Climate Rules and Ethics Debated By New High-Profile Groups

This past summer, the new Climate Overshoot Commission met in Italy to begin a months-long process of creating governance strategy on adapting to climate change by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lowering temperatures by reflecting sunlight. And the American Geophysical Union, the largest society of scientists working on climate issues, announced the formation of an ethics framework for climate intervention.

Climate Intervention Needs to Happen – the Right Way

Both groups say solutions need to be discussed in light of the ongoing climate crisis. The world has warmed by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the mid 1800s, and scientists agree that the world is likely to pass the 1.5-degree mark sometime in the 2030s. But the goal of these two groups is not to radically advance geoengineering tactics to curb climate change – it’s to form ethical guidelines on climate change methods in order to gain public trust. AGU’s Executive Director Randy Fiser likened it to the way the scientific community cautioned against rushing into human cloning, even though it was technically possible.

Without that trust, says National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt, “the public will have a giant backlash and won’t trust the community.”

Will Ethics Discussions Halt Climate Recovery Efforts?

Some scientists and ethicists believe that doing all this talking about tinkering with the atmosphere serves to halt climate intervention – which could be a good thing or a bad thing. “Ethical thresholds placed within frameworks are typically challenging to satisfy… An ethical framework can lead to paralysis,” said Christopher Preston of the University of Montana. “Ethics is not like math. Ethical problems don’t often get ‘solved’.”

But ethics expert Hank Greely of Stanford counters that not doing anything – not removing carbon dioxide from the air or advancing solar geoengineering – won’t solve anything. “That’s the worst outcome and also the path of least resistance,” said Greely.

No matter what the “correct” answer is, these groups aim to form ethical guidelines that form the basis for policies on climate intervention moving forward – and that’s a good thing as we continue to try and combat the effects of climate change around the globe.

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