Geoengineering Ethics


Character and Religion in Climate Engineering
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In “Character and Religion in Climate Engineering” (Issues, Fall 2017), Forrest Clingerman, Kevin O’Brien, and Thomas Ackermann provide a neglected, interesting, and potentially valuable perspective on how to deal with high-stakes technology and policy choices related to climate engineering. Their approach is particularly bracing as a counterweight to the widespread but often overlooked presumption of interest-based rationalism that underlies many discussions of public policy, climate engineering, and other matters.

Their argument targets one of the central problems of climate engineering. Any decisions about climate engineering interventions (including refusal to authorize them) would have global consequences, but would also involve unavoidable delegation of authority to some kind of international body, whether political or technical or some blend of the two. Delegation requires some degree of trust. But in global decisions, in which participating values are widely diverse and mechanisms for democratic accountability are at best imperfect, what could provide the basis for establishing such trust? The authors’ answer is to abstract a few fundamental character traits, or virtues, that are consistently articulated across the world’s major religious traditions—accountability, humility, and justice—and propose that decisions should manifest these virtues.

As a short list of virtues you would want incorporated in policy decisions, this is a good one, although I would suggest one change. Justice is an odd fit with the other two, because it is more a property of collective political outcomes than of individual character, and because many proposed ways to operationalize it would appear to miss the authors’ target. For example, views of justice that stress procedural fairness seem irrelevant to their aim, while views that highlight expansive protection of property rights might act against their aim. I would propose replacing justice with compassion, particularly in its concern for the suffering of the worst off and most vulnerable populations. Like the authors’ proposed guiding virtues, it is near-universal across religious traditions, and it might more squarely target their concern.

But this is a small objection, almost a quibble. I see three more serious challenges to deriving useful guidance from the authors’ proposed virtues.

First, there has not been a close correspondence between individual character and political decisions since the decline of absolute sovereigns. Contemporary policy decisions are made not by individuals, but by complex bureaucratic and political networks. In such systems, the challenges to making the identified virtues operational, or even influential, are substantial. Indeed, it often appears that political institutions are more effective at aggregating and empowering vice (such as greed, lust for power, delusion) than virtue, even when their ostensible guiding principles are virtues. Multiple examples attest that even explicitly religious institutions, principles, and commitments are not exempt from this generalization when they move, or are moved, into the sphere of temporal or political action. Consider religious justifications of extremist violence, the Catholic hierarchy’s decades-long evasions over sexual abuse of children, or the entrainment of much of contemporary American evangelical Protestantism into the political agenda of the Republican Party. My aim here it not to take cheap shots against religions or religious organizations, nor to reject the authors’ aspiration, but merely to note the acute, unresolved challenges to realizing their aims in the context of high-stakes political action.

Second, the implications of the authors’ proposed virtues for action are frustratingly vague. When any action has diffuse, far-reaching potential consequences, exhorting decision-makers to take account of consequences is surely better advice than the contrary. But this exhortation provides no guidance on what consequences to consider, how many steps removed from the initial action, mediated by what processes (including other people’s decisions), or how to think about them. Similarly, exhortations to humility are clearly proper, if the alternative is rigid confidence in a single view of technical capabilities and consequences. But when any action—or for that matter inaction—leads to multiple linked uncertainties, it is unclear what additional guidance humility provides. Perhaps it overlaps with prudence or precaution, but then what additional guidance does it give? And if the additional guidance is for extreme precaution when dealing with novel acts such as climate engineering, then humility, like accountability, risks becoming a comprehensive prescription for inaction, thus further entrenching the status quo and its associated risks—in this case, continued climate change and impacts, limited only by whatever reductions can be achieved by mitigation.

Finally, the authors propose to apply their character-based framework to climate engineering—and in particular to climate engineering research—but do not say why these activities, rather than other technologies, policy decisions, or research areas, should be subject to such heightened scrutiny. For potential future operational decisions about climate engineering, heightened scrutiny clearly makes sense. Given their global impacts and high stakes, we would surely hope these decisions are made with accountability, humility, and consideration for the most vulnerable. But this seems even more evident for other areas of current research and technology development, such as synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, that are racing ahead with little such scrutiny. Saying “What about these other technologies” does not, of course, rebut the case for subjecting climate engineering to such scrutiny. But it does raise questions about the limited application of such a character-based perspective, and the oddity of advocating such application for a set of potential technologies not yet in development, indeed scarcely researched, yet already subject to exhaustive, hostile scrutiny.

The application of this heightened scrutiny to research is particularly strange. Although concerns have been raised that research on climate engineering will inevitably lead down a slippery slope to thoughtless deployment whether justified or not, the basis for such claims is weak. Yet the authors appear to presume this will happen, by holding research to account for all harms that might follow from deployment. The link from research to deployment cannot be completely dismissed, but there is little basis for judging it a serious risk. History is littered with technologies researched and developed but not deployed. Moreover, strong restrictions on or aggressive scrutiny of research may act against the authors’ aims for accountability and humility. Because expanded research is needed to advance understanding of potential consequences and risks, strong restrictions on research—particularly if proponents of the research are required to surmount a burden of showing no harm can come from it—would hinder the attempt to gain knowledge about consequences and risks that is necessary to support an informed stance of accountability or humility, except insofar as these are construed as implying categorical rejection of climate engineering deployment or research, under all conditions. I suspect this is not what the authors intended.

Dan and Rae Emmett Professor of Environmental Law

UCLA School of Law

Forrest Clingerman, Kevin J. O’Brien, and Thomas P. Ackermann make a cogent case for the inclusion of religious thought—particularly character ethics—in discussions of solar radiation management and carbon capture and storage. They advocate responsibility, humility, and justice as character traits that may be supported by religious thought and applicable to those making decisions about climate engineering. Though this is unobjectionable, it also misses the mark regarding the most dynamic and useful insights that religions bring to the conversation.

Climate engineering is ontologically disorienting because it clearly places human agency into a position of power over a global entity—the climate—that has never before been deliberately manipulated at this scale. Before the policy community or the public at large is ready to discuss whether climate engineers are sufficiently virtuous, we must determine what our new and rather frightening abilities mean about who we are and where we’re going as a species. We need to reckon with the philosophically shallow but emotionally provocative concern that humans may be “playing God.” Until we can truly accept the implications of the fact that humans are responsible for accidental climate change, we will not be ready to ethically evaluate the proposal to deliberately change the climate.

Religious thought has many relevant insights: Shall we reenvision the role of the human in creation? Are we dominators, stewards, caretakers, partners, priests, kin? Ought we repent of complicity in climate change, ask forgiveness, seek reconciliation? Are humans alone in these decisions, or might we seek wisdom from ancient traditions, a transcendent and wise deity, or even (acknowledging that not all humans have equally caused these problems) from those most affected by climate change? These ontological questions precede and underlie questions of ethics and character. (And several contributions to Clingerman and O’Brien’s recent book, Theological and Ethical Perspectives on Climate Engineering, touch on them.)

The authors correctly insist that scientific proposals for climate engineering should also include moral and social considerations. Some scientists may find this requirement cumbersome. But the philosopher Bernard Rollin, in Science and Ethics, recognizes that if scientists wish to maintain professional autonomy, “they must be closely attuned in an anticipatory way to changes and tendencies in social ethics and adjust their behavior to them, else they can be shackled by unnecessarily draconian restriction.”

Rollin astutely observes that “any major new technology will create a lacuna in social and ethical thought in direct proportion to its novelty.” He worries that this lacuna, if not filled well, will lead to “bad ethics.” For example, he notes that within one week of the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997, a poll indicated that 75% of the US public believed that cloning the sheep had “violated” God’s will. If would-be climate engineers wish to avoid a backlash comparable to that against genetic modification of organisms, they would do well to take Clingerman, O’Brien, and Ackermann’s advice by proactively engaging ethics and religion sooner rather than later.

Assistant Professor, Environmental Studies

University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

Forrest Clingerman, Kevin O’Brien, and Thomas Ackermann discuss three important character attributes that humanity will need to manage the climate of the Earth: responsibility, humility, and justice. I think the first two will be more important than the last. It’s easy to forget that we are not talking about geoengineering to steer away from our current climate. We are talking about geoengineering when things become really bad and most of the world, if not the entire world, is suffering badly. Responsible action will mean making things better for nearly everyone while at the same time never giving into the hubris that we can have total control. Justice is important, but any responsible action should mean that we are quite certain the intervention will help pretty much everyone.

Being responsible, humble, and just may be its own reward, but motivating publics will likely require more than admonitions. This deeply pessimistic time for many who study the climate problem means these scientists fear that the awful truth—as they understand it—would cause people to just give up. We must also think about attracting people to a future world and giving them reason to be, if not optimistic, at least willfully hopeful about the future. Geoengineering holds some promise for developing hope. Geoengineers need hopefulness.

To act with intention as a geoengineer implies designing interventions to achieve specific outcomes. Definition of goals will surely include the notion that everyone should have enough to eat, sufficient water and shelter, clean air to breathe, and so on. Some parts of the Earth should be dedicated to animals or perhaps re-wilded. Hope may grow as people, or at least groups of people, come together over these goals. Exploration of geoengineering presents the opportunity to learn about effective management of the environment of the planet and to take pleasure in doing a good job in that process.

But people will also likely want or need a simpler clarifying way to think about what humanity is trying to achieve on our home planet, and to some extent this may simply involve beauty. Finding beauty in aspects of the world that humans have engineered will likely require a lot more common knowledge and working appreciation about how the world of the Anthropogene (the time during which human activity has significantly altered the natural environment) works. If you don’t understand how the world works, how can you understand and appreciate what an intervention does? I would guess that most Americans no longer know as much about where their water and food come from as they did in the past. To many, water comes from the tap, food from the store. The ebb and flow of seasons and what to expect as they change don’t really show up on television or smartphones. As part of the challenge, geoengineers will also have to become communicators and explainers of the wonders of this world and the pleasures and aesthetics of stewardship. And they will have to know an awful lot.

Oakland, California

Forrest Clingerman, Kevin O’Brien, and Thomas Ackerman call for dialogue between geoengineering researchers and religion (or religion scholars). Religions provide numerous resources for ethical deliberation. They offer distinct vocabularies, concepts, and narratives for framing problems and evaluating possible solutions. As Clingerman and coauthors point out, reflection on geoengineering ought to engage us in discussions of the moral character of researchers. Desirable character traits include justice, responsibility, and humility. As a rule of thumb, no one who aspires to assume the role of God by controlling the world’s climate should be trusted with the technologies to do so.

Some researchers, I imagine, might scoff at alarmist warnings about playing God. Do scientists genuinely harbor divine aspirations, or is this merely the stuff of cinematic depictions of mad scientists and sensationalized news headlines?

In my view, the article’s authors are quite right to stress issues of character, particularly in an epoch that, formally or otherwise, we are naming after ourselves. As they argue, everyone stands to benefit from better acquaintance with religious worldviews and their distinctive moral contributions. But we must also understand that religion—broadly construed—has already framed these and other debates about technology. It is not simply a matter of inserting religion into a conversation where it is absent, in other words. Religious myths, motifs, vocabularies, and aspirations have long taken up residence in our discourse about science and technology. Recognizing this, scientists and others might learn to use religion’s resources responsibly, to reflect more deeply on the marriage of religion and technology that already exists.

Geoengineering strategies present a moral hazard: technological adaptation to climate change may perpetuate avoidance of responsibility rather than force us to address underlying causes—character flaws—that created the crisis. If we can remake the world to suit ourselves and our preferred mode of existence, we can persist in the denial of human and natural limits. Depending on how we deploy them, mythic and religious vocabularies can encourage or critique avoidance of responsibility. They can foster aggrandizement of ourselves as creators, or they can serve as humble reminders of our creaturely status.

Appropriation of religious language in a techno-scientific milieu is rampant—particularly when stakes are high or the achievements unprecedented. We see such appropriation among would-be geoengineers insisting that “we are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” We find it among champions of de-extinction who christen their work “The Lazarus Project.” Atomic scientists of the past century who likened themselves to Hindu deities, or spoke of scientists “knowing sin” for the first time, were telling us something. When engineers dream of interstellar travel and attach mythic names to their visions—”Star Ark” or “Icarus”—we should pay attention.

The first astronauts to land on the moon read aloud from the Genesis stories of creation. Were they praising God’s creation? Perhaps, inspired by their God’s-eye view, they were affirming the extension of humans’ God-given dominion well beyond Earth. Who can say?

Religion scholars can say. Or at least, they can provide intelligent analysis. We need more dialogue between the research community and religion. And we also need to understand what is already being communicated and why.

Associate Professor of Religious Studies

Indiana University

Cite this Article

“Geoengineering Ethics.” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 2 (Winter 2018).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Winter 2018