The Ethics of Geoengineering

Dale Jamieson


1.      Geoengineering = the intentional manipulation of the climate (=ICC)

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

         b.      E.g.: Adding iron to thousands of square miles of nutrient rich (but iron deficient) regions of the world’s oceans to create vast phytoplankton blooms

         c.      For more details on these technologies, click here:


2.      Geoengineering is a serious response to prevention of human-induced climate change (and we are doing very little of a serious nature)


3.      Four conditions of intentional climate change (= ICC) to be morally permissible

         a.      Technically feasible

         b.      Consequences can be predicted reliably

         c.      Produce states that are socially and economically preferable to the alternatives

         d.      Implementing it would not seriously/systematically violate any important ethical principle/consideration

                   i.       Essay deals with this 4th condition


4.      Three important ethical considerations

         a.      Democratic decision-making

         b.      Prohibition of irreversible changes

         c.      Learning to live with nature



6.      Rich caused CC and got most of benefits:

         a.      Climate change now occurring caused by people in rich countries (and their ancestors)

7.      Poor not asked about or benefit much from CC:

         a.      People in poor countries neither consulted about wisdom of CC nor benefitted much from activities that resulted in CC

8.      Rich likely to make geoengineering decision

         a.      Decision to undertake ICC most likely made by same people who caused and benefitted from it

9.      No decision to go forward with ICC is morally permissible if it does not represent all people of the world

         a.      Even if people in poor countries benefit from ICC, still wrong to change their climate w/o their consent

10.    Very difficult to design a democratic deliberative procedure that leads to a just decision about ICC

         a.      Unwieldy as would have to represent everyone on earth

         b.      Who represented and how?

         c.      What kind of agreement would be needed for action to be permissible?

                   i.       Unanimity among nations? (Are nations even proper vehicles for this decision? Why not?)

                   ii.      Simple majority

                   iii.     Decision of UN security council?

11.    Bottom line: Unlikely to be a democratic decision authorizing ICC

         a.      Still could happen: Same people who are avoiding and evading difficult decisions that might prevent or mitigate inadvertent climate change might well implement ICC if they felt it in their interests


12.    Adaptation versus mitigation of climate change: What is the difference?



14.    Irreversible changes extremely serious

         a.      E.g., murder is so serious in part as no restitution is possible

15.    Irreversible environmental change also serious

         a.      For many environmental conditions/states, once lost, can’t ever be restored (not anyway on time scale of interest to humans)

         b.      Restoration and restitution not same....Might not be able to reverse climate change (restore earlier climate) but might be able to give restitution (Gardner’s compensation fund)

16.    If effects of ICC were irreversible, those who made the decision would be choosing one climate path for future people rather than another

17.    Some say ICC is reversible

         a.      Can stop fertilizing oceans with iron

         b.      Mirrors can be removed from orbit

18.    But while may be able to reverse processes that set climate change in motion, we may not be able to reverse the climate change itself

         a.      Why couldn’t we pump more GHG into atmosphere?

19.    Can’t be sure reversible unless we actually try to reverse them


20.    Changing human behavior better route as it is reversible

         a.      Changing human behavior is often more conservative response to problem than changing physical systems

         b.      Changing behavior is not costless or easy

         c.      But in principle changes in behavior can always be modified or reversed

21.    Changing behavior is most ethically responsible as it demands that solution to problems be located in their source: humans, their behavior and their institutions

22.    Consider the difference between engineering fish to live in a polluted river (changing the physical system) or changing human behavior so we stop polluting the river.



24.    Many environmental problems come from attempts to manipulate nature in order to make it conform to our desires, rather than forming our desires in response to nature (i.e., live with nature)

25.    Examples of manipulating nature to conform to our desires

         a.      Bringing water to places where people want to live

         b.      Exterminating animals who prey on those we raise for food

         c.      Dredging harbors and filling wetlands so cities can develop

26.    Need to let nature take its course more and do more to adapt our desires to nature

         a.      Not possible/desirable for humans always to let nature take its course

         b.      But growing sense that modern societies have erred on side of excessive intervention and not let nature take its course enough

         c.      All too often we change environment instead of our desires


27.    ICC is dominating nature instead of learning to live with it and encourages this domineering attitude toward nature

         a.      Attempting to change global climate is “a very grand gesture”

         b.      Can think of large-scale manipulations of environment as popping rivets in the attitudes and dispositions that are required in order to live peaceably with nature

                   i.       Ehrlich’s analogy comparing loss of species to loss of rivets in airplane

         c.      Even successful ICC would have bad effect of reinforcing the view that proper human relationship to nature is domination (rather than living with nature)

         d.      This attitude may be more destructive of both humans and rest of nature than climate change itself



29.    Enthusiastically concludes we should not now try to geoengineer climate

         a.      Virtually everyone claims to accept this (though perhaps for different reasons)

30.    Unenthusiastically conclude that research should continue on whether ICC can be carried out in a way consistent with his conditions

         a.      Note: How much of this research is physical science and how much social science? Seems like mostly the latter?

31.    Why carry out this research?

32.    May reach a point at which ICC is lesser of two evils

33.    Risks in initiating ICC research program remain profound

         a.      Opportunity costs:

                   i.       $ invested in one area of research not available for other areas

                   ii.      $ spend on ICC research is $ that can’t be spent on other approaches to climate change problem, namely preventing inadvertent climate change or mitigating its effects

         b.      Researching a tech risks inappropriately developing it (Most serious worry)

                   i.       False to think of research as being quite independent of development

                   ii.      Often research leads unreflectively to development

                   iii.     Evidence for this claim:

                            (1)    Cultural imperative says if something can be done it should be done; “The technological imperative”

                                      (a)     Tech develop life of own that leads inexorably to their development and deployment

                                      (b)    Opposing deployment of a tech is seen as luddite: attempt to turn back progress that is doomed to failure

                            (2)    Well documented impetus to move unreflectively from research to development

                                      (a)     Research program often creates a community of researchers that functions as interest group promoting development fo tech they are investigating

34.    Safeguards should be built into any research program from beginning

         a.      Reject idea ethical and societal concerns are relevant only to decision about development and not decision about research

                   i.       These concerns should figure in what to research, what level of funding and with what urgency

         b.      Serious systematic work should be done on conditions that would have to be satisfied for deployment of ICC tech to be justified

         c.      Ethical concerns need to permeate from the beginning and be significant

         d.      Build in societal assessment from the beginning

                   i.       Required if research on ICC is to be ethically justified