The Ethical Foundations of Climate Engineering

In the standard consequentialist view of climate ethics, the question of whether it is ethically justified intentionally to shift the planet to a warmer or cooler climate depends on an assessment of the costs and benefits of the new state compared to the old one. In this view the natural world is framed as a catalogue of resources for the benefit of humans, there is nothing inherently preferable about the natural state, and there is no moral constraint on humans choosing for the Earth any climate they might prefer. This paper argues that the grip of this kind of “technological thinking” explains why it has been so difficult for humanity to heed the warnings of climate science and why the idea of using technology to take control of the Earth’s atmosphere is immediately appealing. Yet the unique and highly threatening character of global warming renders the standard approach to the ethics of climate change and geoengineering untenable. Recent discoveries by Earth system science itself—the arrival of the Anthropocene, the prevalence of non-linearities, and the deep complexity of the earth’s processes-hint at its inborn flaws. The emerging understanding of the Earth highlights the dangers of technological thinking, evokes a strong sense of humility and suggests a source of moral authority beyond the self-legislating Kantian subject.


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