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Tuesday, May 27, 2014
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On the Ethics of Climate Engineering

By Josh Galperin, Associate Director

The following post comes curtesy of Gabe Levine YC '14. Gabe graduated from Yale College last week, an important accomplishment in itself. However, Gabe also received the Wrexham/Heinz Prize for the best senior essay in the social sciences. In the post below Gabe summarizes his essay titled "'Has It Really Come to This?": An Assessment of Virtue Ethical Approaches to Climate Engineering." 

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It has become common to frame conversations about climate engineering by asking two questions: 1) Do you think the risks of climate change pose a deep, serious problem to civilization?, and 2) Do you think that abandoning fossil fuels is an extremely difficult task? These were the questions that Oliver Morton, a science writer for The Economist, asked about 150 people at an MIT lecture hall in 2013. The occasion? A panel discussion entitled, “Debating the Future of Solar Geoengineering.” 
 
For some of those inclined to answer “yes” to both of Morton’s questions, solar geoengineering—lowering global average temperatures by reducing the amount of energy absorbed by the atmosphere from the sun—might be an appealing prospect. In principle, it offers a way of avoiding the worst effects of climate change at a fraction of the cost of mitigation, and much more quickly. But even proponents of solar geoengineering (or, as I refer to it, climate engineering) know that nothing would really be so simple: it could have vast, unintended consequences for global precipitation patterns; we might find it impossible to govern; it might commit us to a future in which humanity is perpetually on the verge of climate catastrophe, where governments continually need to disperse ever more radiation-reflecting chemicals into the stratosphere. In short, engineering the climate might be a really bad idea.
 
But even if it were, in some sense, a good idea, even if scientists and governments could figure out a way of engineering the climate that were safe, reliable, and easy to govern, some moral philosophers think we should still have deep reservations about doing it. These philosophers, including Stephen Gardiner, who served on the MIT panel, think that climate engineering would express inappropriate moral attitudes. In my essay, I assess Gardiner’s argument, and others like his. I argue that Gardiner’s description of climate engineering as a “tarnishing evil,” which would be a “reckless, callous, and shallow” response to one of humanity’s most fundamental challenges, is misguided. Gardiner does not provide good reason for us to be especially wary of climate engineering, beyond our usual concerns about costs and governance. 
 
I then survey three further critical approaches to climate engineering that, like Gardiner’s, focus on the attitudes that climate engineering would express. Only one of these, raised by Holly Jean Buck, Andrea R. Gammon, and Christopher J. Preston, persuasively describes an important concern that cannot be easily expressed in terms our “usual concerns.”  To engineer the climate, they argue, is to treat climate change as a technical, rather than a social problem, in which the concerns of those most affected are treated only in general terms. This, Buck, et al. argue, would reinforce global structures of oppression. 
 
Buck, et al.’s argument, however, requires empirical substantiation. Moreover, even if it were correct, I argue, their argument would not defeat many sophisticated arguments for climate engineering. It would only raise important concerns regarding just how to go about engineering the climate. None of the arguments I examine, then, is both persuasive and strong enough to stop us from seriously considering engineering the climate. I argue that this is because of the complex distribution of responsibility for any attempt to engineer the climate. It is difficult to claim that any one actor, or set of actors, would express bad enough attitudes by engineering the climate that other considerations—such as the difficulty of abandoning fossil fuels—should be morally irrelevant. I therefore conclude that, though very serious concerns about climate engineering may remain, it is probably morally permissible to research it, provided that the research is undertaken responsibly.  
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