Climate Fixes & Morality

It’s soooo interesting when science and ethics collide. Especially when Nature is involved. Thanks to environmental historians like William Cronon and Stephen Pyne, and ecologists such as Emily Russell, we know that humans have been manipulating nature for a long, long time. It’s not as if we suddenly learned how to live in a fetid swamp like South Florida or the scorching desert of Phoenix, Arizona. Even the Amazon, that mythical icon of untrammeled nature for anthropologists and environmentalists alike, has recently been revealed as an entirely manufactured landscape in prehistory, one that supported a highly engineered and urban metropolis.

The field of environmental ethics, like environmentalism, and until recently, ecology, has not really engaged with this world-wide anthropogenic landscape history. The reason for this is an enduring (and false) dualism that humans and nature are separate: humans live in a world of their own making and nature, if left alone, exists in an exalted, pristine state. This mindset is rather ironic now, in light of the whole climate debate, which flows from the fact that humans have radically manipulated the earth’s governing climate–and by extension, the whole of nature, from the rain forest to ice caps.

So now that we’ve got this debate on geoengineering underway, I find it curious that Ben Hale, an environmental ethicist at the University of Colorado, in Boulder (and someone who I respect highly), tells us why we should forgo manipulating the climate to undo the damage we’ve done:

The problem is that we ought not to exert such control over our climate, even if we can do so with extreme precision.  Doing so introduces incredibly complex moral problems that we can hardly begin to fathom.

The first problem with that statement is that we already exert sway over the climate. Why is it not reasonable to consider exerting a different kind of sway with “extreme precision” if that helps us improve the climate? As Michael Tobis wrote recently,

But what of geoengineering solutions? I am not in the least averse to using whatever tools we can bring to bear to manage the situation on the way to some sort of sustainability…

In fairness, Tobis also says there are “different classes” of geoengineering solutions that need to be distinguished. Fine. I’m down with that. At least he’s open to them.

Leaving aside the many questions that remain about the scientific merits of geoengineering, what of Hale’s moral argument against it? What is this Pandora’s Box of “incredibly complex moral problems that we can hardly begin to fathom”? Is it that we shouldn’t be fiddling with nature on such a grand scale? Well, as I’ve pointed out above, we humans have already done so all throughout our history. Why should this be any different?

Now, just to be clear, I’m not arguing in favor of geoengineering. All I’m trying to get at is why it should be precluded, since we already manipulate everything everything else on this earth, from species to ecosystems. Yes, there are scientific reservations that need to be addressed. And there are major political and economic obstacles as well. But I don’t understand the moral misgivings that Ben has expressed. Perhaps he can lay them out more precisely.

Update: Ben Hale obliges here.

9 Responses to “Climate Fixes & Morality”

  1. Ben Hale says:

    How can I resist responding to this?  Response shortly…

  2. teofilo says:

    Peter Huber’s Hard Green is a problematic book in a lot of ways, but it has some very interesting (though not necessarily coherent or well-informed) things to say about issues like this.

  3. Keith Kloor says:


    In this blogging bidness, you got to sometimes have to serve up those softballs. Looking forward to your response.

    For the benefit of those of us who aren’t going to read the book, could you briefly explain the book’s relevance to the post? Thanks.

  4. fd says:

    My understanding is that it is morally questionable to, intentionally, take the risk of making things worse – with consequences on a planetary scale – on behalf of all the planet.

    We certainly do it now with CO2 emissions, but they are consequence of just about everyones activities (ones more than others), and are not directly intended to change earths’ climate. To do something with this purpose, I see the problem…

  5. teofilo says:

    Probably the main relevance of Huber’s book to this discussion is that he quite forcefully makes the point that humans are not separate from nature and argues that the best way to preserve nature is precisely to use natural resources to enrich ourselves, then use the wealth we have acquired to set aside pieces of nature and preserve them.  (You can probably see how this is not ultimately very coherent.)  He’s arguing this from a self-consciously “conservative” perspective, though, so he ends up throwing in a lot of weird sops to the efficient markets hypothesis and the “Judeo-Christian tradition” and so forth, and he spends most of the book bashing environmentalists.  Still, he does make some good points, and this is one of them.

  6. Eli Rabett says:

    Keith, you are a very young guy as these things go, but human population and ability to manipulate nature were quite limited before ~1800, which is like yesterday.

  7. Keith Kloor says:


    Your statement is true for the climate. Not true for ecosystems and landscapes.

  8. […] Misreading the Point Mr. Fix It October 23, 2009 Keith Kloor kindly baits me with this thoughtful post.  How can I resist a […]

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