Part 1 of this feature discussed some of the geoengineering ideas and issues now current in climate science discussions. Part 2 introduces some of the ethical questions being raised about potential attempts to deliberately alter Earth’s properties to combat global climate change.

Human-caused, or anthropogenic, climate change in essence involves slow geoengineering and raises huge moral and ethical issues of its own. After being awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, former Vice President Al Gore blogged, “The climate crisis is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity.” Philosopher Donald Brown of Widener University, among others, has been discussing the ethical dimensions of climate change for years, as in his 2002 book American Heat.

But climate engineering — specific projects undertaken to reduce the impacts of climate change — brings in unique ethical quandaries. “We can’t pretend that with climate change we’re not already making ethical choices,” says environmental philosopher Christopher Preston of the University of Montana. The primary intention of burning fossil fuels, though, is greater material well-being, with climate change a secondary effect. But, Preston says, “from a philosophical point of view, geoengineering is an act you take with full intention.”

Preston notes the Doctrine of Double Effect, a principle that originated in the Middle Ages: if one’s intentions are good, one is not necessarily responsible for bad side effects in the same way one would be if that side effect had been taken independently of the larger action. For example, many do not put unintended civilian casualties of a military strike in the same moral category as a suicide bomber whose immediate goal is to kill civilians.

“The Doctrine of Double Effect changes once you start to geoengineer,” Preston says, “because your primary intention is to change the climate.”

New Winners and Losers

Geoengineeing also introduces new classes of climate losers, notes philosopher Martin Bunzl of Rutgers University. One group, for instance, consists of those who suffer losses because of a geoengineering effort such as solar radiation management (SRM), perhaps because their monsoon failed and crops withered. But a new group is comprised of those who may benefit from climate change — for instance, farmers in Canada who have been experiencing increased crop yields — but who then are deprived of that new-found advantage as a result of climate engineering.

Bunzl argues that even though both groups might suffer equivalent harm, one as a winner and the other as a loser, they should not be given equal moral standing, for much the same reason that inherited income is often taxed higher than income from wages: the principle of luck egalitarianism. His explanation:

For if it is unfair for some to be worse off than others through no fault of their own among equally deserving people, it follows that it is also unfair for some to be better off than others though no more deserving. But in that case, those who are better off under such circumstances can have no complaint if they lose their better-off status. By this logic the Canadians have no legitimate claim of harm; their gain is a lucky windfall to which they have no inherent right.

Climate Colonialism … and Decisions Affecting Future Generations

It is the wealthy western powers who have created most of the climate problem — the United States as of 2010 had put 28 percent of the extra carbon dioxide into today’s atmosphere — and the wealthy powers have the resources to research, prototype, and (perhaps someday) deploy geoengineering projects. Yet it is the poor of the world who will be disproportionately and adversely affected by climate change, an injustice that geoengineering could compound.

As a 2011 report from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars put it:

… populations living at the edge of subsistence — those with the least capacity to adapt to the impacts of climate change and almost no voice in international deliberations — are precisely the populations that will be most vulnerable to any negative side effects that geoengineering experiments might have …

Importantly, notes the University of Montana’s Preston in a recent review of ethics and geoengineering is WIREs Climate Change, decisions determining benefits and burdens will be made not just for the rest of today’s world, but for those in generations not yet in existence. “With the needs crossing geographical, generational, and species lines, it is hard to see how the challenges of distributional justice are going to be any more readily solvable than those of procedural justice.”

Scientists, Others Express Strong Views

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To be sure, few climate scientists are calling for a deployment of geoengineering. But some from other disciplines are. First the perspectives of two climate scientists, a number of whom argue generally that geoengineering requires knowledge of the climate system we do not possess.

“I see lots [of geoengineering ideas] that are feasible but they all terrify me,” University of Chicago climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert said at his Tyndall Lecture at the December 2012 meeting of the American Geophysical Union. SRM, Pierrehumbert said:

The feasible geoengineering things, feasible — technologically feasible — things, that scare me terribly, are the crazy ideas to make artificial volcanoes and put sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere. And the reason I think those are barking mad is that CO2 will continue influencing the climate out for 10,000 years. You have to renew the aerosol forcing every two years or so. So you are assuming that somehow, society will stay together for the next 10,000 years and be able to jam up these extra aerosols, every two years or so … longer than there have been human civilizations practically. And if you ever stop, then the aerosols go away in a couple of years and then you are hit with the full force of global warming in a time scale that is determined just by the ocean relaxation time. Unfortunately I think these sulphate aerosol injections are probably economically feasible. You don’t have to inject too much up there but it puts the world in a state that I call the Damocles World. It’s like the sword of Damocles which is the radiative forcing of CO2 just waiting to clobber you any time someone stops putting up these aerosols …. In addition we don’t actually know enough about aerosol formation and about response of models to aerosols to begin doing this kind of fine tuning to even figure out how much we should put up there …

Alan Robock of Rutgers University has outlined his “20 Reasons Why Geoengineering May be a Bad Idea.” Along with “unexpected consequences,” Robock points to concerns involving issues such as “human error,” regional effects, continued ocean acidification, less sunlight for solar power, adverse effects on plants, and commercial control of technology.

But others are advocating geoengineering, especially SRM, as a way to address the climate problem. In 2008, for instance, former House of Representative Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich put forth geoengineering as an innovative solution: “Geo-engineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year. We would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific innovation. Bring on American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.”

And in a 2010 essay in Time magazine, Danish author Bjorn Lomborg wrote that geoengineering, despite associated risks, could buy much-needed time in the fight against climate change:

We are a long way from fully understanding how the climate system works. Who’s to say that in our efforts to tinker with it we won’t make things worse? These are valid concerns, and geoengineering should be approached with caution. But it is increasingly hard to see how we are going to solve global warming without some reliance on it …. The only real solution to global warming is to end our dependency on fossil fuels. Doing this will take time — time that geoengineering can give us. We’d be mad not to take it seriously.

Even some environmental organizations have recently come to accept that it at least may be time to be doing the scientific research.

“Cautious research could probably go ahead,” says Jon Taylor, the Climate Program Manager at WWF-UK, one of the first major environmental organizations publicly broaching the subject of geoengineering. “We need to know which of these options are viable, and then we need a more sophisticated conversation than is happening at the moment.”

Other environmental organizations, like ETC in Canada and Hands Off Mother Earth (H.O.M.E.) in the U.K., are staunchly opposed to any consideration of geoengineering. In a brochure that begins by saying “our home is not a laboratory,” H.O.M.E. writes:

There is no reason to trust that a small group of men from industrialized countries will geoengineer the planet with integrity or intelligence, or keep the rights of vulnerable peoples in mind. They acknowledge that these plans carry huge risks and they are ready to gamble.

Ethical Shortsightedness?

Geoengineering proposals, including simply researching the various ideas, for some may have a suspicious attraction of their own, says philosophy professor Allen Thompson of Oregon State University. Crediting research beyond that he has done personally, Thompson said in a recent interview that “It seems kind of oddly heroic that we’re prepared to do something, and that sort of allure can be misleading, because there are a lot of salient moral acts that this masks or obscures.” He continued:

We think we’re doing some kind of good by taking on geoengineering, even if it’s research only. We recognize that doing nothing in the face of this climate crisis is morally unattractive …. We want to think of ourselves as being a little better than that, and geoengineering seems like we’re doing something that doesn’t cost as much, but maybe the allure is a product of a kind of moral corruption — we fail to see why we’re looking for an easy out …. For a lot of scientists who do it, they are not sensitive to these sort of issues, it seems so obvious, how could it be objected to if it’s just research?

Simple institutional inertia, he warned, and the scientists’ and engineers’ human desire to test and apply ideas they have spent years researching, could help bring about geoengineering efforts despite initial misgivings.

Using even stronger terms, philosophy professor Stephen Gardiner of the University of Washington calls the “whatever it takes-style emergency arguments” for geoengineering not just ethically short-sighted, but “morally schizophrenic.”  Gardiner continues:

It is ethically short-sighted (in the sense of “missing the bigger picture”) in so far as it arbitrarily marginalizes central moral issues such as how we got into this predicament, and why we are not seriously pursuing better ways out. It is also frequently morally schizophrenic (in the sense of being “a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements”) since it tends to bring on a form of creative myopia: it requires us to emphasize and endorse strong ethical concerns that we are otherwise unwilling to act on, and which would, if earnestly and coherently embraced, lead us to approach both climate policy in general and geoengineering in particular in very different ways.

Oxford Principles on Geoengineering

For all these reasons, a U.K. group put together a suggested set of geoengineering guidelines in 2009, called the Oxford Principles:

  • Principle 1: Geoengineering to be regulated as a public good.
  • Principle 2: Public participation in geoengineering decision-making.
  • Principle 3: Disclosure of geoengineering research and open publication of results.
  • Principle 4: Independent assessment of impacts.
  • Principle 5: Governance before deployment.

These principles were agreed to by a group of geoengineering researchers at the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies conference in 2010, patterned after a famous 1975 Asilomar conference on recombinant DNA. That 1975 conference did not halt genetic research, but it has influenced directions of biological research ever since.

But, says the University of Montana’s Preston, most ethicists believe that the ethical discussions surrounding genetic engineering have come far too late in the technology’s timelime.

“In the field I work in, the genetic engineering debate is a poster boy for how not to introduce an emerging technology,” Preston says. He sees hope in that ethicists now are participating in the geoengineering debate, in some cases with financial support from the National Science Foundation or from Bill Gates’ Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research.

Ethics is … Unclear Answer, and Pressure of Time

“Ethics,” said the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.” That difference is often unclear and can be debated for millennia — is it ethical for a starving man to steal a loaf of bread? For the state to utilize capital punishment? For technologies that bring well-being to change the environment for millenia?

And, in the context of climate change and geoengineering, whether there is sufficient time to seriously address the questions, and sufficient wisdom to adhere to the answers.

Topics: Climate Science, Religion & Morality