Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher

We May Yet Avoid Frying from Global Warming

You may not have heard of it, but my guess is, you will soon. Climate engineering-or global climate control-may soon be a fact of life.

First, the good news. You know how the Stern Report said we’ve only got eight to eighteen years left to significantly reduce global emissions or risk costly and irreversible damage to the planet? And how, despite this, global leaders continue to do bugger-all to fix the problem? To do so little, in fact, that most of us have concluded that either they are booked on a well-furnished galactic space station that the rest of us don’t know about or, even more depressingly, that what is collectively required of us to save the planet is beyond our capacity to achieve?

Well, turns out that despite this tragic state of affairs, we-or our children or grandchildren-may not have to die. Because there is a Plan C.

Plan B requires governments to develop and commercialise carbon-neutral energy and energy conservation technologies. A good idea but, like Plan A, still awaiting action on the policy front.

Enter Plan C: climate engineering. Whether it’s chucking light-refracting sulphur particles into the stratosphere or using soot to create mini “nuclear winters,” we’re talking technology designed to fix what technology has wrought. Currently, such plans are under-developed: a mix of educated speculation and back-of-the-envelope calculations. But if they work, they’ll be cheap and quick to deploy.

So why have scientists, across these basic facts for at least fifteen years, not begin seriously discussing them until last year?

Because they thought they shouldn’t.

In an extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented act of self-censorship, they seem to have kept mum-shelving papers, shunning mavericks~~– because they believed that if political leaders knew there was a get-out-of-climate-change-free card in the offing, they‘d never make the hard choices necessary to deal with the problem “properly’~~-by reducing emissions.

But here’s the question: is such self-censorship the commendable action of a bunch of blokes (and yes, they are all blokes) to protect the public good, or an unjustified act of paternalism? And what do we think of the fact that at least some scientists kept mum because they believed that because a technological fix was relatively easy, it was necessarily bad?

If climate engineering is bad~~~~enabling us to sow carbon without reaping its negative consequences~~~~than self-censorsing was the honourable thing to do. It may even have been required given the Universal Ethical Code’s demand that scientists “minimise and justify” any adverse effect their work may have on living creatures and the environment.

On the other hand, if we think that a techno-fix is a bloody good idea, then the delay self-censorship may have caused to the commencement of the small reversible studies that will tell us whether the technology will work, and about its side effects, is unconscionable.

I’ll be frank. People who oppose technology because it might allow us to escape some of the suffering we deserve for all the evil we have done, give me the irrits. Give me development any day, and wouldn’t it be grand if the poor folk of the world could enjoy some, too.

Whether they got it right or wrong, the collective silence on climate engineering shows how seriously the scientific community takes its moral obligations. and that has to be a good thing. And, hey, we may not all have to fry!

Sulphur pellets anyone?

Publication History

We May Yet Avoid Frying from Global Warming, Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)
13 Apr 2008

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