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The Ethics of Geoengineering: A Literature Review

Abstract

Geoengineering as a technological intervention to avert the dangerous climate change has been on the table at least since 2006. The global outreach of the technology exercised in a non-encapsulated system, the concerns with unprecedented levels and scales of impact and the overarching interdisciplinarity of the project make the geoengineering debate ethically quite relevant and complex. This paper explores the ethical desirability of geoengineering from an overall review of the existing literature on the ethics of geoengineering. It identifies the relevant literature on the ethics of geoengineering by employing a standard methodology. Based on various framing of the major ethical arguments and their subsets, the results section presents the opportunities and challenges at stake in geoengineering from an ethical point of view. The discussion section takes a keen interest in identifying the evolving dynamics of the debate, the grey areas of the debate, with underdeveloped arguments being brought to the foreground and in highlighting the arguments that are likely to emerge in the future as key contenders. It observes the semantic diversity and ethical ambiguity, the academic lop-sidedness of the debate, missing contextual setting, need for interdisciplinary approaches, public engagement, and region-specific assessment of ethical issues. Recommendations are made to provide a useful platform for the second generation of geoengineering ethicists to help advance the debate to more decisive domains with the required clarity and caution.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an analogy to the moral problem of achieving individual and collective benefits by cooperating or not cooperating. Individual interest may hinder societal benefit and only calling on collaboration would result in collective benefit. Non-cooperative behaviour may make one better off temporarily, but in the end, everybody ends up worse off.

  2. 2.

    ‘Tuvalu syndrome’ was coined by Millard-Ball (2012) to refer to the fear of small nations like Tuvalu deploying SRM unilaterally.

  3. 3.

    Clinical theory is a branch of non-ideal theory aiming at identifying “politically feasible institutions or policies that would address existing… injustice without violating certain kinds of moral permissibility constraints” (Morrow & Svoboda 2016: 85).

  4. 4.

    The Maximin principle or Maximin criterion is a principle advocated by American philosopher John Rawls in his Theory of Justice.

  5. 5.

    It could be seen that side-effects are the normative grounds for the challenges with justice. However, we classify them separately under the scientific challenges given their wider implications for the ethics of geoengineering beyond the challenges to justice.

  6. 6.

    It could be noted that the subsets of argument frames, such as side-effects, uncertainties and risks are very much interwoven and sometimes are overlapping. However, we treat them as distinctive, avoiding repetition for a more comprehensive analysis of the moral issues at stake. While our treatment of the side-effects and uncertainties would be focused exclusively on the scientific and technical concerns, risk ethics will have broader purview of concerns, embracing the social, moral, and political issues also. Side-effects, here, are coined mostly in the environmental sense, as referring to the direct and contextualized impact on weather and climate. Risks refer mainly to the potential indirect impacts on the social and political domains. Risks are remote and extended side-effects transcending contextual boundaries. Whereas by uncertainty, here, we refer to the inadequacy of the scientific data, research gaps and the still speculative aspects in the proposed technologies, as opposed to the essential features of scientific knowledge like exactitude, certainty, objectivity, and mathematical accuracy. It is acknowledged that in geoengineering proposals, uncertainty pertains to side-effects and risks as well.

  7. 7.

    Preston (2011) has a presumptive argument emerging within the opposition against geoengineering. “The presumptive argument is bolstered by recognition of the extraordinary complexity of earth’s ecological system and often a deep scepticism about scientists’ ability to manage it” (Preston 2011: 464). Gardiner’s coining of the “unthinkable action” (Gardiner 2010: 299) carries the very thought of geoengineering as morally undesirable and something almost counter-intuitive to consider in the first place.

  8. 8.

    Technological lock-in would mean that the “the pressure to implement geoengineering from vested institutions could potentially overwhelm the caution the technology demands” (Preston 2013a: 28).

  9. 9.

    It is acknowledged that arbitrary and interpretative elements may be present in the classification of the papers along this line.

  10. 10.

    This may not have been the case even in 2015 as Preston (2013a) has a significant engagement with the post-deployment scenario.

  11. 11.

    As this classification can be easily identified mostly from title of the sources, the sources are not repeated herein for want of space. It may also be noted that there are three books published on the ethics of SRM technologies (Preston 2012; Preston 2016b; Svoboda 2017b).

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Pamplany, A., Gordijn, B. & Brereton, P. The Ethics of Geoengineering: A Literature Review. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 3069–3119 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-020-00258-6

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Keywords

  • Geoengineering
  • Ethics
  • Solar radiation management
  • Carbon dioxide removal
  • Negative emission
  • Justice
  • Research-ethics
  • Lesser evil
  • Moral hazard