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The Bioethics of Geoengineering

By Michael Cook

Ethical guidelines are urgent when considering high-risk technologies to avert the climate crisis.

Croatian scientist Fritz Jahr coined the word “bioethics” back in 1927 to describe the ethics of dealing with living beings, but nearly all bioethicists have limited themselves to solving human medical dilemmas. Has the time come to revive the broader global interpretation?

The issue is climate change. In the words of prominent environmentalist Tim Flannery: “The current burden of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is in fact more than sufficient to cause catastrophic climate change. Everything’s going in the wrong direction at the moment, timelines are getting shorter, the amount of pollution in the atmosphere is growing. It’s extremely urgent.”

Most agree that the obvious solution is a radical reduction in global carbon emissions. But what if that doesn’t happen? It could be the moment for geoengineering, or a more politically correct term, climate remediation.

This is not science fiction. Out of sight of the mainstream media, the debate is bubbling away. Last September, the European Parliament passed a resolution expressing its opposition and UK scientists had to defer a small-scale experiment because of opposition from environmental groups. Only a few days later, a major report by US experts cautiously backed research into it.

Broadly speaking, there are two avenues of geoengineering. The first is removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is a low risk technique, but global temperatures would decline very slowly.

The second avenue is solar radiation management – reflecting a small percentage of the Sun’s light and heat back into space. This offers a quick fix for a climate crisis, but could cause other problems.

The solution that is most often suggested is seeding the stratosphere with sulfur dioxide – a man-made Pinatubo.

As Flannery has said: “Geoengineering is an option many would rather ignore. But the climate crisis is now so advanced that we would be well served by carefully evaluating options.”

Bioethics might come in handy. Not long ago, 200 scientists from 14 countries met in California to discuss some ground rules. The ethicists at the meeting suggested that the famous Belmont principles should be used as a framework for discussing the risks and benefits. But given the magnitude of the problem, these seem inadequate.

Take autonomy, and its corollary, informed consent. Would it be possible to get countries to consent to experiments that might devastate their economies? Probably not.

Then there’s beneficence, which states that doctors should balance the risks of a clinical trial against the benefit to participants. But calculating the risks of planet-hacking is almost impossible.

How about justice? Would it be possible for scientists to ensure that the experiments would be administered fairly? Since only a handful of countries could afford the technology, poor countries could become guinea pigs for the rich.

In short, from this perspective geoengineering is the global equivalent of gastric banding: a desperate, last-resort solution to carbon emissions that involves unacceptable risks.

A utilitarian analysis is less restrictive. Australian bioethicist Julian Savulescu, now at Oxford University, contributed to formulating the “Oxford Principles” for geoengineering research late last year. So long as measures are properly regulated and transparent, there is nothing wrong with geoengineering – at least, in principle.

Savulescu & Co point out that the risks involved are not unique. Genetically modified organisms, high-energy particle physics and nanotechnology present similar risks. “It is therefore important to resist an exceptionalist ethical attitude toward geoengineering technology,” they write.

Curiously, none of the bioethicists are discussing what most of us might regard as the central question: who is the patient? Is it humanity or is it the natural environment?

The irony of this debate is that scientists like Flannery who have spent their whole life criticising the destructive impact of technology upon the environment could end up supporting high-risk technology to save the environment. The need for humane ethical guidelines is urgent.

Michael Cook is editor of the internet bioethics newsletter BioEdge.