Oxford Martin School Seminar: Robert Rogers and Paul Van Lange on Social Dilemmas

In a joint event on November 15th, Prof Robert Rogers and Prof Paul van Lange presented their scientific work related to social dilemmas.

Social dilemmas are situations in which private interests conflict with collective interests. This means that people facing a social dilemma have to decide whether to prioritise either their own short-term interests or the long-term interests of a group. Many real-life situations are social dilemmas. For example, as individuals we would (economically) benefit from using public motorways without paying taxes to maintain them, but if all acted according to their self-interest, no motorways would be built and the whole society would be worse off. In the academic literature, the three types of social dilemmas that are discussed most prominently are the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Public Goods Dilemma, and the Tragedy of the Commons. All three types have been modelled as experimental games, and research from different fields like psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural economics uses these games to tackle the question of under which conditions people are willing to cooperate with one another in social dilemmas, instead of maximising their self-interest. The ultimate goal of such research is to be able to give recommendations about how to solve social dilemmas in society.

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Not all philosophers are equal

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

Pak-Hang Wong on “Virtuous Climate Making? Towards a Virtue-Theoretic Approach to Geoengineering”

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.

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Values for Geoengineering Governance

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.

A paper now out in the journal Climatic Change, available here, gives an explanation of the values behind the Oxford Principles: Continue reading

The price of uncertainty: geoengineering climate change through stratospheric sulfate

With thanks to Clive Hamilton for his talk.

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:

  1. It will have unpredictable effects on the weather across the globe.
  2. We can’t really test it – the test would be doing it, on a global scale.
  3. We wouldn’t know if it worked until we’d had about a decade of temperature measurements.
  4. 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?

To 1750 – or beyond?

At the current Conference of the Parties in Durban, Libya proposed an ambitious scheme which, it claims, will not only halt, but reverse global warming.   (See

 Effectively, the “Libyan Climate Change Initiative” will turn the Sahara desert, and perhaps the Arabian and other deserts, into a giant wind-farm.  But not your average of wind-farm.  This wind-farm is one which first creates wind out of solar power and then uses it to drive giant wind turbines.   Continue reading

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:

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:

 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’.

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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?

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