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Ethical Aspects of Climate Engineering

 | 
Gregor Betz
, 
Sebastian Cacean

Summary

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1. Introduction

1The term “climate engineering” (CE) refers to large-scale technical interventions in the climate system with the objective of offsetting anthropogenic climate change. One distinguishes roughly between solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies. The main questions in dispute are whether CE technologies should (a) be researched into and (b) be deployed where appropriate. (1.1)

2This study investigates the ethical aspects of deploying and researching into climate engineering. An ethical analysis assesses the moral reasons in favour of or against taking certain action or policies. Moral reasoning appraises actions or policies from an unbiased point of view which takes the interests of all persons involved equally into account. Moral arguments differ fundamentally from economic or legal ones. (1.2)

3In this study, the moral reasons in favour of and against R&D into and deployment of CE methods are analysed by means of argument maps. These argument maps give a transparent overview of the CE controversy. Besides structuring the extremely complex debate, they help, moreover, to determine and evaluate the positions held by proponents. (1.3)

4Argument maps consist of arguments (filled-in boxes) and theses (framed boxes) which may support and attack each other (green and red arrows, respectively). (1.4)

2. The Macrostructure of the Overall Debate

5The analysis of the CE controversy carried out hereunder uses placeholders. Instead of referring to specific CE methods, the reconstructed arguments speak generically of the CE technology “T” – which, later, must be specified when evaluating the argumentation. The central thesis of the controversy holds that R&D into the CE technology Tought to be carried out immediately (T1). This R&D obligation is contradicted by the R&D prohibition thesis T6. The central justification of research obligation T1 relies on three further theses:

[T2 Readiness for Deployment Desirable] The CE technology T should be ready for deployment at a future point in time.
[T3 Side-Effects of R&D Negligible] The side-effects of R&D into the CE technology T under the aspect R are negligible as compared to T being [probably] ready for deployment in time.
[T4 No Alternatives to R&D (Readiness)] There are no more appropriate alternatives to immediate R & D into the CE technology T under the aspect R which bring about that T is probably ready in time.

6Each of these theses ignites a more or less extensive sub-controversy. In these sub-controversies, the contentious thesis that mitigation policies have priority over CE methods is of decisive importance (T14). Moreover, the R&D prohibition thesis is being justified through an alternative argumentation that does not require the controversial thesis T2. Finally, the CE controversy also contains direct justifications of the R&D prohibition. (2)

Argument Map A (see also Chapter 2): This map visualises the overall structure of the reconstructed CE controversy. Besides central theses (framed boxes), it mainly displays argument clusters, which group individual arguments. The argument clusters represent sub-debates of the controversy and exhibit a more or less complex internal argumentative structure. Argument clusters are numbered corresponding to section numbers in this book. Green and red arrows indicate argumentative impacts (supportive or critical) of the reasoning set forth in the corresponding sub-controversies.

3. The Detailed Structure of the Sub-debates

7The central justification of R&D represents a consequentialist argument. R&D into CE technologies is claimed to be a suitable means for reaching the goal that CE methods be ready for deployment in the future. This argument rests essentially on theses T2 – T4. (3.1)

8Thesis T3, which holds that the side-effects of R&D into CE are negligible, is challenged in the controversy by pointing out possible or probable harmful side-effects such as, in particular, the impact on mitigation policies (moral-hazard objection), the inevitable deployment of the technologies researched into, the commercial control of CE methods, risky field tests, and the risk of unilateral use. (3.2)

9The most extensive sub-controversy is based on thesis T2. Three different arguments justify why readiness for deployment of CE is desirable: At some future point in time, the deployment of CE methods could be the lesser of two evils, and we should prepare for that case (lesser-evil argumentation); without using CE methods, ambitious climate policy targets cannot be achieved anymore (two-degree target/350 ppm argumentation); CE methods are more efficient and can be implemented more easily than extensive mitigation policies (efficiency and feasibility considerations). These arguments in favour of T2 are countered by numerous objections to T2. To start with, critical arguments based on the ethics of risk stress that the deployment of CE is accompanied by massive, irreducible hazards. The prominent termination problem belongs to this category of objections, too. The arguments from justice and fairness point out the uneven regional consequences of CE deployment. Geopolitical concerns arise because of the dual use problem and the fear that a “global thermostat” could induce new conflicts. Finally, several fundamental objections are raised in the controversy: They either rest on a general critique of technology and civilization or consist in religious, existentialist, or environmental-ethics considerations. (3.3)

10Although alternative research justifications consider R&D into CE methods as being a suitable means for a given end, they differ from the central justification by specifying an altogether different purpose of research. According to these alternative arguments, research does not aim at making CE methods ready for deployment. Rather, research should help, for example, to avoid hasty CE deployment by pointing out the real risks and hazards involved. (3.4) Further arguments of the CE controversy are related to the lack of alternatives to CE R&D (T4), provide direct justifications of the R&D prohibition, broach the issue of national bans, and give reasons for the priority of mitigation measures over CE methods. (3.5)

4. Central Issues, Principles, and Problems

11Weighting of side-effects represents a common issue that occurs throughout the CE controversy. The proponents of the controversy do not explicitly address (e. g. tackle through further arguments) the question as to how a series of side-effects, which are partly certain, partly probable, and partly possible, are to be evaluated and weighted against each other. Depending on which weighting is made by the proponents, they will endorse or not endorse the corresponding arguments and objections. (4.1)

12The CE controversy takes place against the background of massive uncertainties. Not only are the side-effects of R&D and deployment poorly understood, but, what’s more, we can’t even reliably predict the effectiveness of CE methods. That’s why more or less all arguments in the debate concern – in one or another way – the ethics of risk. A central question that arises in this context is how rational decisions can be made at all in spite of massive ignorance. The arguments where that decision-theoretic problem arises are reconstructed, in this study, such that they use variants of the precautionary principle. (4.2)

13The priority of mitigation policies (T14) is taken for granted by various arguments, in particular by the moral-hazard objections and the alternative justifications of CE research. Conversely, though, some arguments contradict more or less explicitly the thesis that mitigation policies take, in general, priority. This holds especially for the efficiency and feasibility argumentation, which considers CE methods a favourable substitute for mitigation policies. Most of the arguments of the CE controversy, however, are compatible with the priority of mitigation policies. (4.3)

14Within the CE controversy, moral and extra-moral considerations seem to be deeply interwoven. This is mainly due to the fact that the moral arguments also make use of descriptive premisses such as forecasts of an action’s consequences. (4.4)

15One may broadly distinguish two types of arguments in the CE controversy: Those which make controversial ideological assumptions, and those which do not rely on strong normative premisses but which involve, at most, contentious descriptive assumptions or basically shared principles whose concrete application is controversial. The first category comprises, in particular, the religious, existentialist, and environmental-ethics arguments, the efficiency and feasibility consideration, the arguments that rely on a critique of technology and civilization, the research neutrality reasoning, the arguments from fairness, and some arguments belonging to the sub-controversy about R&D side-effects. (4.5)

5. Coherent Positions and their Logico-argumentative Implication

16Analysing a complex controversy as an argument map allows to check proponent positions (actually or possibly held) for coherence. A core position, which consists in accepting or rejecting certain arguments and theses, has logico-argumentative implications that go beyond the core position itself because (i) one is bound to accept the logical consequences of the sentences one accepts and (ii) one must reject the direct objections to one’s core position. Proponents endorsing R&D into some CE method, thus, are obliged to reject the relevant objections to R&D into CE; proponents rejecting CE R&D have to specify on which points they disagree with the diverse research justifications. It is these very considerations that are relevant when drafting coherent political positions.

17For illustrative purposes, the following positions can be checked for coherence: Endorsement of SRM research for reasons of easiness and efficiency; endorsement of R&D into ocean fertilization to detect the associated risks; rejection of SRM R&D on account of basic considerations from democratic theory and fairness; endorsement of CDR development for the purpose of achieving ambitious climate targets in the future. (5)

Table des illustrations

Légende Argument Map A (see also Chapter 2): This map visualises the overall structure of the reconstructed CE controversy. Besides central theses (framed boxes), it mainly displays argument clusters, which group individual arguments. The argument clusters represent sub-debates of the controversy and exhibit a more or less complex internal argumentative structure. Argument clusters are numbered corresponding to section numbers in this book. Green and red arrows indicate argumentative impacts (supportive or critical) of the reasoning set forth in the corresponding sub-controversies.
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