The Ethics of Geoengineering
With few serious measures taken to prevent human-induced climate change, the idea of geoengineering, the intentional manipulation of the climate, is attracting increasing attention.
I propose that the following conditions must be satisfied for an intentional climate change (ICC) project to be morally permissible: (1) the project is technically feasible; (2) its consequences can be predicted reliably; (3) it would produce states that are socially and economically preferable to the alternatives; and (4) implementing the project would not seriously and systematically violate any important, well-founded ethical principles or considerations.
Although these conditions are not now satisfied, I believe that research on ICC should go forward, so long as certain other conditions are met. I first proposed this framework for thinking about ICC in 1996, and my hope is that it will stimulate others to think through the ethics of ICC.
In this essay, I discuss the fourth condition on the need to consider well-founded ethical principles. At least three important ethical considerations bear on the permissibility of ICC: the importance of democratic decision-making, the prohibition against irreversible changes, and the significance of learning to live with nature.
The climate change that may now be occurring is largely caused by people, and the ancestors of people, in rich countries. People in poor countries were not consulted about the wisdom of changing climate, nor have they reaped much benefit from the activities that may be resulting in climate change.
A decision to undertake ICC would likely be made by the same people who are causing inadvertent climate change and have reaped most of the benefits from fossil-fuel driven industrialization: people in rich countries and their political, social, and economic leaders. But no decision to go forward with ICC could be morally acceptable that did not in some way represent all of the people of the world. Even if people in poor countries would benefit from ICC, it would still be wrong to change their climate without their consent.
In principle it might be possible to design a deliberative procedure that could render a just decision about ICC. However, such a procedure would be unwieldy because it would have to be representative of everyone on Earth.
In addition to who should be represented and how, questions also arise about what would constitute a mandate for acton. Would it require unanimity among nations, a simple majority, or a decision of the United National Security Council? Indeed, it can even be questioned whether nations are the proper vehicles for making such decisions.
The bottom line is that, unless conditions change radically, there is unlikely to be a democratic decision authorizing ICC. Still, I doubt that this would be the end of ICC. The same people who are avoiding and evading the difficult decisions that might prevent or mitigate inadvertent climate change might well decide to implement ICC if they felt it was in their interests.
The Prohibition against Irreversible Changes
Many moral and legal traditions regard irreversible changes as extremely serious. Murder is an especially heinous crime in part because no restitution is possible. Restitution can be made to someone who loses property but not to someone who loses his or her life.
Irreversible environmental changes are especially serious for the same reason. For many environmental conditions and states, once they are lost they can never be restored – at least not on time-scales of interest to human beings. If the effects of ICC were irreversible, then those who made the decision to undertake ICC would be choosing one climate path for future people rather than another.
Those who are sympathetic to ICC say that it is reversible. We can stop fertilizing the oceans with iron; mirrors can always be removed from orbit. But while we may be able to reverse the processes that set a climate change in motion, we may not be able to reverse the climate change itself once it is under way. And even if some ICC technologies would produce reversible climate changes, we cannot be sure that they are reversible unless we actually try to reverse them.
Changing human behavior is often a more conservative response to a problem than changing physical systems. Humans are capable of a broad spectrum of behaviors and succeed in conforming to a wide range of diverse cultural patterns. This does not mean that human behavior is always responsible or appropriate, nor that behavior change is costless or easy to implement. But, in principle, changes in behavior can always be modified or reversed.
Since human behavior is revisable, modifiable, and affected by learning, behavior change is the best response strategy for addressing many environmental problems. In my view it is also the most ethically responsible strategy in many cases, since it demands that solutions to problems be located in their source: humans, their behavior, and their institutions.
Learning to Live with Nature
Many of our environmental problems flow from attempts to manipulate nature in order to make it conform to our desires rather than forming our desires in response to nature. We have 'improved' nature in many ways - bringing water to places where people want to live, exterminating animals who prey on those we raise for food, dredging harbors and filling wetlands so towns and cities can be developed.
Although it is not possible or desirable for humans always to 'let nature take its course', there is a growing sense that modem societies have erred on the side of excessive intervention. The growing interest in (ill-defined) concepts such as 'sustainable development' reflects in part this growing sense that things have gone too far.
But suppose that the following is granted: that there is a lack of fit between human desires and the environment and that all too often we have changed the environment instead of our desires. It still does not follow that ICC would be wrong. Perhaps in general we should be more modest in our manipulation of nature, but some human changes of the environment are justified and perhaps even morally required. ICC may be one of them.
This objection raises an important point. Environmental destruction is not an all or nothing matter. Paul and Anne Ehrlich compare the loss of species to the loss of rivets in an airplane. It is difficult to say in advance when a critical mass of rivets will have been lost or which rivets are particularly crucial. Yet it is clearly unwise to be in the business of rivet-popping.
We can think of large-scale human manipulations of the environment as popping the rivets in the attitudes and dispositions that are required in order to live peaceably with nature. Attempting to change global climate would be a very grand gesture. But even if ICC were successful, it would still have the bad effect of reinforcing the view that the proper human relationship to nature is one of domination. Although it is difficult to assess precisely, in the long run this attitude may be more destructive of both humans and the rest of nature than climate change itself.
On the basis of what I have argued thus far, my first, enthusiastic conclusion is that we should not now try to geoengineer climate. This is a conclusion which virtually everyone claims to accept, although people may not agree with the arguments that I have given in support of it. The more contentious question is whether research in this area should go forward and whether ICC should be seriously contemplated as a possible response to inadvertent climate change.
My second, unenthusiastic conclusion is that research should continue on whether ICC can be carried out in a way that is consistent with the conditions that I have outlined. My reason for this is straightforward: We may reach a point at which ICC is the lesser of two evils.
The case for research in almost any field seems obvious and unassailable. It is better to know more than less, serious research means weeding out of the worst ideas, and research gives us options and capabilities to respond to dire or unexpected situations. Yet the risks in initiating an ICC research program remain profound.
First, money invested in one area of research is not available for research in other areas. We cannot afford to develop all possible capacities that may protect us against any imaginable threat. Research spending needs to be prioritized.
Second, initiating research on ICC involves investing in a particular approach to the problem of climate change. Whatever resources and energy go to research on ICC will not be available for preventing inadvertent climate change or mitigating its effects.
Third, and most serious, researching a technology risks inappropriately developing it. Often we think of research as being quite independent of development. Unfortunately this often is not true. In many cases research leads unreflectively to development. There are at least two reasons for this.
The first is that we seem to have a cultural imperative that says if something can be done it should be done. Technologies often seem to develop a life of their own that leads inexorably to their development and deployment. Opposing the deployment of a technology is seen as Luddite, an attempt to turn back progress that is doomed to failure.
The second is that the impetus to move unreflectively from research to development is well-documented. A research program often creates a community of researchers that functions as an interest group promoting the development of the technology that they are investigating.
For these reasons safeguards should be built in to any research program from the beginning. We should reject the idea that ethical and societal concerns are relevant only to decisions about development, and not to decisions about research. Ethical and societal concerns should figure in decisions about what to research, at what level of funding, with what urgency. Serious systematic work should also be done on the conditions that would have to be satisfied for the deployment of ICC technologies to be justified.
It is important to recognize how different this recommendation is from the increasing tendency to give lip service to ethical considerations, but then to structure programs in such a way that ethical concerns are raised very far downstream in isolation from the conduct of the science.
In summary, we should not now attempt ICC. I believe that research should go forward, but only on condition that such a program takes ethical and societal issues seriously. We should learn from the past and build in societal assessment from the very beginning. This is not only a good thing to do, but in my view it is morally required if research on ICC is to be ethically justified.
This essay is adapted from Dale Jamieson, “Ethics and Intentional Climate Change,” 1996. [link to pdf]