Global Ethics Corner: Geoengineering

Oct 8, 2010

Global warming makes it impossible to limit environmentalism to one country. Should geoengineering be regulated multilaterally before rogue countries experiment with our collective future? Or does the problem demand research and action now, despite the risks?

Generous funding of the Carnegie Council's 2010-2011 sustainability programming has been provided by Hewlett-Packard and by Booz & Company.

What if global warming can't be halted by reducing emissions?

Geoengineering projects are proposed as stopgap measures that could tilt the atmospheric balance back toward cooler temperatures.

Some call for spraying sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere to create a reflective haze, blocking solar radiation. Others propose spreading iron in the oceans to encourage the growth of marine organisms, absorbing carbon dioxide.

But is this wise? While humanity is a problem-solving species, our natural geoengineering—through fuels we burn, crops we plant, and cities we build—is part of the problem.

According to climate scientist James Lovelock, organisms that alter the environment to their own benefit are likelier to survive. A self-regulating flux has thus emerged between the plants, plankton, microbes, and fungi that keep our atmosphere livable—life makes life possible and has done so for millions of years.

Does this concept hold for relatively young and precocious humanity? Will blunt industrial methods actually control climate, or could they backfire in local and global ways?

One concern is that geoengineering presents a cheap fix that will lessen the incentive to reduce pollution. Another fear is that geoengineering will only mask the climate problem. Finally, climate modification may be weaponized to induce drought or flooding in an enemy's territory.

Global warming now makes it impossible to limit environmentalism to one country. So should geoengineering be regulated multilaterally before rogue countries experiment with our collective future? Alternatively does the problem demand research and action now despite the risks? What do you think?

By Evan O'Neil and William Vocke

For more information see:

Global Environment Network, The Guardian.

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Leo Reynolds

Rainforest Action Network
Chen Zhao
Jorge Lascar
Robert Fornal
Simon Forsyth
Brenda Anderson
Evan Lesson
Bruno Comby
David Heise
Eyesplash Mikul
Justin N
Georgie Sharp
Charlie Cowins

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