Project Summary

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.


Atlantic Monthly, 2009.  "Re-Engineering the Earth" by Graeme Wood (July/Aug).  Available at (accessed 8/2/09).

Barber, Benard. 1982, The Logic and Limits of Trust (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press).

Bodansky, D. 1996, "May we engineer the climate?" Climatic Change 33, 309-321.

G. Bohm and H. Pfister.  2001.  "Mental Representation of Global Environmental Risks." In Bohm et al., eds., Environmental Risks.  (Amsterdam: JAI): 1-30

Brovkin, V., Petoukhouv, V., Claussen, M., Bauer, E., Archer, D., and C. Jaeger. 2009. Geoengineering Climate by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections:  Earth System Vulnerability to Technological Failure. Climatic Change, 243-259.

Brown, D., Tuana, N., et al. 2006.  White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change.  Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State University, PA.. 40 pgs. Available at ( (retrieved 1/24/09)

Bruce, Donald.  2002.  "Finding a Balance Over Precaution," Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 15(1): 7-16.

Bunzl, M.  2008.  "An Ethical Assessment of Geoengineering," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 64, 18.

Caldeira, K.  2008.  Testimony to the UK House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science, and Skills Committee, Nov 10th, 2008.  Available at (accessed 7/28/09).

Carlin, Alan, 2007, "Implementation and Utilization of Geoengineering for Global Climate Change Control," Sustainable Development Law and Policy, 7(2): 56-8 (Winter), available at (accessed 7/28/09)

Charmaz, K. 1991. Translating graduate qualitative methods into undergraduate teaching:

Intensive interviewing as a case example. Teaching Sociology. 19:384-395.

Cicerone, Ralph J.  2006.  "Geoengineering: Encouraging Research and Overseeing Implementation," Climatic Change 77, 221-226

Cicerone, R. J., Elliott, S., and Turco, R. P.  1992. "Global Environmental Engineering" Nature 356, 472.

Commission of European Communities.  2000.  Communication from the Commission on the Precautionary Principle COM.

Corbin, J. and A.C. Strauss. 2007. Basics of qualitative research:  Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Crutzen, Paul J.  2006.  "Albedo Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections: A Contribution to Resolved a Policy Dilemma?" Climatic Change, 77, 211-219.

Fetterman, D. M. 1998. Ethnography: Step by step. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Gardiner, Stephen 2001.  "The Real Tragedy of the Commons." Philosophy & Public Affairs 30, 387-416.

Gardiner, Stephen.  2004. "Ethics and Global Climate Change." Ethics 114 (April): 555-600.

Gardiner, Stephen.  2007a. "A Core Precautionary Principle." Journal of Political Philosophy 14 (1):33-60.

Gardiner, Stephen.  2007b. "Is Geoengineering the ‘Lesser Evil'" Talking Point (April 18)(Available at (retrieved 01/05/09).

Gardiner, Stephen.  2009.  "Is Arming the Future with Geoengineering Really the Lesser of Two Evils." Climate Ethics: Essential Readings, edited by S. Caney, H.Shue, D.Jamieson, S.Gardiner,  (New York: Oxford University Press)(forthcoming).

Guardian.  2009.  "Obama Climate Adviser Open to Geo-engineering to Tackle Global Warming.  Available at accessed 7/28/09)

Grob, A.  1995.  "A Structural Model of Environmental Attitudes and Behavior" Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 209-220.

Hall, Myrna and Daniel Fagre.  2003.  "Model Induced Glacier Change in Glacier National Park (1850-2100)" Bioscience, Vol.53, 2, 131-140.

Hardin, Garret. 1993. Living Within Limits (New York: Oxford University Press)

Jamieson, Dale. 1990.  "Managing the Future: Public Policy, Scientific Uncertainty, and Global Warming." In In Upstream/Downstream: Essays in Environmental Ethics, edited by D. Scherer (Philadelphia: Temple University Press): 67-89.

Jamieson, Dale. 1991.  "The Epistemology of Climate Change: Some Morals for Managers." Society and Natural Resources 4, 319-29.

Jamieson, Dale.  1992.  "Ethics, Public Policy and Global Warming." Science, Technology and Human Values 17, 139-53.

Jamieson, Dale.  1996a. "Ethics and International Climate Change," Climatic Change, 33: 323-336.

Jamieson, Dale.  1996b. "Scientific Uncertainty and the Political Process." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 545, 35-43.

Jamieson, Dale. 2001. "Climate Change and Global Environmental Justice." In Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Global Environmental Governance, edited by P. Edwards and C. Miller (Cambridge: MIT Press): 287-307.

Keith, David W.  2002.  "Geoengineering."  Encyclopedia of Global Change, edited by A.S.Goodie (New York: Oxford University Press): 495-502.

Kerr, Richard A.  2006.  "Pollute the Planet for the Climate's Sake?" Science Vol. 314, (October 20): 401-403

Launder, Brian and Michael Thompson.  2008.  "Introduction" Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences 366 (1882): 3841-3842.

Marx, L.  1983.  "Are Science and Society Going in the Same Direction?" Science, Technology, and Human Values, Vol. 8, No. 4, could not find 

Merchant, Carolyn.  1980.  The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper Collins)

Michaelson, Jay.  1998.  "Geoengineering: A Climate Change Manhattan Project" 17 (1) Stanford Environmental Law Journal, (January): 73-140.

National Science Foundation News.  2008.  "Injecting Sulfate Particles into Stratosphere Could Have Drastic Impact on Earth's Ozone Layer" (Available at (Retrieved 01/11/09)

Nortzn, Bryan.  1991.  Towards Unity Amongst Environmentalists (New York: Oxford University Press).

Patterson, M. E. and D. R. Williams. 2002. Collecting and analyzing qualitative data: Hermeneutic principles, methods, & case examples. Champaign, IL: Sagamore.

Plumwood, Val.  2002.  Environmental Culture (New York: Routledge)

Raffensperger, Caryolyn and Joel Tickner, Eds.  1999.  Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing The Precautionary Principle, (San Francisco: Island Press)

Robock, Alan.  2008.  "Geoengineering: It's not a panacea,"  Geotimes,  vol. 53: 58.

Robock, Alan.  2008.  "Whither Geoengineering?" Science, vol. 320, (May 30):1166-1167.

Robock, A., Oman, L. and Stenchikov, G.L. 2008.  Regional Climate Responses to Geoengineering with Tropical and Arctic SO2 Injections. Journal of Geophysical Research. 

Rolston, Holmes, III.  1988.  Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World.  (Temple University Press: Philadelphia, PA)

Rosner, Lisa, Ed. 2004.  The Technological Fix,How People Use Technology to Create and Solve Social Problem (New York: Routledge). 

Routley, Richard.  1973.  "Is there a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic?" Proceedings of the XVth World Congress of Philosophy 1: 205-210.

Schneider, Stephen.  1996.  "Geoengineering: Could - or Should - We Do It?" Climatic Change 33: 291-295.

Schneider, Stephen.  2008.  "Geoengineering: Could we, or should we, make it work?" Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 366: 3842-3863.

Science Daily.  2009.  "Geoengineering Climate Requires More Research, Cautious Consideration And Appropriate Restrictions." American Meteriological Society Statement. Available at: (accessed 7/27/09).

Scott, Dane, 2005 "Perspectives on Precaution: the Role of Policymakers in Dealing with the Uncertainties of Agricultural Biotechnology." International Journal of Global Environmental Issues, Volume 5 Nos. 1/2 2005

Shrader-Frechette, Kristen. 2002.  Environmental Justice, Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press).

Shrader-Frechette, Kristen.  1996.  "Methodological Rules for Four Classes of Scientific Uncertainty." In Scientific Uncertainty and Environmental Problem Solving, edited by John Lemmons (Cambridge: Blackwell Scientific Press): 12-39.

Shue, Henry. 1992.  "The Unavoidability of Justice." In The International Politics of the Environment, edited by Hurrell, Andrew and Kingsbury, Benedict. Oxford: Oxford University Press): 373-397.

Shue, Henry. 1995.  "Equity in an International Agreement on Climate Change." In Equity and Social Considerations Related to Climate Change.  Edited by R. S. Odingo, A. L. Alusa, F. Mugo, J. K. Njihia and A. Heidenreich (Nairobi: ICIPE Science Press): 385-392.

Shue, Henry. 1996.  "Environmental Change and the Varieties of Justice." In Earthly Goods: Environmental Change and Social Justice, edited by Hampson Fen Osier and Reppy Judith (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press): 9-29.

Shue, Henry. 1999.  "Global Environment and International Inequality." International Affairs 75, 531-545.

Soule, Edward. 2000. Assessing the Precautionary Principle. Public Affairs Quarterly 14, 309-328.

Sunstein, Cass.  2000.  Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Teich, A. H. ed., 1993)  Technology and the Future, Sixth Edition (New York: St. Martin's Press).

Tetlock, P.E. and M. Oppenheimer. 2008. The boundaries of the thinkable. Daedalus, p 59-70.

Thompson, Paul.  1997.  Food Biotechnology in Ethical Perspective (London: Blackie Academic & Professional).

Victor, D.G., Morgan, M.G., Apt, J., Steinbruner, J. and K. Ricke. 2009. The Geoengineering Option: A Last Resort Against Global Warming? Foreign Affairs, 1-5.

Van Den Belt, Henk & Bart Gremmen, "Between Precautionary Principle and ‘Sound Science': Distributing the Burdens of Proof," 15 Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 107 (2002).

Volti, R. 1995.  Society and Technological Change, Third Edition (New York: St. Martin's Press).

White, Lynn.  1967.  "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" Science 155 (3767): 1203-1207.

Wingspread Statement. 1998.  "The Precautionary Principle." Available at ( (accessed January 25, 2009).