Are we overprotective of Mars? That is the claim made by Alberto G. Fairén and Dirk Schulze-Makuch in a recent commentary in Nature Geoscience. They argue that current planetary protection policies that try to prevent bodies in the solar system from becoming contaminated by Earth-life are too costly, inhibit scientific exploration and might actually be unnecessary because of natural contamination. How much value does a pristine non-terrestrial environment have?
Not all ethical issues are equally important. Many ethicists spend their professional lives performing in sideshows.
However entertaining the sideshow, sideshow performers do not deserve the same recognition or remuneration as those performing on our philosophical Broadways.
What really matters now is not the nuance of our approach to mitochondrial manipulation for glycogen storage diseases, or yet another set of footnotes to footnotes to footnotes in the debate about the naturalistic fallacy. It is: (a) Whether or not we should be allowed to destroy our planet (and if not, how to stop it happening); and (b) Whether or not it is fine to allow 20,000 children in the developing world to die daily of hunger and entirely avoidable disease (and if not, how to stop it happening). My concern in this post is mainly with (a). A habitable planet is a prerequisite for all the rest of our ethical cogitation. If we can’t live here at all, it’s pointless trying to draft the small print of living. Continue reading
In the final Uehiro Seminar of Trinity Term, Pak-Hang Wong offered a novel approach to the ethics of geoengineering. He argues that if we view geoengineering as a large socio-technical system (LTS), which he asserts we should, then traditional approaches to the ethics of geoengineering that focus on intentions and outcomes are inadequate.
Covertly filming shocking animal abuse in the meat industry (and other industries involving animals) is a common tactic of animal welfare charities such as the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals, Animal Aid, and PETA. The footage is generally obtained by workers for the charities who gain employment at slaughterhouses, farms, laboratories and the like; and it has been instrumental in prosecuting abusers and applying pressure on meat producers to improve welfare standards, as the New York Times reported at the weekend.
The same article also reports a disturbing response to this practice by several US states:
They proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures to require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately, which activists say would thwart any meaningful undercover investigation of large factory farms.
Those who flout this so-called ‘ag-gag’ legislation may, among other things, be placed on a ‘terrorist registry’.
Geoengineering as a response to anthropogenic climate change is of increasing interest to members of the scientific community. The challenges of developing technologies powerful enough to manipulate the global climate are considerable and varied. As well as the scientific and technical issues, many people (understandably) have concerns about geoengineering. Hence issues of governance are key. As the technologies are in their infancy, it is futile at present to propose detailed regulatory structures, but one place to start is to discuss the values by which the development of geoengineering technologies must be guided. The Oxford Principles, originally proposed in 2009, were one of the first attempts to do so.
Some researchers have fingered a surprising culprit for the crime wave that ended in the 1990s: lead, mainly from leaded fuel. We know that lead leads to development difficulties in children, and in country after country, lead emissions closely mirror the crime rate 23 years later – after those children have grown up into mature, irresponsible adults.
A nice story – only problem is, people aren’t very interested in it. We prefer to tell stories about actual human villains, morality tales with clear blame and praise and entertaining situations (contrast the amounts spent fighting terrorism versus road accidents). Lead causing crime just isn’t sexy.
So to combat this universal human tendency, that causes us to misdirect our efforts and our focus, I propose we should treat Lead as an human-like villain. In its oily lair, the demon Lead rubes its metallic hands together in glee, imagining the millions of children whose developments it is stunting, and the thousands of young men it tipped into criminality, and the wailing of their victims. It plots further increases of its empire of crime, and gnashes grey teeth in frustration as heroic regulator squeeze its powerbase out of the air, the fuel, and the water.
You should already feel your emotional priorities shifting. This alternative visions should enable us to give Lead the attention it deserves, in comparison with other lesser threats with more appealing stories. Use our story-biases in the service of good – we can feel the appropriate amount of joy when we triumph over Lead; emotions, not just reason, are needed to keep up our motivations in dealing wit these threats.
And then the demon can be joined in its dark imaginary lair by the vicious Vampire Malaria, the Zombie-Lord of the Road Traffic Accident, and the bloody Psychopathic Death Cult of Cardio-Vascular Diseases. To arms, good citizens of the world, against these sinister anthropomorphised and correctly prioritised threats!
Stratospheric sulfate seems to be one of the most promising geoengineering methods to combat climate change. It involves the injection of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), sulfur dioxide (SO2) or other sulfates, into the stratosphere. Similar to what happens after major volcanic eruptions, this would reflect off part of the sun’s energy and cool the Earth, counterbalancing the effect of greenhouse gases (see for instance the “Year without a Summer” that followed the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora).
It is probably the best geoengineering solution to climate change, in that it’s likely to work, should be technically feasible, can be done by a single nation if need be (no need for global consensus), and is likely to be very cheap – especially in comparison with cutting emissions. But it has a few drawbacks:
- It will have unpredictable effects on the weather across the globe.
- We can’t really test it – the test would be doing it, on a global scale.
- We wouldn’t know if it worked until we’d had about a decade of temperature measurements.
- Once started, it’s extremely dangerous to stop it – especially if carbon emissions keep rising.
So, should we do it? Narrow cost-benefit analysis suggests yes, but that doesn’t take into account the uncertainty, the unknown unknowns – the very likely probability that things will not go as expected, and that we’ll have difficulty dealing with the side effects. This includes the political side effects when some areas of the globe suffer more than others from this process.
How bad does global warming have to get before we consider this type of nearly irreversible geoengineering? If we had to choose between this and cutting emissions, how high would the cost of cutting have to go before we sprang for this instead? In short, what price do we put on avoiding uncertainty on the global scale? Can we estimate a dollar amount, or some alternative measure of the cost – quality-adjusted life years, or some other human-scale estimate? Or is this an illusionary precision, and do our intuitions and qualitative arguments (precautionary principle?) give us a better estimate of whether we should go ahead with this?
This week is ‘Sustainable Fish Week’ at Ghent University in Belgium. All fish on the university restaurants’ menus come from sustainable fisheries or fish farms (with practices that can be maintained without reducing the ability of the target fish to maintain its population and without threatening other species within the ecosystem, for example, by removing their food source, accidentally catching and killing them, or damaging their habitat). Tuna sandwiches will be taken off the menu and a sustainable alternative will be provided instead. Those who take their meal at a university restaurant will receive a free ‘fish guide’ with helpful information for making responsible fish choices at home. Those with strong stomachs may also enjoy the opportunity to taste jellyfish at the university restaurants. The message is that, if we continue to eat unsustainable fish, then soon jellyfish will be the only alternative to fish left on the menu.
In 1983, scientists published a paper on nuclear winter. This boosted the death toll of all-out nuclear war from ‘only’ 200-500 million to the very real possibility of the complete extinction of the human race*. But some argued the report was alarmist, and there did seem to be some issues with the assumptions. So – a military phenomena that might cause megadeaths, possibly true but requiring further study, and a huge research defense budget that could be used to look into this critical phenomena and that was already spending millions on all aspects of nuclear weapons – can you guess what happened next?
Correct – the issue was ignored for decades. For over twenty years, there were but a tiny handful of papers on the most likely way we could end our own existence, and a vague and persistent sense that nuclear winter had been ‘disproved’. But in 2007, we finally had a proper followup - with the help of modern computers, better models and better observations, what can we now say? Well, that nuclear winter is still a major threat; the initial fear was right. Their most likely scenario was:
A global average surface cooling of –7°C to –8°C persists for years, and after a decade the cooling is still –4°C [...]. Considering that the global average cooling at the depth of the last ice age 18,000 yr ago was about –5°C, this would be a climate change unprecedented in speed and amplitude in the history of the human race. The temperature changes are largest over land [...] Cooling of more than –20°C occurs over large areas of North America and of more than –30°C over much of Eurasia, including all agricultural regions.
Also, precipitation would be cut in half and we’d lose most of the ozone layer. But there was a more worrying development: it also seems that a small-scale nuclear war could generate its own mini nuclear winter.
The Daily Mail has recently published an article entitled ‘Planet of the (little) apes: Save the world by genetically engineering humans to be smaller, suggests NYU philosopher.’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2114430/Save-planet-genetically-engineering-humans-smaller-suggests-NYU-philosopher.html)
It is always good to see the Daily Mail covering philosophy and covering issues in applied ethics in particular. The NYU philosopher in question is former Uehiro Centre researcher S. Matthew Liao. His co-authors, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache are both affiliated with the Future of Humanity Institute here at Oxford and the paper under discussion is called ‘Human Engineering and Climate Change’ and is forthcoming in Ethics Policy and the Environment, an interdisciplinary academic journal which specialises in environmental policy and ethics.