Ethics & Geoengineering

Instructors who include a climate geoengineering module usually seek to engage students on ethical and moral issues associated with research and/or potential deployment of geoengineering technologies. Professor Stephen Gardiner of the University of Washington has done some of the most interesting work in this context. In his most recent article, Gardiner examines one of the primary arguments advanced by proponents of geoengineering, that deployment would be ethical if those countries most vulnerable to climatic impacts either opted to initiate geoengineering, or requested that other countries do so on their behalf. Gardiner labels this the “desperation argument.”

Among the take-aways from the article:

1. From an ethical perspective, it is problematic to argue that the desperation argument provides a measure of consent by vulnerable countries to deploy geoengineering technologies:

  • There’s usually only a small percentage of countries invoked as candidates for “desperation” appeals for geoengineering. However, the universe of those potentially affected by geoengineering’s impacts are much broader, including future generations and other vulnerable States;
  • The concept of “consent” is attenuated when one is essentially doing it at “gunpoint,” i.e. when the only alternative is the full force of climate impacts;
  • There are far broader normative considerations at stake in this debate, including the moral implications of deploying technologies that “exert control over the planetary system;”

2. A second interpretation of the desperation argument is that it comports with a right to “self-defense. However, this is also ethically and morally questionable:

  • The right only applies where other strategies have proved unavailing; it is not clear that other options don’t exist to address climate change;
  • Self-defense, even when it can be invoked, must be proportionate; it is not clear that geoengineering approaches that exert profound influence on the environment, e.g. sulfur dioxide injection, meet this test;
  • The right to self-defense can be invoked by many parties, some of whom may wish to defend themselves with different kinds or levels of intervention. This can “give rise to a new emergency scenario, that of competition and conflict . . .”

3. It would likely be a fiction to argue that a vulnerable State could unilaterally deploy geoengineering technologies given the logistical issues involved. Moreover, powerful states would have the military and economic capability to shut down such deployment if they wished.

I think this piece would generate some good class discussion. Among the questions that might be pertinent:

  • How should principles of intergenerational equity be considered in the context of climate geoengineering?
  • Given how close we are to the 2C “cliff,” is it legitimate to invoke “self-defense” to justify climate geoengineering on the grounds that is now a “last resort” option?;
  • What are the moral and legal grounds for requiring the consent of other States to deploy geoengineering technologies?
    • What constitutes “consent” in this context?  Does it require unanimity? If not, what is the pertinent metric?


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