The Ethics of Geoengineering

Recently, I wrote a paper on the ethics of a new field of study called geoengineering. This new study gives people the ability to mega-engineer the Earth to counteract global warming. The technology and science being put forth is pretty exciting stuff. But as I have become more aware about the environment and thus more environmentally conscious, I question geoengineering as a solve-all solution. Implementing these ‘remedies’ can greatly compromise our moral responsibility to living sustainable lives.

To make things even more interesting, geoengineering technology will be relatively cheap to attain and implement. So, by endorsing such studies can open Pandora’s box to a whole another world of problems. People can start weather wars against each other and even ultimately extinguish the Earth’s ecosystem.

It’s a long essay, but worth a read since it offers a glimpse into what is on the world’s agenda.


It is no secret that the 21st century represents a new age of environmental consciousness. Never before has there been such a significant effort in raising awareness to preserve our planet’s ecosystem. This movement has come as a response to hundreds of years of humanities’ manipulation of the Earth. People have always changed the planet and its resources to conform to their desires – water is pumped long distances to where we live, forests are butchered to make houses and furniture, and deserts are made into luxury golf resorts. However, the biggest consequence of these actions can be observed in the change of the world’s climate, called global warming. This scientific phenomenon has caused the gradual increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s surface since the mid-20th century and is still continuing to do so even today (Wikipedia).

Global warming can be largely attributed to the green house effect and the buildup of human-related greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels and forests. The greenhouse effect is the process that warms the Earth’s lower atmosphere and surface through the absorption and emission of infrared radiation by gases in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, human activity has increased the amount of green house gases in the atmosphere, which have a natural warming effect. The impacts of a climate change can already be seen as the polar ice caps are dwindling away, sea levels are rising, and the acidity of the ocean is changing, raising concerns about marine life extinction.

As evident as the dangers of global warming are so is the response to it. People have only begun to take action as a new popular trend of “going green”, which includes recycling material, reusing cloth grocery bags, and adjusting household thermostats among many other things (StopGlobalWarming). Efforts are also reaching as far as changing the design and construction process of buildings to be more sustainable, and inventing alternative resources that produce more energy with less waste. However, the efforts do not end here as science is on the verge of leading a new engineering effort to cure global warming.

The scientific community has created a new field of engineering called geoengineering that seems to come straight out of the comic books. This new area of study is defined by the National Academy of Sciences as the ability to deliberately manipulate the Earth’s climate to counteract the effects of changes in atmospheric chemistry – specifically, global warming (Lenton). Thanks to modern advances in technology and science, researchers are able to achieve what was once thought impossible, which is to essentially reverse-engineer the planet. Revolutionary geoengineering techniques include solar radiation management, ocean iron fertilization, stratospheric sulfur aerosols, and cloud reflectivity enhancement (Muylaert De Araujo). Geoengineering will allow humanity to push the boundaries of sustainable existence by wielding the ability to mega-engineer the global environment to conform to its own needs. However, a major ethical dilemma surrounding geoengineering questions if any single entity should have the right to control the Earth’s climate thus affecting every living citizen of the world. There is no doubt that this new area of study is exciting and is on the cutting edge of science; however, the moral hazards concerning such ability may yet be the biggest issue at hand. And despite our optimistic beliefs in this new field, the answer is that no one should exercise control to dictate the entire planet’s ecology.

At first glance it is easy to see why many people are so quick to support a pioneering endeavor like geoengineering. This new science is truly avant-garde and pushes man’s imagination as it crosses the boundary from fantasy to reality. Geoengineering also offers a quick and seemingly painless solution to global warming. It saves all of us from the additional effort in “going green” to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Aside from these superficial benefits, proponents of geoengineering would argue that the power to control the world’s weather falls within ethical guidelines based on the social ethic of utility. The main objective of geoengineering is to reverse the effects of global warming, which should theoretically benefit the entire world. It removes many dangers such as animal extinction, glacial retreat, and regional water shortages. Consequently, much of the world including plants and animals will gain from such study. Also, this is why the support for geoengineering believes that by holding paramount the interest of the majority justifies the ethics behind allowing a single entity authority to global climate control. This suggests that the interests of the majority should outweigh the interests of the few and thus “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” (Johnson-Sheehan, Richard).  The ethical issue at hand can be simplified down to a cost-benefit analysis favoring the majority that will benefit at the cost of the minority. It does not make much sense for the entire world to suffer at the cost of those few who will inevitably suffer anyways. People believe that permitting the control of the entire planet’s ecology to a body does not cross any ethical lines because it follows this utilitarian belief of majority rules.

The argument that supports the right to engineering the planet makes the decision of choosing the lesser of two evils convincing. However, the argument may be fallacious as it is based on assumptions that such technologies will work accordingly. As most of us know, this is almost never the case, especially when dealing with a system as complex and sensitive as the planet Earth. It is wrong to say that geoengineering should be utilized for the greater good of the living population because it is yet unknown if it will be beneficial at all. There are far too many uncertainties involved. In addition, the rights of the few who may be sacrificed for the good of the majority poses another issue. By allowing an actor to engage in geoengineering on the basis of utilitarianism completely overrides the rights of the unfortunate minority. It is unjust to infringe on their rights to being treated equally. Despite the little options there are regarding global warming, it is still not an ethical option to disregard the rights of people or even base a decision on unknowns.

The capacity to change the global thermostat gives people the ability to tinker with the very complex and sensitive system that governs our planet. A simple miscalculation or overlooked factor can potentially kill everyone. There are also countless unknowns in implementing such a system, as well as enormous pressure and catastrophic consequences that are involved with geoengineering and those involved in it. For example, ocean iron fertilization is a geoengineering project in its advanced stages of research and can potentially reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases.  The technique is based on carbon sequestration methods, which is a means of mitigating fossil fuel emissions by capturing and storing carbon dioxide away from the atmosphere through biological, checmical, or physical processes. More specifically, ocean iron fertilization supplys iron to iron-deficient oceans to promote phytoplankton bloom since iron is often the key factor in phytoplankton growth (Wikipedia). The result of implementing iron fertilization can spark phytoplankton growth to benefit the marine life food chain and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Although this sounds like a very promising solution, like many other geoengineering ideas, the results are relatively unpredictable. Critics of iron fertilization claim that this technique will yield little result since a majority of the plankton will be eaten rather than deposited on the ocean floor, which is a necessary process in reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere (Basgall). Others also believe that iron infusions can produce harmful algal blooms that can poison ecosystems or favor certain species and alter ecosystems in unknown ways (CDC). Introducing unnatural elements as a remedy to our natural problems presents much too many variables. It is unethical to say geoengineering will be an answer to global warming based on the premises that we are experimenting with a complex system that we do not completely understand that will yield a result we do not fully know. In fact, this could very well do more harm than help. And to allow any human the rights to this type of environmental control would be ridiculous. The responsibility of global climate control by any actor exhibits far too many uncertainties to render it safe or even ethical for that matter.

Other camps argue that the authority to dictate planetary ecology granted to a single entity is unethical because there lacks a method of international agreement. The implementation of geoengineering will likely influence the entire world and all its living creatures. And each will likely be affected in a different way for better or for worse. For this reason, a global democratic agreement is integral and an absolute necessity in any global climate change decision. The act of tampering with the global thermostat will impact the frequencies and intensities of winds, storms, droughts, and floods on a worldwide scale (Muylaert De Araujo). In addition, it will change the climatic effects on human and animal health and raise the global sea level among a myriad of other factors.

Research that is currently on the forefronts of geoengineering is solar-radiation management. This method against global warming proposes cooling the planet by reflecting the Sun’s rays and thus reducing the planet’s absorption of solar energy. This feat can be accomplished by distributing “megatonnes of light-scattering aerosol particles into the upper atmosphere” or by releasing particles of sea salt to make low-altitude clouds (Calgary). This process of cooling the planet will yield less precipitation and less evaporation globally due to the change in temperature, thus directly weakening the monsoon rains and winds (Calgary). It is easy to see that there will be local winners and losers of this effect. For example, a large majority of the Earth will obviously benefit from attaining the ultimate objective of global cooling, while those in the agriculture industry who rely heavily on the heavy seasonal rainfall for their crops will most surely suffer. Therefore, this becomes an issue of justice since no one will benefit or suffer equally. How can any actor make a sound and just decision if there can be no agreement? As exciting as all the mega-scale engineering solutions are, the task of attaining international democratic agreement and satisfying every global citizen is impossible. As a result, it is unethical to allow a person or people the privilege of managing the world’s weather since the necessary worldwide agreement is unattainable.

Geoengineering opens a world of opportunities for the future by making what was once thought impossible possible. The solution to humanity’s global warming woe may be at hand with this new field of study. Nevertheless, an innovative and groundbreaking topic is rarely met without any controversy and the ethics of geoengineering has been no different, and for good reason too. Geoengineering gives too much responsibility and power for a single person or group to control the Earth’s climate. The uncertain consequences and lack of unanimous international agreement makes it unethical for any single entity to exercise the power involved in engineering the Earth. The risks entailed with permanently changing the world only increase the gravity of the situation and calls the world to tread carefully. However, the development of geoengineering should not remove our responsibility as citizens of the world to live a sustainable and environmentally conscious life. We all individually hold a personal accountability to preserving our environment and should assume responsibility in combating the effects of global warming. After all, the decision of one person can make a huge impact in our world.


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