Some ethical issues in geoengineering

Guest Post by David Morrow, Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment  / December 21, 2017

[The views of guest post authors are their own. C2G2 does not necessarily endorse the opinions stated in guest posts. We do, however, encourage a constructive conversation involving multiple viewpoints and voices.]

It’s no surprise to find C2G2 located at the Carnegie Council on Ethics & International Affairs. Deliberately intervening in the global climate is very much an international affair, and it obviously raises some challenging ethical questions.

In this post, I sketch some of the major ethical issues. For the most part, all I can do here is pose questions. Many of them can’t be answered without saying more about exactly what kind of geoengineering we’re talking about, exactly how it would be used, and the context in which it would be used.

Mitigation First

One of the few issues which ethicists have reached consensus is that it would be morally unacceptable to use geoengineering, in any form, as a replacement for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. To do so would impose unacceptably large risks and costs on vulnerable people and future generations. If geoengineering is to be used at all, it should only be as a supplement to ambitious cuts in emissions.

Distributive Justice

While scientists are busy modeling the environmental and social impacts of different kinds of geoengineering, ethicists have been debating whether the positive and negative impacts of any geoengineering could be fairly distributed. One issue is how those impacts are distributed across countries. Would some countries benefit while others suffer? Would some countries benefit more than others? What would happen to the world’s most vulnerable people, who have contributed little to climate change in the first place? Could people be compensated for geoengineering-related losses? But an equally important issue is how those impacts would be distributed across generations. Would future generations be better off with geoengineering? Would we be gambling with their future? Or condemning them to carry on an activity they’ll wish we’d never begun?

Procedural Justice

The answers to questions about distributive justice depend very much on exactly how geoengineering would be used. But who will decide if and how to deploy geoengineering? How should such decisions be made? Especially when it comes to solar geoengineering, the decision to deploy (or not to deploy) geoengineering is an inherently global choice—one that may strain existing processes for international decision-making. The international community will need to find a way to balance the moral demands of legitimacy and procedural justice against the practical need for feasibility and efficacy. This is why C2G2’s mission of catalyzing the creation of effective governance mechanisms is so ethically important.

Who Do We Want To Be?

The deepest ethical questions about geoengineering are less technocratic. They’re about want kind of societies we want to have. To engineer the planet is to transform Earth into an artifact controlled by human hands. Some see this is inevitable—or as having already happened in other ways—while others see it as unacceptable hubris. Furthermore, some people see geoengineering as a technological fix to a fundamentally social problem. Geoengineering is incompatible with the sort of economic, social, and political transformations these critics advocate. In this sense, simply counting geoengineering as an option worth considering is to make a significant moral claim—or, at least, to assert that the growing climate crisis will not give us time to complete the social transformations that might make geoengineering irrelevant. Such a fundamental social decision is not one for technocratic elites to make on the world’s behalf. What we need is a broad, society-wide discussion not just about what kind of world we want to make, but about what kind of society we want to become.

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