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Between late October and early December of last year there were no fewer than four conferences scheduled in San Diego to explore the subject of global warming and energy consumption. Everything from efficient supply chains to military and corporate measures was presented for public discussion.
But what we are not discussing — much, yet — is the newly emerging and fast growing field of geoengineering — climate intervention on a global scale. From Lynn Russell at Scripps Institute to Darrel Moellendorf at San Diego State University, scientists and philosophers in San Diego are already exploring the possibilities and considering the potential implications of geoengineering. We should be too.
So why aren’t we talking about it much? In part, it is just the predictable lag time between the development of new avenues of investigation and public discourse. The field is new and there are still many, many more questions than there are answers. In part, though, it is also that we don’t have a comfortable space for geoengineering in our collective consciousness.
It is hard to feel connected and personally responsible for environmental practices when the proposals include spraying aerosols into the stratosphere and building giant mirrors outside our atmosphere to reflect sunlight from the planet. These, we tell ourselves, are the domain of science fiction. Geoengineering seems to have nothing to do with ordinary people, living ordinary lives. We just don’t see how knowing more about this sort of thing matters. It’s out of our hands anyway. Right?
Not exactly. In some sense, every one of us is already geoengineering the planet, and we have been at it our whole lives.
When we wake up in our cities, or (in my case) suburbs, and turn on the T.V.s and other appliances in our homes, we are doing a kind of geoengineering. When we commute to work, some of us for hours, we are affecting the world’s climate. When we decide whether one child, or three, best suits our family, we are geoengineers of sorts. There is practically no activity we engage in that does not, when taken collectively, amount to “global scale climate intervention.” We are, all of us, accidental geoengineers. Whether or not we intend to affect the environment, we do.
The question, then, is not whether to engage in manipulation of the global climate. That ship has sailed. There are new questions that we must begin to consider.
Should we now intentionally, purposefully and on a grand scale engage in behavior to manipulate the world climate? This is the science of geoengineering. Global warming has largely been the unintended side-effect of technologies intended for other purposes. Would it be right to purposefully engage in climate manipulation to reverse or slow down these processes? Is that playing God? Is playing God okay?
If we do decide that we should make global climate intervention our aim — well, who is “we?” Do we look to our governments to pursue technological fixes? Should we incentivize the process to promote private, for-profit innovations? If we cede some of our decision making to governments and/or private companies, should we demand regulations? After all, we will have to face the consequences of their actions. What should that regulation look like?
And finally, if global cooling through geoengineering is only a temporary fix (as the currently most promising avenues of research in the field are), is it one that creates a moral hazard? Are we creating a false sense of security which promotes irresponsible individual consumption and eased manufacturing regulations, thus deepening our problem in the long run? Or, are we forestalling the effects of warming, buying time to enact changes in our behaviors, thereby avoiding irreparable damage?
If you find these questions, and the answers to them, as interesting as they are important, add one more event to your environmental discussions calendar.
Tate Hurvitz is a Project Director at the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology and an Assistant Professor of English at Grossmont College. He lives in Chula Vista.
The Rueben H. Fleet Science Center and the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology will be hosting a free public forum to discuss these and other ethical questions about geoengineering. Come join the conversation on Wednesday, March 2, from 5:30-7:00 at the Fleet Science Center.