Why study geoengineering? Thinking about moral questions

05 April 2012

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I have a long-standing interest in global justice and climate change. Climate change raises enough moral and political questions and I never thought any subject could be more complex until I heard about geoengineering.

Climate change raises problems of global distributive justice: how (if at all) to respond to the projected impacts of climate change, which, as almost everyone knows, will be most keenly felt in the regions of the world which have emitted the least amount of green house gases (GHGs). It is projected to exacerbate global poverty. It requires to us think about our obligations to people who will come to exist in 50, 100 or 200 years time, without knowing what their world will actually be like. It could create a whole new category of stateless people: those who lose their state territory due to rising sea-levels. And yet action on curbing GHGs is sorely lacking. Economic reasons are often cited (and contested) but to what extent can a state privilege its own national economy over the impacts of emitting GHGs?

Global negotiations on climate change have been fraught in the past. There are severe inequalities in the ability to participate. And some countries which are able to participate have chosen, in the past, to limit their contributions. Instituting an effective international climate regime has been beset with difficulties. Problems of governance and procedural justice (what counts as a fair decision-making process) are central to climate change.

Because of the problems in curbing GHGs, geoengineering is attracting increasing interest. What I find fascinating about it is, that as a response to climate change, geoengineering must be shown to be able to deal with all the questions of distributive justice that climate change raises. We must consider its effects on global justice, not to mention what is owed to the future. However, geoengineering raises other moral and political issues.

Like a lot of new technologies, geoengineering requires reflection on the appropriate relation between humanity and the non-human world. Some might wish to question whether any human being or institution has the right to attempt to influence the global climate. What kind of person, or group of persons would that be? Does the prospect of geoengineering encourage hubris and an insufficient appreciation of the natural world? Is there any reason to appreciate the natural world – indeed, is there such a thing?

So, to the moral issues of climate change are added the questions of the morality of interfering with, or attempting to control nature, seen in debates about genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology. Also added are the moral and political issues of researching and developing potentially very powerful technologies. Can we ever trust the people or institutions that develop or use them to be sufficiently wise and benevolent? Who should be entitled to use such a powerful technology and how can negligent or even malicious usage, be prevented? Again, these questions have been encountered before, but it is not obvious that they have been fully solved. Nor have they had to be considered in relation to a global problem such as anthropogenic climate change. Questions of governance and procedural justice are again pertinent here.

Thinking about moral questions, is, I believe, a quintessential feature of human life. There are few people who have not had to wrestle with a moral problem in their lives, few who have not had their conscience pricked at some point, or who have been called to account for their actions, whether that be in personal or professional circumstances. Similarly, those who profess zero interest in politics will express an opinion on it surprisingly often, or engage in it, once it is understood that politics is not only about what the government does.

My research into the ethics and governance of geoengineering allows me to think about and discuss some of the most ancient and profound questions: what is good, and what is a good society, in relation to one of the most serious truly global problems and cutting-edge technological development. It’s hard to think of anything that could be more interesting.

Clare Heyward is a former member of the Geoengineering Programme at The Oxford Martin School.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.