Visiting lecturer discusses moral quandaries in geoengineering

On Tuesday, Feb. 18, Bjornar Egede-Nissen, from the department of political science at the University of Western Ontario, gave a lecture titled “Geoengineering: Ethically Challenged, Politically Impossible?” in Steitz Hall of Science.

The lecture covered a brief introduction to geoengineering, its ethical challenges and the political difficulties faced by geoengineering.

According to the lecture, geoengineering is defined as the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change. Solar radiation management (SRM), a theoretical type of geoengineering which aims to reflect sunlight back into space to reduce global warming, was the main topic of Egede-Nissen’s lecture.

Egede-Nissen believed that there are some limitations on SRM. He said that though SRM is able to block the sunlight, the CO2 is still left on the earth, so SRM only treats the symptoms, not the causes of global warming. In order to gradually get rid of the CO2, people have to continue to use SRM, and due to the slow negative emission, it will take a very long time to achieve. This is another limitation, he said.

Egede-Nissen also said that once the use of SRM begins, people would face the exit problem of SRM. Also, it is extremely hard to predict the effects of the SRM on the climate, so there is also unpredictable risk to using SRM.

When considering SRM, Egede-Nissen said we must also think about the ethical challenges.

He admitted that there are some justifications of doing SRM research, including the cost-benefit analysis, the value of scientific research and the emergency options for SRM research. According to Egede-Nissen, the SRM can be comparatively cheap, but the long time-frame required and the side effects of doing SRM research can be cause for reconsideration.

At the end of the talk, Egede-Nissen said he wanted to leave an “irrelevant” take home message. He said,“The environment is a bathtub.” He explained that if we put the carbon in the earth, it would drain out of the atmosphere in a much slower rate. He believed that it is a very common misunderstanding to think that stopping emissions today will improve the situation, because the past emissions will remain there for hundreds of years.

Freshman Sara Zaccarine said that it was interesting that his talk aimed at raising questions rather than answering them. She said, “His examples are very relevant to us and it is helpful to understand a lot more.” She also likes that he brought the large-scale issue down to more specific points.

Sophomore Lena Bixby thinks the ethical issues are important. People have the technology, but we are not doing anything about the problem. She said it is like a moral test: “Are we doing anything wrong by not doing anything about [global warming]?”