreasing temperatures could adversely affect tightly coupled systems separated physically and temporally from the events. More loosely coupled systems rather than more centralized systems will be far less brittle and inflexible, and allow people to make appropriate changes based on their own local circumstances.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer, but I feel like the last paragraph is missing some detail. Could you expand it further? $\endgroup$ – Dan Henderson Aug 1 '15 at 3:32
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    $\begingroup$ This is an example of F.A. Hayek's "Local Knowledge Problem". Since information is widely distributed in time and space, local actors can take advantage of fleeting information immediately, while large centralized systems will have time delays as information is transferred up, analyzed and instructions passed down. Free Market economies always outperform Command economies for this reason, and dealing with climate change needs as much autonomy and flexibility as possible for the locals to manage their circumstances. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Aug 1 '15 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ I think this answer overstates the extent to which the scientific community was convinced about global cooling. Global cooling never really caught on in the scientific community. $\endgroup$ – Aurast Dec 8 '15 at 18:30
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Not likely.

We're not trying to reduce carbon emissions just because the Earth is heating, we're trying to reduce emissions because it's causing rapid climate change. We've realized that everything we're adding to the atmosphere is actually having a far more dramatic effect than we ever thought it could. It's an effect we do not completely understand, can not completely predict, and certainly can not control. We're creating Earth's sixth mass extinction event. Whether we were heating the Earth or cooling it we would be killing a whole lot of animals.

This is more like a Pandora's box situation, we've opened it and it doesn't really matter what's coming out but it ain't natural so we really want to close it back up.

It's also unlikely that we could have known that increasing emissions would warm the Earth to any degree. If the Earth was cooling as rapidly as it's heating right now then it likely would have been due to some human activity. In which case we would be saying, "ok, everyone stop what you're doing because this is getting really messed up", not "it's getting bad, do what you were doing, but faster!".

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