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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Engineering the Future: Geoengineering

Christopher Reinert

Ethical Technology

May 23, 2013

Geoengineering has an image problem. Some proposed geoengineering projects, such as space mirrors or cloud seeding, seem like they come from the pages of a science fiction novel. Those who propose these projects are treated with belittling rhetoric. Other projects face a different type of imaging problem; the project’s proponents are accused of having vague or unspecified goals and timelines. Such projects are summarily dismissed as being idealistic, out of touch or nebulous.

Geoengineering scare tactic groups popping up all over internet:

It is easy for a proponent of geoengineering to become disheartened by the huge task of presenting geoengineering as both an affordable and ethical choice. I have selected some of the most common criticisms about geoengineering and presented possible counter arguments that focus on the benefits of a geoengineering project.

One criticism of geoengineering projects that proponents are nebulous or vague in describing the scientific aim of the project. I this criticism read as what problem is the project trying to counter and why is it this a problem? This question is important to geoengineering advocates because it demonstrates that the listener may not understand the scientific purpose of the project.

A geoeningeering project provides an opportunity for increasing the public’s interest in science. Once interest has been generated, public debates about the merits or hazards of a geoengineering project can be discussed by the public. Such a debate would provide an opportunity for geoengineering advocates and detractors to present their cases to the public. The debate may delay the project’s implementation, but such a debate acknowledges the role public as a participant in democracy and science policy.

Another common question critics of geoengineering ask is how long will the project last and when will it be finished? I will concede that critics have a point. When discussing a project that will change the surface of plant, it is important to clarify the period of time under discussion and what specific, time related words mean in the context of the argument. Does immediately mean 10 years or tomorrow? Will current generations reap any benefit from the project?

Assuming a common vocabulary is reached, the long timescale required of a geoengineering project has numerous advantages. One could argue that any project that took greater than ten years to complete would require a sizable investments in the form of labor and finances. The labor required for the project would reduce unemployment numbers for certain sectors of the economy. Science and engineering sectors would see a drop in unemployment and would related technical fields. Manual labor may see a drop, but only when construction was underway.

The financial investment in a geoengineering project would also benefit a country’s economy. A large scale geoengineering project would require the development of new technologies and industries. These industries would contribute to lowering the unemployment rate. New industries would put a country on the cutting edge of technological development.

How big of a project will this be and who will manage the construction phase? The answer depends on the scale and type of the proposed geoengineering project. A small scale reforestation project could be managed by state and local officials. A large scale project, such as cloud reseeding or carbon sequestration, could be managed by federal and state level officials. The option to contract the work to private corporations would exist at every level. Geoengineering projects that required international cooperation present unqiue geopolitical challenges, which will be mentioned later.

Such questions allow advocates to show that a range of viable geoengineering projects exist. Sample projects include space based projects, land-management projects, cloud seeding projects, and biological processes. A projects can be selected and modified to meet existing environmental, financial and political conditions of the state or nation. As an aside, the wide range of choices automatically disproves the extremely dichotomous portrayals of geoengineering projects as fantastical mega-projects or unrealistic demands on resources..

What if this project does not work and the underlying environmental problem still exists? There are two answers to this question. The first answer concerns how the project’s timescale was presented. The project’s designers may have underestimated the required timescale for the project to take effect or the public is expecting the effect to occur rapidly. Another answer is that the project was not intended to address the cause of the environmental problem and is only treating the outcome.

For sake of analogy, imagine you were diagnosed with diabetes. You are taking insulin but have not altered your diet to help control your blood sugar. In this analogy, the geoengineering project is the insulin. It helps treat the effects of diabetes but it does replace proper diet and exercise. Critics are right in saying that while the geoengineering project may perform the task it was intended to but it is not addressing the underlying problem.

The counter argument to that claim is that like insulin, the geoengineering project is not necessarily intended as a cure. The project can help control or migrate the problem, but it is not intended to address the root of the problem.

A geoengineering project could work in concern with other environmental policies that aimed at limiting atmospheric pollutants. The aim of the policies would be to reduce the number of pollutants being added to the atmosphere. The geoengineering project removes the existing pollutants.

There is an additional international public relations hurdle that geoengineering needs to overcome. This is the fear of a geoengineering project being weaponization. A nation that could alter the climate or geography of their opponents territory would hold a distinct strategic advantage. The specter of a climatic arms race hangs in the distance, as nations vie for ever stronger climate based weapons to counter supposed threats.

How do we overcome this fear? One option is to prohibit any one nation from building a space based geoengineering such as a solar mirror. This constrain would essentially force international cooperation, as no single nation would have direct control over the project. It is possible that this solution would occur by default if we assume that no single could afford to build a space based project on their own.

Another solution is the fear of mutually assured destruction. Much like a nation’s nuclear arsenal, a rational nation would be hesitant to use climate based weapons for the fear of the opposing side would retaliate with stronger weapons. Additionally, the effects of a climate based weapon would not be contained to one nation. Essentially, using a climate based weapon would carry the inherent risk of damaging your nation’s environment.

Understanding the motives behind criticisms of geoengineering projects allows for advocates of such projects to correct the public image of geoengineering. I attribute the majority of the above criticsims to the fact that humanity has never executed a geoengineering project on such a grand scale. By focusing on the wide range of geoengineering projects that can be implemented and how these projects would work with other environmental measures, geoengineering becomes less nebulous or fantastic and more plausible.

Christopher Reinert is a Masters student of Human Computer Interaction at Georgia Tech. His interests include human robotic interaction, brain machine interfaces, and the public perception of science.


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