The Ethics of Geoengineering:
Investigating the Moral Challenges of Solar Radiation Management
Over the last 18 months, geoengineering has garnered increasing attention in the popular and scientific media as a potential means for combating the effects of global climate change (Guardian 2009, Science Daily 2009, Atlantic Monthly 2009, The Economist 2008, Time Magazine 2008, Scientific American 2008, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 2008, National Science Foundation News 2008). Launder and Thompson (2008) succinctly captured the reason for the recent interest. "While such geoscale interventions may be risky," they wrote, "the time may well come when they are accepted as less risky than doing nothing..."
In 2006, Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen (2006) startled the scientific world with a paper in Climatic Change arguing that we should no longer postpone serious research on geoengineering. Crutzen claimed that geoengineering could buy some critical time while carbon emissions are curbed. His paper almost single-handedly changed the image of geoengineering from an unhelpful distraction to a potentially important climate strategy. "Thanks to Crutzen's stature..." a recent article in Science noted "...scientific and ethical debate is blossoming as the climate community begins to take a hard look at geoengineering the climate" (Kerr 2006)
David Keith defines geoengineering as "the intentional large-scale manipulation of the environment, particularly manipulation that is intended to reduce undesired anthropogenic climate change" (Keith 2002). Numerous schemes, ranging from massive reforestation projects to sequestration of carbon at coal-fired power plants, to cloud brightening, to the deployment of space mirrors, have all been called geoengineering. Geoengineering proposals generally fall into two categories, solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon sequestration. This project focuses on the subset of geoengineering technologies that manipulate solar radiation (albedo enhancement) on a large scale because these technologies raise more significant and pressing ethical issues. Managing solar radiation on a large scale is an unprecedented intentional manipulation of natural systems. It is here that some of the most complex social and ethical questions can be found, questions about social and procedural justice, the role of technology in society, risk and uncertainty, and public trust in science. And it is here that the global community is currently least prepared for the ethical challenges. This project will help meet these challenges by investigating the ethical issues associated with the most currently viable technologies for solar radiation management (SRM). engineering the climate" (Kerr 2006).
Until Crutzen's article, discussion of SRM had generally been kept in the shadows, initially because the proposed schemes had been thought too fanciful. As the urgency of doing something about climate change has increased, the discussion of SRM has been growing, but remains on the sidelines due to the "moral hazard" it is thought to create. The hazard is that the acceptance of SRM as a viable technical strategy for combating climate change may reduce the political will to address the root causes of the problem, thereby allowing carbon emissions to continue to climb (and allowing problems such as ocean acidification to continue). On the other hand, advocates of serious geoengineering research counter that the potential harms caused by runaway warming are so severe that "prudence demands that we consider what we might do in the face of unacceptable climate damage" (Caldeira 2008). But even the most enthusiastic advocates acknowledge the fact that geoengineering raises "serious ethical 1 consideration[s]" (Bunzl 2008). In addition to the moral hazard, numerous, troubling ethical questions remain. Should humans deliberately take control of the climate? What level of risk of unintended consequences is acceptable? Given the uneven nature of the winners and losers, would the potential benefits of geoengineering to any one group be allowed to trump the potential harms to another? How can decisions about geoengineering be fair and just?
A number of these ethical questions have been raised in discussion of SRM (Schneider 1996, Jamieson 1996a, Michaelson 1998, Gardiner 2007b, Bunzl 2008, Robock 2008a and b, Schneider 2008), but there have been no detailed, systematic attempts to answer them. More importantly, despite the pressing social justice issues of participation, democratic decision-making, and the uneven distribution of benefits and harms raised by the prospect of intentionally altering the global commons, there has been little attempt to mesh these moral concerns with any kind of research on what different populations across the globe actually think would be a fair way to proceed. Risky as the prospect of geoengineering may be, refusing to discuss geoengineering risks a different moral hazard; namely, a rushed, uninformed, and undemocratic decision-making process. As public debates over biotechnology and nanotechnology have made evident, when the ethics of major transformational technologies are contentious, it is in nobody's interest to ignore them.
Our project is designed to help lay the groundwork for deliberation over the ethics of SRM, creating an ethical framework within which informed discussion can take place. This means including the views of populations typically underrepresented in decisions about directions for science and technology. Through a combination of ethical analysis and social science research informed by a panel of expert scientific, legal, and policy advisors, this project is designed to help provide a more complete understanding of the moral factors involved in the decision to say "yes" or to say "no" to geoengineering.
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