The Ethics of Climate Change: Geoengineering and Geotherapy
Geoengineering strategies, from the extreme to the sustainable. Photo by University of Leeds
Climate change is an unprecedented human-made disaster that raises unprecedented questions about what we humans should do. The status quo is not a viable option, but there are several different ways we could approach the problem of climate change. One style of approach, known as geotherapy, identifies the root cause of the problem as a failure to understand the balances that naturally keep the climate stable, or that kept it stable before the industrial revolution. Industry interrupted the Earth’s processes that already existed and already worked to maintain a livable climate, and our task should be to determine how we interrupted those processes and how we can restore them.
On the other hand, a more extreme approach, known as geoengineering or climate engineering, seeks to develop new technologies and new engineering projects that can force the climate, one way or another, to be what we want it to be. Proposals have included reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth by spraying aerosols in the sky, or dumping iron into the oceans to create carbon sinks. The issue with such proposals is that they are untested and could lead to disastrous consequences.
Which of these approaches is the right way to address climate change, both ethically and practically? Practicality is frequently discussed, but outside of academic journals, ethics is largely left aside. (As just one illustration, The Royal Society’s 75-page report on geoengineering devotes less than one page to ethics, while the rest focuses on the potential practical, legal, and social consequences.) Such an important question requires careful public study and debate. The public needs to get used to thinking ethically about these new problems because they require new considerations.
The only time we have faced a similar threat has been the threat of nuclear annihilation; nuclear weapons are a human-made problem that have the potential to disrupt life on a global scale. However, on a certain level, avoiding nuclear annihilation is simple: don’t start a nuclear war. Just don’t push that button. Nothing could be easier. This only requires the restraint of only the few people who can launch nuclear weapons.
In contrast, though the results could be similar, climate change is more complex. Climate change is the result of the entire world economy. It comes from the actions of governments and corporations, but also the actions of ordinary citizens: what they buy, how much they drive, etc. It follows from patterns of behavior that have become entrenched over decades and centuries. It raises entirely new ethical considerations. Should we allow ourselves to forcefully reshape the global climate to our liking, risking catastrophe in the process? Or should we seek to use the Earth’s own balances?
To clarify the ethical issues, there are several different ethical perspectives we could take: deep ecology, utilitarianism, virtue theory, and Kantian ethics. According to all of them, many forms of geoengineering are suspect, and geotherapy should be preferred. More than that, deep ecology provides an important perspective on the issue that has been neglected.
The ethical question depends on an understanding of the facts. What are geotherapy and geoengineering? What are their risks, and what are the possible benefits?
Geotherapy is the attempt to learn from natural processes to determine how climate was stable in the past. (Goreau et. al. 2014, ch. 1) If we can restore the balance from before, we can borrow from the Earth’s billions of years of trial and error to find a solution. We do not need to introduce yet another completely new instability into the system; we can try to address the instability that human industry introduced in the first place.
There is good reason to think this approach will work. The Earth’s climate has never changed as fast as it is changing now, except after meteor strikes. (Epstein & McCarthy 2004) The Earth has already found the answer to climate change. We can make use of it, if we can just restore the natural processes we have interrupted. Geotherapy as a subtle approach can work, with little risk and low collateral damage due to the fact that it uses processes that have been in place for millions of years. This means: restoring depleted soils, restoring unhealthy forests, reducing pollution, and lowering our carbon footprint. It is the proportional response to climate change.
The risks of this approach are low. It is safe to restore fertility to depleted soils and grow plants that can thrive in balance, without depleting soils again. For example, soil remineralization projects are safely using natural mineral products to restore soils in locations around the world. The possibility of unforeseen consequences is low, since to a large extent the results were already tested naturally before human intervention.
Any mistakes will be localized: geotherapy asks us to study an area before acting there. The solutions in a location must take into account what each location needs. It is not about forcing a particular result; it is about restoring balance through careful attention to what is needed. Some places will grow cacti, while others will grow forests. Some soils need minerals, while others need irrigation. In this way, the diversity of environments can be preserved.
There are difficulties, though: geotherapy isn’t so easy to sell to the public. We don’t want to think that we are part of any problem. We don’t want to think that we need to do anything differently. We want to live as we have been living, and let someone else make a new high-tech solution to fix climate change while we don’t have to think about it.
Promoting geotherapy will be the most difficult job in practice, although the techniques themselves would be practical to implement. In sum, geotherapy is a low risk, effective approach, that only needs the will of the people.
On the other side, geoengineering is “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change.” (Royal Society 2009, p. 1) Sometimes defined as artificial climate modification, it is the attempt to make large-scale changes to the Earth’s climate in order to address climate change. There are two broad ways to engineer the climate:
- Carbon reduction: take carbon out of the atmosphere to slow the greenhouse effect that drives climate change, and
- Solar radiation reduction: allow less light from the sun to reach and warm the Earth.
To reduce carbon, for example, you could seed the oceans with iron, which would stimulate phytoplankton, which would absorb carbon from the atmosphere. To reduce solar radiation, you could spray reflective aerosols in the atmosphere, creating man-made clouds to dim and cool the Earth.
It’s a simple thought: sunlight is getting trapped by carbon and warming the planet, so we should just stop the sunlight and capture the carbon. Problem solved—if it works.
Unfortunately, the more high-tech, almost “science fiction” geoengineering proposals are untested. We don’t know what they might do. While unknown risks might be fine in designing a new toaster, we are talking about manipulating the climate of the entire world. It is impossible to predict all of the side effects of any new technology. Unforeseen side effects could mean that geoengineering would make climate change worse rather than better. We cannot even rule out the possibility of extinction-level events. This is in addition to the known side-effects, such as altered monsoons from cloud seeding (Robock et. al. 2008) or toxic phytoplankton from iron seeding (Silver et. al. 2010).
Adding to the risk, if engineers assure us their projects will work, many people will stop caring about climate change. This puts geoengineering in the category of moral hazards, where reducing the harm from risky behavior leads to even riskier behavior. (Lin 2013) For example, store owners with theft insurance are more likely to leave their stores unattended. In the case of climate change, well-publicized geoengineering efforts could lead people to stop caring about environmental regulations, climate studies, and even their own carbon emissions (“They’re taking care of it, so there’s nothing for me to worry about!”). There is a risk that funding and attention would go entirely to geoengineering.
This is made worse by the fact that geoengineering cannot work by itself. Even with major geoengineering projects, we will still need to change our habits. (Royal Society 2009, p. 21) Like geotherapy, successful geoengineering must overcome the psychological barriers that make us slow to admit we have a problem. Thus, the risks do not guarantee the possibility of reward.
This raises another problem: geoengineering requires maintenance. If we do not maintain it, things will get much worse much more quickly. If we spray enough aerosols in the upper atmosphere, it can reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth, preventing warming. Then we can keep releasing more and more greenhouse gas without global temperatures rising too high. However, the moment we stop maintaining the aerosols, sunlight will come through again and warming will return at a greater rate than ever before. (Royal Society 2009, p. 39)
Despite the problems, many people think high-tech geoengineering is the only option. For a variety of reasons, geoengineering gets more attention. The technology looks impressive. It can appear to be a magic bullet. It suggests that we do not need to change the way we do things; we just need to find the right technology to overcome the problems of climate change. Then we can continue with our economic model of continuous growth and consumption. The problem with this thinking is that there is too much risk, in too many ways.
Geoengineering is thus appealing because it lets us hand the responsibility of dealing with the problem over to scientists and engineers, while we can ignore the problem. Unfortunately, this way of thinking is too narrow, and its consequences could be dire.
We need to consider our choices from several ethical perspectives, and we need to think about what ethical perspective properly addresses environmental problems. The most important to consider are: deep ecology, utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. As we will see, these ethical frameworks gives us reason to favor geotherapy.
The Royal Society’s perspective on geoengineering seems to have more recently expanded to include more ecological and sustainable techniques, like biochar in agriculture. Their report on geoengineering says, “Sequestration of biomass and biochar have been proposed as a method for intervening in the natural cycle so that some or all of the carbon fixed by organic matter can be stored in soils or elsewhere for hundreds or thousands of years.” (Royal Society 2009, p. 11) This would move geoengineering closer to geotherapy, though for the most part the high-tech geoengineering solutions have been more prominent.
Ethical decisions regarding the environment require taking a wide perspective. The lives of present and future generations of humans, plants, and animals all depend on a stable ecosystem with a livable environment. The ethical considerations surrounding climate change are long-term and wide-ranging. In facing these issues, deep ecology affirms the value of life in its entirety.
The basic tenet of deep ecology is that the entire global ecosystem is intrinsically valuable. All interconnected systems of life on Earth matter fundamentally. The question is never, “What good is this ecosystem to us humans?” because the ecosystem has value in itself. Deep ecology is biocentric rather than human-centric. We humans are part of the larger system of living things. Humans deserve moral consideration as part of this system in the same way that the system as a whole deserves consideration, but our desires do not override the value of other living things.
In this view, we are neither owners of the planet who are free to use it as we wish, nor stewards who are charged with protecting the planet. Instead we are part of the planet, and we play a role in its proper functioning, as do other species and other factors. Embracing this biocentric view changes one’s fundamental perspective on our relationship to the Earth and all life. We are on the inside trying to balance ourselves with the rest, rather than stepping in from the outside to change things.
Deep ecology would give strong consideration to geotherapy: we have an ethical obligation to consider the ecosystem as a whole. Like deep ecology, geotherapy tells us that the right way to approach climate change is to ask how we can address the ways that we have disrupted the ecosystem we are a part of, in harmony with the whole ecosystem. This is the essence of geotherapy. On the other hand, the tenets of geoengineering treat the climate and global ecosystem as an independent system that we can manipulate to suit our needs. Deep ecology rejects this point of view. Geotherapy better respects the value of the complexity and diversity of ecosystems.
Utilitarianism: Benefits and harms
Utilitarianism claims that the right action to perform is the one that leads to the most net benefit overall. For example, if firefighters have to choose between rescuing 200 people from a burning mall or rescuing two people from a burning house, utilitarianism says they should go to the mall. What does utilitarian ethics recommend as the correct response to catastrophic climate change?
This requires us to determine the effects of various proposals. Geoengineering can only be the right course of action if it leads to better results than any alternative. At the very least, other possible courses of action include: staying on the course we are on now, and geotherapy. The data from every relevant field of study, from scientists across the planet, shows that if we continue on the course we are on, the results will be catastrophic in just a couple of generations. This is not a viable option; we must find something better.
Is global geoengineering the better option? Immediately we run into the fact that geoengineering is new, radical, and almost entirely untested, as described above. We cannot be sure exactly what the results will be. The best we can do is weigh the possible results compared to other courses of action. While each proposed climate engineering project is based on an idea that could work, these ideas will have major effects on the climate. It is a well-known dictum that there are no effects without side effects, and the side-effects of any proposed solution are not known in advance. The potential side effects of world-climate-altering technologies stand to be as devastating as the problem they intend to solve. Thus, from a utilitarian standpoint, it is not clear that climate engineering is better than doing nothing. It could be, but it might be worse.
Geotherapy fares much better. Geotherapy is based on using the Earth’s natural life cycles to balance the climate. It makes use of the principles that have kept the global climate relatively stable through history (rates of climate change through most of history have been thousands of times slower than the current rate). An example of geotherapy is sequestering carbon by returning soils to the state they were in before human-made effects depleted them. In the end, utilitarianism also yields the verdict that we should prefer geotherapy to large-scale geoengineering.
Deontology is duty-based ethics. The fundamental idea is that there are moral obligations that we must fulfill—no matter the consequences. One important example is the duty to respect human rights. According to deontology, people matter, and any end, no matter how good, can never justify the wrong means. An example of deontology in action: John has been accused of murder. The prosecutor knows John is innocent and there is not enough evidence to convict him fairly at trial, but there is a crowd threatening to riot if John goes free. No matter how good it would be to stop the riot by convicting John in a rigged trial, deontology will not allow it: it is never acceptable to violate John’s rights.
When it comes to the climate, there are three duties involved:
- The duty to respect the rights of people who will be harmed by climate change,
- The duty to respect the environment, and
- The duty to look out for future generations.
These are the duties of promoting individual, environmental, and social justice. To fulfill these duties, doing nothing is not an option. Given the effects that already exist, and the worse disasters to come, it would be negligent to do nothing. It would be nothing less than shirking our duties.
Considering the duty to respect those at most risk of harm from climate change, it is important to notice that the people who will be most affected by climate change are those least in a position to do anything about it. Those who will be hurt most are those in poor countries in hot climates and those in coastal regions of poor countries. But it is not their cars, industries, and factory-farms that primarily drive climate change. It will not be their governments and scientists leading geoengineering efforts. The countries that contribute most to climate change are industrialized. They are more wealthy and have the resources to do more to deal with the effects of climate change.
Furthermore, any large-scale, high-tech geoengineering projects will originate in wealthy, industrialized nations. While wealthier and poorer countries can collaborate on small-scale interventions (such as Denmark’s project to use Greenland mud to rehabilitate tropical soil, discussed here) wealthy countries will decide for the rest of the world whether global-scale climate engineering will take place (such as filling the atmosphere with reflective aerosols).
Ask yourself this question: Are you respecting someone’s rights if you decide for them that they will risk their lives to give the rest of us the chance to beat climate change? Clearly not. Is there a way to get the permission of those most affected? The history of exploitation in the world makes this unlikely. There is every expectation of abuse. We have a duty not to impose risks on others, especially when we are not joining them in taking those risks. (Bodansky 1996)
Geotherapy, on the other hand, takes the local environment into account. It works locally. Not only does geotherapy respect communities’ rights to make their own decisions, many methods provide food in poor nations (for examples, see our articles about remineralizatoin and food sovereignty in Cameroon, Brazil, and Cuba). Geotherapy improves the health and sovereignty of those hurt most, while addressing climate change at the same time.
Next, our duty to the environment means we should not be negligent; we have a duty of care. Geotherapy not only poses less risk than geoengineering; it would be negligent to take on big risks when they are not necessary.
Finally, our duty to future generations requires keeping the planet livable. We should not risk the planet if we do not have to. Deontology strongly suggests geotherapy over more extreme forms of geoengineering.
Virtue ethics, unlike the previous ways of thinking about ethics, focuses on character first, and only focuses on actions to the extent that they express one’s character. When considering a course of action, virtue ethics asks, “Is this what a virtuous person would do, and am I choosing this action virtuously?” If someone donates to charity, while the action may have good consequences, virtue ethics asks us to think about why they did it. Was it a manifestation of their virtue, or perhaps something else? Virtue ethics asks us all to be good people. A good person is caring, honest, courageous, and thoughtful. The goal of virtue ethics is to train everyone to have all virtues.
Given the negatives already discussed, it is clear that most forms of geoengineering are not the virtuous course. This is not only because it is too risky. High-tech, large-scale geoengineering should not appeal to a virtuous person: its appeal is that it promises a quick fix that will let us get away with continuing to pollute the planet. This is not the kind of appeal that a virtuous person uses as the basis for an important decision. It is not virtuous to risk everything on the chance that you’ll get away with being lazy.
Geotherapy is the choice a virtuous person would make. It acknowledges the damage that humans have done, and seeks to take responsibility by fixing it. It does so responsibly, without taking unnecessary risks. Virtue is on the side of geotherapy.
The work to address climate change raises many practical and philosophical issues that we must confront. We should consider which ethical perspective should guide us. All favor geotherapy, but there is reason to favor deep ecology: thinking of environmental problems with the focus entirely on humans (whether focused on our benefits, on our duties as stewards, or on our virtues) led us to this disaster in the first place. Respect for life in general is important.
When sorting through all of the difficulties of climate change, it is important to maintain moral clarity as much as possible. As we have seen above, the ethics in this case are clear. Doing nothing is not acceptable, but that does not justify reckless behavior. Put simply, geoengineering risks the entire planet. It is a desperate proposal that manifests an unethical failure to heed warnings. Geotherapy exists; we do not need to resort to anything so drastic.
Benjamin T. Rancourt received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2016. His continuing philosophical research focuses on understanding, knowledge, and science, among other topics. This research ties into his wider goal of encouraging deeper understanding of ourselves, our strengths, and our limitations. He hopes that greater understanding will help us use the resources available to us to preserve what is good and address what is wrong. Walking is his primary mode of transportation. He appreciates the natural world. He lives in North Carolina with his wife Julia, where he is a Teaching Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University.
For more information on how climate change affects the ocean, see this post at Sofar Ocean.
Lin, A. (2013) “Does Geoengineering Present a Moral Hazard?” Ecology Law Quarterly 40: 673-712.
Bodansky, D. (1996) “May we engineer the climate?” Climate Change 33: 309-321. DOI: 10.1007/BF00142579.
The Royal Society. (2009) Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty. RS Policy Document 10/09.
Silver, M. W., et al. (2010) “Toxic Diatoms and Domoic Acid in Natural and Iron Enriched Waters of the Oceanic Pacific,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 107.
Robock, A., et al. (2008) “Regional Climate Responses to Geoengineering with Tropical and Arctic SO2 Injections,” Journal of Geophysical Research.
Epstein, P., McCarthy, J. (2004) “Assessing Climate Stability” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 85(12): 1863-1870.
Goreau, T., Larson, R., Campe, J. (2014) Geotherapy: Innovative Methods of Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase. CRC Press.