Stephen Gardner

Is Geoengineering the “Lesser Evil”?


1.      Geoengineering = intentionally manipulating the global climate systems on large scale

         a.      E.g.: Injecting sulphur particles into stratosphere to suppress global warming by simulating volcanic eruptions

2.      Seems crazy

         a.      Scientifically: as climate system is highly complex and chaotic and we don’t know enough about details to attempt to manage it

         b.      Politically problematic: Climate management adds a huge and potentially dangerous new dimension to global politics

                   i.       Real potentially very serious consequences for different countries

                   ii.      Who gets to decide whether and how to intervene and why”

                   iii.     What rights/responsibilities govern this


3.      Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen’s lesser evil argument for ambitious geoengineering research:

         a.      Main focus of climate change policy should be mitigation and adaptation

         b.      So far these have been slow and minimal and situation likely to continue (problem of political inertia)

         c.      Must take seriously prospect we won’t mitigate or adapt and middle of century planet will face imminent prospect of runaway climate change.

         d.      Geoengineering, though arguably an evil in itself, might turn out to be a lesser evil than the likely alternative (runaway global warming)

         e.      Should prepare in case we are compelled to endorse that evil

         f.       This means serious research into geoengineering must begin



5.      Moral emergency: Need to be wary of such moral emergency arguments

         a.      Point of an appeal to emergency--exceptional circumstances--is to get an exemption from usual moral constraints

         b.      Political despots often use this appeal

         c.      Such arguments need special scrutiny

6.      Questions to be asked

         a.      How likely is it emergency come about??

         b.      Are geoengineering and runaway climate change only alternatives

         c.      Is “lesser evil” really lesser all things considered?

7.      For decision to geoengineer to be justified, decision maker would have to know

         a.      Planet on verge of very serious climate impacts

         b.      Geoengineering very likely to and only thing likely to prevent them

         c.      Side effects of geoengineering would be minor in relation to harm prevented.

         d.      Unlikely know all these


8.      Matters that the argument is we must prepare for this emergency, not that we face it now

         a.      For people facing tough choice won’t be us, but future people

                   i.       A cause of the political inertia over climate change action and a major part of the moral problem is that climate change allows current generation to unfairly pass on its cost to future people

         b.      Usually in an emergency how situation arose is not all that important

                   i.       See child in drowning pool not appropriate to stop to ponder how it came to be there but rather what to do

                   ii.      Not the case if anticipating an emergency where appropriate to consider how emergency arises.

         c.      Perhaps best way to plan for an emergency is to prevent its arising

                   i.       That we would choose lesser evil if it did arise is irrelevant


9.      Substantial investment in geoengineering will

         a.      Encourage political inertia on mitigation and adaptation

                   i.       Is geoengineering itself a kind of mitigation?

         b.      Facilitate actual deployment of geoengineering “solutions”

                   i.       Decision to research and decision to deploy are not independent as can be seen in history of tech development


10.    That we can prepare for this emergency means we can look for other options

         a.      Crutzen suggesting best we can do to help future people faced with catastrophic climate change is do research into geoengineering

         b.      But we could invest in alternative energy to prepare future people for massive emergency deployment of alternative energy sources

                   i.       Or could establish massive international climate assistance and refugee program (mitigation)


11.    Important moral difference between preparing for an emergency and preparing for an emergency that one is the result of one’s moral failure

         a.      If we put someone in a very bad situation by our own bad acts, usually we don’t think it enough to respond merely by offering them an evil way out

         b.      We have obligations to help them find better alternatives

         c.      And/or find a way of compensating them for our failure

         d.      Even if Crutzen’s argument was correct, should not conclude owe future only research on geoengineering, much more required, e.g., substantial compensation fund


12.    That geoengineering is the only serious response to climate change is explained in part because it seems most easy on present generations

         a.      We’d be happy to spend a few million researching tech our generation won’t have to bear the risks of implementing

         b.      And even happier to think in so doing we were making a morally serious choice in favor of protecting future generations

13.    Crutzen’s geoengineering proposal is as likely to facilitate problems of political inertia and inter-generational moral corruption as to solve them

14.    Surely we can and ought to do better



Questions on Gardner, Is Geoengineering the “Lesser Evil”?
1. Explain the lesser evil argument for geoengineering.
2. How is climate change a question of justice between current and future people?
3. What is Gardner’s response to the idea that we need geoengineering so we can be prepared for the emergency of drastic climate change?
4. According to Gardner, why is geoengineering the only serious response we are considering to climate change?