Stephen Gardiner on "The Peculiar Ethics of Geoengineering"

On Tuesday, Feb. 28, Stephen Gardiner—professor of Human Dimensions of the Environment and director of the Program on Values in Society in the Philosophy Department at the University of Washington, Seattle—spoke about the ethics of geoengineering in response to climate change.

Williams philosophy professor Julie Pedroni, while introducing Gardiner, noted the record-breaking temperatures of the day, which was unseasonably warm for February. Pedroni also praised Gardiner for his 2011 book, A Perfect Moral Storm—a “landmark” because of its “thorough and balanced” discussion of climate change ethics.

Caption: Visualization of solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal geoengineering techniques. Stratospheric Sulfate Injection is shown in as image 1: “reflective aerosols.” Source: Climate Central, IPCC/Royal Society.


Though there are many proposed forms of geoengineering, Gardiner chose to focus his talk, “The Peculiar Ethics of Geoengineering,” on a classic example: stratospheric sulfate injection (SSI). SSI would involve spraying sulfates into the stratosphere to act as a “planetary sunblock,” said Gardiner, reflecting sunlight and reducing warming. According to Gardiner, SSI has been promoted because it is relatively cheap (in the short term at least) and would take effect almost immediately.

Gardiner broke the vague concept of “ethics” down into its components: specific “values.” According to Gardiner, values relevant to the issue of geoengineering include “welfare, justice, rights, relationship with nature, intention, responsibility, precaution, virtue and vice, political legitimacy, and … domination.” The values discussed most often regarding SSI are welfare (will it improve people’s lives?), justice (will it be good for everyone? Along what economic, racial, geographic, or temporal lines will the benefits be distributed?), political legitimacy (will SSI be deployed by one nation, or after a consensus of all nations?), and domination (could use of SSI be leveraged as a threat against certain nations?).

The emphasis that has been placed on SSI as a better geoengineering option than, say, carbon capture and sequestration, reflects our tendency to privilege the current generation over future generations, said Gardiner. In the short term, SSI has low costs and high benefits. However, according to Gardiner, the long-term effects of SSI are not well understood and could impose high or even catastrophic costs on future generations. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), on the other hand, has high implementation costs and delayed efficacy, but low long-term risk. Use of CCS would place costs on the current generation (which, it could be argued, is responsible for climate change) and afford benefits to future generations. According to Gardiner, our impulse to embrace SSI over CCS may be a case of intergenerational extortion (read about his other talk here).

Gardner expressed frustration with a question he is often asked: Are you for or against geoengineering? Few people, Gardiner said, would approve of geoengineering in all cases, and few would claim it should never—under any circumstances—be used.

In the near future, Gardiner predicted, ethics will not only take a more prominent role in policy making, but our very concept of ethics will need to evolve. According to Gardiner, climate change will force us to create ethical frameworks to deal with not only international, but also intergenerational and interspecies issues.  

Find articles and books by Stephen Gardiner here.

– Sophia Schmidt ’17