Geoengineering, Climate Harm, and Business as Usual

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Frank Joseph Jankunis, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada and Kent Peacock, Univ of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, AB, Canada
We define geoengineering (GE) as the intentional use of technology to change the planet’s climate. Many people believe GE is different in kind rather than degree from any other organized activity in human history. In fact, humans caused changes in the planet’s climate long before the industrial age, and all organisms engineer their environments directly or indirectly. The relevant difference between this cumulative and generally inadvertent activity and GE is the presence of intention. Now that science has revealed the extent to which humans can change the climate, however, even the continuance of Business as Usual (BAU) is, in effect, a form of intentional GE, albeit one that will cause significant climate harm, defined as effects such as sea level rise that will impact human well-being. But as with all forms of engineering, the devil is in the details: what forms of GE should be tried first? Some methods, such as large-scale afforestation, are low risk but have long-term payoffs; others, such as aerosol injection into the stratosphere, could help buy time in a warming crisis but have unknown side-effects and little long-term future. Climate change is a world-wide, inter-generational tragedy of the commons. Rational choice theory, the spatial and temporal extension of the problem, poorly fitted moral frameworks, and political maneuvering are all factors that inhibit solutions to the climate tragedy of the commons. The longer that such factors are allowed to dominate decision-making (or the lack thereof) the more likely it is that humanity will be forced to resort to riskier and more drastic forms of GE. We argue that this fact brings an additional measure of urgency to the search for ways to engineer the climate differently so as to avoid climate harm in the most lasting and least risky way.