The Immorality of Geoengineering

salter James Carroll almost never writes a column that I disagree with. but today he did. He strayed a bit from his usual subjects into the murky world of geoengineering.

Even if carbon emissions were dramatically reduced all over the planet (including in China, India, and Africa, where fossil fuel engines are just firing up), the biosphere is already facing catastrophe. The greenhouse effect is self-compounding, and scientists tell us that atmospheric temperatures will continue to rise even without more pollution. However difficult it has been to launch a real discussion of the causes of global warming, an even-larger controversy looms now, as problematic attempts to mitigate warming through “geoengineering” are forced onto the human agenda.

He is quite correct to say that geoengineering is even more controversial than global warming. The controversy over global climate change is concocted up by those ideologically opposed to taking action now at whatever it would cost because it might threaten their wealth or power. Denying the existence, magnitude, or causes of the tragic changes we are already experiencing and arguably know will be visiting us more and more is reprehensible. The consequences predicted by honest scientists are of the order of those of a large-scale war with an important difference. The enemy, as Pogo says, is us.

Technology has enabled the United States to fight wars without mobilizing the nation as we had to in previous wars. We waged waged two recent wars without a call upon all of our young to serve, and without any sacrifice in our consumption. The deficit problem is larger than it would have been in the absence of these conflicts, but we have yet to do anything about it.

Now with serious environmental and associated socio-economic impacts coming, we are being tempted to use technology to avoid being called to duty. Not to serve under arms, but to alter the life styles that are the cause of the upsets we are more and more worried about. Worried, but not convinced that they are so serious that we all have to join the fray. Still hoping that the engineers will do the job for us. The picture I get is that of a technician sitting in a far away van, directing a drone with a joystick. The only difference is that he is aiming at an enemy, a geoengineer would be aiming at Mother Nature.

This call on technology is much like situation that spawned sustainable development, a technocratic and technological solution to the growing environmental and social deterioration that became noticeable 30-40 years ago. Use technology to produce and consume more efficiently, so that we could continue to grow our materialistic economies and avoid more damage at the same time. It hasn’t worked. Every assessment of the state of the environmental and social world shows that we have dug even deeper holes. Climate change is just the latest insult to nature we are starting to worry about.

As and Ronald Reagan famously said, “There you go again.” We haven’t learned much from our futile attempts at eco-efficiency, but here we are trying the same old thing, another technological fix, another Band-Aid. Carroll, ignoring the past several decades of avoiding, thinks we are facing a moral cliff.

Once again, we humans find ourselves at a moral threshold, where technology poses unprecedented challenges to our capacity for ethical choice. Biomedical engineering, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic modification of agriculture, cellular manipulation for reproductive “enhancement”: These frontiers of science are also boundaries of wisdom. What is the right thing to do?

In the case of the environment, though, the pressures come not from newfound capabilities, but from a doomsday clock that we ourselves set ticking. Having only now approached a broad popular consensus that climate change is a problem, we must promptly imagine far more expansive solutions. Reducing fossil fuels is urgently necessary, but probably insufficient. Let sensible discussion of creative interventions begin. For Mother Earth, and all her children.

I would agree with these possible outcomes, but he has the players and the choices all wrong. I strongly disagree with his suggestion to start a “discussion of creative interventions [of geoengineering].” This is like Congress kicking the can down the road, applying fiscal Band-Aids to staunch the bleeding. The moral choice does not involve giving the energy companies a parole as he writes. It would have that effect, but that’s not the more serious problem. It would give us, the consumers, a parole which we are not ready for. A parole board with Mother Nature at the head would send us back to our cushy cells, arguing we have not become rehabilitated. We haven’t begun to accept any responsibility for our “crimes” against the Planet. We haven’t changed our ways or done anything that justifies a parole.

I respect Carroll as a writer, especially when he writes about ethical or moral issues, but he hasn’t cast a wide enough net in this case. His moral gaze is turned in the wrong direction, looking outward instead of inward. It may seem like a suicidal choice to turn away from a promising (?) technological solution for an existential threat, but the real suicidal choice is choosing that path while ignoring or excusing our central role in the matter. We, the global community, faced with a less threatening situation—the depletion of the ozone layer—made the right choice back then. We stopped producing the bad stuff, going cold turkey. Of course we had a substitute in the wings. We can and should make the same choice today. We have an alternate technology choice in the wings—renewable energy. We learned to live without aerosol cans. It will be more difficult, but we can learn to live without lots of things that, if anything, fail to contribute to or even lessen our real well-being. Taking on the responsibility for the problem and learning to live so as to avoid contributing to climate change is the correct moral choice. Only after we have made this move, should the use of geoengineering as a temporary measure be considered as a moral possibility.