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Climate Fixes & Morality

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorOctober 22, 2009 10:08 PM


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It's soooo interesting when science and ethics collide. Especially when Nature is involved. Thanks to environmental historians like William Cronon and Stephen Pyne, and ecologists such as Emily Russell, we know that humans have been manipulating nature for a long, long time. It's not as if we suddenly learned how to live in a fetid swamp like South Florida or the scorching desert of Phoenix, Arizona. Even the Amazon, that mythical icon of untrammeled nature for anthropologists and environmentalists alike, has recently been revealed as an entirely manufactured landscape in prehistory, one that supported a highly engineered and urban metropolis. The field of environmental ethics, like environmentalism, and until recently, ecology, has not really engaged with this world-wide anthropogenic landscape history. The reason for this is an enduring (and false) dualism that humans and nature are separate: humans live in a world of their own making and nature, if left alone, exists in an exalted, pristine state. This mindset is rather ironic now, in light of the whole climate debate, which flows from the fact that humans have radically manipulated the earth's governing climate--and by extension, the whole of nature, from the rain forest to ice caps. So now that we've got this debate on geoengineering underway, I find it curious that Ben Hale, an environmental ethicist at the University of Colorado, in Boulder (and someone who I respect highly), tells us why we should forgo manipulating the climate to undo the damage we've done:

The problem is that we ought not to exert such control over our climate, even if we can do so with extreme precision. Doing so introduces incredibly complex moral problems that we can hardly begin to fathom.

The first problem with that statement is that we already exert sway over the climate. Why is it not reasonable to consider exerting a different kind of sway with "extreme precision" if that helps us improve the climate? As Michael Tobis wrote recently,

But what of geoengineering solutions? I am not in the least averse to using whatever tools we can bring to bear to manage the situation on the way to some sort of sustainability...

In fairness, Tobis also says there are "different classes" of geoengineering solutions that need to be distinguished. Fine. I'm down with that. At least he's open to them. Leaving aside the many questions that remain about the scientific merits of geoengineering, what of Hale's moral argument against it? What is this Pandora's Box of "incredibly complex moral problems that we can hardly begin to fathom"? Is it that we shouldn't be fiddling with nature on such a grand scale? Well, as I've pointed out above, we humans have already done so all throughout our history. Why should this be any different? Now, just to be clear, I'm not arguing in favor of geoengineering. All I'm trying to get at is why it should be precluded, since we already manipulate everything everything else on this earth, from species to ecosystems. Yes, there are scientific reservations that need to be addressed. And there are major political and economic obstacles as well. But I don't understand the moral misgivings that Ben has expressed. Perhaps he can lay them out more precisely. Update: Ben Hale obliges here.

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