Character and Religion in Climate Engineering

A group of scientists at the University of Washington has proposed a field test of marine cloud brightening, during which saltwater would be sprayed into the air in an extremely fine mist. The goal is to determine whether it is possible to increase the reflectivity of nearby, low-level ocean clouds and thereby reduce global warming by reflecting more incoming solar energy. Such a test seems benign—after all, it uses only “natural” materials (saltwater, wind, clouds) to encourage a change in cloud reflectivity. Whether this test succeeds or not, it will offer data about how the climate system works, and so it will contribute to the effort of understanding, and perhaps reducing, the harms caused by the emissions of fossil fuel combustion and industrial agriculture. Yet even a small-scale field test of climate engineering raises complicated questions of morality and governance. The Spring 2017 Issues in Science and Technology discussed many such questions and their complexities.

Here we seek to point out a useful but often-neglected conversation partner that can aid these discussions: religion. Religious traditions offer concepts and vocabularies for addressing ethics and policy. Religion is formatively influential for a majority of the world’s population, but is too often ignored in discussions of the social dimensions of climate engineering. Though we are not suggesting that all ethics and policy must “be religious,” we do argue that everyone (believers and nonbelievers alike) can profit from analyzing the distinctive moral and political ideas emerging from religious traditions and worldviews. In particular, we hold that religion is important to broaden the conversation to include the moral issue of character.

Discussions of climate engineering frequently include some conversation about intention, examining not just what researchers plan to do, but also why. For example, climate engineering proposals are often justified by the fact that no political or economic prospect for emissions reductions in the near term seems realistically likely to limit climate change enough to prevent serious harm, particularly to vulnerable populations. In this scenario, climate engineering has a noble intention: to prevent some of the worst impacts of anthropogenic climate change. But this does not provide the whole picture, because it also matters who plans to do the work and how they will be held accountable to the rest of us. This opens the door to discuss the theologically grounded issue of character, which is broader and deeper than intention.

The question of character asks us to reflect on what kind of people and communities should be trusted to engineer the climate, or even to experiment with the possibility of engineering the climate. We propose that religion can be a guide for finding an answer to the question: What kind of character should we seek in the climate engineering research community of scientists, engineers, policy analysts, ethicists, and others?

Even asking the question might raise skepticism. Should scientists and engineers applying for grants and permits and the policy actors and ethics boards who approve them have their moral centers tested? In the current political climate, how could one nation, much less the international community, possibly agree on what kind of character we are looking for? Can we “operationalize” the notion of character, making it a productive concept for guiding policy and governance? Does opening the door to religion run the risk of seeding sectarian debates and divisions? Facing the urgent problem of climate change, do we really have time to start a new conversation about religion and character? These are important questions. To respond, we must first explain what we mean by character, how we can find resources to deepen conversation about it in religious traditions, and how it might apply to the particular case of an experiment to brighten marine clouds.

Religious traditions can help us talk about character

National discourse in the United States does not cultivate a robust discussion of character. The 2016 presidential election was frequently summarized as coming down to “a question of character,” with the two dominant candidates attacking one another as “unfit,” a vague statement of character at best. Since taking office, President Trump has continued this level of discussion on the topic, regularly responding to critiques of his staff by assuring the public that Steve Bannon or H. R. McMaster is “a good man” and that Donald Trump Jr. is “a high quality person.” This suggests that character is easily categorized—“good” or “bad”—and that it can be used to end moral and political discussions.

We need better resources to talk about character well, especially if we wish to use character to enhance moral, political, and even scientific discussions. A vital source for these resources comes from religious traditions, which have spent millennia defining admirable habits of character and developing resources to nurture those habits in people. The Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible and the Beatitudes in the New Testament both articulate character traits that Judaism and Christianity seek to cultivate, such as wisdom, faith, mercy, and compassion. The Hindu Bhagavad Gita uplifts, explains, and cultivates the character trait of dutiful action, among others. Confucianism emphasizes habits such as propriety, honesty, and integrity, and teaches students how to live them out.

Whatever else they are, religions are moral traditions with deep insight into how people should behave and how good character can be nurtured. This means that religion is profoundly relevant to any discussion of climate engineering and offers a set of resources to talk about the challenging moral and political questions it raises. Furthermore, religions need not compete on questions of character. Though emphases and contexts differ greatly, there are few doctrinal debates within or between traditions on the subject of good character. Instead, we find mutually upbuilding lessons about how to cultivate good people, and these lessons have a great deal to offer aspiring climate engineers.

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur offers a helpful articulation of what it means to talk about character. In Oneself as Another, the book that emerged from his contribution to the famous Gifford Lectures on natural theology, Ricoeur defines character as “the ‘what’ of the ‘who.’” Character is the aspect of one’s identity that persists over time, solidified by habits and reputation. In other words, one’s character is made of the qualities (the “what”) that one holds over time (the “who”), making you who you are. Someone with a brave character has a self-identity formed and advanced by, for instance, bravely telling the truth even when it causes controversy. The person who can be trusted to do so over and over again, who has the habit of telling the truth in all circumstances, has an honest character. Character is a structure—defining communities as well as institutions—that comes before intentions, shapes intentions, and forms our responses to events. It makes us who we are. A good character contains those qualities of self-identity we individually and collectively value.

What character traits are required to engineer the climate?

But what are the qualities of character that we should seek for climate engineering? For sake of discussion, we suggest three habits of character that might play a role: responsibility, humility, and justice. We illustrate these qualities with reference to three different religious traditions, although none is exclusive to just one religion.

A core belief in Buddhist traditions is that all actions have consequences, and anyone who intentionally acts will live out the consequences of that action. This idea, summarized by the oft-misused word karma, affects one’s character: a good person is one who accepts and anticipates responsibility for his or her actions. The Dalai Lama applies this lesson to global climate change in a short essay titled “Universal Responsibility and the Climate Emergency.” He asserts that “environmental disasters—Atlantic hurricanes, wildfires, desertification, retreat of glaciers and Arctic sea ice—these can be seen as [earth’s] response to our irresponsible behavior.” He goes on to say that as the people who contributed to this state of affairs and are beginning to come to grips with it, “We ourselves are the pivotal human generation” with responsibility to halt and repair environmental degradation. Our careless actions and those of previous generations have disrupted the natural world; we now live with the consequences. Whatever actions we take to undo this damage, the entire planet will live with the results. Good character means accepting that responsibility, and so any consideration of climate engineering should consider whether those undertaking and overseeing the actions have a properly responsible character.

Foundational to the Islamic faith is the statement that there is no God but God, and an important moral lesson extracted from this is that no human being is God. No person who seeks to take God’s place by controlling or directing the world can be trusted. In 2015, a group of Muslims adopted a statement applying this lesson at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul. They emphasized the importance of humility. Human beings must take action on climate change in a way that recognizes our limitations, our past failings, and our inability to completely prevent future problems. No person is or can be perfect. The statement underlines this with a quote from the 17th surah of the Qur’an:

Do not strut arrogantly on the earth.
You will never split the earth apart
nor will you ever rival the mountains’ stature.

The statement also instills humility by insisting that humans have caused harm when attempting to “strut arrogantly,” particularly through the “unwise and short-sighted” use of fossil fuels. Humans have arrogantly failed to care for the planet, and any attempt to resolve this problem will need to nurture the kind of humility that prevents further harm and damage. Climate engineering requires a properly humble character.

A primary ethical concern in Christian communities is the commitment to justice, to the equitable treatment of all, the fair distribution of goods, and compensatory attention to those who have been treated unfairly. Christianity teaches that justice is not just a political idea, but is also a habit of character: people learn to behave justly, and habitual justice is part of what it means to grow as a moral person. In his encyclical letter on “care for our common home,” Pope Francis applies this lesson to the problem of climate change. He writes that environmental issues are always also issues of justice, that the human race faces “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” This leads him to observe that climatic changes will affect the most vulnerable people and creatures the worst, a particularly unfair dynamic since they have played the smallest role in creating the problem. To stop this injustice, Francis calls all people to cultivate “new habits,” to build toward “healthy politics,” and to spread a global appreciation of “integral ecology.” These characteristics define the character of a just person and a just community, which will be absolutely essential if climate engineering has any hope of responding not merely to the warming world, but also to the inequities of the problems it creates. Climate engineering requires a properly just character.

We do not wish to argue that these particular habits are the only ones, or even the best, when it comes to the qualities of character that will be needed in the climate engineering research community. Rather, our larger goal is to insist that some consideration of character itself is essential. Delineating what it would mean for the climate engineering community to have a good character is a concrete, worthwhile discussion, and a necessary process if we are to address the ethical and governance issues of climate engineering. Likewise, it will be important to define qualities of bad character, which would threaten the success of climate engineering on moral and political grounds.

Do these character traits work in practice?

It is one thing to argue that a moral concept such as character is applicable to a situation, but another thing to show that it is useful in concrete assessments of events and actions. What would it look like to consider character in the course of climate engineering research? Can these considerations be consistent and operational enough to be part of evaluations of climate policy? We offer tentative proposals as discussion starters.

First, to provide a clue as to how researchers’ character might manifest responsibility, proposals for research and field tests should include a detailed account of the problem being addressed, as well as the moral and social impacts of the plan. Any research proposal explains assumptions and understanding about the system with which it interacts. For marine cloud brightening, this might include not only the atmospheric system over oceans and the technology required to alter clouds, but also the political and social systems that make such intervention necessary. A danger of climate engineering is that technological intervention could simply replicate the ideological causes of climate change—that is to say, climate engineering could be an avoidance of responsibility instead of an acceptance of it. Therefore, researchers should demonstrate a responsible character by providing thoughtful analyses of how the proposal not only intervenes productively in the climate problem, but also builds capacity to deal responsibly with the scientific and societal consequences of such intervention. A proposal that includes naive evaluation of moral issues and social impacts might suggest that the aspiring engineers should study the problem they seek to solve more deeply before being confident of their ability to solve it. Such social analysis is not always a part of scientific and technical training, and so they should seek the expertise of philosophers, ethicists, and theologians. Scholars of religion are trained to critically evaluate the systemic and ideological foundations of climate change. Such evaluation must be part of a responsible climate engineering research community.

The habit of humility may be harder to evaluate consistently, but doing so will be nonetheless vital. Those proposing to research or undertake climate engineering need to consider the limitations of technologies, the limits of understanding that they bring to their work, and their own fallibility. This is particularly important given how ill-equipped existing governance and political structures are to handle the complexity of climate engineering. Proposals should embrace the need for humility in the face of the risks and uncertainties: What is unpredictable in this experiment? If it does not work, what will the cost be and who will bear it? If it does work, could it be misused to cause harm? If so, how preventable is such misuse? These are questions that need answers, and the process of answering them will reveal something about the climate engineer behind the proposal. One who does not take such questions seriously might not have the humility required to do so well.

Finally, justice should be central to any discussion of climate engineering. A research program will exhibit just habits of character if it is scientifically and politically constructed to prioritize, where possible, the poor and marginalized who already are suffering from climate change. This may be difficult in the early stages of research that primarily involves testing atmospheric processes, but becomes a much more central issue for tests of climate response to engineering. At this point, a just research program will place these stakeholders in important directorial or advisory capacities, giving marginalized communities a significant role in evaluating risks and, ultimately, in deciding whether or not to use the technology. Implicit in this process is considering who has been and will be part of the decision-making processes, and who might be left out. In the longer term, if a process for managing solar radiation works and deployment is considered, can the technology and its distribution be constructed so the appropriate people have economic and political authority over deciding whether and how to implement it?

There are no simple and uncontroversial tests for character, but character is nevertheless a vitally important part of any consideration of climate engineering. Indeed, the fact that character is so difficult to quantify could be useful, because it will ensure that complex decisions about climate engineering will never be made based on scientific facts and political realities alone. To take character seriously, climate engineers will need to engage ethicists, citizens, and faith communities in their work. This may take longer than if a small group of scientists and engineers simply acted on its own, but the only way to respond to climate change responsibly, humbly, and justly is to recognize that no one can do this alone.

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Cite this Article

Clingerman, Forrest, Kevin J. O'Brien, and Thomas P. Ackerman. “Character and Religion in Climate Engineering.” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 1 (Fall 2017).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Fall 2017