Perspectives from the Front Lines of Climate Engineering

Christopher Preston, whose co-authored article with Wylie Carr, ‘Skewed Vulnerabilities and Moral Corruption in Global Perspectives on Climate Engineering’,  is published in Environmental Values 26.6, December 2017) here offers some thoughts on the controversial issue of climate engineering amid fears that, in terms of environmental justice, it could prove ‘a bad way out of a dire situation’.

Given the catastrophic harms experienced in 2017 from a relentless sequence of floods, fires, and hurricanes around the world, it makes one shudder to imagine what would happen if today’s global mean temperature increase of around one degree centigrade were tripled or quadrupled in the next half century as some climate scenarios project. The fact that both the catastrophic events and the slow-onset impacts of climate change (e.g. sea-level rise, desertification, and glacial retreat) create a disproportionately large burden for those living in the least developed countries creates high moral stakes. It is incumbent on people of good conscience to do everything they can to help mitigate the impending risks of climate harm faced by various populations across the world. Climate engineering with stratospheric aerosols, its advocates suggest, has the potential to provide some relief from these harms.

In the same way that large volcanic eruptions throughout history have cooled global climate by a degree or two for a couple of years, so could strategically deployed injections of sulphates into the stratosphere also cool the planet for a short period. If these injections were sustained for a few decades and carefully calibrated, they might arguably be used to ‘shave the top off the curve’ of rising global temperatures (as advocate for climate engineering research David Keith puts it).

While advocates of climate engineering research suggest the technologies are morally desirable – or even morally obligatory – it would be a terrible tragedy if any attempt to climate engineer with the injection of stratospheric aerosols were to compound existing climate injustices. Although those who advocate most cogently for stepped up research into climate engineering claim to have the best interests of the world’s poor in mind, questions remain at this point over whether and how vulnerable populations would benefit. It is not impossible that, in some cases, climate engineering could compound certain injustices rather than alleviate them. This could happen for a number of reasons. The regional effects on precipitation of stratospheric aerosol injection are very hard to model, the politics of decision-making about climate engineering is likely to be skewed by the influence of the developed countries, and the technological development path of stratospheric aerosols is likely to be controlled by a small set of suitably placed nations. If care is not taken, even if global temperatures were reduced, various confounding factors could conspire against the interests of the most vulnerable.

As a result of this worry, several observers have asked for a closer scrutiny of the idea that vulnerable populations would necessarily benefit from climate engineering. For instance, Pablo Suarez and Maarteen van Aaslst with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre recently raised the spectre of ‘predatory climate engineering’ wherein powerful entities could intentionally or accidentally shift harms onto the most vulnerable. In order to guard against an outcome in which climate engineering leads to the creation of additional harms for vulnerable populations, a number of commentators have urged for the inclusion of these populations in discussions about research and governance of the emerging technologies. To date, most of the discussion of climate engineering has taken place in wealthy nations that include the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. An early effort known as the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative expressed the need to ‘expand the global conversation around the governance of SRM geoengineering research’. As an example of this recommended expansion, the work described in ‘Skewed Vulnerabilities and Moral Corruption in Global Perspectives on Climate Engineering’ describes one attempt to bring the voices of those most vulnerable to climate change into the conversation.

SRM geo-engineering technology. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Between 2012 and 2014, Wylie Carr, then-Ph.D. candidate at the University of Montana, travelled to the Solomon Islands, Arctic Alaska, and Kenya to interview people who were already feeling the harms of climate change about their views on climate engineering. Carr conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews averaging over an hour in length with over 100 individuals across the three research sites. The rich qualitative data provided a wealth of insights on participant perspectives on climate change and climate engineering. Some of his findings were surprising.

One of the results that emerged was that a significant number of those interviewed displayed what could only be described as a ‘reluctant acceptance’ of the need to further research into climate engineering. The harms of climate change were already too real and too transformative for people not to be open to any proposal that might help. One Alaska Native summed it up by saying ‘I think that due to the devastation that’s occurring with climate change already, that we see here, we have to look at other means’. Carr heard in the voices of many of the people he encountered a sense of desperation about what was already happening to them and an eagerness to see those impacts end.

The reluctant acceptance of the need for research expressed was, however, highly conditioned. Whether it was in sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, or the Arctic, interviewees were painfully aware of the economic, political, geographical, and technological starting points of their people. A consideration that ethicists had for the most part not anticipated was how climate engineering had the potential to recreate historical patterns of uneven power relationships, leading to the subjugation of vulnerable people via the technologies of richer, more powerful nations. Even as they expressed reluctant acceptance of the need for research, some of Carr’s respondents worried it might be ‘a bad way out of a dire situation’, one that might only exacerbate existing imbalances in power.

One of the things that this research and other recent commentaries makes clear is that viewing the moral argument for climate engineering solely in terms of ‘physical harms avoided’ might provide an overly restricted view of the moral issues in play. While justice clearly has a lot to do with avoiding physical harms, it also involves complex issues of forced dependency, historical context, and vulnerability. The lesson here is that climate engineering must not only be just. It must be just in ways that are most relevant to the vulnerable. This will likely require adopting different approaches to investigating climate engineering justice.

One way to think more broadly about justice in climate engineering is to focus on issues of recognition. A focus on recognition – or adequately acknowledging and respecting people for who they are and where they are – could help draw attention to the relevant social, political, and cultural contexts in which vulnerable populations encounter new technologies like climate engineering. Focusing on recognitional justice (in addition to distributional and procedural justice) would highlight not only potential physical impacts from climate engineering, but also the ways that different approaches could change relationships, power structures, and dependencies. Emphasising recognition can also highlight what Jack Stilgoe has referred to as the ‘slow reconfigurations’ that climate engineering could bring about – social, cultural, political and economic shifts that could be at least as consequential in the long run as any physical impacts.

To stay alert to the broader conceptions of justice raised by Carr’s interviewees, social scientists and ethicists need to do better job of identifying the social and political conditions under which climate engineering can help and the conditions under which it can harm. The research Carr conducted shows the importance of opening up questions of climate engineering justice beyond simple questions of temperature reduction. A lot more in-depth qualitative work will need to be done in order to fully understand the moral calculus at play.

Christopher Preston writes on topics related to technology and the natural world at

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