The ethics of geoengineering – comments welcome

Should we encourage or avoid large scale environmental manipulation, for example in order to reduce climate change?

Measures such as carbon dioxide capture or ocean iron fertilisation have the potential to mitigate global warming, but what ethical issues are raised by these technologies? How should we take into account the potential risks of such measures, and how should they be weighed against the risks of inaction?

A James Martin Geoengineering Ethics working group has recently developed a working paper on the ethics of geo-engineering. The key issues to be addressed are listed below, and the full paper is available 
here (pdf). The working group is particularly interested in feedback on this paper.

Feel free to provide comments below or by email

Geoengeering Ethics

List of Key Ethical Issues [Working Draft]
Compiled by the James Martin Geoengineering Ethics Working Group

  • Russell Powell, James Martin Fellow
  • Steve Clarke, James Martin Fellow
    Mark Sheehan, James Martin Fellow
  • Tom Douglas, James Martin Fellow
  • Bennett Foddy, Deputy Director, Institute for Science and Ethics
  • Julian Savulescu, Director, Institute for Science and Ethics and Geoengineering Programme

1. Concept: What is geoengineering?

  • Must geoengineering be deliberately intended?
  • Can foreseen but unintended activities count as geoengineering?

2. Restrictions: Are there restrictions on the techniques that count as geoengineering?

  • Can it involve the modification of life forms (what about humans?)

3. Nature of Risks: What are the risks associated with geoengineering?

  • Harm to Organisms, Ecosystems and the Environment
    • Balance of Nature metaphors are problematic and misleading
  • Dual Use
    • Geoengineering techniques could be intentionally misused by states or terrorist groups
    • Methods for reducing the risk of misuse, for example, by restricting dissemination of knowledge, may also forestall beneficial applications
    • No costless solution, trade-offs between different risks/benefits must be made

4. Principles of Risk Management:

  • What principles should we use to manage these uncertain risks?
  • Are the risks involved in geoengineering qualitatively different from other risks that we face and if so do we need to articulate some special principle or principles to guide the management of these risks?
  • Precautionary Principle is one possible principle, but there are serious philosophical and practical problems with it.
  • Need a principle that encourages the acquisition of knowledge that is
    relevant to safety, potential benefits and harms.
  • Need a principle that weighs costs and benefits, but also one that is distributionally sensitive.  

5. Risk Minimisation:

  • What steps could be taken, technologically and institutionally, to minimize these risks? (e.g. containability, reversibility, knowledge acquisition, and oversight etc.).

6. Moral Hazard: Address the concern that geoengineering is treating the symptoms rather than the root causes of the problem, and the potential for moral hazard.

7. Natural Order: Is there something morally wrong with human intervention into the “natural order”? Even if there is, could this not be outweighed by other benefits?

8. Anthropogenicity of Harm: Are anthropogenic harms worse then ‘natural harms’? Is it a greater wrong to cause harm than to allow the same harm to occur naturally?

9. International Governance: Are international institutions necessary to oversee and regulate the implementation of geoengineering technologies?

10. Consent: How should we address thorny issues of consent associated with the subordination of domestic constitutional autonomy to global governance?

11. Intellectual Property and Patents: What sort of intellectual property regime should apply to geoengineering technologies? What is the most efficient and safest means for developing this technology?

12. Exceptionalism: Avoid geoengineering ethical exceptionalism—the ethical issues that arise in geoengineering are not of a wholly different nature than those that arise in the context of other emerging technologies, such as genetically modified organisms, synthetic life, nanotechnology, and high-energy particle physics.

Image credit: saschapohflepp at flickr

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2 Responses to The ethics of geoengineering – comments welcome

  • I think that there are three issues that are central:

    1. What basic moral principles that should be applied when assessing risk/chance scenarios in this area (where the gaps of knowledge will be profound). I as you might know, I’ve been working on a book on this that’s currently being assessed by a publisher….

    2. How much is known – really – about the systems planned to be targets of the engineering efforts? My guess is some, but as is the case with large natural systems in general, really very little.

    3. The moral hazard issue that you point out. Here it is crucial to consider how sustainable and efficient management strategies are compared to adaption strategies. Also, here one needs to consider the mechanisms of realpolitik, since theoretically nice-looking mixes of management and adaption may for various reasons not be politically realistic, but will have a tendency to slide towards pure management/adaption….

  • Subject: Artificial Life (Synthetic Biology) in the Age of Cosmic Genealogy

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    “If we are asking about the origin of life, that first ever primordial cell (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe 2000), then synthetic biology tells us nothing; except perhaps, that life may have begun as matter (Penny 2010).” – N. C. Wickramasinghe, Director, Centre for Astrobiology, Cardiff University.

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    In forelawship on board,

    Robert E. Cobb
    Forelaws on Board

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