Hack the Sky?

Since the scale of the climate change crisis became clear, our response has focused on trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to maintain the climate at something like the pre-industrial status quo. But what if that is no longer possible? With the world’s nations unwilling to reduce their emissions, a growing number of scientists say we need to begin researching “geoengineering” – ways to artificially reduce sunlight or manipulate plants or the oceans to absorb huge amounts of CO2. The prospect of geoengineering involves a dangerous gamble. Do we risk toying with the entire atmosphere to save it from ourselves? Can we afford not to? Ken Caldeira, a researcher at Stanford, says we need to start atmospheric experiments and, if successful, consider deployment. Clive Hamilton, a professor of ethics at Charles Sturt University in Australia, says we have to be cautious about pursuing such Promethean schemes.

We need some Symptomatic Relief

by Ken Caldeira

Ken Caldeira is an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University.

When thinking about the ethics of solar geoengineering, I like to use a medical analogy. Consider this: Should scientists who want to reduce the incidence of disease study ways to provide symptomatic relief, even if that relief does nothing to reduce disease? Should medical researchers who are concerned about finding a cure for cancer study how morphine and other painkillers might provide pain relief to suffering patients? Presumably, research into such pain relief draws away resources that could be used to better understand the root causes of cancer. Conceivably, such research could even increase the prevalence of cancer. By making the cancerous consequences of smoking less painful, this research could take away some incentive to quit smoking.

Geoengineering, it seems to me, is very similar. Planetary manipulation of the atmosphere to blunt the worst effects of global warming won’t address the root causes of climate change. But it might someday be able to alleviate suffering for hundreds of millions of people – and that is reason enough to study it for possible deployment.

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