Debunked: "Geoengineering is like free-riding on our Grandkids"

Mick West

Staff member
This false quote: "Geoengineering is not a moral hazard; it's more like free-riding on our Grandkids" - was attributed to David Keith in the references for "What in the World Are They Spraying".

Find the Original Source

In this case the original source is a Royal Society conference that David Keith participated in, called "Geoengineering the climate - Science, governance and uncertainty". September 2009. The actual original quote is:

"And by the way, it's not really a moral hazard, it's more like free riding on our grandkids."


David Keith was giving a talk that he's given many times before. He's discussing the implications of climate change. He's very much in favor of being very careful about geoengineering and tends towards not doing it if possible.

In this version of the talk, the context around the quote is:

The more we do research, the less easy this will look, the more complicated the environmental effects will look. And that's a good thing, because right now it looks too easy. So I think that if we do more research we're likely to find out that it's harder and more complicated than we thought, and that the side effects are harder to manage. And that's a healthy outcome that will make it easier to do the management(?). Of course, the opposite reaction is possible. It's an empirical question how people will react to knowledge about this. Another reaction is to say "if these crazy scientists are SO concerned about putting CO2 in the atmosphere that they want to think about these things, then that might mean actually mean we should be more serious about the risks of CO2 in the atmosphere".

And by the way, it's not really a moral hazard, it's more like free riding on our grandkids.
Content from External Source
Watch the video. He does not mention "moral hazard" there, so what is he referring to by "it". I don't have the rest of that talk, so we have to go to other versions of the talk. Particular the one at TED

But maybe on that day we also find that the Greenland ice sheet is really melting unacceptably fast, fast enough to put meters of sea level on the oceans in the next 100 years, and remove some of the biggest cities from the map. That's an absolutely possible scenario. We might decide at that point that even though geo-engineering was uncertain and morally unhappy, that it's a lot better than not geo-engineering.

And that's a very different way to look at the problem. It's using this as risk control, not instead of action. It's saying that you do some geo-engineering for a little while to take the worst of the heat off, not that you'd use it as a substitute for action.

But there is a problem with that view. And the problem is the following: knowledge that geo-engineering is possible makes the climate impacts look less fearsome. And that makes a weaker commitment to cutting emissions today. This is what economists call a moral hazard. And that's one of the fundamental reasons that this problem is so hard to talk about, and in general I think it's the underlying reason that it's been politically unacceptable to talk about this. But you don't make good policy by hiding things in a drawer.

I'll leave you with three questions, and then one final quote. Should we do serious research on this topic? Should we have a national research program that looks at this? Not just at how you would do it better, but also what all the risks and downsides of it are. Right now you have a few enthusiasts talking about it, some in a positive side, some in a negative side -- but that's a dangerous state to be in because there's very little depth of knowledge on this topic. A very small amount of money would get us some. Many of us -- maybe now me -- think we should do that. But I have a lot of reservations. My reservations are principally about the moral hazard problem, and I don't really know how we can best avoid the moral hazard.
Content from External Source
The meaning of terms.

The conspiracy theorists are able to use this quote because hardly anyone understands what Keith means by "Moral Hazard". Keith himself confuses things by using the world "moral" in it's more usual sense earlier in the TED talk.

"Moral Hazard" is a term from economics. It occurs when a party insulated from risk behaves differently than it would behave if it were fully exposed to the risk. Here (in the TED talk, above, and hence presumably in the quoted talk), the "moral hazard" problem is that of doing nothing about because you think that geoengineering will fix it in the future.

"Free-riding" is also a term from economics, but this time a more familiar one. A free-rider is someone who uses some resource without paying for it. The classic example being someone who rides a bus without paying the fare. This indirectly increases the costs on other passengers who DO pay for the bus.

The meaning of the quote

Once you know what he's talking about, it's quite straightforward. He's making a slightly subtle distinction between two economic terms to emphasis that by not addressing the questions around global climate change now, it's not just a "moral hazard", where people are being less careful now because they think the problem will be fixed later. It's really more serious that that. It's deferring a major problem to future generations. It's free-riding on our grandchildren.

Ask the source what they meant

I emailed David Keith, asking for clarification, here's his reply:

On “Moral Hazard”, this is a technical point for economists. when you think carefully about the definition its clear that’s quite the right way to describe SRM, “free riding” another econ term that more accurately describes what we are doing when we don’t cut CO2 emissions. To be clear, I do mean “putting off addressing the problem of climate change is like free-riding on our grandkids”. It’s not that SRM is free riding, it’s that over enthusiasm about its potential may encourage less action to cut emissions.
Content from External Source
So pretty much as I suggested, and clearly the exact opposite of how Michael Murphy tried to spin it.

Single Sentence Debunking

Keith is talking about the dangers of doing nothing about climate change, and how it might force our grandchildren to perform risky geoengineering later if we don't start trying to fix the problems of climate change soon.
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Senior Member.
It was the 'Moral Hazard' term which threw me; know nothing of economics, so I'd never heard it used like that before. Easy for them to use against him too unfortunately.

Just so I have this clear in my head for discussions, Keith doesn't mean 'Geoengineering' is 'free-riding', but that being environmentally lazy now, expecting to use GE later would be 'free-riding?

Jay Reynolds

Senior Member.
Examples how this is being spun

This is how the quote was spun to readers of the Redding Record Searchlight in an article by one of the Shasta Group, Rose Taylor:
Rose Taylor said:
When referring to what can be done about the rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere and their geo-engineering plans, this scientist had nerve to say, “It’s not really a moral hazard; it’s more like free riding on our grandkids.”

And this comment was seeking funding for "What In The World Are They Spraying":
T-room's Live Blog Site said:
A Geo Engineer stated at a recent conference “And by the way it’s not really a moral hazard [spraying these chemicals]. It’s more like ‘free-riding’ on our grandkids”. I find this statement unfathomable. Do you? If so, donate to Reality Zone and help them get this documentary finished.

And this from a person who got the impression that:
we3thinkingblog said:
The “scientists” in the video ADMIT that the Governments spray ALUMINIUM INTO THE AIR. In this video Geo-Engineer David Keith explains the possible consequences of Stratospheric Aerosol Geoengineering.
He says, “And by the way it’s not really like a moral hazard. It’s more like free-riding on our grandkids.”
So we might not have to deal with the consequences but our grandkids will?
So there will be consequences?
What kind of consequences?
They don’t know because they have only started researching it!
What concerns me is that the “scientists” have no concern whatsoever.

G. Edward Griffin, Producer of 'What In The World Are They Spraying", when questioned about the quote being used out of context, replied:
G. Edward Griffin said:
When Paul and Mike included it in the video, they also included the preceding lines about not being a moral hazard, which places the statement into proper context. The phrase moral hazard is not arcane. It is a fundamental element to be considered in every insurance contract. I assume that, when David uses that phrase in public presentations without further explanation, he has every expectation that his listeners, both in the audience and on the Internet, understand what he means.

As the above examples show, despite Griffin's assumption and possibly meeting Michael J. Murphy's expectation, the truncated quote has been taken wildly out of context and the result has been a general portrayal of David Keith as, "having no concern".


New Member
I dont care what you take out of contexts he is on record stating we are putting nano particles of aluminum and other metals in the atmospehree!!

[Mod: Off topic and impolite material removed]

Mick West

Staff member
I dont care what you take out of contexts he is on record stating we are putting nano particles of aluminum and other metals in the atmospehree!!

Please quote exactly what he said, and where he said it, with a link to the "record".