Politics and law

The politics of geoengineering rests on two central themes: the first emerges from the fact that many geoengineering schemes are amenable to implementation by independent action, whereas the second relates to geoengineering's status as a form of moral hazard. First consider independent action. Unlike other responses to climate change (e.g., abatement or adaptation), geoengineering could be implemented by one or a few countries acting alone. Various political concerns arise from this fact with respect to security, sovereignty, and liability; they are briefly summarized below.

Some geoengineering schemes raise direct security concerns; solar shields, for example, might be used as offensive weapons. A subtler, but perhaps more important security concern arises from the growing links between environmental change and security. Whether or not they were actually responsible, the operators of a geoengineering project could be blamed for harmful climatic events that could plausibly be attributed by an aggrieved party to the project. Given the current political disputes arising from issues such as the depletion of fisheries and aquifers, it seems plausible that a unilateral geoengineering project could lead to significant political tension.

International law would bear on these security and liability concerns. Bodansky (1996) points out that existing laws may cover several specific proposals; for example, the fertilization of Antarctic waters would fall under the Antarctic Treaty System, and the use of space-based shields would fall under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. In addition, the IPCC95 report argues that many geoengineering methods might be covered by the 1977 treaty prohibiting the hostile use of environmental modification.

As in the current negotiations under the FCCC, geoengineering would raise questions of equity. Schelling (1996) has argued that in this case geoengineering might simplify the politics; geoengineering "... totally transforms the greenhouse issue from an exceedingly complicated regulatory regime to a simple - not necessarily easy but simple - problem in international cost sharing".

One must note that not all geoengineering methods are amenable to centralized implementation, in particular, most albedo modification methods are, while control of greenhouse gases generally is not.

Separate from the possibility of independent action is the concern that geo-engineering may present a moral hazard. The root problem is simple: would mere knowledge of a geoengineering method that was demonstrably low in cost and risk weaken the political will to mitigate anthropogenic climate forcing? Knowledge of geoengineering has been characterized as an insurance strategy; in analogy with the moral hazard posed by collective insurance schemes, which encourage behavior that is individually advantageous but not socially optimal, we may ascribe an analogous hazard to geoengineering if it encourages suboptimal investment in mitigation. As the following examples demonstrate, geoengineering may pose a moral hazard whether or not its implementation is in fact a socially optimal strategy.

If the existence of low-cost biological sinks encourages postponement of effective action on emissions mitigation, and if such sinks prove leaky then the existence of these sinks poses a moral hazard.

To illustrate that geoengineering may be optimal yet still present a moral hazard, suppose that two or three decades hence real collective action is underway to reduce CO2 emissions under a binding agreement that limits peak atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 600 ppmv and which mandates that concentrations will be reduced to less than 450 ppmv by some fixed date. Suppose further that both the cost of mitigation and the climate sensitivity turn out to be higher than we now anticipate and that the political coalition supporting the agreement is just strong enough to sustain the actions necessary to meet the concentration targets, but is not strong enough to support lowering of the targets. Finally, suppose that a temporary space-based albedo modification system is proposed that will limit climate impacts during the period of peak CO2 concentrations. Even if strong arguments can be made that the albedo modification is truly a socially optimal strategy, it may still present a moral hazard if its implementation encourages a retreat from agreed stringent action on mitigation.

The status of geoengineering as a moral hazard may partially explain the paucity of serious analysis on the topic. Within the policy analysis community, for example, there has been vigorous debate about whether discussion of geo-engineering should be included in public reports that outline possible responses to climate change, with fears voiced that its inclusion could influence policy makers to take it too seriously and perhaps defer action on abatement, given knowledge of geoengineering as an alternative (Schneider, 1996; Watson, Zinyowera et al., 1996).

10.5.4 Environmental ethics

Discussion of the advisability of geoengineering has been almost exclusively limited to statements about risk and cost. Although ethics is often mentioned, the arguments actually advanced have focused on risk and uncertainty; serious ethical arguments about geoengineering are almost nonexistent. Many of the objections to geoengineering that are cited as ethical have an essentially pragmatic basis. Three common ones are:

• The slippery slope argument. If we choose geoengineering solutions to counter anthropogenic climate change, we open the door to future efforts to systematically alter the global environment to suit humans. This is a pragmatic argument, unless one can define why such large-scale environmental manipulation is bad, and how it differs from what humanity is already doing.

• The technical fix argument. Geoengineering is a "technical fix", "kluge", or "end-of-pipe solution". Rather than attacking the problems caused by fossil fuel combustion at their source, geoengineering aims to add new technology to counter their side effects. Such solutions are commonly viewed as inherently undesirable -but not for ethical reasons.

• The unpredictability argument. Geoengineering entails "messing with" a complex, poorly understood system; because we cannot reliably predict results it is unethical to geoengineer. Because we are already perturbing the climate system willy-nilly with consequences that are unpredictable, this argument depends on the notion that intentional manipulation is inherently worse than manipulation that occurs as a side effect.

These concerns are undoubtedly substantive, yet they do not exhaust the underlying feeling of abhorrence that many people feel for geoengineering. As a first step toward discussion of the underlying objections one may analyze geoengineering using common ethical norms; for example, one could consider the effects of geoengineering on intergenerational equity or on the rights of minorities. Such an analysis, however, can say nothing unique about geoengin-eering because other responses to the CO2-climate problem entail similar effects. I sketch two modes of analysis that might be extended to address some of the underlying concerns about geoengineering. The first concerns the eroding distinction between natural and artificial and the second the possibility of an integrative environmental ethic.

The deliberate management of the environment on a global scale would, at least in part, force us to view the biosphere as an artifact. It would force a re-examination of the distinction between natural science and what Simon (1996) called "the sciences of the artificial" - that is, engineering and the social sciences. The inadvertent impact of human technology has already made the distinction between managed and natural ecosystems more one of degree than of kind, but in the absence of planetary geoengineering it is still possible to imagine them as clearly distinct (Smil, 1985; Allenby, 1999). The importance of, and the need for, a sharp distinction between natural and artificial, between humanity and our technology was described by Tribe in analyzing concerns about the creation of artificial environments to substitute for natural ones (Tribe, 1973; Tribe, 1974).

The simplest formulations of environmental ethics proceed by extension of common ethical principles that apply between humans. A result is "animal rights" (Singer, 1990) or one of its variants (Regan, 1983). Such formulations locate "rights" or "moral value" in individuals. When applied to a large-scale problem such as the choice to geoengineer, an ethical analysis based on individuals reduces to a problem of weighing conflicting rights or utility. As with analyses that are based on more traditional ethical norms, such analysis has no specific bearing on geoengineering.

In order to directly address the ethical consequences of geoengineering one might desire an integrative formulation of environmental ethics that located moral value at a level beyond the individual, a theory that ascribed value to collective entities such as a species or a biotic community. Several authors have attempted to construct integrative formulations of environmental ethics (Taylor, 1986; Norton, 1987; Callicott, 1989), but it is problematic to build such a theory while maintaining an individualistic conception of human ethics (Callicott, 1989), and no widely accepted formulation has yet emerged.

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