Prospective Stage

1. Prospective Stage

The reluctance to talk about geoengineering prior to Paul Crutzen’s landmark article in 2006 suggests that some ethical issues arise before any work on the technology has even begun in earnest. These concerns focus on possible implications of even talking seriously about intentionally engineering the climate. If these concerns are decisive, they might in some cases preclude the possibility of beginning geoengineering research at all. In other cases, they provide warnings about the pitfalls that might await any geoengineering discussion.

Moral Hazard

The presence of a 'Moral hazard' suggests that certain types of insurance may promote cavalier behavior: insured individuals may expose themselves (or others) to greater risks than uninsured individuals do. Regarding geoengineering, some worry that that the prospect of a technical solution to climate change will create a 'moral hazard,' encouraging risky behavior or compromising mitigation and adaptation efforts. The exact impact that the prospect of geoengineering will have on behavior is, of course, uncertain. But the limited economic, institutional, and political resources available to address climate change make it reasonable to suggest that serious talk about geoengineering could divert energy and resources from mitigation measures.

The moral hazard warning, however, turns out to be a little more complex than it appears. Ben Hale is concerned that it gives little guidance in geoengineering conversations: simply calling something a moral hazard does not actually establish a wrong unless it can be shown that the behavior the hazard precipitates is itself morally problematic. Additionally, talk of geoengineering might, in fact, have the opposite effect and encourage people to do more to mitigate climate change in order to avoid going down the risky path of geoengineering.  Finally, as David Keith points out, some change in behavior in reponse to a reduction of risk is perfectly rational.  If SRM could reduce the future harms from warming, then it would not be unreasonable to spend less money on emissions reductions and more, perhaps, on adaptation.  In this case, there is no moral hazard, only rational risk compensation.

Reading:

Crutzen, P. J. (2006). Albedo enhancement by stratospheric sulfur injections: A contribution to resolve a policy dilemma? Climatic Change, 77(3–4), 211–220.

Hale, B. (2012). The world that would have been: Moral hazard arguments against geoengineering. In C. J. Preston (Ed.), Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management (pp. 113-131). Lanham, MD: Lexington Press.

Keith, D. (2013). A Case for Climate Engineering.  Boston Review Books. MIT Press.

Lin, A. (2012). Does geoengineering present a moral hazard? Ecology Law Quarterly.

Reynolds, J. (2014).  A critical examination of the climate engineering moral hazard and risk compensation concern.  The Anthropocene Review (online first)


Moral Corruption

Stephen Gardiner has argued that anthropogenic climate change poses a 'perfect moral storm': its causes are both spatially and temporally removed from its effects, and we lack the theoretical and institutional resources needed to deal with it. In this perfect storm, we find it tough to change course and are prone to distorted and corrupt moral reasoning to justify our exisiting heading. Gardiner defines moral corruption as "illegitimate taking advantage of a position of superior power for the sake of personal gain" (Gardiner, 2011, p. 304). In a political context in which we have failed to do anything effectual about climate change for the last 20 years, Gardiner worries that we may corruptly endorse a geoengineering research program as an excuse to continue doing nothing significant about emissions (and adaptation). Thinking of geoengineering as an adequate alternative to substantial efforts at emissions reductions may be, according to Gardiner, culpable self-deception and a 'blighting' evil for the considerable burdens it would impose on posterity.  Even if this attitude is not corrupt, it may unduly burden future generations by limiting their choices.  This may turn out to be an unexpected form of domination of others (Smith 2012).

Reading:

Gardiner, S. (2011). A perfect moral storm: The ethical tragedy of climate change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, P. T. (2012). Domination and the ethics of solar radiation management. In C. J. Preston (Ed.), Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management (pp. 43-61). Lanham, MD: Lexington Press.

 

Hubris

The prospect of geoengineering demonstrates what some consider to be a hubristic attitude about the proper role of humans in the world. Over the last 40 years, many environmental thinkers have suggested that environmental woes are often the result of misdirected attempts to exert dominion or control over natural processes. They suggest that humans need to learn some humility and give up on the idea of re-shaping nature entirely to our own ends. Failure to do so demonstrates a culpable arrogance, or hubris. In one of the earliest articles on the ethics of geoengineering, Dale Jamieson argued that the idea of geoengineering continues this hubristic pattern of thinking.        

Although the argument from hubris does not necessarily rule geoengineering out, it fits with a common tendency in environmental ethics to think that earth's historical biogeochemical processes possess some moral significance in themselves (Rolston, 1988). Christopher Preston has suggested that the value of these historical biogeochemical processes might create a ‘presumptive argument’ against geoengineering (even if the presumption may ultimately be overturned). As even geoengineering advocates have stated, it is probably a healthy sign that initial responses to geoengineering often express revulsion (Keith, Parsons, Morgan, 2010).  Still, it places a heavy burden of proof on those who would advocate interference in these processes with geoengineering when other options are still on the table.

Reading:

Jamieson, D. (1996). Ethics and intentional climate change. Climatic Change, 33(3), 323–336.

Keith, D., Parsons, E., Morgan, G. (2010). "Research on Global Sunblock Needed Now" Nature 463: 426-7.

Rolston III, H. (1988) Environmental ethics: Duties to and values in the natural world. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Preston, C. J. (2011). Re-thinking the unthinkable: environmental ethics and the presumptive argument against geoengineering. Environmental Values, 20(4), 457–479.

 

Technological Fix

Alvin Weinberg coined the term 'technological fix,' or 'techno-fix,' to describe the strategy of attempting to fix a difficult social or behavioral problem with an engineering solution. A technological fix is attractive in many cases because it often appears simpler, quicker, and less demanding than solving the problem by making the difficult social transformations that otherwise required. Geoengineering might be an example of such a technological fix. Without the assistance of atmosphere-altering technology, combating climate change would demand massive (and perhaps unachievable) social and behavioral upheaval.

The moral status of the technological fix is ambiguous. People tend to like technological fixes because they can be easier than behavioral changes. On the other hand, environmental thinkers often want a change in values and actions rather than simply the deployment of a technology that allows the continuation of pernicious behaviors. For example, many environmentalists worry that a geoengineering solution would permit continuing high levels of consumption, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions.  Perhaps, then, the concern is with consumption itself, rather than greenhouse gases.  

Another worry is that technological fixes may also inadvertently create new problems in the course of attempting to solve others.  Cell phones can provide a lifeline in a wilderness emergency but they can also make people do more risky things. 

Are technological fixes really a problematic way to address climate change? In the case of  solar radiation management (SRM), the inadequacy of the techno-fix is immediately evident because SRM does nothing to solve the problem of continuing ocean acidification.  Furthermore, SRM poses the threat of very rapid warming should a deployment have to be suddenly withdrawn. By contrast, with a carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technology such as direct air capture or afforestation, increases in greenhouse gas concentrations could possibly be slowed while longer term measures are taken to reduce energy intensity. This kind of fix may be just what is needed.

Reading:

Weinberg, A. (1967). Reflections on Big Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

LeCain T. (2004). When everybody wins does the environment lose? The environmental techno-fix in twentieth-century mining. In L. Rosner (Ed.), The Technological Fix: How People Use Technology to Create and Solve Social Problems (pp. 137–153). New York, NY: Routledge.

Scott, D. (2012). Insurance policy or technological fix? The ethical implications of framing solar radiation management. In C. J. Preston (Ed.), Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management (pp. 151-168). Lanham, MD: Lexington Press.

Borgmann, A. (2012). The setting of the scene: technological fixes and the design of the good life. In C. J. Preston (Ed.), Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management (pp. 189-200). Lanham, MD: Lexington Press.