Errors of Omission, Commission, and Emission: Moral Culpability in Climate Change and Considerations of Solar Radiation Management

Katherine Culbertson, Joint First Prize, Undergraduate Category, Essay Contest 2017

February 26, 2018

CREDIT: Hughhunt. SPICE research project on solar radiation management (SRM). (CC)

Katherine Culbertson, age 21, is finishing up her senior year at Harvard College, where she studies Environmental Science and Public Policy. In her free time, Katherine loves exploring new places, meeting new people, and spending as much time as possible outdoors—running, hiking, canoeing, or even just studying. She aspires to a career working at the intersection of ecosystem conservation, climate change adaption, and social justice.

ESSAY TOPIC: In your opinion, what is the greatest ethical challenge facing the world today?

Homo sapiens have been manipulating our immediate environments from the dawn of time. However, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, our actions have manifested themselves on a truly planetary scale—essentially, we have come to unwittingly "geoengineer" our world. As greenhouse gas emissions accumulate in our atmosphere, global temperatures continue to rise, and as a result, weather patterns change, sea levels rise, and both human communities and other living creatures face new challenges to survival. In the face of truly catastrophic consequences, we humans must consider how to clean up the negative externalities of our technological progress. As it becomes clearer that we can't stop the repercussions of climate change through mitigation alone, an ugly question rears its head, presenting perhaps the greatest ethical challenge of the 21st century: Should we deliberately use geoengineering to combat our "geoengineered" problem?

We know that the repercussions of climate change will be devastating, although to what extent, we can't be certain. We also know that there are ways to ameliorate some of the effects of greenhouse gases (GHG's) we've already emitted. The most impactful and practicable would likely be Solar Radiation Management, in which we'd pump reflective particles into Earth's atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays back into space, cutting down on the heat absorbed by our atmosphere, and thus reducing warming on our planet. However, we also don't know the full effects of this solution. It's like we've been thrown into a new rendition of the classic moral dilemma of the trolley problem: we have a switch, and we must choose a track to send our trolley down, but in this case, we don't know the exact consequences of either decision.

Though we may not have all the information, we still have an obligation to make as informed of a decision as possible—and this means finding out all we can about all of our options, including Solar Radiation Management (SRM). However, discussions on this type of research have been stifled by an unwillingness to interfere with our climate systems more in order to save them, which is completely reasonable. As "planetary doctors," our mission should indeed be to "first, do no harm." But what if you know that doing nothing also causes harm? Wherein, therefore, lies the moral culpability?

We are now confronted with two main problems. The first commonly argued scenario is that implementing SRM may present a "moral hazard" by decreasing incentive to cut emissions. Essentially, if nations and industries believe the negative effects of all their current emissions can be easily negated by the technological solution of SRM, they will not choose to decrease emissions, and lock in current dirty energy technology. Of course, this reaction would necessitate an indefinite time scale for SRM, and would not combat non-warming consequences of excess CO2 in the atmosphere, such as ocean acidification. While this is an important point to consider, the increasing affordability of renewable energy, combined with the efforts of a few influential climate-conscious capitalists, predict a transition away from fossil fuels based solely on accounting costs, independent of environmental and social benefits. Thus, this "moral hazard" problem will likely be rendered less relevant than some anticipate. The second and more pertinent problem, then, deals with the moral culpability of human actions with both known and unknown consequences. This invokes the question: Is it more blameworthy to embark on geoengineering research—and possibly implementation—and potentially end up creating negative repercussions, or to sit by and do nothing?

We can frame this problem in terms of two types of error: those of commission, in which we cause something detrimental to happen; and those of omission, where something detrimental occurred because we did nothing. Generally speaking, errors of commission are considered to be worse. Many people see geoengineering research and implementation as errors of commission, while viewing consequences of avoiding geoengineering altogether as an error of omission. On first glance, this may sound reasonable; however, on deeper analysis, its validity is suspect. The thing is, every decision we make that ends in the emission of GHG's is shaping our Earth's climate—an error of emission, one could say. Perhaps these consequences were inadvertent at first, but presently we have a decent understanding of the implications of our actions—and we're still choosing to emit. These errors of emission are thus undoubtedly errors of commission—errors for which we are all accountable.

Unfortunately, there is no practicable ideal path to choose when making this decision. If we could snap our fingers and decarbonize the economy right now, that'd undoubtedly be optimal. But decarbonization takes time—especially while simultaneously promoting economic development—and while our global economy is certainly drifting in the direction of renewables, we can't avoid consequences that are already unfolding without resorting to more drastic measures of countering emissions. This situation certainly entails choosing the lesser evil, but this may still be the morally superior choice, provided we acknowledge all implications of the decision. Indeed, if we have the ability to determine which option is the "lesser evil" and we choose not to investigate it—then that is certainly an error of commission as well. If we have the capacity to learn more about our options—for example, by conducting small-scale geoengineering research—and avoid doing so, we are committing a greater sin. Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama has acknowledged the importance of investigating all methods of combating global warming—including geoengineering.

Of course, no scenario is as clear-cut as we'd like it to be. A tricky factor to consider in this kind of research is where "research" and "implementation" blend. When we're experimenting with our world's climate system, we can't really run laboratory simulations, and there are limits to the information models can provide. Progressing through each step of research means taking another step closer to implementation. How then, do we differentiate between what is acceptable and what is not? One could argue that this question can be approached in the same manner as the previous one of whether to begin research at all—if the results continue to look promising, we take the next step. But where exactly do we draw those lines? Do we consider it acceptable when predicted benefits of implementation cut climate problems in half, or by several orders of magnitude? And how do we account for uncertainty in our decisions? This is not something science can proscribe—it is the responsibility of policy makers. Additionally, we must consider that global benefits don't necessarily translate to regional ones. We need to engage those who would likely suffer the worst potential negative effects need to be involved in policy discussions, and a system should be created to aid them in combating these challenges. As in any other case involving global inequality, we must also be careful not to prescribe only the most powerful countries' views of "equity" on the rest of the world. Seeing as this will all take plenty of time—as do all international negotiations—we need to start conversations on scaling of research and potential deployment now, before a rogue nation decides to take matters into its own hands.

Ultimately, as we pursue research and lay the foundations for political discussions on SRM, we can work towards clarifying what the nature of our world's final decision should be. Undoubtedly, regardless of our conclusion, we also can't neglect cutting emissions along the way. We can't lose sight of the fact that SRM would only be a temporary fix, and a morally unsatisfactory one at that.

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