Geoengineering, Science, Consequentialism and Humility
The Uehiro Centre has recently hosted Clive Hamilton who was visiting from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University. Hamilton is well known for his work on the politics of climate change. While here he presented a paper on the ‘Ethical Foundations of Climate Engineering’, which he has now been revised and is available at his website: http://www.clivehamilton.net.au/cms/media/ethical_foundations_of_climate_engineering.pdf.
Climate engineering is also known as ‘geoenginering’ and the ethics of geoengineering has recently been discussed in a joint paper by several members of the Uehiro Centre who take a view that Hamilton strongly disagrees with: http://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0013/21325/Ethics_of_Geoengineering_Working_Draft.pdf
Hamilton’s paper is an attack on consequentialist justifications for geoengineering – attempts to use technology to try to manipulate the Earth’s climate in order to ameliorate the effects of climate change. He sees such attempts as part and parcel of a world view which springs from the Scientific Revolution. He tells us that: ‘The consequentialism of climate ethics is built on an unstated (and mostly unrecognized) understanding of the natural world, one that grew out of the Scientific Revolution in the 17th Century and the European Enlightenment philosophy that went with it.’ According to Hamilton, people who are in the grip of this scientific world view, including consequentialist philosophers, lack ‘humility in the face of nature’. The ground for this humility is, ‘… acceptance of our limitations in the face of the superior power, complexity and enigmatic character of the earth’. Hamilton sees the presumption that we might be able to ‘master’ nature as fundamentally misguided: ‘Climate engineering represents a conscious attempt to overcome resistance of the natural world to human domination …’, however, ‘… the sheer complexity and unpredictability of the natural world resists attempts at total mastery’.
While scientists and consequentialist philosophers clearly do lack ‘humility in the face of nature’, as they do not generally accept the ‘enigmatic character of the Earth’, there is a sense in which both scientists and consequentialist philosophers are humble. Both science and consequentialist philosophy have epistemic humility built into their very methods. Scientists aim to ensure that their views do not reach beyond available evidence and acknowledge that their findings are always revisable in the face of new evidence. Consequentialists display a similar humility in the face of evidence. If new evidence regarding the consequences of a possible consequentialist policy prescription comes in, then good consequentialists will be willing to revise that prescription.
Hamilton suggests that ‘the results of Earth system science’ can be used to ‘critique the worldview given to us by the Scientific Revolution.’ Apparently these ‘… expose the limits and contradictions of the mechanical and systems understanding of the world and the technological thinking that goes along with it.’ Should scientists and consequentialist philosophers humbly accept that the evidence he points to is sufficient grounds to abandon the project of attempting to understand and then control the climate? On the basis of the evidence presented, I think the answer to this question must be a firm no. Hamilton points out that the climate system is very complex and beset by ‘non-linearities’ and ‘tipping points’ that are not well understood. But all this show is that scientists need to do more to attempt to understand the climate before attempting to apply geoengineering solutions to climate change – hardly news, and hardly evidence of either limits or contradictions.
Those who accuse others of lacking humility invite questions about their own humility. Clearly Hamilton’s views are indicative of ‘humility in the face of nature’ and are consistent with having a humble character, but they are very hard to square with an attitude of epistemic humility. If Hamilton was making the claim that the project of geoengineering might not succeed because the sheer complexity of the climate might defeat us then he would be making a point that was warranted by available evidence and which would be accepted by any serious scientist. But Hamilton goes way beyond this attitude of healthy skepticism. His position seems to be that the superior, complex, enigmatic Earth will defeat our attempts to master it. But how does he know this? The comments he makes about the current state of Earth systems science do not do nearly enough to warrant the claim and, in any case, Earth systems science may well develop in ways that he does not anticipate. The history of science is littered with the debris of hubristic claims about the limits of science: humans will never fly, humans will never walk on the moon, the atom can never be split, and so on. Those who presume to have identified the limits to science would do well to temper their views in light of lessons from the history of science.