Thursday, August 8, 2013

Draft: Geoengineering and Moral Schizophrenia: What’s the Question? Paper By Stephen M. Gardiner and Ben Rabinowitz

Geoengineering and Moral Schizophrenia: 
What’s the Question?
Stephen M. Gardiner
Professor of Philosophy and
Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of the Human Dimensions of the Environment
University of Washington, Seattle
Full chapter here:

[Final version forthcoming in William Burns and Andrew Strauss, eds.
Climate Change Geoengineering: Legal, Political and Philosophical Perspectives. Cambridge.]

“Not to be moved by what one values – what one believes good, nice, right, beautiful, and
so on – bespeaks a malady of the spirit.”
Michael Stocker

Humanity stands on a precipice. Mainstream science tells us that climate change is
real, accelerating, and might credibly result in global catastrophe. For decades, it has
warned that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced (mitigation) and that we should
prepare for those impacts that are no longer avoidable (adaptation). Yet global emissions of
the main culprit, carbon dioxide, continue to grow at a startling rate, and very little action
has been taken to prepare.
In the face of this escalating threat, a previously marginalized proposal has reemerged and become mainstream. 
Geoengineering – roughly “the intentional manipulation
of planetary systems at a global scale”2 – is now being seriously discussed. Especially
prominent are approaches that might provide a quick fix to hold off an imminent climate
catastrophe. Currently, the leading proposal is that humanity try to offset the heating
effects of increases in greenhouse gases by injecting sulfates into the stratosphere, as a
way of reducing incoming solar radiation (i.e., “planetary sunblock”). Although most believe
this form of “solar radiation management” to be “risky”, and probably also “unsustainable”3
over the long term, respected researchers and institutions are urging national governments
to create research programs, and begin envisioning mechanisms of governance. Given the
looming threat of catastrophe, we are told, geoengineering simply must be taken seriously.4
At first glance, such arguments, and the emergency framing more generally, appear
straightforward, irresistible and overtly ethical. Clearly, global environmental catastrophe
would be very bad for many things we value. If so, don’t we have a strong moral obligation
to do “whatever it takes” to prevent it, including encouraging the would-be geoengineers?
In the face of such a threat, what ethical objections could possibly be strong enough to rule
out geoengineering?
This chapter considers whether, in context, these are the most important questions
to be asking. Its central claim will be that they are not. Although the issue of whether to
pursue geoengineering as such is relevant, focusing on it obscures much of what is at stake
morally-speaking, and in ways that threaten to trivialize our understanding of our
predicament. One way to illustrate this is by showing how the currently dominant framing
of the geoengineering debate in terms of “whatever it takes”-style emergency arguments is
often ethically short-sighted and morally schizophrenic.5
It is ethically short-sighted (in the sense of “missing the bigger picture”) in so far as it arbitrarily 
marginalizes central moral issues such as how we got into this predicament, and why we are 
not seriously pursuing better ways out. It is also frequently morally schizophrenic 
(in the sense of being “a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible 
elements”6) since it tends to bring on a form of creative myopia: it requires us to emphasize and 
endorse strong
ethical concerns that we are otherwise unwilling to act on, and which would, if earnestly and
coherently embraced, lead us to approach both climate policy in general and geoengineering
in particular in very different ways. In short, the worry is that, even if ethically serious
people have reason to support (some forms of) geoengineering research and perhaps even
deployment in the abstract, their approach would look very different from anything currently
under consideration, let alone actually likely to transpire.
This diagnosis has three important implications. First, it threatens to undermine the
superficial appeal of the emergency arguments, and to render them seriously misleading in
practice. Second, it has explanatory value: it seems likely many people’s ethical unease
about the current push towards geoengineering rest in part on concerns about ethical 
shortsightedness and moral schizophrenia. Third, importantly, it suggests that not all ethical
resistance to geoengineering relies on potentially controversial theses about its moral
status. For example, those troubled by the geoengineering turn in climate policy need not
believe geoengineering as such to be inherently bad, nor a violation of the appropriate
relationship of humanity to the rest of the natural world, nor even ultimately morally
impermissible.7 Instead, some ethical resistance can involve far narrower fears about the
context within which geoengineering is currently being pursued, and how this is likely to
evolve in the foreseeable future.
Before proceeding, some clarifications may be helpful. First, the target of most of
the chapter is our collective reasoning and behavior, where the most salient collectives are
humanity as such, the dominant nations, and especially the current generation of the
world’s affluent, who wield most of the political power, and to whom most arguments for
engaging in geoengineering are in practice ultimately addressed. One consequence of this
is that the chapter is not directly concerned with the issue of whether and how ethical
responsibility is transmitted from collectives to individuals. Though I am inclined to think
that individuals are normally accountable to some extent for what they do together, the
issue is complex and I will neither argue for that view here, nor sketch its implications for
Second, when discussing collectives, my focus is on improving the quality of public
argument, rather than prosecuting claims of ethical responsibility. In particular, I am not
concerned with questions of who should be accused of moral schizophrenia, and how they
should be held accountable. Instead, my interest is in how we (collectively) should best
think and talk about the challenge that confronts us in a setting where the integrity of public
discussion is itself at risk.
Third, in focusing on undifferentiated collectives such as humanity as such and the
current generation, I am not claiming that such collectives are currently unified in
appropriate structures of agency (e.g., by competent institutions). Instead, I assume only
that there is a sense in which they should be so unified, and that public argument often
proceeds on this assumption.
Nevertheless, fourth, I also do not assume that thinking about collectives is the only
or most central way in which geoengineering (or climate policy more generally) should be
understood from the ethical point of view. Indeed, (as we shall see in section 1) elsewhere
I have argued that one of the key features of climate change and similar problems is the
way in which they complicate and potentially undermine effective collective agency. My
remarks should thus be seen as picking out only one salient dimension of our ethical
problem (and so in the context of that overall picture, rather than in competition with it).
The chapter proceeds as follows. Section 1 considers the general ethical context in
which the push towards geoengineering emerges, and clarifies the problem of ethical shortsightedness. 
Section 2 identifies the problem of moral schizophrenia, introduces a
provocative hypothetical case, and suggests that it is analogous to geoengineering. Section
3 briefly sketches some implications of the analysis. Section 4 clarifies the analogy by
responding to three basic objections. Section 5 summarizes the main claims of the chapter.

Climate Change Geoengineering Philosophical Perspectives, Legal Issues, and Governance Frameworks  EDITORS: Wil C. G. Burns, The Johns Hopkins University Andrew L. Strauss, Widener University School of Law, Delaware 
PUBLISHED: July 2013 FORMAT: Hardback ISBN: 9781107023932

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