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Geoengineering and Environmental Ethics

By: Dane Scott (Director Mansfield Center’s Ethics and Public Affairs Program, As. Prof. of Ethics,College of Forest) © 2012 Nature Education 
Citation: Scott, D. (2012) Geoengineering and Environmental Ethics. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):10
Geoengineering is the intentional manipulation of the climate system to counteract global climate change. An ethical evaluation of the concept exposes a number of potential concerns for the environment and human-environment relations.
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The fantastic idea of geoengineering — the intentional large — scale manipulation of the environment to counter act the negative impacts of global climate change (Keith 2002) — is starting to be taken seriously in science and policy circles. For some scientists and policymakers, concern about the efficacy of political efforts to avoid dangerous climate change is beginning to make these schemes look less fantastic. For example, in 2009 the Royal Society issued a report on geoengineering, and the United States Congress's Committee on Science and Technology held hearings. In response to growing interest in geoengineering, in 2010 the United Nations Framework Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to a largely symbolic moratorium on geoengineering research. Currently, the general public is by and large unaware of geoengineering proposals. However, there are signs that initial sparks of disagreement over the science and ethics of geoengineering will develop into a raging international controversy in coming decades. That is, unless political efforts become successful at reducing green house gasses.

Scientists have speculated on a wide array of geoengineering schemes that fall into two sets of strategies. One set aims at massive efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to reduce the green house effect. An example of this type of strategy is to engineer machines, "artificial trees," that capture carbon from the ambient air and sequester it, for instance, in abandoned oil or gas fields. The other set of strategies has been called solar radiation management (SRM). This general approach aims to cool the earth by reflecting incoming solar radiation, either in the upper atmosphere or at or near the earth's surface. The most discussed SRM proposals involve injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere and brightening sea clouds. Sulfate aerosols in the upper atmosphere would mimic the well-known, planetary cooling affect of large volcanic eruptions (Rasch et al. 2008). For marine cloud brightening, scientists imagine fleets of ships seeding clouds with tiny droplets of seawater to enhance their reflective capacity. Carbon removal projects tend to be enormous undertakings that are expensive (Biello 2010), whereas SRM has been described as being "cheap, fast and imperfect" (Keith et al. 2010). To date, no geoengineering proposal has been researched to the point of becoming a policy option. The question at hand is: should we even begin serious, sustained research programs (Keith et al. 2010)?

Volcanic eruptions, like Mt Pinatubo, have cooled the planet by putting sulfate particles in the atmosphere.
Figure 1: Volcanic eruptions, like Mt Pinatubo, have cooled the planet by putting sulfate particles in the atmosphere.
© 2007 Nature Publishing Group Image from Morton, O. Climate change: Is this what it takes to save the world? Nature 447, 132-136 (2007). All rights reserved. View Terms of Use

Some geoengineering proposals are modeled after volcanic eruptions.
Figure 2: Some geoengineering proposals are modeled after volcanic eruptions.
© 2007 Nature Publishing Group Image from Morton, O. Climate change: Is this what it takes to save the world? Nature 447, 132-136 (2007). All rights reserved. View Terms of Use

Futuristic machines designed to brighten marine clouds.
Figure 3: Futuristic machines designed to brighten marine clouds.
© 2009 Nature Publishing Group Image from from Morton, O. Climate crunch: Great white hope. Nature 458,1097-1100 (2009). All rights reserved. View Terms of Use

Until recently, high-level scientific and policy discussions about geoengineering research have been largely off the table. There is a consistent concern that significant research efforts could cause some leaders to see geoengineering as a cheap solution to the climate crisis (Barrett 2008). This attitude might undermine efforts to get at the root of the problem. In addition to this potential "moral hazard," numerous ethical issues have been raised. The list of issues deals with moral questions in areas such as the governance of research and possible deployment, the unequal sharing of risks, the distributions of harms and benefits, the possibility of unilateral deployment, and the effects on the environment. The two most extensive treatments of ethical issues to date are by the philosophers Dale Jamieson (Jamieson 1997) and Stephan Gardiner (Gardiner 2010). In his early essay, Jamieson lists a set of conditions that any geoengineering proposal would need to meet in order to be morally permissible. These conditions set a high bar, and it would be very difficult for any geoengineering proposal to meet them. In his essay, Gardiner exhaustively analyzes the argument that geoengineering might be the lesser of two evils. More specifically, that it would be morally prudent to arm future generations with these technologies in case some day they are faced with a choice between catastrophic climate change or geoengineering. He concludes that such arguments cannot be successful. This article will have a slightly different focus. What follows is a discussion of two general approaches in environmental ethics for evaluating the role of technology in addressing environmental problems. These general approaches will then be used as contexts for evaluating geoengineering. It should be noted that the sharp dichotomy between these two approaches is for heuristic purposes. In reality, there is a spectrum of positions on the role of technology in addressing environmental problems — nonetheless, this distinction will be useful as a starting point.

The first context for understanding environmental ethics and geoengineering is found in deep criticisms of the philosophical foundations of Western culture. In his seminal 1964 essay, "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis," Lynn White sets an agenda by arguing that the source of the 20th century's ecological crisis is the colossal power created by the union of science and technology in the modern era, along with a worldview that justifies the use of that power to control nature. His critique aims to undermine the beliefs that technological power is essentially a benign and progressive force, and that humans have the right to subdue the earth. Among many others, the philosopher Alan Drengson developed this line of thinking. Drengson points out that using technological fixes to solve environmental problems creates an increasingly destructive pattern, where the same technological approach used to solve a problem, created the problem in the first place. Drengson labels this way of thinking the "technocratic and instrumentalist" view. He argues that the technocratic and instrumentalist worldview that is driving the repeated application of ever more powerful technological fixes to ever increasing environmental problems poses severe risks to the earth (Drengson 1984). To get off the technological treadmill Drengson argues that we need to abandon the belief that humans have "power as masters and controllers of nature". In this sense, solutions to environmental problems, like climate change, are not more found in powerful technologies, such as geoengineering, but in more fundamental moral and political changes. Eric Katz summarizes these ideas when he writes: "The insidious dream of domination can only end by respecting freedom and self-determination, wherever it exists, and by recognizing the true extent of the moral community in the natural world" (Katz 1992). In sum, this line of criticism holds that the habitual use of technological power to control nature is morally wrong, and that this destructive pattern is the product of a misguided worldview.

For the environmental critics of technological culture, geoengineering is more than a bad idea — it is an expression of a mistaken philosophy and dysfunctional culture. The fact that geoengineering proposals are starting to rise into consideration, on this view, must seem tragically predictable. That is, the technological fix of geoengineering is the inevitable response of a culture where accelerating technological power multiplied by increasing human desires has created a tremendous force. Dale Jamieson gives expression to these ideas. He writes that, "even if [geoengineering] were successful, it would still have the bad effect of reinforcing human arrogance and the view that the proper human relationship to nature is one of domination" (Jamieson 1996). Jamieson raises the speculative question: By reinforcing this attitude, could a successful geoengineering effort — in the long run — be more destructive to humans and the environment than climate change? This philosophical critique of geoengineering, and technological fixes in general, holds that their habitual use inexorably delays the necessary moral reforms that would allow a transition from an unsustainable, consumerist society to an environmentally conscious, sustainable one.

The second context for considering environmental ethics and geoengineering is the pragmatic criticism of technological fixes. This line of thought can be traced to another seminal work of the 1960s, Rachel Carson's, Silent Spring. In that book, Carson sets an agenda by sounding the alarm on the environmental consequences of agricultural technologies. Unlike the deeper criticisms of technological culture, the pragmatic criticisms are narrower in scope. They largely consist of a practical and moral skepticism about the use of technological fixes.

The primary benefit of a technological fix is it is simpler to define technological problems and identify solutions than it is to resolve moral and political problems. In addition, technological fixes provide policymakers with more options for intractable problems, and they can buy time until the problem can be dealt with on a deeper level. Unfortunately, the potential benefits of technological fixes are alloyed with associated problems. The pragmatic criticisms warn that by reducing the complexity of a problem to an engineering puzzle, one excludes many important factors and how complex systems interact. This narrowness often generates serious unforeseen consequences, which create a new round of problems. For this reason technological fixes do not fix environmental problems when one takes a wider and longer view. However, they can still serve a practical, ameliorative role by transforming, relocating or delaying problems (LaCain 2004). Because of this, the success of a technological fix depends on who defines the criteria for success. Finally, technological fixes are frequently designed to fix a defect in an existing system — thus they often conserve a system that should be abandoned. The overall lesson from these pragmatic criticisms is that there are inherent drawbacks in utilizing technological fixes to confront environmental problems. These defects largely arise due to a narrow approach in defining problems solutions, leading to a variety of unintended consequences. Most importantly, judgments of success for a technological fix are defined by particular interests and concerns, which can exclude other important interests and concerns. While the pragmatic criticisms council a clear-eyed moral and practical skepticism about technological fixes, they are not rejected out of hand. Technological fixes can serve an ameliorative role that may be good enough, or the best that can be done.

Geoengineering proposals are classic examples of technological fixes. They define climate change as either an imbalance in the carbon cycle or solar budget. The ranges of solutions offered by geoengineering are large-scale technological schemes that manipulate one of these imbalances to offset global warming. All of the potential benefits of using technological fixes listed above have been given to justify research into geoengineering. It is widely agreed that climate change is a moral and political problem. But for those who are worried that moral and political processes will not act in time, the contrasting simplicity of geoengineering recommends research. In addition, it is argued that policymakers need more alternatives and that geoengineering could be a much-needed strategy to buy time until the problem can be dealt with on a deeper level (Gardiner 2011). However, for each of these benefits pragmatic criticisms of technological fixes have been raised (Robock 2008). For example, while SRM schemes might address the problem of rising temperatures, they would also allow the associated problem of ocean acidification due to rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere to increase in severity. In addition, there are some worries that stratospheric aerosols would have the unintended consequence of contributing to the depletion of the ozone layer. Moreover, geoengineering projects will not act uniformly on the climate, and will likely change precipitation patterns, which in turn may impact agricultural production. This could inadvertently benefit some countries, while harming others. The most significant moral problem for geoengineering is who gets to set the criteria for success, and how broadly or narrowly success is defined. When it comes to geoengineering there are many actors that have divergent interests (Gardener 2011). The criteria for a successful geoengineering proposal will no doubt vary widely, and there will be winners and losers.

In evaluating geoengineering from these two perspectives in environmental ethics, it is obvious that neither would welcome geoengineering. On the one hand, from the perspective of a deep critique of technological culture, geoengineering should be opposed. This technological fix for climate change would reinforce the destructive tendencies of a misguided worldview. These critics might ask: Since geoengineering is a technological fix for energy technologies, what will be the technological fix for geoengineering, and so on? Where does it stop? They would argue that it would be imperative to get at the root of the problem, which is moral and political, not scientific and technical. On the other hand, the pragmatic critics of technological fixes would harbor a deep moral and practical skepticism about geoengineering. However, despite the inherent defects in using technological fixes, geoengineering research might be considered under certain conditions. It is widely held in environmental ethics that humans should seek to minimize impacts on the natural world (Keith 2009). A recent study has indicated that 15–37% of all land plants and animals would eventually become extinct as a result of climate change by 2050 (Thomas et al. 2004). There are many options to avoiding this outcome that should be pursued. However, a pragmatic approach might consider it prudent to research additional options created by geoengineering to buy time should political efforts fall short.

References and Recommended Reading

Biello, D. "Pulling CO2 from the Air: Promising Idea, Big Price Tag." Yale Environment 360. 8 October 2009. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Web, 3 August 2011.

Gardiner, S. "Is ‘arming the future' with geoengineering really the lesser evil?" in Climate Ethics: Essential Readings. eds. S. Gardiner et al. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Gardiner, S. Some early ethics of geoengineering the climate: a commentary on the values of the royal society report. Environmental Values 20, 163-188 (2011).

Keith, D. "Engineering the planet," in Climate Change Science and Policy. eds. S. Schneider & M. Mastrandrea, Washington, DC: Island Press, 2009.

Keith, D., Parson, E. & Morgan, M. G. Research on global sun block needed now. Nature 463, 426-427 (2010).

Jamieson, D. Intentional climate change. Climatic Change 33, 323-336 (1996).

LaCain, T. "When everybody wins does the environment lose? The environment techno-fix in twentieth-century mining," in The Technological Fix, How People Use Technology to Create and Solve Social Problems. ed. L. Rosner, New York, NY: Routledge, 2004.

Rasch, P. J., Latham, J. & Chen, C. C. Geo-engineering by cloud seeding: Influence on sea-ice & climate system. Environmental Research Letters 4, 1-8 (2009).

Robock, A. 20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea. Bulletin of the Atomic Science 64, 14-18 (2008).

Scott. B. The incredible economics of geoengineering. Environmental Resource Economics 39, 45-54 (2008).

Thomas, C. D. et al. Extinction risk from climate change. Nature 427, 145-148 (2004).


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