Rumination: Asilomar Dispatch: Geoengineering Bad Fixes for Worse Problems
“Their biggest fear—which also happens to be the biggest fear of their critics—is that if society imagines there’s an easy fix, we will delay the hard, expensive, and politically fraught work of altering our behavior and curbing our use of fossil fuels.”
I’ve heard this rhetorical fallacy many times in the context of environmental remediation: “If we clean up the superfund sites we are just encouraging more toxic dumping”, “If we try to clone endangered species we are just encouraging more biodiversity loss”, “If we adopt clean coal technologies we are just promoting coal use.” And now: “If we pursue geoengineering remedies we are taking attention away from moving away from fossil fuels.”
I like to analogize environmental arguments to human medical health reasoning since I find this tends to reveal the underlying logical flaws.
Supposing I were to tell you that your diabetes should not be treated because to do so would be to encourage the practice of unhealthy eating! I think most of us would consider the argument that it is better to let the patient die to be immoral. That is essentially the same situation we have with ABCs (anthropogenic biogeochem change). In both cases the fundamental rule is: do no harm. In both, once the harm is done, there is a moral imperative to reduce the suffering and impacts caused by the initial harm done.
Or to take an even more extreme example, suppose I were to argue that waste treatment plants are no good because they encourage the production of human waste! But oh, you say, we have a choice with greenhouse gases whereas human waste is inevitable. To that I say: do we? I think most would agree that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, even with a concerted and funded, global effort will take many years and even then, population and economic growth during this period will delay things even more. How many years? I would take the view that at least as long as it has taken to build up the fossil fuel infrastructure we have today (about 180 years; perhaps less due to the technological advances we have made since that time).
If we do nothing to mitigate ABCs during these 180 or so years, we will be adding to the harm that has already been done, and possibly place ourselves in a position where our very existence as a species is threatened. This is not a cassandra like statement. The Earth’s history shows that changes in geochemistry can have drastic impacts on species composition. The larger the changes, the larger the impacts. Now it is true that some of these changes are beyond our control— but some are not. Unless we use logical fallacies to think ourselves into a fatalistic corner.
The way to reduce the initial harm is to make rules that assign a cost for that harmful behavior, borne by the agents of the behavior. That is why it is necessary to do both: to reduce and prevent the initial harm and to recover from the harms already done.
If it is within your power to meaningfully reduce the impacts of bad behavior, it is something that you must do.
That is the basis of our entire system of justice and equity.
Geoengineering, done safely and effectively, is not only a good idea, it is a moral imperative.
Disclaimer: I work in the field of geoengineering. I came to the field after many years of theoretical research in the areas of environmental science and policy that lead me to the conclusion that some amount of geoengineering is necessary to confront the problems we face. My current work in the field of geoengineering is therefore an attempt to implement ideas derived from abstract, unbiased, and non-directional research.