Montana Workshop Examines Ethics of Solar Radiation Management

Guest post by Christopher Preston

Since the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen last December, during which delegates failed to agree to a binding international treaty to address climate change, the idea of deliberately engineering the climate to temper the worst effects of global warming has seen an explosion of interest. Four books on the topic have been published in the last 10 months, a number of government studies and hearings have taken (or are taking) place, and numerous meetings exploring the scientific and technical issues have been convened. As complicated and preliminary as the science of geoengineering may be, a major report by Britain’s Royal Society in 2009 suggested that the greatest challenges to the successful deployment of geoengineering are “the social, ethical, legal and political issues associated with governance, rather than scientific and technical issues.” 

In other words, even if temporarily geoengineering the climate to create a bridge to more acceptable levels of atmospheric carbon proved technically possible, there might still be legal, political, and ethical reasons not to do it.

As past experience has taught – for example with the development of biotechnology – these legal, political, and ethical issues have to be aired prior to the deployment or the commercialization of the technology. Failure to do so can result in anything from international disagreement and tension, to calls for moratoria and civic unrest.

With this need for ethical deliberation in mind, the National Science Foundation has funded a team of researchers from the University of Montana in Missoula to investigate the social and ethical issues associated with the particular set of geoengineering technologies known as “solar radiation management” or SRM. For three days in mid-October, the team hosted a workshop in Missoula to consider the ethical issues raised by technologies such as whitening roofs, brightening marine strato-cumulous clouds, adding light-reflective aerosols to the stratosphere, and deploying space mirrors.

Proposed geoengineering methods, including solar radiation management. Credit: Remik Ziemlinski.

Workshop organizers invited a variety of experts from the atmospheric sciences, engineering, the social sciences, philosophy, Native American studies, policy, and planning. Also in attendance were seven graduate students from the US, Canada, and Europe. In addition to inviting indigenous participants, organizers sought gender diversity among the speakers, something that has tended to be absent from geoengineering deliberations to date. Sessions included such topics as science and the public trust, environmental and social justice, public participation, governance, environmental ethics, technology and design, moral hazards and technological fixes, and the precautionary principle. Two evening public roundtable events on the science and the ethics of solar radiation management drew about 120 members of the public eager to learn more.

One striking feature of the workshop was the wide array of topics that were judged to be central. Some thought that the question of how to patent SRM technologies was crucial, others put the emphasis on questions of how to ensure adequate representation in any decision-making process that might initiate SRM deployment. Two participants outlined the worries that environmental ethicists might have about such a large-scale manipulation of the earth, while another speculated on whether SRM is the kind of technology that introduces too many “unknown, unknowns” into the climate system to be convincingly evaluated. Several panelists tackled questions concerning the need and the acceptability of field tests to find out how the climate might react to the various SRM technologies. Discussions of how to apply the precautionary principle to SRM, whether the “moral hazard” argument (of neglecting emissions reduction) is a worry or not, and whether the term “technological fix” is really an appropriate way to dismiss SRM all probed the language that has been emerging around climate engineering. 

One thing that became apparent was a need for clarity on what is fast becoming a sticky morass of complicated language, promises and anxieties, claims and counter-claims. 

In the face of both the complexity and the disagreement about what were really the most central ethical issues, one of the surprising narratives that recurred was the discussion of a possible “silver-lining” to geoengineering. One presenter used a remark about the different meanings of the Greek word technē to talk about fashioning a more positive discourse in today’s media landscape. Geoengineering could be considered a form of art rather than the more familiar understanding of it as merely a technical problem to solve. Characterizations of geoengineering as “renovation” or “restoration” were tried out alongside the more usual descriptions of “manipulation” or “intervention.”

A policy expert suggested that the clear need for broad public participation in SRM decision-making presented an opportunity to create new ways of engaging the public in governance decisions. A Montana graduate student currently funded by the NSF grant presented his plans for social science research on attitudes towards geoengineering within vulnerable populations across the globe.

While there is broad agreement that solar radiation management presents both scientific and ethical challenges, the opportunities available for scientists and ethicists to sit down and work together on these issues still present a few challenges. Disciplinary differences created a complaint or two about “jargon” and about “not understanding what I do.” As is often the case in such interdisciplinary gatherings, participants from different backgrounds made different judgments about where the debate needed to be joined. But a clear message from the community events was that there is an interested public out there who are waking up to the possibility of geoengineering, and are eager to get a sense of where the technology fits within climate change policy more broadly. Amongst this interested public are tribes and indigenous peoples whose initial reaction to SRM was forcefully demonstrated by an audience member at one of the public roundtables who asked: “After all we have been though, why should we trust a collection of white scientists with this?” 

This questioner mirrored a broader concern raised several times during the workshop. For geoengineering to proceed, a level of public trust in the science of SRM would need to be achieved that probably does not yet exist. Also apparent from the workshop is the need for a solution to the problem of how to globalize the necessary public participation in SRM deliberations. After all, as one participant dryly noted, “It’s only the whole world we are talking about here.”

Christopher Preston is an associate professor of philosophy and fellow at the Center for Ethics at the University of Montana in Missoula.