It’s been a big week for geoengineering.  First there was the news that the world’s largest geoengineering experiment to date is about to start in the Southern Ocean.  Following close behind was a new study on how geoengineering projects could potentially impact global climate change, ranging from covering vast tracts of desert with a reflective coating to suspending giant mirrors in space.  And today sees the publication of a new paper in the journal Nature indicating that, while fertilizing oceans with iron compounds can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the sequestration rate is far lower than previously estimated.

Reading through these and other accounts, it seems clear that the deliberate modification of the Earth’s environment on a vast scale is rapidly moving from the realms of fantasy to those of possibility.  Almost overnight it seems, geoengineering has become respectable.

Climate change is largely responsible—it has hammered home the message more than anything else perhaps that humanity is now able to influence the environment on a global scale.  Just the sheer magnitude of the possible impacts of global warming has made people think seriously about countering the effects through mega-engineering.  And the simple realization that our actions can make a difference to the global environment has contributed to an intellectual leap of imagination; scientists and engineers now have the audacity to think “yes we can” when it comes to countering anthropogenic climate change with engineered interventions.

This would all be wishful thinking though if it wasn’t for rapid advances in science and technology that are underpinning the emerging “yes we can” geoengineering mentality.  Although its early days still, scientists and engineers are beginning to develop the understanding and tools to put grand schemes into place, and start playing around with Earth’s systems on a global scale.

This confluence of need, awareness and ability is bringing new vigor to geoengineering.  And it’s hard to deny that its exciting stuff. … Imagine, at the very point where humanity begins to push the boundaries of sustainable existence under existing conditions, we develop the means to conform our global environment to our needs—inverse-evolution if you like.  We discover that science and technology give us a lever large enough to shift the world, metaphorically speaking.  We find that by controlling matter at the nanoscale, we can bend it to our will at the megascale.  In short, geoengineering appears to be humanity’s right-of-passage to planetary maturity.

But back up just a minute.  It seems there is something missing here.  Sure, we have the imagination and the ability to change things on a global scale.  But these abilities seem to far outstrip our understanding of their consequences.  It almost seems that scientists are in danger of applying the hypothesis-driven science of the laboratory to the whole world, while forgetting that when the hypothesis fails, there aren’t too many options to go back and start again.  And in the clamor to find technological fixes to technology-driven problems, it sometimes appears that we’ve forgotten to ask what we should do, as well as what we can do.

If we are going to get geoengineering right—and I think in the long-run it is as important as it is inevitable—we are going to need some serious ethical input to its development and application.  And while I generally avoid artificially slicing and dicing ethics, I think it would be no bad thing to further develop the idea of geoethics, as dealing with the appropriateness of decisions that affect societies on a global scale, and possibly over many lifetimes.

Of course, the concept of geoethics isn’t new—it’s been around in one form or another for decades, usually in the context of general anthropomorphic environmental impacts.  But to my mind the potential impact of geoengineering is such that it is going to need it’s own ethical framework that enables people to agree on a wise course of action.

Certainly, geoengineering raises many tricky issues.  For instance, we are still a long way from understanding and predicting the behavior and interactions of global systems, over short, medium and long timescales.  Interfering with systems we don’t understand is likely to lead to unanticipated consequences on a global scale.   And history has repeatedly demonstrated that simplistic interventions in environmental/ecological systems lead to adverse unintended consequences. On top of this, global interventions will have global impacts, meaning that great care needs to be taken in ensuring groups affected by potential outcomes are a part of the decision-making process.

These and other questions suggest to me that it’s worth developing the area of geoethics to apply specifically to geoengineering.  I’m not the first to propose this.  Perhaps the clearest articulation of geoethics in the context of geoengineering is Jamais Cascio’s article on Worldchanging.com from 2005.  Here’s what Cascio proposed as a definition back then:

“Geoethics is the set of guidelines pertaining to human behaviors that can affect larger planetary geophysical systems, including atmospheric, oceanic, geological, and plant/animal ecosystems. These guidelines are most relevant when the behaviors can result in long-term, widespread and/or hard-to-reverse changes in planetary systems, although even transient, local and superficial alterations can be considered through the prism of geoethics. Geoethical principles do not forbid long-term, widespread and/or hard-to-reverse changes, but require a consideration of repercussions and so-called “second-order effects” (that is, the usually-unintended consequences arising from the interaction of the changed system and other connected systems).”

He follows this with a set of core principles, which I’m not sure I entirely agree with (you can read them here).  Nevertheless, it’s a start.

Admittedly, there are international guidelines and agreements in place that already cover the responsible use of geoengineering to a certain extent.  Included in these is the Convention on Biological Diversity, which cautions against ocean fertilization (for instance)—a key geoengineering approach to sequestering carbon dioxide.  But what exists currently isn’t sufficient to engage people around the world in an integrated and informed debate over how to proceed appropriately.

The start of the Southern Ocean fertilization experiment was surrounded in controversy this week, but it went ahead anyway.  Even though it involves releasing six tons of iron over 300 square kilometers of ocean, it is a triflingly small experiment compared to what could be on the books in the near future.  If the global community are to get their heads around what is right and appropriate before the next big Earth-experiment comes along, now might be a good time to start working on geoethics for geoengineering—before it’s too late.

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Note

For a good primer on various proposed geoengineering projects, and their possible impact on global warming, I would strongly recommend the just-published paper by Lenton and Vaughan; “The radiative forcing potential of different climate geoengineering options” (Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss., 9, 2559–2608, 2009).

Update, 1/29/09:  Alexis Madrigal’s article “Scientists Rank Global Cooling Hacks” on Wired Science provides an excellent distillation of the key information in the Lenton and Vaughan paper.  You also have to wonder – from the title of the piece – whether we need to start thinking about an emerging “geohacker” community!